Thursday, September 27, 2012

Motherhood and Women and Power

One of the things that has stuck with me from my time at Omega Institute last weekend is the power of mothers.  A daunting number of the speakers had been abused during their childhoods and were damaged so much from their experiences.  Several asked the question, "Why didn't anyone protect me?  Where was my mother?"  In a couple of cases, it was the mother who abandoned the child and left her stranded, caring for her younger siblings or at the very least for herself.

The most moving example of the pain a mother can cause her child was given by the young woman from South Africa (I wish I knew her name, but she isn't listed in the presenters and I didn't write it down - I was too caught up listening to her to take note of it!  I think it might have been Samu Khumalo).  Samu was 19, raised in a township in utter poverty.  Her mother had 4 children, I think. Samu was the oldest.  Her mother, starting from when this young woman was 12, would leave their shelter and stay with various and sundry men, leaving Samu to take care of her siblings.  She managed to get through high school and wanted more for herself than life seemed ready to offer her.  I'm forgetting the details of her story but it had something to do with starting a group to empower girls and doing theater.  She got involved in Eve Ensler's play "I am an Emotional Creature."  She was telling us about her life and broke down in tears, "I don't know why my mother doesn't love me.  I don't know what to do.  I am a good girl.  I have done all I can.  I have cared for my siblings.  I did well in school.  I don't understand."  She was sobbing, wracked with the pain of her abandonment by her mother.  It was heart-wrenching seeing her pain and knowing there is no way to get past it other than to allow oneself to feel it just as she was doing with us.  I was glad she had so many sisters, 500 of us, there to witness her pain and to hold her in  our warm embrace.

Another presenter spoke of being abused by her stepfather for many years without her mother doing anything about it.  B. didn't know why her mother didn't do anything - how could she NOT have known.  This question stayed between them for a lifetime until B's mother was nearing death.  Then, finally, at the urging of her therapist, B told her mother what had happened.  Her mother, always a loving and wonderful woman, came through.  She told B, forcefully, "You are no longer alone.  You do not have to carry this alone anymore.  I am here for you."  What a gift to B to hear those words from her mother.  It sounded like it was exceedingly healing.  We were all there for her as well, feeling the longing of our own hearts to hear just the right words from our mothers before they die.

I wonder about mothers and their power over their children.  An acquaintance who worked with girls in a residential treatment center indicated his astonishment that children almost always want to go back to their mothers, no matter how poorly treated they have been.  They need their mothers, their love, their nurturing.  When they don't get it, there is a void in their lives which must be filled one way or another.  Some children are fortunate enough to find substitutes.  Or they have an inner strength which defies understanding and they grow up to be incredible people, tempered by the pain of their childhood.  Others never get what they need.  They feel empty, and they search for that love and approval for the rest of their lives.

"Thirty Seconds Old" - my younger son and me 30 seconds after giving birth to him.
As my children were growing up, it was difficult for me to fathom that I could possibly have as much impact on my children as my mother did on me or her mother did on her, but logically I suppose that must be the case.  How could it not be?  My prayer is that they know I love them unconditionally and accept them no matter what.  I want them to be happy.  I want them to feel fulfilled in their lives, whatever that takes.  I don't care whom they love - man or woman or in between, black or white or brown or whatever.  It just doesn't matter.  What matters is that they find sustainable joy in their lives and that they feel good about who they are.  They don't have to answer to me, just to themselves.  I want them to be able to come to me with their burdens and lay them down at my feet.  I will help however I can.  And I also trust that they have the wherewithal to figure out their own solutions.  I can't know what's right for them.  I can listen gently and compassionately and can, perhaps, help them find their way to their own needs and desires, but I cannot know what they need.  It would presumptuous of me to try to convince them to act a certain way or marry a certain person or whatever.  Who am I to know?!  It's difficult enough for me to discern my own path.  How can I presume to know that for another? 

