Holding Space and Being Present: Two Resolutions Following the Las Vegas Shooting

I woke yesterday morning to news of the Las Vegas shooting, continued calls for aid needed in Puerto Rico, and boos for kneeling NFL players at Sunday’s games. Though seemingly unrelated, these news stories relayed a larger message about the presence of everyday violence in our lives. My social media feeds were naming and critiquing this violence. People were already calling for action, for donations, and for prayers—for linking individual narratives with larger social ones, for recognizing the alarms of this moment, and for acting accordingly.

Though I know the dangers of going about business as usual, I spent only a little time processing before turning to my to-do list. My heart hurt, as it does with heartache, but it hurts so regularly these days, I imagined the ache would simply dissipate or accompany me into the work itself.

And I did begin to work, but I couldn’t settle into writing. I began to check off small tasks. Order humidifier filters, check. Update calendar events, check. Upload recommendation letter, check. Call museum about upcoming event . . .

So, I called to register for a Halloween party at a local museum. I called because it was a simple thing to check off the to-do list, and I thought checking it off might make me feel better. I called because I was still processing the morning’s news, and I was feeling emotionally and mentally congested (definitely not clear enough to write), even if I wasn’t admitting this to myself.

After pressing buttons through automated phone prompts, I was connected with the person who handles event registrations. Perhaps if I’d been more present, I would have heard that this person sounded weary and worn down. Instead, all I heard was a voice asking, “How may I help you?”

“I’d like to RSVP for the Halloween event,” I said. Then I proceeded to answer questions about the date, time, and registration: Yes, I’m a museum member. Yes, I’m aware my membership is for just two adults. Yes, I’m registering just two adults. Yes, I’ll be attending without children. (I’m prioritizing play for self-care, after all.)

The registration person then apologized: “Oh. It’s truly fine to come without children. I’m just having a tough day.”

Again, if I’d been more present, I might have made the connection linking our tough days. Instead, I responded, “I know Mondays can be hard. I’m sorry it’s a tough day.”

Luckily, my wrong assessment—that Monday had anything to do with the “tough day”—led to a correction: “Actually, I have friends in Las Vegas, and I’m upset about what happened.”

I rebounded: “I’m so sorry! Have you heard from your friends?”

“Yes, they’re ok, but I’m shaken up. I’m having trouble concentrating today.”

“Me too! I decided to call because I was having trouble concentrating on work.”

We laughed and finished the event registration. Before ending the call, I tried saying something more: “I really appreciate you sharing how you’re feeling today. I was going about the day struggling, but not naming it, and you’re reminding me that I need to hold space for myself and others. I want to be more present.”

“That’s what we can do for each other: hold space, and be present.”

Though I wish we’d said more and somehow continued to hold space (more than just acknowledging it’s important to do so), we wrapped up quickly with the customary “thanks for calling” and “have a great day.”

The conversation was short and felt full of missed opportunities. It was also the thing I needed at that moment, the impetus for me to stop working, to sit on my yoga mat, and to consider how better to hold space and be present—for myself and for others.

If I’d been more present, I would have been thinking about the person on the other end of the phone line and email threads and social media posts and other interactions throughout the day. How might I have interrupted my business-as-usual approach to recognize the NOT-OK nature of the day? To humanize interactions, to allow for more genuine connections, to understand this mass shooting (and me turning numb to it) within broader desensitization to violence?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post “For White Friends Using Social Media and Not Responding to Charlottesville” about our relational responsibilities when communicating with others. In that post, I describe the sense of hurt I felt when seeing white friends’ photos of food, sunsets, and cute animals that, in effect, communicate that there’s not a collective crisis around white supremacy. Today I’m thinking that registering for the Halloween party was a lot like that. I can imagine how the registration person experienced my call very much like I was experiencing these social media posts. The stark juxtaposition of a party and mass shooting can’t be ignored.

Rhetorically and relationally, I’m thinking this wasn’t the right time to call. Or if the call needed to be made, it needed to be made with mindfulness and care.

I’m glad I could learn from talking with the registration person, and the conversation was perfectly timed as a true gift for me (a gift to reflect, learn, and set new goals). But because I wasn’t holding space or being present for myself, I wasn’t holding space or being present for them.

