I’m not cutting kale with a knife very often, anymore. That goes for broccoli, too. These are added to the list:
I don’t wear makeup.
Or shave my armpits.
Or my legs.
There’s a proactive list, too. It consists of things like:
Staring back when stared at– especially when doing yoga in a peculiar but public, and perfectly acceptable, place.
Saying things like, “That’s not what I said,” or “Let me finish what I was saying,” or “Excuse me.”
It might look like a slow descent into letting myself go, but that’s inaccurate. I dress better and spend fewer days in yoga pants all day. I don’t buy clothing that I know will make me feel bad about myself, or that pinches my glorious little muffin top that I’m becoming so fond of. I spend much less time reeling over conversations with what I should have said. I take quicker showers so that I have more time to massage my aching feet and calves, all the way down to my big hairy toes. I’m eating what I like, and not too much of it. But sometimes too much of it, and then I forgive me. Or I celebrate.
None of these things feel rebellious or groundbreaking or revolutionary or even particularly feminist.
It’s not letting myself go. It’s just letting go.
In ninth grade, I wore a silky red dress with straps a scanty two finger-widths wide, in black strappy clog heels. I had entered– or maybe was entered– into the High School Talent Show. In the weeks ahead, I agonized over which song to sing, practiced until my voice gave out, and stayed up late going over the future scene again and again.
As I stood shaking in the wings of the auditorium, peaking out to see my parents and friends watching expectantly, I tried to bolster. I heard my name announced, walked to center stage, picked up the cordless microphone with one hand while my other hand clenched a single red rose. The backing track began. Just as practiced, I sang through the song, eking through each note and praying that my vocal idiosyncrasies would compensate for my poor intonation from shaking so hard. On the final chorus, I walked toward the catwalk that stretched around the orchestra pit. One foot after the other, the end of the song approaching, I made it to the closest point to the audience, the furthest from my starting point, bent down and handed my single rose to some shadowy boy figure in the front. Then I stood back up and delivered the last notes.
Hot damn, I nailed it.
And I won! I even beat out my friend Cody who played a Bach piece completely blindfolded (and flawlessly).
Afterwards, my parents celebrated by giving me chocolates and flowers. They were always good for gifts, and had them on the ready regardless of the outcome. On the short drive home, they told me I’d done a great job, that the dress was a hit– isn’t it so thinning!–, that the rose had been nothing short of a surprise twist. And then–
“And your father said– and I agree– that the best part was that you didn’t clunk your way down the catwalk like those other girls your age in those heels. Every step was completely silent!”
This was the one part I didn’t practice.
It dawns on me now that I learned much earlier than that to step lightly, and take up little space. But that was the moment the mantra began. With every pair of high heeled boots and shoes I mangled my feet with from that point forward, my brain accompanied, Softly, softly, quiet, quiet, easy, easy…
My parents were likely doing the best they could, trying to prepare me for the way the world really is. Coaxing me with compliments has always been a successful tactic. Especially for a kid who was always too much and somehow also not enough.
But I don’t wear high heels, anymore. And I’m also learning to put my foot down.
I suspect this is why I resent my Someone so much for walking. I can detect his gait from across a large echoing foyer over multiple polite conversations, from an upstairs room, from a distant sidewalk. He’s a hard walker from cowboy boots to bare feet. When we moved into our little camper home, it became problematic. He shook the house just by going to the bathroom, leaving me splattered with boiling pasta water or tipping wine glasses.
But then, even outside the camper, I felt my irritation growing. Particularly as my parents spoke to me less and less. Until I exploded.
“You’ve never had to think of anyone else when you walk!” I cried, “You can stomp around all you want, and you can tip over water glasses, and it doesn’t matter– nobody says anything! But I have to walk around quiet all the time and I never get to be loud and when I am loud I’m not acting right! It’s not fair!”
I thought of the talent show.
No, it wasn’t fair. For all the pretty singing and hard practicing I do to move with ease, I am judged by the ripple of sound my footsteps make. I’d practiced walking “right” all my life, and it still wasn’t enough to be loved.
I went for a walk. A big stompy one.
From the Women’s Movement to my friends to my online free yoga teacher Adriene– they are all telling me to Take Up Space. Other than a wide star pose on my mat, I wasn’t sure what that meant.
I’m still working on it.
On stage mid story last month, an angry venue owner with a reputation for condescending women stormed in front of me and told me to shut up and sing. That if I didn’t start the song right that second, he was cutting me off. It was shocking for everyone in the room. I was, of course, humiliated. But there was something else there.
The headliner of the night, a woman from Texas, performed her set with almost no talking in between songs, timid and lilting. Afterward, the venue owner said I could learn a thing or two from her. And that someday, when I was 80-something, I could earn the right to talk on stage, like his list of old white men he loved so much.
I didn’t learn a thing or two from her. Likely, she and I learned it at the same time. And now she, being praised into silence, was being used against me. In this hostile environment, she was surviving, and I was bucking. I was now all those other girls clunking around on the stage.
Our act hasn’t become quieter. Sure, I was a little gun shy at first. But now our show– it’s been foot stomping, story-telling fortified.
And I’ve added “Don’t listen to irrational chauvinists who try and make themselves louder so you will be quieter” to the list.
Maybe my friend won’t remember it at all, but I think of it with a significant amount of regret on a regular basis. We were sharing a hotel room that night, laughing and listing the ways we didn’t live up to our mother’s expectations for us. My friend, she’s been with me through most of it starting in early college, even housing my poor college ass for a summer where she welcomed me with a familial love that I had a hard time finding in my own home. And she is a bright, exuberant person that can go from calm and nurturing to peals of laughter with a seamless transition that has you along for the ride regardless of where its going.
She was one of the first adults I’d met who made me believe that I wasn’t a oddity– that there were more like me out there, and that I was bound to find them.
So in a fit of high energy jesting, she sat up, leaning to one side with her head tilted and her hand to her cheek and said, batting her eyes, “But I’d say I’m rather regal wouldn’t you?”
I, still carried away, found a refresh of laughter and replied, “Oh, no! You are a lot of things, but regal isn’t one of them!”
She deflated. I stopped. I tried to giggle sympathetically. She brushed it off with another little laugh and changed the subject.
To me, regal meant stilted. It meant reserved. It meant quiet. For her to be regal meant that she was not the comrade I’d known her to be– the one willing to sink in with a box of tissues and a bowl of ice cream and a sad movie while I waded through my divorce.
What I wish I had said, instead, was– “Regal doesn’t have anything on you. You are kind and good and feeling and engaged and hilarious and a flash of light while also a burning ember and whatever everyone told you that you need to be in order to be better and more accepted– like regal– they were wrong. You are perfect.”
But I stayed silent.
I don’t wear shoes much in the summer. I downsized my purse to only be able to fit my wallet and one book so that I stop carrying everything around with me while my Someone carries just his tiny wallet. My Someone has since taken to carrying a saddlebag. He likes it, and it helps him have the space he needs to carry what he wants. And it gives me the space to just take up space without my shoulders sinking me smaller and smaller. My posture has improved.
My Someone works hard not to move the camper, now, when he walks, too. I work hard to flop myself around on occasion. Once, I even spilled a little hot wax from our candle. It was glorious.