My children have had pain in their lives.  Both of my sons have had life-saving operations.  My younger son's operation left him with some life-altering repercussions.  It was painful going through the operations with them as the responsible adult because I couldn't know if they would live or be permanently handicapped or physically or psychologically scarred.  It was mind-blowingly painful to be present to their experiences and know there was truly nothing I could do for them other than be there and manage my own anxiety sufficiently well to be able to be present to them.  I couldn't make it better.  I couldn't heal them.  I was helpless  I had no control.  For a woman raised with a strong need to control things, this was a very tough lesson.  I learned to surrender and to trust that all would be well, one way or another.  And it is.  My sons are splendid men.  They have scars, but they wear them well.  They are stronger men for the operations they have had.  They have worked with their adversity and turned it into strengths.  I am proud of them and so happy when we spend time together.  My heart bursts with joy.

Nuzzling her Baby
And my daughter - she had no operations.  She's the middle child and has had more than one birthday when one of her brothers was in the hospital and her parents were completely preoccupied.  She's sweet and loving and compassionate and also a tigress.  She is wonderfully intense and fabulous and committed to important causes.  She's been a vegan since she was 11 or 12, despite my unwillingness to prepare two meals for the family to meet her needs.  Instead she became a wonderful cook and baking is now one of her strong passions.  She is a strong woman who knows her mind.  Open-hearted and compassionate, very self-aware and knowledgeable, not to mention intelligent as can be, she is set to make a huge difference in the world.  And, best of all, she will still cuddle up to me on the couch as we watch a movie and will put her arm around me as we walk down the street, and will let people know she thinks I'm cool.  What more could a mom ask?

Beautiful Woman
Sometimes I wonder what my kids think of me - when they were kids, I was in the process of learning to paint, and my subject matter was usually the nude - pregnant women and men for several years.  My older son told me he refused to have friends over because he didn't want them to see the drawings.  Later though, when he was in college, he took some of my artwork to his apartment.  It was a set of three drawings of women's breasts.  When people would comment on them, he'd quip, "Yeah, those are my mom's breasts."  (They weren't mine - I just drew them.)  He got a kick out of seeing their response.  I also was outrageous and did Contact Improvisation, a form of dance which is all about the interaction between two people and the space between them.  I often had fellow dancers over who would lounge all over each other, draped as if people were just other pieces of furniture.  The kids took it in stride but as they got older they let me know they thought it was weird - "Mom, it's like clothed sex."  Then my daughter ended up at Oberlin where Contact started and had friends who did it there.  I think that normalized it a tiny bit, but she still wasn't interested for herself.  I guess they had the grace to accept me as I was, even though I was "weird".  Perhaps it gave them permission to follow their own bliss and do what they wanted to without having to worry about conforming to the societal norm.  Neither I nor their father could be accused of having done that horrible thing!

I think my kids think I'm cool.  My daughter said as much when she told me her friends thought I was cool because I gave her the book Cunt to read.  I wanted her to get more comfortable with her body.

They also know I have limits and can be strict - or was when they were kids.  I don't drink much alcohol at all, so it's a big deal if they see me with a glass of wine at dinner or hear I had one. They know how I feel about drugs - I'm not a big fan.  So I know they think I'm a bit of a stickler about those things.  Oh well.  Better that than a raving alcoholic who passes out each night...