In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting—and with a lot of humility and love—I’m asking myself how I can better hold space and be present.

In times of extraordinary injustice, violence, and pain, it feels especially important to check in regularly with my heart, head, and hands. It feels especially important to relate more mindfully and compassionately with myself so that I can relate more mindfully and compassionately with others. And it feels especially important to de-automatize myself so that I can recognize my humanity and the humanity of others.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “What I’ve Learned in the Week Since Charlottesville: Five Lessons for White Folks Who Care about Racism and Racial Justice.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

What I’ve Learned in the Week Since Charlottesville: Five Lessons for White Folks Who Care about Racism and Racial Justice

This week has been INTENSE. As a writer, educator, and person committed to racial justice and the work of healing internalized white supremacy, I’ve been following and affected by the dysfunction, injury, and trauma on display. I’ve been confronting my own shadow, while watching collective shadows in the United States come into light.

And these shadows ask us to reckon with legacies of colonialism and slavery, institutionalized racism, and deep dehumanization. These shadows ask no less than for us to answer: Who are we as a people?

With this question in mind, I share five lessons I’ve been learning (and re-learning) this week. I share these in hopes that they may be of help to others, especially other white folks, as the work for racial justice is ongoing far, far beyond this week.

1. To make a commitment is to make a long-term investment.

Yes, tactical, improvisational, and immediate responses are needed when intense events/emotions erupt, but these must be paired with strategic, sustainable, and long-term plans to make commitments actionable for the long haul.

I think I know and will remember the importance of pairing tactics with strategies, but then a major event arises, emotions take over, and I get pulled into the moment, burning myself out through the immediate response. So, I’m learning again that a commitment to justice is a commitment to long-term investment.

Commitments ask us to put in the work regularly and not only when there’s a crisis.
Commitments ask us to look within, recognize what’s hard, and engage in healing work.
Commitments ask us to ready ourselves with response-ability (the ability to respond).
Commitments ask us to look to the future, readying ourselves with the willingness to act.

2. Self-care really, really matters.

It’s a tough time to talk about self-care because it can be used as the exit line to disengage from racial justice work. Still, I’ve been reminded this week that if I’m getting depleted and not refueling, then I’m no any good to myself or anyone else. I need to practice self-love in order to write, speak, and act with love.

What I’m re-learning is that while I can skimp on sleep for a night or two, by day three or four, I’m a crying, complaining wreck. If I sugar binge for more than a few days, my body rebels, and I truly don’t want to be doubled over in the bathroom or aching all over! And if prioritize play/pool time and meditation/movement, I actually come to more creative solutions and more compassionate stances sooner.

The more that I ride the roller coaster of emotions, the more I need self-care to support critical self-work that’s required for unlearning conditioned racist crap.

3. It’s important to name lies and look at my own complicity.

I’ve been living with so many lies (many I’ve internalized), and the more I identify them and call them lies, the more they lose their power. Countering the BIG lie of “I’m not enough” feels especially important for building the courage, resilience, “willingness to be disturbed,” and other attributes needed at this time and going forward.

When I see myself as “not enough,” then I need to be sure of my goodness (that I’m a “good person”). And that need to be “good” keeps me from recognizing, much less befriending, the “bad” within. To confront my shadow, I need the certainty that I’m already enough, worthy, valuable, divine. From this certainty, I find the courage to visit my inner dungeon, looking where I’ve actively and passively participated in white supremacy. I see that racism is here, at home, and within me. It’s not just out there, with them, with “THOSE racists.”

This blog post that’s been circulating—“How America Spreads the Disease that Is Racism by Not Confronting Racist Family Members and Friends”—includes a racism scale for plotting attitudes and internalized beliefs. In the past week, I’ve had several conversations about this scale, and I believe it’s helpful for digging into internalized lies that need to be named and reckoned with. To name racism only as covert, explicit, hateful acts—as only Nazis marching—is to perpetuate another damaging lie. And I’m invested in naming and owning my own lies, my own complicity, and my own responsibilities.

4. I keep learning from feminists and womanists of color.

This week I’ve been especially inspired and challenged by Adrienne Maree Brown, A. Breeze Harper, Sagashus Levingston, Vanessa Mártir, Mia Mingus, Docta E Richardson, and Loretta J. Ross, among other colleagues and friends and scholars. (Deep, deep gratitude!)

