Hurting and Hollering in the Wake of This Week’s Violence

Bombs sent, guns shot.
And I cry.

Histories hidden, truths buried.
And I ache.

Hateful laws, escalating harms.
And I mourn.

White terrorism, everyday violence.
And I rage.

Black folks targeted.
Jewish folks targeted.
Native folks targeted.
Latinx folks targeted.
Migrant folks targeted.
Trans folks targeted.
Femme folks targeted.
Marginalized folks targeted.

Targeted, passive voice.
Failing to name the assailants.
Failing to name white supremacist, heteronormative, colonialist patriarchy.
And I cringe.

I ask again and again:

  • Where, when, and how am I complicit?
  • Where, when, and how am I called to act?
  • Do I act on these callings? Do I block them? Where, when, how, and why?
  • How am I hurting myself? How am I hurting others?
  • How do I break from these habits?
  • How do I intervene differently? Speak up? Act out?
  • How do I fall short?
  • How do I pick myself up and try, try again?

Failing and trying,
failing and trying again,
failing and trying again and again,
I write.
sign.
discuss.
walk.
eat.
breathe.
bathe.
read.
envision.
create.
unlearn.
relearn.

I continue to sob, to shake, to storm, to strive, and to seek justice.

And I share these questions in hopes that they may be helpful to others, especially white folks, christian folks, men folks, folks for whom disengagement is an option, at this time.

Because …

“If we’re not alarmed now, then when?”

If we’re not engaged now, then when?

If we’re not enraged now, then … truly … when?

Black text against a pink background, reading: "If we’re not alarmed now, then when? If we’re not engaged now, then when? If we’re not enraged now, then … truly … when?"


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,” “Holding Space and Being Present: Two Resolutions Following the Las Vegas Shooting,” and “Triangulating the Heart, Head, and Hands for Justice.” Please also consider liking this blog on FB and following the blog via email. Thanks!

Inside the Chrysalis, or Experiencing Mess, Mess, and More Mess

It’s not uncommon for me to ride emotional roller-coasters with swings from sweet to sour as I go about my days. More and more, I’ve noticed these swings as I’ve tuned in with my emotions and embodied self through Reiki, yoga, and other contemplative practices. The more I do inner work and the more I embrace mess, the more the messiness of being an always-incomplete, imperfect human inevitability shows up.

Still, if I’m being honest with myself, the past few weeks have felt messier than I’d like to admit. I’ve had a piece of a broken ceramic bowl in my foot, a mostly mild but sometimes excruciatingly painful attention-getter. My podiatrist tells me to be patient and let my body release the piece naturally. Yet, I’m impatient and complaining about this regular reminder that I’ve got broken pieces within myself to heal and release before moving forward.

What I’m realizing, as I work the healing process that requires patience with pain, is that I’m in the midst of chrysalis, or the gruesome transformation caterpillars undergo to become butterflies.

In the past year, as I’ve announced career changes, moved cross-country, and continue to reflect on and refashion my identity, I’ve been seeing many caterpillars and butterflies and excited to think of myself as “in transformation.” Now that I’m fully in itin the midst of big changes—I’m remembering that caterpillars essentially digest themselves, dissolving their past bodies while creating new ones. They transform into another being that moves so differently, eats so differently, and experiences life so differently that they aren’t recognized as the same being. How much disintegration, discomfort, and dis-ease must be involved in that transformation?

Screenshot of astrologer Chani Nicholas’s Instagram post reading: “Butterflies are horrific creatures when you catch them mid-metamorphosis. If we focus on the gruesome stages of our growth we’ll never find our wings.”
I have my friend Briana to thank for first alerting me to the gruesome chrysalis process when I was recovering from a concussion earlier this year. More recently, astrologer Chani Nicholas posted about how butterflies are “horrific creatures when you catch them mid-metamorphosis”—just the reminder I need to be patient with myself.

So, what does chrysalis (this time of mess, mess, and more mess) look like for me?