I was strict too. My older son had a group of friends over one night for a sleepover.  They called themselves nerds, and it was true.  Their idea of a great night was bringing over a bunch of computers and networking them together so they could play computer games all night.  As long as I provided sufficient junk food, they were in heaven.  I didn't interfere much - just went down to let them know when I was going to sleep so they'd keep it down.  They were good kids.  One night, though, as I was going to sleep, I heard noises outside around 1 AM.  The gate creaked open then clicked shut.  I waited a moment then went downstairs to see what was up.  I asked where everyone was.  They told me they were in the bathroom - 2-3 big guys in a 16 sq ft bathroom?  Doubtful.  I gave them the eye and asked where they really were.  Finally someone confessed that they'd gone for a walk to 7-11, about a mile away, at 1 in the morning.  I was pissed.  They knew better.  I didn't know what to do.  I was a single mother with two younger kids in the house as well as these 14-15 year old boys.  I didn't know what these kids might be up to.  So I called the police to ask them to help me out.  They came over to question me to find out what was up.  While they were there, the boys showed up, sheepish, concerned, then freaked out.  The policemen were completely nice and kind.  They told the boys they were out after curfew and shouldn't have been.  They explained that they could have gotten into trouble and that it wasn't respectful of me to do that since I was responsible for them.  They suggested I call the boys' parents and have them come get them.  Yes, at 2 AM.  An hour or so later, some bedraggled and frankly confused parents showed up to pick up their chagrined boys.  My son was mortified and pissed.  No one seemed to understand why I had reacted how I had, but I felt completely justified.  The boys were on the brink of becoming teenagers and being able to drive.  I wasn't about to let them think they could get away with sneaking out at night from my house, even if their reason was completely innocuous.  Needless to say, I wasn't the most popular parent from then on out, but the kids respected me with a healthy fear.  My son is still friends with almost all of those people, and we get along well.  I like them completely, and I think they know they can count on me to be fair and even-handed and honest, if, perhaps, a bit over-reactive.  So what?  It was my job to protect my kids and keep them safe.  They didn't have to like me!

I know my heart is bonded to my children for eternity.  I would do anything possible for them.  Isn't it interesting that I can't quite wrap my mind around the idea that I mean so much to them too? 

How is it for you?  Did you get what you need from your mother?  If you're a mother, how do you perceive yourself vis-a-vis your children and their needs and their relationship to you?  How do you think they'd describe you?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Edit Schlaffer - Women without Borders and the Mumbai Attacks

Majora Carter moved me to tears with her stories of revitalizing the Bronx.  I couldn't imagine the conference could get any more powerful.  Then Edit Schlaffer was introduced and I was again riveted by her story.   This happened to me all weekend - I couldn't stand to take a bathroom break because I didn't want to miss a single word!

Edit Schlaffer is a woman from Vienna, Austria, who founded Women without Borders, Frauen ohne Grenzen.  The organization works to bring women from different countries together to have conversations to help heal long-standing prejudices they may have against each other.  For example, at Omega Institute's conference, Women and Power, this last weekend, she brought two women to the stage who were from Pakistan and Mumbai, India.  These women had already met and done their work, so we weren't seeing the miracle happen in person, but we heard about it.

Here is the information from Wikipedia about the attacks in case you haven't heard about them before:
The Taj Hotel in Mumbai where many people were killed
The 2008 Mumbai attacks were 11 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks across Mumbai, India's largest city, by Islamist terrorists who were trained and came from Pakistan. The attackers allegedly received reconnaissance (recce) assistance before the attacks. Ajmal Kasab, the only attacker who was captured alive, later confessed upon interrogation that the attacks were conducted with the support of Pakistan's ISI. The attacks, which drew widespread global condemnation, began on Wednesday, 26 November and lasted until Saturday, 29 November 2008, killing 164 people and wounding at least 308.
Eight of the attacks occurred in South Mumbai: at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the Oberoi Trident the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, Leopold Cafe, Cama Hospital (a women and children's hospital), the Nariman House Jewish community centre, the Metro Cinema, and a lane behind the Times of India building and St. Xavier's College. There was also an explosion at Mazagaon, in Mumbai's port area, and in a taxi at Vile Parle By the early morning of 28 November, all sites except for the Taj hotel had been secured by Mumbai Police and security forces. On 29 November, India's National Security Guards (NSG) conducted Operation Black Tornado to flush out the remaining attackers; it resulted in the deaths of the last remaining attackers at the Taj hotel and ending all fighting in the attacks.
Ajmal Kasab disclosed that the attackers were members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based militant organisation, considered a terrorist organisation by India, Pakistan, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the United Nations, among others. The Indian government said that the attackers came from Pakistan, and their controllers were in Pakistan. On 7 January 2009, Pakistan's Information Minister Sherry Rehman officially accepted Ajmal Kasab's nationality as Pakistani. On 12 February 2009, Pakistan's Interior Minister Rehman Malik asserted that parts of the attack had been planned in Pakistan.A trial court on 6 May 2010 sentenced Ajmal Kasab to death on all the 86 charges for which he was convicted. On his appeal against this verdict, Bombay High Court on 21 February 2011 and Supreme Court of India on 29 August 2012 upheld his death punishment.
 Understandably, the people of Mumbai were virulently angry with the people of Pakistan about this.  It was their 9/11.  Edit Schlaffer brought together women from the two places to talk.  She said that at first the tension in the room was thick enough to cut with a knife.  One of the women (Edit intentionally did not share which country she came from) expressed that she was a victim.  That raised everyone's ire.  Tension rose.  From there, though, the women were able to find a way to talk to each other and to share their pain - the pain of losing loved ones to terrorist attacks - the Pakistanis lost loved ones as well in terrorist attacks - their country is rife with bombings.  They found a common ground - their grief - and wellsprings of compassion opened up.  The women walked through Mumbai together along the route of the attacks and saw where the husband of one of the women was shot down.  It sounded to me like a miracle that they were able to be civil to each other, but not only that - that they were able to befriend each other and have empathy.