So, when I’ve been asked by white people this week what I believe are authentic questions—like “How can I learn about racism?” and “I know what I’m seeing wrong, but what can I do?”—I’m clear that the answer must involve reading and learning from feminists and womanists of color. If you’re white and reading only white authors, changing this is one good place to start. Check out these blogs by feminists and womanists of color, and please add other resources/links to this post’s comments.

I’m learning again that sharing resources can help with building community and capacity. And it’s clear that we need each other—we need community—for the long-term investment.

5. Truth-telling can feel shaming when the truth if shameful.

So much is written about white fragility and emotional resilience, I believe, because of lies associating whiteness with “goodness” (that I am good, that the United States is good, that our neighborhoods are good, and so on). And when goodness needs to be complicated (because, really, how could there be a single, flat narrative?), realizations about dirty, ugly histories and ongoing, violent injustice raise intense emotions of betrayal, hurt, anger, guilt, and shame.

This week I’ve had some tough interactions in which I’ve blushed red. I’ve felt anger and heat rush through my body. I’ve felt both defensive and like a guard or bully on the offensive team. And what I’ve realized from these interactions is that truth-telling can feel like shaming when there’s deep shame around internalized white supremacy. Unpacking this shame is important healing work.

Like naming lies lies, it’s important to name shameful histories and realities as shameful.

It’s important to engage in truth-telling work that is sure to be messy and involve messing up. I write in other posts about countering perfectionism, in part, because perfectionism is a construct of whiteness. Letting go of being “good” or “right” (much less “perfect”) is central to racial justice work, and I can’t help but notice it’s central to my own healing work as well.

This is to say that I’m learning yet again that it’s important to say something, even when saying it awkwardly. And to do something, even when doing it wrong. And to show up, even when showing up incomplete, imperfect, and truly as “a mess.”

May we keep learning together.
May we keep speaking, writing, and standing up.
May we listen more openly than ever before.
May we keep committing to racial justice.
May we resolve to the work that lies ahead.
May we ready ourselves and be ever-ready.

In solidarity! ~ Beth


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “For White Friends Using Social Media and Not Responding to Charlottesville,” “Trusting the Alarm Behind Supposedly ‘Alarmist Rhetoric,’” and “Microaggressions Matter.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

 

Sieving Life: Keeping What Nourishes and Releasing the Rest

In the past week, I moved—just three blocks away, still in Milwaukee and still downtown. Yet, the move feels significant for the opportunity to reassess, rearrange, and reimagine.

The physical move has allowed for downsizing, letting go of possessions, and deciding what to keep. And why. This physical sorting has also invited filtering of my past, as I’m posing questions like:

  • Which narratives about myself, my life, my communities, and my commitments are still serving me? And which aren’t?
  • What are sources of strength or nourishment from my past, and how I can identify and keep those “nutrients”?
  • What are the sources of heaviness or pain that are weighing me down? Is it possible to leave them behind, as I’m leaving behind possessions?

To answer these questions, I’ve been working with images of sieves, sifters, and strainers. Physical items that my Reiki teacher Marty Tribble suggested I use to think about filtering.

2017-06-29 13.39.06

These items separate what’s wanted from what’s not.

Toward this goal of sieving my life, I’m working to identify and keep what’s nourishing, while allowing the gunk I’ve been holding onto to dissolve or be filtered out.

For example, in re-assessing my book collection, I noticed how many books reminded me of the hardest moments in graduate school, the moments of taking into my body what felt like mansplaining and other hurt. By letting go of those books, I can see more clearly the books that remain. The books that make me smile, motivate me to stand tall, and shape my understanding of justice. And by choosing the nourishing books, I choose narratives of inspiration, rewriting the trauma of graduate education.

Another thing I’ve kept—a worn teddy bear named “Larry” who accompanied me to summer camp from the age of seven—reminds me of adventures that motivated my love for caves and hiking. In contrast, I’ve recycled old yearbooks, which document me frowning and even crying in class photos. (And, yes, I’m noticing a theme around school, an area for more self-work and healing.)

I’m sharing this metaphor of the sieve because it’s one I’m thinking about daily, as I sort and shift. As I imagine what can be. As I affirm my desire to rewrite old narratives.

