Rousing sessions, furious responses

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“Part of what interests me is the impulse to dismiss and how often it slides into the very incoherence or hysteria of which women are routinely accused.” –Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

When not enunciated clearly, “betrayal” and “portrayal” sound very much the same. And in reality, they are.

Applicable in many situations, it seems most apt when thinking about the portrayal women must give so often in the world, consciously or not, in the workplace, in their private lives, even in their friendships. And in giving this portrayal (or portrayals), she performs or reflects a kind of betrayal – of herself, other women and even the truth of what women are or can be. I wrote a bit about this – or about false feminism – or carrying the flag of feminism only when it is convenient or aligns with one’s own individual conception of feminism. But I can think of very little that betrays oneself and womankind – and does the least amount of good for all of humanity – than the idea of portraying a role, fitting into a mold, being or showing some unreality to the world and perpetuating it. At the same time, though, it is so ingrained as the expectation that it’s hard to do otherwise. After all, no one appears ready to take a woman at her word.

“I told you, but what does the proverb say? A woman’s prophecy is always taken lightly until it comes to pass.” –The Dance of the Jakaranda, Peter Kimani

At face value

I think of this often: we don’t take what women say at face value. Even if we believe them, and even if what they tell us bears out, e.g. Bill Cosby’s many accusers, Cosby’s own admissions of what he had done (without accepting any culpability, i.e. “I did it but it wasn’t wrong; it was consensual”), we still don’t apply the logic or truths of what women say, we still don’t hold anyone accountable for what women endure, reinforcing the idea that we might as well just shut up or contentedly portray our role.

“If we could recognize or even name this pattern of discrediting, we could bypass recommencing the credibility conversation every time a woman speaks. One more thing about Cassandra: in the most famous version of the myth, the disbelief with which her prophecies were met was the result of a curse placed on her by Apollo when she refused to have sex with the god. The idea that loss of credibility is tied to asserting rights over your own body was there all along. But with the real-life Cassandras among us, we can lift the curse by making up our own minds about who to believe and why.” –Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

Crazy label: Unspoken message

“As you know, men are apt to idolize or fear that which they cannot understand, especially if it be a woman.” –Cane, Jean Toomer

I read this week about Sylvia Plath, and how she is widely regarded in academia and in general as a gifted but troubled woman. Clearly if you’d commit suicide, you must have been crazy. She was just a jealous woman who had been cheated on, like so many before her, and could not handle it. Unhinged. Hysterical. But is any story or person that simple? It’s so easy to dismiss her this way because this is what evidence we have; this is the narrative that her ex-husband sought to craft in her death. Not to preserve her reputation as a literary voice but to protect his.

The article I read asks: “Why are we so unwilling to take Sylvia Plath at her word?” The “crazy label” assigned to her (which, granted, is not hard to assign when a person kills herself and is therefore left defenseless; any written evidence she left behind was destroyed by the aforementioned ex-husband) automatically makes her an unreliable witness to her own existence, all the more so because she was a woman. The hushed-up, unspoken message is clear: You don’t need to listen to a woman if she’s crazy, and much of the language used to describe women and their behavior (as if it can be so easily classified and compartmentalized) makes all women seem crazy in some way. All women then are unreliable or biased witnesses. When an individual woman’s own situation becomes unbearable and visible to others, it is demanded: “But why didn’t you say anything?” Answer: “I did and no one listened/believed me” or eventually, “Who would have believed me?” When their prescience comes to prove itself, later people ask, “But why didn’t anyone say anything?” Well, we did. It went unheard until it came to pass.

Uncontrollable circumstances, self-blame

As Dorthe Nors writes in So Much for that Winter, “and it is woman’s weakness to believe it’s because she isn’t good enough that things don’t go according to plan (and it is woman’s weakness that things should go according to plan).” Perhaps it is this near-built-in inferiority coupled with the idea that somehow you (as a woman) should be perfect that makes one seem crazy. Even though this is exactly the portrayal women are asked to give every single day.