Edit believes it is necessary for women to take over and run the media so that these types of stories can become prevalent rather than stories of violence and victimization.  She speaks of working with mothers of potential terrorists, training them to look for the signs of incipient terrorist behavior and giving them tools to stop their children from committing such horrible acts.  She evoked great compassion for these women, the mothers of the people who do such horrors.

Her work is compelling and powerful.  And such a simple concept - bring people together, help them understand each other and what they are going through, help them have compassion and empathy for each other, facilitate understanding.  Heal the world.

Here is a link to the blog written by Archana Kapoor, the President of SAVE India who was one of the Indian women leading the dialogue I just wrote about.  She was also present at Omega in the conversation with Edit this weekend.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Majora Carter - Omega Institute's Women and Power Conference

Majora Carter was one of the first women who spoke at Omega Institute's Women and Power Conference.  I hadn't heard of her before, but I sense I will be hearing of her from here on out!  She has done some amazing work!  She grew up in the Bronx in a neighborhood which was red-lined.  That means that banks drew a red line around the region and refused to put any money whatsoever into building there.  Of course the buildings fell into decay and the neighborhood went downhill fast.  As Majora was growing up, she watched buildings on either end of her block go up in smoke.  Owners found it more profitable to have their buildings burn down than to fix them up or rent them out.  She left there as soon as she feasibly could - for college - but returned when she was in grad school because she needed the financial advantage of living with her parents while in school.  Having detachment from her childhood neighborhood gave her the ability to see what was good about it and what it needed - desperately.  To make a long, fascinating story short, she spearheaded a project to create a green zone in a neighborhood where there had only been waste facilities, ruins, and hopelessness.  She said the project was fueled by "natural ass."  Here's a TED talk she gave in 2006 which tells her story much better than I ever could.  A quote from it to get you intrigued:
As a black person in America, I am twice as likely as a white person to live in an area where air pollution poses the greatest risk to my health. I am five times more likely to live within walking distance of a power plant or chemical facility — which I do.
Quotes from her talk:
What folks see, they can be.
You get what you give
Take and own your own power.  Don't listen to bad voices.  You are love.  It's your duty to share that.
Own your own greatness.
She talked about a concept I hadn't heard before - the Imposter Syndrome.  Here's a quote from someone who apparently suffers from it at times:
“You think, 'Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie?  And I don't know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?'"  Meryl Streep
 Uh, yeah, right!
The idea is that successful people sometimes feel that their success is just because of luck or good timing, that they won't be able to reproduce it, that they aren't really all that great or all that capable or intelligent, or whatever.  Majora said she was like that in the work she did.