And I’m curious: what are you filtering at this time? What are you keeping, and what are you purging?

Swinging from Sweet to Sour

A roller coaster of emotions. This isn’t a new experience for me, but one that’s becoming an every-day, every-week norm. I swing from moments of real hope and sweetness to moments of real hate and sourness. This roller coaster can motivate resistance, and it can send me back into the cave to confront both personal and collective shadows.

Here’s what these swings look like.

In the past few days, I’ve witnessed the acquittal of the Minnesota officer who killed Philando Castile and the layers of this miscarriage of justice. In the midst of deep discouragement, I revisit Awesomely Luvvie’s “The Stages of What Happens When There’s Injustice Against Black People” and feel awesomely encouraged by powerful photos of Juneteenth celebrations.

In similar fashion, I find myself deeply grateful when visiting Sanctuary Vegan Café in Knoxville, Tennessee, and seeing this “inclusive restroom sign”:

This sign and the spirit of this café seem to represent the intersectional, ecofeminist approach to veganism that I’ve been thinking and writing about, especially in the past week. Within a political climate that dehumanizes people to the point of making people illegal, it feels significant to see this visible affirmation of trans rights.

This sweetness then turns to sour as I am newly confronted by the cost of racism in Milwaukee, the most segregated city in the United States. I live downtown—in a problematically gentrified and expensive area—and I’m moving only 3 blocks away. This move takes me from east of the river (an area historically white) to west of the river (historically black). When my partner calls to update our auto insurance, we learn it’s going to be $10 more per month, which represents almost a 50% increase from $23 to $33. When pressed for an explanation, the insurance agent says “location is the only factor.” The location is still downtown, still in this area that necessitates class privilege to afford the rent, and still predominantly white. From what we can see, historical racial divisions are the defining features of “location.”

There’s lots written about the costs of being poor and the costs of being a person of color experiencing the racial wealth divide. Similarly, it’s legally allowed and well-documented that people pay more for insurance based on who they are or where they live. Though none of this is new, it is grossly unfair. I see again first-hand the everyday cost—as in concrete, material cost—of being a person who’s devalued in the United States. It says volumes that my insurance was $23 (what I imagine to be much less than what many others pay) and that my privileged “locations” have been those not additionally taxed.

As a white woman with racial, class, and other privileges, I experience not the consistent experience of being beaten-down, but the ups and downs of the roller coaster. And so I experience the swing from upbeat, energetic moving energy into the visible sourness of systemic racism. A sour stench that lingers.

*          *          *          *          *

I learned about the Philando Castile verdict in the bathroom pictured above. I went from a surge of hope, as I snapped that photo and stepped into that bathroom, to feeling flattened when looking at my phone.

And as I sat down to my computer, I had a similar slap, learning that a former Milwaukee officer was found not guilty in the shooting of Sylville Smith. In August, Smith’s death set off volatile protests, a city curfew, and arrests. The pain is real and raw, and my heart hurts thinking about families (like the Smith family) for whom the denial of life is not sour, but stolen. As in life stolen, money stolen, land stolen, history stolen, rights stolen, stories stolen.

So I write while facing not news, but injustice. And “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

My desire for sweetness is not to run, look away, or deny the ever-present injustice. But it is to cultivate and share the motivation, resilience, healing, self-love, and community to carry on the work—the work for justice. And the work itself is so so sweet. The work is joy from connectedness, hope for the ought to be, and possibilities of summer solstice.

May the sweet bolster and sustain us, for the sour is all-too-real.

Disrupting the Mind-Body Split

This past week I dreamed that I was standing before a group of students, guest-lecturing in a colleague’s class. In the dream, I was slurring and stumbling over words—making little to no sense. The colleague asked if I was confused, and I realized that I had a concussion. Not from any physical injury, but from the semester. The semester had given me a concussion!

I woke with a strong sense that the dream was symbolically true, metaphorically speaking to me. Because, yes: I’m not only experiencing exhaustion and emotional uprooting, but also the serious warnings about self-care that come with concussions.

