You against the world

December 14, 2013

Recently a friend posted a link to an Upworthy blog about how entrepreneurs are viewed differently based on their gender.

It’s short, so I’ll include it here:

In a widely-read study, business school students were given a case assignment on Heidi, a real-life successful entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. But there was a catch. Half of the class randomly received their case with one teensy tiny change made: The name “Heidi” was changed to “Howard.” Afterward, the students were surveyed, and though Heidi and Howard were found equally competent (as they should have been because they are the same person), the students found Howard much more likeable. The following ad pretty much sums up why.

So that pissed me off, but “the following ad” is what really irritated me.

I’ve ranted before about the appalling lack of “solidarity awareness” that’s necessary before we’ll see real progress in the roles of women and men. This just adds fuel to the fire.

I don’t know how seriously we should take a commercial from Pantene, that center of the struggle for women’s rights. But their video has over 6 million views, so they’ve got a helluva lot broader reach than I do.

This video is a prime example of what I call “You go, girl!” feminism. It starts by laying out how women are perceived by others. Then it ends up by telling women, “Don’t let labels hold you back. Be strong and shine.” Presumably by using Pantene hair care products. Because nothing advances women’s equality like shiny hair.

The video is spot-on in its contrast of “dedicated” men vs “selfish” women. Women are perceived differently in the corporate world. And they are treated differently. By others. Lots of others.

So what are you supposed to do about it? You’re supposed to not “let it” hold you back. How exactly is that supposed to happen? Just by telling yourself it doesn’t matter? You can give yourself all the pep talks you want, but until you threaten legal action for discriminatory actions in the workplace, you’re not going to get any traction.

The problem with discrimination against women isn’t that women don’t have nice enough hair. The problem is with the people who discriminate against them. That includes men and women. It’s a societal perception. While I believe in grassroots action and the Power of One, you’re not going to change a whole society by isolated women deciding not to let it bother them. It takes collective action that focuses on specific goals and acts to achieve them.

You can decide all you want to be more assertive, but as the video points out, you’ll only be perceived as pushy. It’s the perception that has to change. And yes, that can start with individual consciousness raising, but the next step has to be, “Whom can I join with to change the system?” If all you’re doing is running around wearing “Girl Power” T-shirts, you’re practically useless. Likely you don’t have the consciousness and strength it takes to stand up and risk and make real change.

Solidarity feminism is about coming together with other women and men who share a deep desire to change societal norms about how we all are perceived and treated. “You go, girl!” feminism is a superficial, temporary, hypocritical approach that doesn’t even begin to touch on creating deep and lasting self-esteem in girls and women, much less mass societal change.

Isolated, individual acts can have a small effect on a small number of people. But at this rate it will be another hundred years before we see equal work for equal pay. It’s only through mass movements like civil rights, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, etc that we see massive cultural shifts.

A lot of work remains to be done, as this inane video shows. Will you step up?

The second thirty years

December 8, 2013

I decided to kill myself on May 12th, 1997. Denise came back from the big bonfire to our little camp. She took one look at my face and said, “You’ve decided, haven’t you?” I nodded. There was nothing more to say.

Two months earlier my fiancé had left me. At first I grieved naturally and started to experience some healing. But then, as had happened since I was 15, my natural process was hijacked by my mental illness and I spiraled down into a deep depression.

As I had countless times before, I fantasized about killing myself to end the pain. I had lost not only the man I loved with every cell, I had lost a loving family and a promising future with children of my own. I couldn’t cope.

Aaron came to stay with me. For several years I hadn’t been able to watch any movies with violence in it but not long after Barry left I watched a long documentary on the Nazis. Aaron tried to distract me with lighter fare but I wanted to dig deep into suffering.

I threw myself on the mercy of my friends. Again. Whenever a crisis arose, there would be tearful late-night phone calls, crashes on couches, and always, always, endless talk of cutting myself and suicide. On April 15th, 1997, I was trudging into work, wallowing, when I suddenly snapped to clarity. “I will give myself a month,” I decided. “If, in that month, I want to die more than I want to live, I will kill myself. I’m sick of this suffering. More than that, I’m sick of putting my friends through this. I’m either in or out.”

During the ensuing month I studied up on suicide—its causes, its methods, and how to prevent it. I had a long email exchange with the Samaritans in Britain because I couldn’t find a suicide prevention organization in the States (this was before the Internet came into its own). I spent long hours talking with my therapist and my closest friends about how healthy people lived their lives and how they coped. That was the thing I could not do—I could not cope.