More days that I’d like to admit …

  • I’m spending many hours in one place, curled on the couch.
  • I’m eating irregularly.
  • I’m waking from vivid and sometimes-scary dreams.
  • I’m crying often and at unexpected times.
  • I’m all over the place, teeter-tottering as I walk, carefully balancing on my injured foot, and yet feeling completely off balance.
  • I’m creating art and climbing and falling and calling friends and seeing a counselor and writing, writing, writing—all toward processing big changes and even bigger legacies of personal, family, and social trauma and wrongdoing and lingering hurts.

I don’t know yet who I’ll be when I emerge from the messy and often-painful chrysalis, but here are two embodied experiences from inside it:

Experience #1: On a day of bingeing sugar and TV, I find myself pulled into a documentary on hooking up via dating apps, which highlights rape culture, sexual violence, and the ways in which systemic racism and intersectional oppression manifest in technological innovation and intimate relations alike. It’s not until a headache gets me to turn off the TV that I recognize that my body is incredibly tense. I’m physically holding onto, remembering, and witnessing anew this violence. I need to hold myself, quiet my mind, and notice my body’s wisdom before I can process my own experiences and reactions to what’s surely shared (collective) tension.

Because I can’t look at another screen when my head is pounding, I walk around the block and meet a postal worker who acts with such gentle kindness that I find myself crying. In the exchange of mailing a package, I feel energetically how the person before me holds hope and good will in the words, “Have a bless day.” I’m lifted by human connection, and I’m blabbering about the beauty of this brief loving interaction, as I’m still releasing through tears the heartache of how much we, as humans, hurt one another.

Experience #2: I find myself fidgeting and biting my cuticles as I struggle to find words to write about complicity within systemic violence. I’m remembering several recently painful interactions in which I see myself contributing to harm (scenes for another blog post), and I’m turning that harm inward while writing. It’s not until I draw blood that I realize that I’m literally making myself bleed from my fingers—the instruments of writing expression.

Again, my body offers such a clear message about the relationship between personal (internal, self) and collective (systemic, shared) harm. My counselor uses language that’s familiar to me after years of writing about the relationship between the micro and macro. She tells me that processing my own lived experiences involves looking at broader family and community dynamics as well as social-cultural-historical conditioning.

What this means is that binge-eating sugar and binge-watching TV, as two examples, aren’t only about my actions. These “bingeing” experiences are also about cultural scripts that make “sweets” and “favorite TV shows” soothing salves for a harsh world. Sweets and shows stand in for or serve as reminders of good memories, loving relationships, special occasions, self-care, and much more. Streaming services like Amazon and Netflix start next episodes before previous ones have finished. The examples go on and on, pointing to the need for personal healing in the context of larger collective healing. For changing personal habits in the context of changing current conditions and cultural scripts.

Within the chrysalis—when experiencing headaches and bleeding fingers—I am lifted by human connection and the possibilities for personal, ancestral, and collective healing. And being lifted, inspired, and guided matters.

Grounding matters, too, which is why I suspect my foot has manifested the consistent, not-easily-forgotten reminder to keep releasing broken pieces. Pieces internalized and unseen. Pieces under the surface and buried deep. Pieces asking to be released if I’m to be transformed.

I suspect I’m not alone in facing the gruesome reality of the chrysalis, as there’s so much work to be done in reckoning with broken-and-brutal injustice and envisioning a more just world. May I brave the chrysalis, readying myself for this work. May we brave the chrysalis together, readying ourselves for transformations to come.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Welcoming Winter by Looking Within,” “Countering Resistance Fatigue with a Both/And Approach,” and “Today Healing Looks Like …” and Please also consider liking this blog on FB and following the blog via email. Thanks!

Beyond Self-Care: How Hiking Invites Self-Work

Time outdoors and along hiking trails is especially important time to me. As I’ve written previously, it’s time to consider the steps involved in making change, including learning to tread alternative paths. It’s time to slow down, notice beauty, and appreciate life, even in the roughest of conditions. It’s also time to do important intrapersonal work toward disrupting biases and internalized inferiority + superiority.

It’s possible to consider activities like hiking purely as self-care. And refueling is important.

More than self-care, however, hiking—and perhaps any meaningful time outdoors, with the self—invites contemplation, which is so greatly needed for more mindful communication, for more emotional resilience, and for more equitable relations. Slowing down to reflect on ourselves, our responsibilities, and our response-abilities is needed regularly.