Growing up, I had two competing understandings of concussions: (1) they were minor and something to be “played through” and (2) they were major and something that could result in serious injury or even death. Within the school year, I’m too often acting from this first understanding: that mental taxation and cognitive overload are things to be “played through” until summer. By the time I get to May, I’m drained—arguably experiencing burnout. So, my dream of having a concussion gets me wondering:

  • What would it mean to operate from the second understanding?
  • What would it mean to recognize the serious risks of “playing through the pain”?
  • What might be differently required of me as an educator, as someone involved in learning-and-teaching?

This dream reminds me that we need education to be about more than the mind.

Screen Shot 2017-05-20 at 10.30.01 AMCertainly, there’s a LOT of writing about the mind/body split and the need for embodied education. I’ve written about this with my colleagues Jasmine Kar Tang and Moira Ozias in the article “Body + Power + Justice: Movement-Based Workshops for Critical Tutor Education.”

To take a cue from our article, it feels especially important to center the body—daily, in and out of school, throughout the academic year, and not just in the summer:

Our bodies and the spaces we inhabit shape our identities and carry legacies of social structuring, power, oppression, marginalization, injustice—deep inequities that are very much a part of our everyday lives in writing centers and in the teaching of writing. And yet through the production of whiteness and other dominant frameworks that render the body invisible, we can become so distanced from our bodies that we fail to recognize these links. We need to reckon with this disconnect across three spheres: (1) the personal sphere (how we relate within our own bodies); (2) the relational sphere (how our bodies relate with other bodies); and (3) the systemic sphere (how our bodies together represent and relate with/in institutional structures and larger body stories). Drawing attention to the body across these three spheres helps us counter the damage done when the intellect or institution is divorced from the body or when certain bodies are made invisible in our educational spaces. (“Body + Power + Justice” 62)

I’m thinking about how we divorce the mind from the body in school, as I am gifted this metaphorical/symbolic “concussion.” Concussions are so concerning because they cause cognitive and emotional impairments in addition to physical ones. A concussion can cause not only nausea, dizziness, and other physical complaints, but also irritability, depression, and difficulty with concentration and memory. A concussion can cause confusion, amnesia, and changes to one’s personality. It can literally disrupt the ability to learn, the ability to be in school. Yet, we continue acting like the body’s sole purpose is to be a head that holds, transports, and communicates learning. This disembodiment is deeply dehumanizing.

If a concussion (or at least my dream of having a concussion) serves as a warning, then it’s asking me to attend to my body, embodied knowledge, and the dangers of disembodiment.

If staying in one’s head can “cause a concussion” (which feels symbolically true), then I must attend to the whole body, the heart, head, and hands.

If I am to listen to my body’s wisdom (as gifted through the dream), then I must commit again to the healing process I’m journeying through with this blog. Doing so asks me to look at my own complicity, for it’s telling that the teacher is concussed. Doing so asks me to notice the relationship between wearing down the mind-and-body and wearing down one’s soul. Doing so asks me to become more aligned with commitments than conditioning. Doing so asks for a serious disruption of the mind/body split.

Exploring Exhaustion and Energy Loss

I’ve been particularly exhausted, as is so often the case at the end of each school year. I often feel that the further I get into spring semester, the more I become tired, grumpy, and on edge. It’s as though my brain becomes over-worked, my body under-utilized, and my balance thrown totally off.

This year I’ve also been experiencing exhaustion as more than regular semester stress, and I feel certain it’s due to the routinization of daily assaults on personhood. It’s now routine to open social media and see violence, hate speech, and seemingly benign but still-hurtful comments indicating that the world isn’t burning up. Yet, my internal compass (and external thermostat) indicate that the world is on fire.

 Just a few examples: This week I confront anew campus shootings and stabbings across the United States—direct, physical violence resulting in serious injury and death. These occur within campus rape culture in which students are writing to process sexual assault. Even as I hold final class sessions, I’m aware that others aren’t able to—blocked by the threats of physical harm and literal fear of assembling as a group. And my final classes take place against the backdrop of fifteen-year-old Jordan Edward killed by police this week and Congress now acting to further restrict access to healthcare. Assaults on personhood feel more immediate than ever.

I feel very much like I did in November when about all I could write for my first blog post was “Arrrrrggggghhhhh!!!!!”

aaargh_bw

Today, alongside this clear embodied anger, I feel a new weariness, an exhaustion that’s clouding my head. So, I want to listen more carefully and kindly to my heart, knowing it can help me figure out how to use my hands.