But after all that, I ended up at that little fire in the woods at Lothlorien, clear and utterly sure of my course. But I had given myself until May 15th to decide. So I chose to wait the extra three days before getting my things in order and procuring a gun.

On the morning of May 14th I had an auspicious dream. I felt like I had waited my whole life for it. I won’t go into the details, but it essentially pointed to a third road between mindless happiness and self-destructive despair. It allowed me to accept myself for who and what I was. It showed me that I didn’t have to fight myself anymore, that I didn’t want to, that there was another way. I woke up weeping. “Thank you, Goddess,” over and over again.

I had set aside three days starting May 15th for ritual. During that time I went through a profound process of change that left no part of me untouched. It was terrifying, it was mortifying, it was filled with mercy, it was lit by Spirit, and it birthed me into a new life.

I, who had always needed A Plan to get through an hour, a day, a week, a month, a year, was now living moment to moment. I saw myself in darkness. I was totally calm and at peace. I took a step, and as my foot approached what should have been ground, a piece of sod appeared. As my foot left the sod, the ground disappeared, but another piece of turf came into being underneath my other foot. On and on, always supported, while not knowing (or needing to know) where I was headed. For the first time in my life, I felt fully confident in a relaxed, free, deeply spiritual way. I could rely on myself for self-care rather than self-destruction.

As part of this healing process, which I call Rebirthday, I received many spiritual insights. One in particular stood out for me: In the beginning there was no-thing-ness. Not nothingness, not abyss, not void. That implies an absence of Something. There was no Something, and there was no Nothing. We don’t have a word for pre-Something. There just wasn’t. Anything.

Then, suddenly, there was lifeanddeath, like a Celtic knot, winking into and out of the light. Time began. Lifeanddeath are one thing, inextricably woven together. They were not born of no-thing-ness. That implies no-thing-ness was a thing to be born of. They simply existed, where nothing had existed before. And like no-thing-ness, we don’t have a word for the meta-concept which is lifeanddeath.

It’s not about yin and yang, where (at least in the Western conception) life is a part of death and death is a part of life, though that is certainly true. It is more that they are both emanations of a greater Mystery, a greater power, a greater truth. And they are so bound up in each other you can’t separate the two.

Death isn’t something to be feared or kept at bay. It is part of Gaia, that juicy biosphere we are an element of. Decaying and returning to the Mother is just as holy as taking our first step or having our first child. All is sacred; all is whole.

I first became self-destructive when I turned 15. From then on, whenever I experienced any setback in life, I ripped apart my wrists or burned my arms and screamed, “I hate you I hate you I hate you!” into the mirror and yearned, how I yearned to be dead. But in this revelation I had, I Saw that in all those years of invoking death, I was not invoking the death of lifeanddeath—I was invoking no-thing-ness. That’s what I was calling into my life.

I sat in silence for a long time after that.

Another insight I was given was that my life was split into roughly thirty-year intervals. I was completing the first thirty-year cycle and was embarking on my second. I won’t say all the things I was told at that time, but one thing that was different was how change would come into my life. My first thirty years had been marked by revolutionary change. My second thirty years would be marked by evolutionary change. Whereas change previously had been a jagged and wildly looping line, now it would be a gently sloping spiral headed upward.

My life up until Rebirthday was filled with high drama. There were always dragons to be slain. I came from a highly dysfunctional family, had experienced my fair share of trauma, and was highly sensitive with no constructive outlet. Everything was opera. Sound and fury.

After Rebirthday, I got a year off. For the first time in my life, I got to just be. It was glorious. I was so relaxed, so calm, so clear. So confident. Not the hard-headed arrogance of youth but the supple confidence of inner knowing. I was so competent. I had “blue” days, but they passed easily and quickly. I believed I had passed through mental illness and had come out the other side. I coped.

I remember one day in particular, even though it was typical of the days at that time. I was setting on a bench in People’s Park, eating an ice cream cone. The sky overhead was brilliant blue, the leaves on the trees were deepest green, the Sun was a glorious beacon of spiritual light, and my chocolate chip ice cream from White Mountain was a taste explosion. Everything was hyper-real. I was completely in the moment, fully at peace, totally immersed in the simple pleasure of the experience. Without even trying. It was just the way I lived my life.

After that first year, challenges started to appear. I eased into them, then plunged in, feeling sure of myself and wondering at the new directions my life had taken. Rebirthday had transformed every relationship in my life. Some I’d ended. Others I’d restructured. And now I was beginning new ones.

One in particular was epic.