Photo taken near Sedona, Arizona, showing a green prickly pear cactus in the foreground, red soil and rock, a shrub in dark shadow, and mountain peaks and blue sky in the background.

As recent hiking experiences have reminded me, time outdoors invites contemplation and communion with the self, with other humans, with non-human animals, and with the natural world. It strengthens, for me, the commitment to ecofeminism and the need to intervene into brutally enacted hierarchies (represented as a pyramid pointing upward) that place god over men, men over women, women over children, children over animals, and animals over the earth.

Though not typically articulated in explicit terms, hierarchical belief systems provide justification for so much oppression: not only sexism, ageism, and speciesism, but also racism and other -isms. Such hierarchies justify dehumanization and devaluation of the earth, as the lives and voices of powerful men (those ranked as closest to god) are expected to take priority. Hence, the “mythical norm” is reinforced in multiplying subtle, socialized, and systematized ways.

Triangular visualization of the hierarchy of oppression (motivation for ecofeminism) showing god over men, men over women, women over children, children over animals, and animals over the earth.

Rather than seeing this hierarchy as natural, I’m able to learn from the natural world (along hiking trails) how all life is related, of value, and part of the whole. Though I’m small within the desert landscape, I still take up space, neither shrinking nor puffing up.

Rather than seeing this hierarchy as natural, I’m able to see the historical-cultural-social construction of this and other oppressive hierarchies (e.g., hierarchies that rank people according to race, nationality, and other constructed identities). While I understand how I’m (expected to) function within such hierarchies, I can push back and create other understandings, much as I choose to walk differently.

Rather than seeing this hierarchy as natural, I’m able to see myself as deeply embodied: not only experiencing life in my body but also having a body that carries historical meaning and present privileges. As an embodied woman (white, middle/upper-class, cisgender, adult, able-bodied, U.S.-born woman), I feel the anger flush through my body at sexism I experience and perpetuate. And at the related racism, classism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, nationalism, and other sorts of -isms I’m conditioned into, take into my body, inevitably perpetuate, and yet want so desperately to undo.

To put this more simply, hiking helps me dive deeply into systems of oppression that I’m striving to understand and intervene into. It helps me see myself not only as I self-identify, but also as I’m identified and constructed within the collective (within social hierarchies that do injustice to people, animals, and the earth). And it helps me linger over everyday interactions and actions, with time along trails to think and talk and turn over possibilities.

Coming off the trail, I am renewed in commitments to racial justice, social justice, and environmental justice. Contemplation and communion lead me back to these aspirations:

  • Unlearning what’s wrong, no matter how deeply socialized and internalized.
  • Affirming, holding up, sharing out, and amplifying work that helps with envisioning more just futures.
  • Studying and teaching histories that are largely suppressed, yet hanging over us as specters shaping life (e.g., histories of enslavement, genocide, colonization, and forced/blocked immigration in the United States).
  • Learning about, leveraging, and working to deconstruct my socially constructed whiteness (part of white supremacy) toward truer ways of showing up in the world.
  • Bringing joy in the midst of struggle (pure delight in the midst of physical pain) off the trail and into everyday living/striving for justice—holding onto and creating more intense love and possibility.
  • Making more explicit the connections between everyday actions—like eating, moving, and speaking—and structural hierarchies (systems of oppression and injustice) that limit that love and possibility.

As an everyday action, hiking invites intrapersonal self-work that’s so needed alongside interpersonal work-with-others and institutional work-within-institutions. To engage in intrapersonal work is not to turn away from other responsibilities and interventions needed in pursuing justice. It is to do this work more mindfully with attention to one’s own positionality and to what learning and unlearning are needed.

May I continue to engage in self-work through hiking and other means.
May this self-work allow me to show up more fully and fiercely for myself and others.
May I show up ready to work within families, communities, workplaces, and other spaces.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Mantras to Stand TALL for Justice,” “Choosing to Tread Another Path,” and “Do It Scared.” Please also consider liking this blog on FB and following the blog via email. Thanks!