As a way to listen to my heart, body, and soul, I’ve been tracking this week where I’m losing energy. Whenever I notice a new heaviness or tiredness, I’m asking with curiosity:

What might be the source of this energy loss?

Using the RAIN meditation practice I learned through mindfulness-based stress reduction classes, I’m working to recognize and allow feelings of exhaustion in order to investigate them through a gentle non-judging stance.

As a contemplative practice, RAIN suggests four actions or steps that help with exploring, questioning, and (un)learning the conditions of everyday life. These four steps are:

  • R—recognizing experiences, thoughts, feelings, conditions, etc.
  • A—allowing the states of being, no matter how bad, embarrassing, or privileged.
  • I—investigating deeply to gain new or additional understanding.
  • N—non-judging or non-identifying to avoid attachment with the experience, emotion, and even understandings (toward embracing impermanence).

While there is an implied sequence or order, RAIN can be practiced again and again, so that later steps like investigating and non-judging create space for new recognizing and allowing.

Tracking energy loss this week, I’ve come to some new awareness and, more importantly, new lovingkindness toward myself. Rather than being down or disappointed that I’m exhausted, I’m working to let this experience be. Exhaustion can characterize this time in my life, and it can lead to new discoveries, possibilities, and even activism.

Here’s a view into my current work with RAIN:

  • Recognition: I am frequently, daily experiencing a sense of tiredness, depleted energy, and even exhaustion. Though I’m also noticing occasions of energetic gain, excitement, and joy, my overall energy reserves are running low.
  • Allowing: Rather than ignoring, silencing, or pushing down these tired feelings, I honor them. I allow myself to name that I’m running on fumes. Through allowing this experience, I also receive what information it delivers—like reminders to take care of myself lovingly and to dedicate even more time to rest and refuel.
  • Investigation: As I investigate energy loss, I’m also noticing how much my emotions and overall energy are linked to interactions. I’m losing energy, for example, (1) when focusing on others’ reactions instead of my own actions, (2) when holding back or perceiving that others are holding back in conversation, and (3) when not knowing what’s mine versus what’s someone else’s. I’m working to name these and other sorts of energy loss. In doing so, I hope to find patterns and themes as I record each instance. Like the qualitative research I conduct and teach in school, this process invites me into the role of investigator. And as an investigator, I assume a more active and action-oriented stance toward understanding my exhaustion.
  • Non-judgement: With curiosity instead of judgement, I notice guilt and shame as they arise around exhaustion, noting underlying expectations that I should be able to catch and prevent burnout before it occurs. The more that I shift gently toward non-judgement and non-identification, the more I feel and experience exhaustion without being exhausted.  I can recognize, allow, and investigate this state without defining myself according to it. It simply is part of my life right now.

Exhaustion and energy loss are friends right now, friends who are helping me pay better attention to my emotions, to my heart. And my heart is heavy with grief, anger, and frustration. It’s no wonder that I’m feeling tired when carrying this extra weight.

Still, I believe in both/and: I can be both getting depleted from energy loss and learning to better shore up my energy reserves. I can be both disheartened by the assaults on personhood and wholeheartedly encouraged by people articulating and acting on commitments to justice. I can both launch a sharp critique of current injustices and soften into the introspective practice of RAIN. I can track both energy loss and energy gain.

To this last both/and—exploring energy loss alongside gain—I’ll share Neil Gaiman’s 2012 commencement address, “Make Good Art” (an address I love sharing at this time of year, a time of exhaustion and also euphoria on college campuses):

Whenever I’m down, whenever I’m experiencing energy loss, I like to re-watch Gaiman’s address and his reminder to make good art:

Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.

Make good art.

I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn’t matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.

So, here I am attempting to “make good art,” identifying as an artist, and following Toni Morrison’s call to “go to work.”

I am tired. I am experiencing energy loss. I am also learning and unlearning what’s causing this loss. And I’m hopeful that more contemplative, introspective practices like RAIN can bring us all home to ourselves and to more humanizing and harmonizing orientations.

Wrestling with Whether to Wear Pantyhose

I’m attending a friend’s wedding this weekend, and I wish I could say that I’m experiencing the joy, gratitude, and love associated with celebration. Instead, I’ve been experiencing worry, shame, anger, and grief—so many unresolved emotions and resurfacing memories associated with the trauma of sexism.