Then, on January 3rd, 2000, the dawn of a new century, a catastrophe happened. One person knows half the story, but only half. I once read a story about a woman who’d been held in a prison in South Africa during apartheid. She’d been gang-raped by her white guards every night. She said her soul had left her body and gone up into a corner of the room and watched. And when she finally left that cell, her soul stayed behind her. She was never whole again.

When the unthinkable happened, my soul left my body, just turned and wafted away from my right shoulder, up into the air and disappeared. I stopped crying. Even today, when I almost feel pain enough to weep, I never cry for longer than 10 minutes. This from a woman who got her first wrinkle from crying all night long after an altercation with a best friend. I no longer flow. I am no longer confident. I am no longer competent.

Psychologists call it dissociation. I call it grey. It’s not depression, though I certainly spend my share of mornings unable to get out of bed, my days unable to answer the telephone, my nights unable to get off the couch. There’s always anxiety, that dread that keeps me wringing my hands until they ache. But more than that is this bobbing along on a current in a fog where the features of the shore are indistinct.

There are certain things that stand out for me: the Pagan Summit which I organized, which is still the only gathering of leaders of national Pagan organizations in America. The day I learned I couldn’t have children. The day I lost my mind, well and truly. And lesser events, like performing at Lotus. But there were several years there when I had to use a calculator when people asked how old I was because I simply couldn’t remember.

Each day runs into the next, pretty much the same. Anxiety over money. Feeling like a failure at work. Not feeling anything at all. Wondering if it will ever be over. Wishing therapy would be faster, more productive, faster, faster.

Last night I realized I’m more than half the way through my second thirty years. And I barely remember any of it. It has been distinguished by agony. A different kind from what I grew up with, but suffering nonetheless. Time slips by without meaning. There are a handful of relationships that tie me to the year, rituals that mark out The Wheel, but I can’t recall the difference between this year’s Imbolc and the last. I don’t remember because I’m not fully here. My soul left me and I am lost without it. Adrift.

And horrified. Horrified that this is the life that I have built for myself out of the glory and promise of Rebirthday. There was a relationship there at the beginning of the cycle that seemed to promise a whole new life, but the only thing new is this grey disconnection from consensual reality. I pay my bills, I meet my commitments, I watch a lot of movies, I read, I mostly stay away from people. I do not feel my feelings. I do sing. That makes a difference. And there are a handful of people whose lives seem to want me. But mostly there is—dare I call it?—no-thing-ness.

What has happened to me??

Oh, I can point to the events in question, down to the dates and times, but in a larger sense, how have I got caught in this endless loop of checking out? In my journals over the last 35 years, there is a recurring theme: “Who can explain my life to me? Who can look at what I was born with, my apparent destiny, and explain how I came to this day?”

There is the overwhelming feeling of waiting. Standing at the big picture window in the living room. Just standing, looking out. Waiting. Praying for forgiveness. Hoping that, with enough hard work and luck and mercy, I will find my way back onto the spiral of lifeanddeath.

Though I did ask, one time, in ritual, if I were still alive. I feel like the walking dead.   Totally unnatural. And the answer I received was that yes, I was still part of Gaia, and that my experience was still sacred. If only my experience didn’t suck. That would be a bonus.

I have been working hard these last couple years, and in the last 13 months or so I’ve seen some movement. But it’s glacial. And last night’s revelation has me terrified that I will be 60 before I find peace again. Before my soul returns. And then what? The unthinkable happens again and I am lost on the river for the rest of my life?

It’s hard to know why I’m still alive. There have been several times since Rebirthday that I’ve decided that I’m done. One in particular where I was making serious plans. But when I look into my heart, I know I want to be alive. But I want to be alive, pulsing with the beauty and sanctity of lifeanddeath, stinking in my nostrils with the sweat of a life well-lived.

I don’t know how much longer I will wait. Every morning I make a decision whether to keep on or whether to stop. It’s such a part of my thinking that it happens automatically, like locking the back door or putting my contacts in. I remember a point in therapy a couple years ago where I realized I did not know if there would ever be a time where my present suffering would be worth it. Where I could say, “Yes, that was a terrible time, but now I’ve made it through to happiness and health and I’m glad I stayed the course.” I’m not saying that will never happen. I’m saying I don’t know. And whenever the fog suddenly clears like it did last night and I see my life in the cold light of day, I can’t justify my continuing existence. There just really doesn’t seem to be a point to all of this.

I will get up today and shovel out my car and go to rehearsal and enjoy performing at Lara’s benefit gig tonight. I will not apply for a gun permit tomorrow. I am merely trying to work through this latest realization in a sea of insights which leaves me gasping.

Who can explain my life to me?