“Pedagogical Too-Muchness,” Or a Call for Shaking up Schooling

This year I turned 39, and it’s my first in which I won’t be returning to school. I’ve spent my life in academic settings—as a child and adult, as a student and teacher, as a researcher and writer. Many of my friends are teachers, too, so I understand how August brings both angst and anticipation for the upcoming school year.

Recently, I’ve been having conversations with friends about syllabi and course designs. I’ve been reading social media posts about the start of school. And I’ve received emails from several people asking me to share my experience teaching “Writing for Social Justice.”

The combination of these conversations, posts, and emails has reminded me of the importance of rethinking what we know and have typically experienced as education. So much of schooling needs to be shaken up/off, as traditional schooling perpetuates social inequities, damaging discourses, and injustice. What we’re typically conditioned into—conditioned to accept and expect from schooling—does harm by contributing to the status quo. (I’m thinking here of scholarship by bell hooks and Paulo Freire, in Rethinking Schools and Teaching Tolerance, and in research journals like Feminist Teacher and Equity & Excellence, among many other sources.)

Given the recognized harms of schooling, August seems like the perfect time to question what we know about teaching and learning.

  • How might we intervene into and rewrite the scripts of schooling?
  • How might we rethink not only curriculum and content but also assignments, assessment, and activities that structure relations in and out school?
  • How might we change our approaches to education, even if/when those changes are considered “too much”?

I raise these questions and share my own attempts at trying to teach differently—perhaps “too much” differently—through a newly published chapter, “Pedagogical Too-Muchness: A Feminist Approach to Community-Based Learning, Multimodal Composition, Social Justice Education, and More.”

As part of the collection Composing Feminist Interventions: Activism, Engagement, Praxis edited by Kristine L. Blair and Lee Nickoson, this chapter describes my approach to “Writing for Social Justice” and situates feminist, critical education as “instead of” rather than “on top of” more traditional approaches.

Throughout the chapter, I share several guiding principles:

1. engage our full selves—not only our minds, but also our bodies, emotions, and spirits;

2. prioritize relations, or put the time and effort into building and sustaining meaningful (and often cross-status) connections among people and organizations;

3. understand power as related to (in)justice so that efforts against sexism and for gender-and-sexuality-justice are linked with other justice-oriented work, since identities and issues are intersectional and injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere;

4. cultivate agency so that students and other actors see themselves as having the responsibility to act, as well as the questions and insights to ask who is responsible to act, when, where, why, and how (troubling savior and victim narratives);

5. seek interconnectedness among ways of seeing, thinking, doing, and being in the world so that we work toward coherence across spheres of activity and recognize that our work occurs within complex socio-cultural, historical, and rhetorical systems.
(pages 337-338)

I share this chapter and these principles as part of ongoing conversations about how to do education differently—toward making commitments to justice actionable. My hope is that the more we think of social justice education as the core or center of schooling, the more we shift away from schooling that leads educators to dismiss critical approaches as additional, extra, or “too much” to take on.

Truly, we all—students and teachers alike—need courses that are complex, critical, and transformative. We need educational practices that humanize people and develop relational responsibilities. We need concerted effort to disrupt the status quo, foster commitments to justice, and build agency beyond the classroom.

Though I won’t be returning to the classroom this fall, I’ll be reading, writing, and engaging as someone with much to shake up/off about my own educational history. May we share in this ongoing work and lifelong learning. May this new school year invite new ways of approaching education and learning to take action in this time of urgency.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Triangulating the Heart, Head, and Hands for Justice,” “What Is Justice?” and others posts on teaching. Please also consider liking this blog on FB and following the blog via email. Thanks!

A New Spell for a New Space

These past few weeks I’ve been focused on moving and settling into a new home. The move has called attention to all sorts of stuff, habits, and emotional swings—things I’d like to keep and release, to shore up and tear down. This process has reminded me, too, of the contemplative practices that contribute to a sense of grounding: grounding needed to stand TALL for justice.

One of these practices is spell-casting, which I learned from activist-writer-healer adrienne maree brown. In Episode 10 of the Healing Justice podcast “New Years Practice: Cast a Spell with adrienne maree brown,” brown shares what I’ve similarly come to believe from my experiences writing, teaching writing, and researching writing. That is:
(1) Words have power.
(2) We can channel this power through writing.
(3) Writing mantras and other wishes-desires-intentions helps bring them into reality.
In other words, writing supports manifestation. To put these beliefs into action, I write what I want to manifest in life.