Meanwhile, as Alice Munro writes on men in Hateship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage:

“Men were not like this, in my experience. Men looked away from frightful happenings as soon as they could and behaved as if there was no use, once things were over with, in mentioning them or thinking about them ever again. They didn’t want to stir themselves up, or stir other people up.”

(Wo)man with a plan

It’s overly simplified and not universally true (in other words: here are some sweeping generalizations for you), but in very broad strokes, women plan and then feel guilty and inadequate when that plan does not work precisely, dwelling on the consequences (even if they often have also performed risk assessment and made contingency plans even for the simplest of maneuvers). Men do not plan, and walk away without a second thought when the things around them fall apart, feeling no connection at all to the consequences.

Or, men’s and women’s idea of what constitutes a “plan” are fundamentally different: A man makes a plan, points A through Z. He rarely seems to follow the threads of what happens if any of those alphabetical points does not go to plan, which is where many women excel. She is thinking about point A1, and the contingency plans A2, A3 and how those interact and meet with the next possible steps in the plan, points B-Z and their subplans. If she thinks this way, how can she not foresee and foretell pitfalls and disasters? It’s a bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure book but without any real surprises. A bit like a woman’s life at times: chaos and silence, ignoring and being ignored and many rousing sessions and furious responses that lead nowhere.

Come Away with Me & other randomness

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It’s always a world of tiny coincidences. A few weeks back we were batting about the expression ‘come away with me’, daydreaming of running away and doing things both out of control and outside of our “normal” lives. Eventually we more or less came to substitute ‘Norah Jones with me’ for the expression ‘come away with me’ – for what should be obvious reasons. I had not thought about Norah Jones in years, if ever. Then suddenly, the very next day, I saw that she gave the first performance at the Fox Theatre in Detroit after Soundgarden the night of Chris Cornell’s death. Jones did “Black Hole Sun” (who didn’t, though?) and made it sound more like something Tori Amos than Soundgarden.

In another coincidence, I told some colleagues at lunch the other day (sitting in glorious and rare sun) the story of someone I used to work with who was basically a complete lunatic (I used it as a story to show how difficult it can be to fire federal workers). I had not thought of the crazy co-worker in years, but I got a message from my mom later that same evening telling me he had died.

“The resultant fervor of human belonging”Wole Soyinka

Life is full of these little things – coincidences and things we want in some fiendish fever to connect: the pieces must connect! … I wonder if it is all completely random or if it’s feedback from “energy” we’ve put into the world by conjuring these things up actively that then comes back to us like a boomerang.

Probably it comes down to intent and motivation.

As Pamuk asks in Strangeness in my Mind: “Intentions come in two forms: That which our heart intends and that which our words intend”. And these are indeed different phenomena. The heart will lead us to do the most irrational things (‘come away with me’ and whatnot), intending as it does to make us connect, impervious to the knowledge that it is a bad idea. The head, our words, will instead look for reason and sense, and in some cases, protective gear and weaponry in the form of iron-clad excuses not to do things that maybe we should brave our fears to do.

Are we seeking the missing pieces that link our lives and events together? Are we looking for words to explain coincidental happenstance? Do we intend to share knowledge (“Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.” –Paul Kalinithi, When Breath Becomes Air)? Do we intend to join what Soyinka referred to as the ‘fervor of human belonging’ (which has its duality, light and dark)?

Motivation can be even more tenuous. I find myself succumbing, as Doris Lessing describes in The Golden Notebook, to the pull of acting out multiple personalities, playing different roles, playing off another (like Saul and Anna), driven by the one keenly stupid motivation: “I wanted to see what would happen”. Maybe this is a solid motivation in scientific experimentation. In human relations, not so much. But with curiosity the driver, the one great motivator, you do get adventures; you do get disasters. No one will claim your life was devoid of interesting stuff.

“And yet—an excitement. The unspeakable excitement you feel when a galloping disaster promises to release you from all responsibility for your own life.” -from Hateship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage  Alice Munro

Or is that just the cynic speaking?