I felt some light bulbs going off in my head.  I don't know that it's a major issue for me, but I have had concerns that Beyond Barbie might have been my one big hoorah, that I might not have another one in me, that I can't do anything else that significant.  It took a great deal of effort and wore me out (from that I should learn to take better care of myself - that would be the best lesson I could get from it!).  I have felt so drained since the end of the spate of shows in February that I've had trouble getting anything else going.  Hearing Majora speak about the Imposter Syndrome helped me realize that perhaps it's somewhat common to feel some doubts after launching a big project.  That gave me hope that I can move forward and do something else meaningful at some point - sooner than later hopefully.  Other speakers at the conference also spoke about feeling inadequate or like they weren't really as great as people seemed to think they were.  I think it's difficult to cope with success sometimes.  There's the fear of not being able to do it again.  Maya Angelou wrote:
“I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”
Sheesh!  I don't feel so bad now!

Do you ever experience the Imposter Syndrome?  Has it affected your ability to be effective in the world?  Have you ever been successful then sabotaged yourself from having further successes?  What could you do to move through it?  Or, better yet, what did you do?  

Monday, September 24, 2012

Eve Ensler at Omega Institute's Women and Power Conference

This past weekend I attended the Women and Power Conference at Omega Institute in Rheinbeck, NY.  I had been looking forward to it for a couple of months - as soon as I saw it listed, I wanted to sign up.  Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues and founder of V-day and 1-billion-rising, was the primary draw for me, but Isabelle Allende and Sally Field were at the top of the list of women I wanted to hear speak as well.  I didn't know the other participants by name, but I came to respect each and every one of them as the weekend progressed.

So imagine this - 500 expectant women (and about 6 intrepid men) sitting on the edge of their seats waiting to see women they've admired for decades and others they've never heard of.  Imagine that each of those participants is a kick-ass activist herself, women who make my head spin with delight with each story I hear.  Imagine a weekend of getting to know incredible women who are working hard to change the world and to heal themselves and the planet and society.  They are working on climate change, water issues, gender parity, rape and abuse issues, genital mutilation.  They've founded NGO's. They've written books. They've been stay-at-home moms raising their children to be gentle world changers themselves.  They've traveled the world working with victims of war.  They've stayed in their own towns and worked on improving local conditions.  They've worked within organizations to promote change from within, or they've launched protests from the outside.  Every woman I met had a story that inspired me.

Then there were the speakers!  I had come to hear Eve Ensler.  I've been aware of her work for the last ten years or so when I read The Vagina Monologues.  Then I read some of her other work and saw a documentary about the work she did with prison inmates, teaching them writing and producing their writing in the prison with professional actors such as Glenn Close.  I learned of Eve's work in the Congo with women who have been raped or have suffered other brutal devastation there.  I joined her movement, 1 Billion Rising, to have women all over the world stop for a time on 2/14/13 and DANCE and express the joy of being alive.  The point is also to show the world we are a force to be reckoned with, and it is time for the world to shift, for women to no longer be abused or degraded or hurt or mutilated or enslaved, but rather to be empowered and to govern and to help run the world the way women do it so well - through compromise, compassion, empathy, and conversation.  Through stories.

Eve gave an impassioned talk sharing much about her own life and about the horrors she has seen as she's traveled the globe interviewing and helping women whose lives have unbearable pain in them.  She talked about the joy and healing and POWER she sees in these women.  I bought her book Insecure at Last: A Political Memoir and have already read half of it today.  It is brilliant and compelling and horrifying and makes me want to join her in her quest to change the world.  Today.

Here's a passage from the book to give you a feel for Eve's writing, the immediacy and intensity of it.  This passage takes place right after she had been overseas interviewing women in Bosnia and the plane she was on almost crashed into the ocean:

Eventually I came back to earth - well, the plane landed.  In fact, something crucial inside me had changed.  Sure footing was gone.  I had seen how easily neighbors and supposed friends could turn against their friends and neighbors [on her trip in Bosnia].  I had seen how in a split second a comfortable life could become a nightmare.  I had seen how quickly fascist thugs could rise to power by manipulating the people with tactics of racism and terror.
Suddenly nothing was secure.  Nothing was dependable.  Nothing was what it appeared to be.  My life in the U.S. seemed bizarre and irrelevant for months afterward.  Most of me remained in Croatia and Pakistan with those women.  The memory of their stories and faces and beings made my falsely constructed and misdirected life impossible.  I was completely disoriented, unwilling and unable to participate in business as usual.  The deconstruction of the notion of security threw me into the center of sadness, rage, and a torrent of other emotions.  Oddly though, I was not depressed.  Lost, searching, emotional, but not depressed.  It had been my denial itself, not the painful things I had been denying, that had been depressing and isolating me.  It had been my clinging to what I instinctively knew were lies and illusions that had reduced and imprisoned me.
The suffering she experienced in her own life has given her a dose of rage and significant energy to take on the world and to try to change it.  It has also given her an enormous capacity for compassion.  I experienced it firsthand.  I spoke with her after her talk at Omega.  I wanted to have a long conversation with her and to ask her how she does what she does, but I recognized that she is a busy woman with many demands on her time so I simply told her how much her work means to me.  She turned to me, looked me directly in the eyes, was completely present to me.  She embraced me warmly, deeply.  I told her I want to be her when I grow up, sort of tongue-in-cheek, half serious.  She looked into my eyes and said, "Be YOU."  Immediately.  Clearly.  I wish I'd said I want my work to have the sort of impact her work has.  I told her what I do - paint female nudes with the desire to change how women feel about their bodies.  She said, "Oh, I love female nudes!  I'd love to see your work!"  I said, "I have my book with me.  May I give you a copy of it?"  "Yes, absolutely."  I hurried to get it from my things and presented it to her.  Though there were 10 other people waiting to speak with her, she took the time to look at the images and to exclaim over their beauty - Models, you have been admired yet again! -  and to say she'll be in touch.  She embraced me again and I felt enfolded in tremendous warmth and love.  I can't adequately describe how much the encounter meant to me.  I hope I don't sound like a blithering fan who's awed by her idol - it isn't like that.  Rather, I felt completely seen and appreciated for me, for what I have to offer the world, for who I am.  Her complete attention and focus in the midst of 100's of people after giving a rousing, passionate talk was a gift I hope I will never forget.  It inspires me to learn to focus so completely on people I speak with.  And it helps me feel re-energized for the tasks at hand.

Yesterday I had to leave Omega.  The conference was over and I couldn't postpone leaving any longer without having too few hours of daylight left for driving.  Once I was on the interstate, I called Chris to tell him about my time there.  I started to tell him about my conversation with Eve and began weeping, feeling the power of it.  I told him about the other women and their stories and began sobbing with the beauty of it all.  I pulled off the highway into a rest stop and talked for at least another hour, crying with the overwhelming emotion and fabulousness of it.  I was moved by every one of the speakers.  I wish I could spend my life in the company of such women whose passions are so powerful.

Elizabeth Lesser, one of the co-founders of Omega Institute, warned us at the end of the conference:  "You have just had a very powerful experience.  Chances are you will want to go home and change the world.  But I caution you - don't put your house on the market tomorrow.  Wait at least a month.  Let things settle in and get clarity about what you can do.  Let the energy integrate first."

Wise words.  I am grateful for them, because I felt exactly that way.

Coming up - tales of other speakers.  Stay tuned!

Here's a link to a transcript of the talk Eve gave at the conference in case you'd like to read it yourself.  It's powerful stuff!

Monday, September 10, 2012

New Visual Journaling Class being offered.

I'm floating an idea to see if it resonates with folks - because my Visual Journaling class filled so quickly, I am thinking about offering another, daytime, one if there are enough folks interested in taking it.  It would meet Tuesday mornings 10 - 12:30 for six weeks in my studio on Southside Richmond.  We'd spend the first 2-3 weeks making the journal itself, then the rest of the time filling it by playing/doing exercises/experimenting, etc.  If you think you might be interested, get in touch with me.  We'd start next week and go through 10/23!  (I can only take 6 folks due to the size of my studio, so register right away if you're interested.)  There's more info about the class itself on my website.