As I did back in January, when recovering from a concussion, I’ve written a spell of mantras to help ease the shifts (the letting go and calling in) that I’d like to experience in my new space. This spell now lives under my bed and again taped to my bathroom mirror.

Printed copy of the spell (words that appear in this blog post) taped to a bathroom mirror with a colorful shower curtain showing part of a tree reflected in the mirror. The photo has a pink tint.

I share this spell here as an accountability practice—holding its potential not only in physical space but also in digital/online space. I hope it might motivate others to write. I can already see that it’s inspiring me toward further writing to make commitments to justice actionable in everyday life.

A New Spell for a New Space

I detangle my self-worth from my productivity, release goals of perfection and positivity associated with white womanhood, and believe instead that “I am enough” (neither better-than nor lesser-than)—affirming my own and others’ humanity.

I release the pattern of “butt in seat” to get work done and instead allow myself to write-work-play-move wherever I am called, including curled on the couch and sitting alongside the bouldering wall.

I embrace play: swimming, hiking, climbing, and moving my body regularly toward shaking up/off what I’ve internalized and still hold within my body as trauma, as pain, as injustice.

I make decisions based on my “strong YES,” asking regularly which way brings me closer to my divine purpose, listening for what’s next, and engaging in discernment, even/especially when the answers don’t seem to make sense.

I look for direction in everyday life, slowing down to practice divination as a meaningful, woven-through-the-day contemplative practice.

I keep talking with my future self and my ancestors, working to heal backward and forward in time.

I get comfortable working on my own and enjoying my own company, while noticing who shows up as accomplices, companions, and guides in the work for social justice.

I read “for fun,” and I learn through reading-listening-witnessing how to amplify the voices of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), especially feminists and womanists of color.

I nourish my physical, emotional, and spiritual self: heart, head, and hands. In doing so, I invest in my relationship with food, building a relationship that’s full of integrity, consistency, forgiveness, appreciation, and love. I absorb nutrients and release inflammation. I show love to myself through the foods I take into my body.

I learn more about what it means to show up as my authentic self, getting to know Beth.

I treat myself gently, with tenderness and humility. I open my heart to forgiveness and peace. I allow myself to receive and give love.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Spell-Casting and Other Contemplative Practices for Reflection and Recovery,” “The Pain and Pleasure of Moving,” or “Mantras to Stand TALL for Justice.” Please also consider liking this blog on FB and following the blog via email. Thanks!

Countering Resistance Fatigue with a Both/And Approach

In the past few days, I’ve seen countless posts detailing “the horrors of this administration,” the latest of which include separating families and imprisoning immigrants. I’ve seen friends describing their embodied physical and emotional pain, including pain from complicity and always too-small actions. I’ve seen friends accounting their own family stories of separation, as the history of state-sponsored violence against Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) is long and unrelenting. I’ve seen trauma and responses via trauma-informed care. I’ve also seen requests for folks to share how they’re showing up, standing TALL, and caring for themselves and their communities at this time.

As I engage in interactions around these posts and similarly experience rage and heartache, I find grounding, inspiration, and re-orientation in what I’ve learned from feminists and womanists of color: that we need not only active resistance but also sustained investment in envisioning and building more just communities. We need both critique against injustice and critique for justice. We need a both/and approach to thinking, organizing, and relating with each other.

At this time, I feel it’s important to emphasize that both/and matters because it’s too easy to fall into the trap of either/or. It’s too easy to focus on a single action or single problem and let it consume all of our energy. It’s too easy to prioritize self-care over other responsibilities or, alternatively, to prioritize others at one’s own expense.

Photo from a crowded protest with a poster in the center reading: "Human Rights are Women's Rights are LGBTQ+ Rights are Native Rights are Black Rights are Latinx Rights are Immigrant Rights are Refugee Rights are Muslim Rights are All Religion Rights are Homeless Rights are Disability Rights are Survivor Rights are Veteran Rights are Elder Rights are Child Rights are Student Rights are American Rights." The poster includes blue and red letters against a white background. Photo credit to Lauren Fitzgerald.
Photo credit and thanks to Lauren Fitzgerald.

