03 July 2010

A Little F-ed Up

Because I wanted to write about the "F" word, "feminist". I wanted to write about two weeks ago, when I was at dinner with two sculptors, one of whom asked me if I was a feminist, to which I said, "Yes, but not that kind of feminist, not the out-to-lunch kind that fights against Muslim women wearing the head scarf." Because I lived in a Muslim country, and I see so clearly how our American perception is a learned one -- that "liberal" is a loaded term just like "feminist"; how frighteningly "good" the word "liberal" is, especially in the minds of liberals.

But see how I would have digressed from the "F" word? When writing about feminism, I had fancy ideas of talking about Sarah Palin co-opting the term. I wanted to tie that in somehow with a male friend who recently called me a "ball buster". I wanted to use the page to wonder what that meant (online definition: a demanding woman who destroys men's confidence). I wanted to lead that into the term "emasculation" (the removal of the genitalia [castration] of a male, notably the penis and/or the testicles), and then I toyed with getting into the dirty details of sex between men and women - the giving, the taking. But all of those connections are the makings of a larger piece, a worn one that is ultimately about ennui.

I wanted to write about the National Organization for Women ('NOW') Conference that I attended in Boston this weekend. I sat in the Boston Common in between sessions about CEDAW, about Servicewomen, about Young Feminist Leaders, about Health and Empowerment. I ate a couple of sandwiches on the Common's lawn. I watched an old lady do Tai Chi and a young couple chase their toddler away from the Swan Pond, how the toddler almost looked like a pigeon you couldn't catch, which is my own problematic perception. At night, I stayed in a shabby hotel in Allston, where I had a hard time sleeping for fear of bed bugs.

I wanted to write about why I was at the conference, what happened when I was there, the speakers at the conference, the plenary and breakout sessions, how there was a woman sitting next to me who looked near-80, her lipstick carefully in place. I wanted to write about the men there. I wanted to write about what I learned about the Hyde Amendment and how for thirty years it has been maligning poor women's access to safe abortions.

But this is not that kind of blog, and I am not Emma Goldman.

I am a writer. I am a woman writer. I am an "emerging" woman writer. I am an "emerging" woman writer who is white. I am an "emerging" white woman writer under the age of 40. I am an "emerging" white woman writer under the age of 40 who lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York. I am so easily categorized that my voice is hardly heard beneath the suffocating layers piled upon me. You know what I mean, you've got your blankets, too.

Here. Here is what I want to say: There was a patch of sunlight that I stepped into today. Yes, I'll say that. I'll say there was a breakout session this morning at 9:00 EST in the Imperial Ballroom of the Boston Park Plaza Hotel called, "Mothers Losing Custody: Courtroom Tactics, Accusations and Tragic Results". There were women there who'd lost their children. There was a woman who said there was a primordial link between mothers and their babies, and then she balled up her fists and pressed them into her abdomen and said, "Like this," and squeezed there -- squeezed her center spot where her children she'd lost had come from.

But I want to get to that sunlight.

I went to the conference because I am writing a book about my mother. My mother was a very active feminist in the 1970s. My mother died in 1978. My mother died while she was in the throes of an ugly divorce. My mother fought for custody of her children, but something went awry -- I'm not sure what -- and then she died. Cut to 32 years later: I am at a NOW conference in Boston, stepping into a patch of sunlight.

Here: after the women shared their stories and all our blood pressures had either dropped or risen, the session came to a close. I took handouts for two friends, both of whom have lost custody of their children. I smiled and nodded like you do at these things. "Thank you," I said. I walked to a corner where there was a table of glasses and pitchers of ice water. I poured myself a glass of water. The room was overly air conditioned, so I was quite cold by then.

This is when I stepped into the square of sunlight. My toes thanked me first, and then my forearms. I looked out the window; took a gulp of water. Just a regular day. Out the window I saw a patch of dirt with cordoned orange tape, indicating the dirt was a future construction site. I saw a brick building behind it, across the street, with the outline of another building on it, a building that had obviously once been attached. Where the former building had been, the brick was a lighter hue. The former building had been an A-frame of sorts, I could see that, and there had been a chimney, too.

What am I saying?

Well of course it made me think of my mother. That outline like a phantom limb, me even being in the Park Plaza Hotel today, sitting in that breakout session. I cried because I am a person. I cried because I am a person who cries. I cried because I am a person who cries because her mother died during the course of a nasty divorce. I cried because it is my mother is who is my lost child. And then I thought of how I wouldn't even be in Boston today had my mother not died. Certainly I would not be in Boston had my mother not been the kind of woman she was -- the "ball-busting" kind.

This was the patch of sunlight: How strangely blessed we are to live the lives we do. How in these moments we can receive messages in the shape of A-frames and chimney outlines, telling us that those we have lost see us now -- see that we are carrying on.


Llanor said...

Sarah, this was very moving. It is amazing how our minds connect the dots; how the A-frame of a house can illuminate the past and bring it right into the present; and how we are--no matter how hard we try--walking in the shadows (sometimes comforting and evocative) of others. Thanks for sharing.

Missy said...

Oh, Sarah. Oh, wow. Oh, man. I have read this three times now. Thank you.

sumayya said...

I want to talk with you about this more. Insha'Allah we will get the chance soon. She is "your lost child now." Masha'Allah. something to digest.

Shar said...

Oh, how powerful your writing is, Sarah. I wish I had known you were going to the conference. I would have loved to have joined you--but I think this was meant to be "your time." Keep writing from the heart. You are my inspiration.