I’m wrestling with a very real and raw question: Do I wear pantyhose to my friend’s wedding?

I’m wrestling with the pit in my stomach that relates not just to clothing, but to weddings as rituals of heteronormativity and codified expectations related to gender, race, class, religion, ability, and other intersectional identities. I’m wrestling with “beauty within and without,” as bell hooks names this issue in Feminism Is for Everybody. I’m wrestling with the question of what it means to live for justice when wanting to support my friend, yet finding my stomach churning.

What Should I Wear to the Wedding?

2017-04-15 10.57.27For the past week—since my mom asked simply, “What are you wearing to the wedding?”—I’ve had an embodied meltdown-into-outburst. At first I thought I’d wear a suit. Then I realized that I like hiding inside suits because they feel protective—like shields. I had to ask myself if I want to act as though I’m under attack, as though I’m in need of protection.

These questions led me to the Goodwill, where I found a green dress, and I loved the green color because it represents the fourth chakra and heart opening. Love: perfect for a wedding and perfect for protection with shielding.

2017-04-15 10.53.51But when I shared the dress with my mom and best friend, they both asked about accessories. What?!? I was willing to wear a dress, and I thought I was making an effort to be vulnerable, to embrace the feminine. But they were right: I would need to have shoes, a wrap, and … pantyhose?

So, I departed from my usual walk home from school and stopped into a department store, where I bought a pair of pantyhose. And here’s where I’m stuck in the stickiness, in the mess of seemingly simple, benign questions:

  • What do I wear to my friend’s wedding (weddings being particularly tough for me)?
  • Do I wear a suit, which feels protective and, for a woman, more subversive (ironic because suits mark status and the status quo)?
  • Or do I wear a dress (more aligned with the request for “cocktail attire,” which is tripping me up because I don’t want to play into feminine norms and norming)?
  • If I wear a dress, do I wear pantyhose (an object that I trace to my earliest memories of feeling constrained within a gendered and female body)?
  • Is there a way to wear pantyhose and still feel free (to redefine what’s for me an object of patriarchal containment and control of my body)?
  • Is this the occasion for shaking up/off my history with pantyhose?

Looking Back to Look Forward: Early Associations of Pantyhose with Constraint

I’ve written before about the lies of internalized sexism, and I’m aware that my earliest memories involve me learning what it means to be socialized into and gendered as a girl/woman. And a particular sort of girl/woman—within the United States, within white supremacy, within Protestant Christianity, within class and other privileges, and within the “mythical norm.”

These early memories include two distinct occasions of getting dressed up for “big events”: a wedding and an easter morning. This weekend now brings these events together—literally, a wedding on Saturday and easter on Sunday—helping me to re-read their meaning side-by-side.

I can’t say which occasion happened first in childhood, but I remember being at a big wedding and feeling both thrilled and overwhelmed by the many people around me. I was not only dressed up, but “dolled up,” and wanted nothing more than to be free of both the uncomfortable clothing and articulations of how “cute” I was. I remember taking off shoes, then hair ribbons, and then tights (childhood equivalent of “hose” or “pantyhose”). And I remember that the potential joy of running freely within a large party space was mitigated and matched only by the constraint of those tights. They seemed the physical embodiment of being “lady-like.” And I wanted nothing to do with that constraint.

Also in childhood (when I was only 3 or 4 years old), I went tumbling down hallway stairs on an easter morning. I had a new dress with new hair bows, new tights, and new shoes. I was excited and moving quickly, which didn’t match the slick underside of new shoes. When I fell down the stairs, I caught the hose, tearing holes in both knees. What I held onto from this early-and-still-vague memory was a sense that dressing up is dangerous, uncomfortable, and likely to result in scraped knees.

Both memories resurfaced this week when talking with a friend who said (or more likely didn’t say, but I heard): “Beth, it’s only pantyhose.”