Let me explain further through two examples.

Example #1: Toward Dismantling Dehumanizing Systems

Yes, it’s important to make donations and call representatives and learn more and post/tweet/share widely. And it’s not enough to stop there.

The problems are much, much bigger than this moment, than this instantiation of violence.

What more can each of us to do invest in emotional literacies, resilience, and long-term staying power? What more do we each need to learn about transformative justice and alternative ways of organizing ourselves as people? What visioning can get us out of the ongoing violence associated with the nation-state? How we can learn “to survive the apocalypse with grace, rigor, and curiosity” (in the words of Autumn Brown and adrienne maree brown in their podcast How to Survive the End of the World)?

Questions such as these call our attention to the need for both small, immediate actions and large-scale, long-term change. We need both direct, imperfect response and expansive, imaginative visioning. Let us not settle for the first without commitment to the second. We must not ignore the immediate nor the long-term.

Example #2: Toward Recognizing Relational Responsibilities

Yes, it’s important to empathize with families torn apart by naming this wrong as wrong. And it’s not enough to see only the most explicit manifestations of violence. 

One of the many lies of living in oppression (white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism) is that our imagined families include only those who share blood or those within close physical proximity. This lie allows for separation and division of people. It plays into scarcity logic, which goes like this: there are a limited number of resources, so I better get mine and make sure my people have all they need. So long as my people are protected and provided for, I am safe and good.

This lie undercuts our humanity, and it also mobilizes the conditions that allow for people to be separated and imprisoned.

To repair the larger damage of separation (related to individualism and social stratification), we need to learn again from feminists and womanists of color who study, name, and teach relational literacies. To see ourselves as truly in relation with—as family to all humans—we need to expand our circle of relations. Such work can begin by studying “abuelit@ wisdoms” (Licona and Chávez), “kinship” (e.g., Collins; Richardson), and the Indigenous values of relationality and “all my relations” (e.g., Powell; Riley-Mukavetz). Such work involves seeing one’s “family” (or familial circles) as expanding outward to include more and more relatives.

What work is needed to shift worldviews toward communal kinship and relational responsibilities? What needs to change in order to see ourselves as responsible not just to immediate family groups but to all humans and beings? Are we ready to let go of national and other dividing lines?

Again, these questions call our attention to the both/and. We need both inward-oriented healing and outward-oriented building. We need both self-care and community care. We need to engage in the work of looking both backward (reckoning with the colonial past and present) and forward (imaginatively creating a relational future).

My hope in sharing these examples is that we might use this moment of mobilized political engagement to engage in bigger dreaming and scheming. To move beyond resistance fatigue, we’ll need to leverage both this moment and all the moments to come.

Recently, I shared with my Reiki teacher that I’ve been “burning up” with anger, and we reflected on the contrast of fire as warming versus fire as all-consuming. Instead of allowing the fire to rage out of control (and to burn down the house), how could I tend to my anger (my fire) as I would tend to a fireplace that provides light and warmth?

At least in part, the answer involves ongoing attention. Whereas an either/or approach alternates between a raging fire and burned-out embers, a both/and approach invites continued maintenance and planning: from preparing materials and adding wood to fanning the flame and keeping it alight. May we embrace the both/and approach and keep the fire burning—to brighten our path into the darkness that surrounds us and is still to come.


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,” “Triangulating the Heart, Head, and Hands for Justice,” and “What Is Justice?” Please also consider liking this blog on FB and following the blog via email. Thanks!

Turning 39 and Thinking about Age(ism)

A few weeks ago, I turned 39.

The number 39 printed in blue within an orange circle against a gray background.

I get excited about birthdays, believing that age is cumulative, as “we’re all the ages we’ve ever been.” I think of new ages as adding experiences and insights while keeping all the previous ones: I’m still my toddler and teenage selves, and now I’m adding multiple adult selves into the mix. I joke that “I’m greedy and want all the ages” as a way to affirm and reclaim the joy of aging.

And I do see joy in aging—in experiencing more of life, in growing into different embodied identities—despite the prevailing cultural messages that denigrate the very young and old alike. With awareness of how ageism constructs and constrains ideas about aging, this year’s birthday felt significant for at least three reasons:

First, I’m not freezing myself at 39.

