Honoring Adrienne Rich

Photo by Léna

When Adrienne Rich died last month, it made me think back to my twenties when she rocked my world. Ms. Rich wrote incisively and shockingly about the complexities of women’s lives. She dared us to use our power (personal and political) to upend everything that was understood or accepted as ‘for women.’ It was the early 1980’s and I was trying to figure out the mundane stuff like how I was going to pay the bills. I wanted to do it on my own terms. I wanted a future that was rich in creativity and productivity―not just marriage and motherhood.

I wanted to live a ‘feminist worthy’ life but I wasn’t sure what that meant. Adrienne Rich is one of the women’s voices that made a searing impression. The essay titles in her book of nonfiction, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence were provocative : “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying;” “Motherhood in Bondage;” “Conditions for Work: The Common World of Women.”

She held up a vision of a social movement that I wanted to be a part of “a politics of asking women’s questions, demanding a world in which the integrity of all women―not a chosen few—shall be honored and validated in every aspect of culture.” I wanted to find a community of women (and later men) who shared my aspirations. Without the dreaming and writing of women like Adrienne Rich, I would not have known what I was missing or what was possible.

I and all the women and girls I hold most dear owe a debt of gratitude to Adrienne Rich because she made me brave, and encouraged me to question and think. And now I’m teaching my girls to do the same; Ms. Rich would expect nothing less.

Rush – you’re really making my job as a mom hard!

Photo by Gage Skidmore

It’s 6:45 am and the morning hilarity is on. My back is to my teenage daughters as I scramble eggs, yell out reminders about packing up homework, and try to listen to the morning news on NPR. Wait a minute, what are they talking about? Who is a prostitute, who is a slut? My girls are both talking at once, reacting to a snippet of the morning news roundup. They want to know why Rush Limbaugh is apologizing for calling a college student names and wanting to watch her have sex. They’re confused. Isn’t contraception a good thing? Isn’t it smart to prevent a pregnancy that you’re not ready for?

Thanks Rush, really. I spend lots of time with my daughters trying to untangle the double messages they receive. Like, what is considered beautiful and sexy; when is having sex appropriate; who controls their body; and what is a healthy and respectful relationship. And now this.

If Sandra Fluke, a smart, thoughtful, law student advocating for women’s access to contraception is publically called hateful names historically used to silence women’s voices, what does it mean for my girls? What will they think about the next time they want to speak up for themselves? What will they think about the role of women in the public discourse? I don’t want them to believe or even think for a minute that because they are female their opinions, experiences, and actions are in any way diminished.

Come on, can’t we have a discussion about access to health care and contraception without vilifying women and girls’ choices? After all, last I heard, the use of Viagra was a legitimate medical option for people without ovaries.

S*!t people say

I spent a lot of time thinking about what I was going to say about Martin Luther King, Jr. day, racial justice and equality … and then I came across the video “S*!t White Girls Say … to Black Girls.” Not everyone is amused, but the fact is it went viral. Franchesca Ramsey had her experiences to make this video and said that even impacting one person made it worth it.

This video resonated with me because I have my own collection of things people say to me. For example, when I get asked if I’m from India, I usually answer “I’m from Zambia.” Then, I hear things like “Wow, you’re black?” (an attorney) OR “My best friend in college was from India.” (a well-traveled person) OR “Oh, so you’re a Zamboni-an.” (a person of color).

Women are often judged or undermined because of what they said, what they drank, or what they may be wearing. Similarly, survivors of domestic and sexual violence have heard “why don’t you just leave?”. It’s just s*!t people say … even some well-intentioned people. It’s me, it’s you, and yeah, it’s the people you hang out with.

So be informed, use your own strategy to educate yourself and others. And be willing to be educated, whether it’s acknowledging a thoughtless remark or asking good questions about what you don’t know.

Occupy breast cancer

My girlfriend and I used to have four breasts between us. Then 16 years ago, we lost one. Then another last year. As of December 21, we are down to one.

Quite honestly, breast cancer is not the worst thing that ever happened to me, but it is painful, time consuming and expensive. I doubt this cancer is going to kill me―though several of my friends have not been so lucky.

Because I had weeks to sit around and think about it, I connected even more dots than the last time I blogged about this topic. My cancers were caused by all the toxic chemicals I’ve encountered in my lifetime. As a woman, I’m at a huge disadvantage in a toxic world. As one of my radiologists said to me “I hate to break it to you, but breasts are mostly fat.” Get it? Fat = storage. My breasts were like bank accounts for a ready flow of chemical cash.

Okay, that’s gross, but do you want to hear something super ironic? This from Barbara Ehrenreich in her brutal essay “Welcome to Cancerland”―one chemical company that manufactures carcinogenic pesticides is the same company that makes one of the most common treatments for breast cancer. Causing and curing cancer―flip sides of the same profit.

Profit. Corporate greed. Follow the thread.

Sitting in twelve clinic waiting rooms last month, I also got a big dose of magazine popular culture. All I can say is &^@*$. One ridiculous manifestation of a woman’s image after another selling absolutely nothing that anyone really needs. Profitable images. That’s all. Profit. And again women are paying the price.

Enough diagnosis. Let’s get on to the treatment plan.

The main thing I want to say about this is that there is absolutely NOTHING you can do as one lone individual to create the level of change our world needs. Individual actions serve as a reminder of the immediacy of the problem, but they don’t solve it.

The other main thing I want to say is that you as an individual are the ONLY person who can create the change our world so desperately needs. Yes. You. And you. And you. All of us―together.

Editor’s note: We are remembering Ellen Pence, who died last week of breast cancer. We note with sadness our growing losses. 

Occupy yourself

I’m on fire about Occupy Wall Street.

As a child of the 60’s, I will always love a good demonstration.

Occupy!

As a child of a high school English teacher, I will always love words.

Occupy.

From my earliest years, my mom never talked down to me. She always used really big words. A deer in the headlights, I’d ask “what does that mean?” She’d say “go look it up” failing to notice that I was only 4 years old and didn’t know how to read yet.

Happily, I can read now and dictionary definitions offer hours of gleeful irony.

Occupy.

Merriam-Webster’s says occupy means “to reside in as an owner or tenant.” Is Occupy Wall Street asking whether we own our democracy? I find myself inspired by this cartoon I saw on Facebook to ask a much more personal question. Am I, the woman writing this blog, the owner of my own body?

Because I wear neither a bikini nor a burka, I can pretend that I am not occupied by the patriarchy just like I used to think that Wall Street didn’t affect my life. But that would be ridiculous. Of course I am. We all see very clearly now how Wall Street impacts us. I want everyone to come to the same realization about the impact of sexism.

I challenge and cheer all women who are participating on Wall Street and in all the other towns across the land. Shout about your experiences of sexism in every conversation, every chant. Help your sisters and brothers make the connection between how much you earn, what you can provide for your kids, and who decided your wages and if you have ANY access to the healthcare you need.

Women unite. Stop paying rent for something you already own.

Occupy!