I could feel heat rush through my body, because pantyhose aren’t ONLY pantyhose for me. They represent “the interest of a white supremacist capitalist patriarchal fashion and cosmetic industry to re-glamorize sexist-defined notions of beauty” (hooks 34). And attending a wedding, I’m positioned to embody this industry whether or not I wear pantyhose. Wearing them means identifying with the industry’s notion of beauty. Not wearing them means identifying against it and as a feminist who’s “big, hypermasculine, and just plain old ugly” (hooks 32). Nothing about this double-bind is new; it’s just showing up newly for me through this decision and around this event. How do I respect my values without making myself an issue or distraction for the friend who’s getting married?

“I’m Never Wearing Pantyhose Again”

2017-04-15 09.10.47

As soon as I was old enough to make clothing decisions, I let go of hose and other things I found uncomfortable—all of which linked physical discomfort and femininity. Objects like barrettes, headbands, and ponytail holders were gone. Tights, leggings, and pantyhose: gone.

I made these decisions young enough that I resisted make-up before I had time to learn about it. In high school, I had a few pairs of shoes with slight heels, but those were gone by college. Only cloth (no clasp) bras would do (and bras are still itchy and dis-preferred). I stopped shaving years ago. I buy pants with pockets large enough for my phone and don’t own a purse. All of these decisions are connected to an assertion I made as a young adult: “I’m never wearing pantyhose again.”

Nevers are dangerous, as I’ve now purchased a pair, whether I wear them or not. And this decision—like all of these detailed here—feels incredibly personal and political. Writing about these decisions feels important and yet far-too-intimate. I imagine that each can easily lead to judgment because, truly, we all (are taught to) judge a women’s worth—and virtue and respectability—based on such embodied decisions, performances, and actions.

To illustrate, when I google “cocktail attire” (the instructions on my wedding invitation), here’s what I find:

DRESS CODE: COCKTAIL
For guys, this dress code calls for a dark suit with a tie. For women, short dresses that are party-ready. When in doubt, wear a little black dress and dress it up with fun jewelry—or, if you’d rather wear color, opt for something bright and feminine.
Read more: http://stylecaster.com/dress-code/#ixzz4eFnznDU8

I’m so upset with the gender binary. I’m so upset with the short, less-than-one-line instruction for “guys,” alongside several lines on how to be “party-ready,” “fun,” “bright,” and “feminine” for women. And googling “pantyhose,” I’m literally blown back remembering that they are still required in some workplaces and praised for “covering blemishes.” It hurts to think how much time goes into both uncovering and covering up women’s bodies. Why not rewrite-rethink-reclaim the body and its blemishes as beautiful?

Judgments follow codes, and I think it’s having a clear code—“cocktail attire”—that’s kicked up this trouble for me. For as much as we might credit second and third wave feminism with fostering “greater care, ease, and respect for women’s bodies” (hooks 33), the care, ease, and respect are still far from enough. The rhetoric of “options” falls short. And even within the double-bind I face, I still have the privilege of making choices. For many, many, many women, marginalization, oppression, and dehumanization prevent even that.

So, Will I Wear Pantyhose?

hooksIf this question were purely procedural, the answer might be simple. Yet, the question is deeply symbolic and embodied for me. As a girl, I learned to associate sexism with pantyhose, and the symbol today makes me feel both anger (at the injustice) and shame (at my imperfect body and at having internalized the messages I am so adamantly against). In Feminism Is for Everybody, hooks explains, “Girls today are just as self-hating when it comes to their bodies as their pre-feminist counterparts were” (35). It’s clear to me, therefore, that I need to make the decision with both the awareness of self-hate and the practice of self-love.

My plan is to see how I’m feeling just before the wedding. I’ll hold my hands over my heart and belly and imagine each clothing option. I’ll wear the option with the deepest, fullest breath, using the breath to honor my body’s wisdom and to find agency within constraint. If I choose to wear a dress, I can take off or put on pantyhose during the event. Instead of straight-up following the dress code, I’ll follow my body’s requests, desires, and communication.

Perhaps in looking for freedom and flexibility, I find a feminist orientation. For my body’s wisdom, I am grateful. For bell hooks (as a guide and companion), I am grateful. For the divine timing of re-reading Feminism Is for Everybody, I am grateful. For friends who consider these questions with me, I am grateful. For remembering and rethinking the past, I am grateful. For the possibilities of healing personal and political hurt, I am grateful. For processing the wedding through writing, I am grateful. For the reorientation toward gratitude, yes: I am grateful.