I remember being conditioned in childhood to see 39 as a benchmark, as the age when adult women “freeze” themselves in place. When asked their age, older women would respond, “39, of course!” Laughter and cautious reminders would ensue: “You know better than to ask a lady her age.”

Witnessing these interactions taught me a lot about the intersection of ageism and other -isms: women, particularly able-bodied, cisgender white women seeking class standing in the United States, didn’t want to be associated with older age. Thirty-nine (and later I’d hear 29) was the last desirable age.

As a young girl who already understood how adultism made me seen as less-than, I took note of this form of gendered ageism. Before I had the language to describe myself as a feminist or to play the rebel, I’d made a promise not to freeze myself at any age. I looked forward to reaching 39 and all the ages to come.

Second, I’m reclaiming feminine strength expressed in 39 (a multiple of 13).

I grew up seeing the number 13 as unlucky until learning a few years ago that 13 has a long history of being associated with goddesses and the divine feminine. It’s not just that aging (moving through cyclical stages of maiden, mother, mage, and crone) has been interrupted and interpreted negatively (hence, women being frozen at 39). It’s also that whatever is considered “feminine” (from intuition to caretaking) takes on negative associations: in this case, 13 has literally become the basis of many superstitions and prophesies of bad luck.

What if 13 conveys good luck instead?

Luckily, 39 is a multiple of the number 13. As I count up by 13s (13, 26, 39), I recognize ages that have signaled important turning points for me and ages that feel powerful for reclaiming and integrating characteristics considered “feminine.” I’m particularly excited about 39 being a time to become more fully humannot limited by gendered expressions but able to reclaim what’s been cast off and to heal what’s been broken.

Third, I’m making choices that break from what’s “age appropriate.”

Throughout childhood, I also learned cultural scripts about what’s expected at what age. I questioned these scripts, especially when I realized as a pre-teen (around ages 11-12) that I didn’t want to have children. I had so few models for women pursuing lives of learning and activism that I looked to the few I saw on TV and thought briefly about becoming a nun.

Despite my recognition that normative age expectations do harm by reinforcing whiteness, heteronormativity, and other parts of “the mythical norm” (and thanks again to Audre Lorde for this language), I’ve still found myself internalizing scripts about what’s possible at particular ages. Like internalized sexism and white superiority, these scripts involve internalizing class superiority and then denying the privilege and power it carries. What if instead of denying my class privilege and the choices it allows (choices to follow or to break from what’s considered “age appropriate”), I locate my choices within the finding that “white families have nearly 10 times the net worth of black families”? What if I recognize privilege as possibility and, moreover, responsibility? What is I see power as not to be hoarded but to be yielded, wielded, spent, and transformed?

The more I work on releasing myself from age expectations (and expected timelines), the more I am called into action. Currently, as I enter 39, I’m making major career changes and a cross-country move, which involves downsizing to roughly the amount of “stuff” I had when entering college at age 18. It’s seemingly a move backward to move forward. A move that involves giving myself permission to “retire” from a career in academia. A move to pursue commitment-driven “passion projects” that I’ve been allowing to backslide for too long.

Realizing that I’ve been holding off on passion, I’m hoping to course correct mid-stream. I’m hoping that “retirement” at age 39 allows me to act on the enormous privilege to pursue my heart’s desires. It might not be age appropriate, but it sure feels age-igniting, inviting, and inspiring …

This year’s birthday (my 39th) has me asking a range of questions, which I hope might to speak to others whenever you’re experiencing age:

  • What if we think differently about age and aging?
  • How might we interrupt aging timelines and other age expectations?
  • How might better understandings of ageism mobilize understandings of other -isms (racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, sizeism, nationalism, +++)?
  • What possibilities come with redefining ages and our associations with them?
  • How can we do more to interrupt ageism and its limitations on who we are allowed to be, what we are allowed to do, and how we are allowed to play?


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Reclaiming Childhood Power with Coloring Books,” “Wrestling with Whether to Wear Pantyhose,” “‘We’re All the Ages We’ve Ever Been.’” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!