Practicing with Pillows

Problem 1: Your overstuffed Euro-sham pillows get slumped out of shape by the end of each night.

Problem 2: You’re an Enneagram One with chronically repressed anger About. Literally. Everything.

Joint solution: A daily ritual of vigorously pounding your pillows back into satisfactorily distributed fluffiness while thinking of something you’re angry about. The other day it was climate change and an estranged relationship. Today my lingering headache took up both pillow’s worth of anger.

Our society labels some emotions as positive and some as negative, and we’re taught to carefully avoid, or at least hide, those less desirable emotions. Women in particular are socialized to refrain from expressing anger lest they be infantilized or demonized by others. This all is complicated by the fact that American culture doesn’t have have healthy outlets or processing mechanisms for anger (or its close cousin grief). Churches and other faith communities are often even more at sea when it comes to challenging emotions and their expressions; anger itself, rather than actions that might come from it, frequently earns the designation of “sin.” 

So, as an American Christian woman, I’m in for a life-long journey of learning to relate healthily and productively to one of our most powerful emotional experiences. Anger, I find, is often behind many of my feelings or reactions; but once I discover it, I’m usually at a loss as to what to do with it.

Perhaps this is your story, too. Or at least part of it.

Enter annoyingly mold-able fluffy pillows.

You likely have heard the recommendation to punch pillows when feeling angry, but I’ve found it strangely helpful to let my anger out in regular, small bursts, no matter how I’m feeling that particular morning. It’s a way of training myself in the feeling, of teaching my mind, heart, and body that experiencing this difficult emotion doesn’t have to overwhelm or consume me. Perhaps, like gratitude, anger needs a regular practice. That way, we know how to move through it when it arises and tap into its power when we face injustice.

So if you ever hear a “thwap, thwap” coming from my bedroom some morning, just know I’m practicing my anger.

We never left.

The robins never left this year.
I’ve heard them twice –
their light and lilting trilling
filling January air
damp with strange warmth.
Do they know something I don’t?
That the ground will never freeze,
and the maple sap will never run,
not this year,
not ever again,
maybe?
The robins always know.

On muggy summer evenings,
my windshield stays clear,
no arrhythmic tapping
of insects who meet their end –
splat –
on the glass.
There aren’t enough bugs left, you see,
to cover so much ground,
to fill the air with humming,
to remind me
as I drive
that I am only one
in a multitudinous world
beyond my comprehension.

The robins sing
and the insects are silent.

How will I know
when to look for trillium
or when to plant my salad greens?
If the robins never leave,
will the frost still creep up my windows
and seal me snugly
into winter’s dreaming time?
If the insects are so diminished
that their evening songs
grow dimmer and dimmer
each year
will I have to explain
to my friend’s little boy
why his napping white-noise track
is called
crickets?

I’m in a new world now,
but like the robins,
I never left the old one.

(image credit)

Inner Cartography for the New Year

How to Make a Map of Your Heart

First things first:
when you set out
to chart the landscape of your being
set aside every other map you’ve held
with longing and frustration.
They will get you nowhere,
which is to say,
your heart is off their edges.

If you can manage it,
don’t worry about the tools you have
or the colors you carry –
you will find what you need.
Leave behind, too, your previous drafts,
as they cannot account
for your seismic activity.

You are always becoming.

Start with slow and simple steps:
take in one square inch at a time.
Or you might begin
with a bird’s-eye view,
construing the contours
with broad, sweeping strokes.
It matters less how you begin
than that you begin at all.

You will get lost.
It is inevitable.
I’m telling you now
so that it will not surprise you.
But of course it will,
and you will wander wild lands
you never imagined you could contain.
You will find your way out,
and whether you plot
a carefully considered cartography
or simply scribble in
“here there be dragons”,
you will,
no doubt,
Come back that way again.

Sometimes you will start over.
Occasionally you’ll have to tear up your attempts.
And every once in a while,
what you thought was a mountain
will turn out to be the foothills
of something entirely new.

Be forewarned:
you will never finish.

But this is not a curse –
it is an invitation
to toss away the inks of certainty
and the gold leaf of perfection,
to sharpen the pencil
that is your attention
and give it to the loving wonder
that compels you to write
one word in the key:
home.

 

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On Psalm 106

On Psalm 106

 

We move in circles,

spiraling around your presence

and our absence,

spinning from faith, to doubt,

to apathy,

and swinging around

to faith again

only through

centrifugal grace.

Fill our empty centers

with stories of your fullness,

until we stop seeking for signs and wonders

and rest in the miracle of movement.

Conversations I had with local flora and fauna on Monday, December 10th

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Walnut tree – are you a walnut? 

My forestry is less refined 

without leaves. 

Your ancient bark is so deeply ridged –

I want to fold myself inside

and learn from you

the slow pace of winter sap rising. 

 

Is there a minute network 

of chattering fungi beneath my feet?

My tree book suggests there is,

but you are a newly reborn forest, 

so recently returned to life from clear cut ground. 

Has your speech returned?

We silenced you because

we didn’t know what we were doing. 

But I am listening now. 

 

I was walking too loudly –

I’m sorry –

cracking ice and branches and frost. 

But now I’m stopped and waiting and still,

and you can come out again, 

chickadees and sparrows 

and whatever bird you are,

nearly infinitesimal,

almost hidden by the branch you land on. 

Hop, scuttle, peck. 

A bright yellow stripe

crowns your tiny head,

and I’m not sure that I have ever seen you before. 

Genus? Species?

For the first time ever,

it occurs to me 

to ask you what you call yourself. 

 

Equine companion,

who rode through here sometime last week,

might you have left your piled gift

somewhere easier to get around?

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O, great mystery!

A canyon of color 

contained in a mushroom. 

You are a bearer of worlds. 

 

The river breathes. 

More slowly than humans,

and even than the green things,

but there is a rhythm,

in and out,

and I can see it in the ice on the flood plains –

in the layered ice rings around your trunks,

and the cracked lines dipping in the sheets of ice above your roots,

proof of water levels moving

up and down,

expanding high,

and compressing low,

like lungs,

water like air,

the earth a body,

where a flood is not a disaster,

but a deep breath in.

 

You really wanted to see that bridge,

my own dear self,

and when one way was blocked

by thunder-cracking ice

with slowly breathing water pulsing beneath it,

you came this way. 

Was it worth it?

On most paths,

the mud is frozen

in space and time

with prints preserved

of human, deer, horse, raccoon,

and maybe occasionally

a dog.

But this path,

this leaf-strewn,

mud-caked, 

water-widened way,

is quickened by the breathing river,

and your feet sink into the loam,

muddy water rising over your grey suede boots. 

Cold feet. Potentially ruined shoes. 

It wasn’t so much that the bridge was worth it,

was it, my own dear self,

but that the setting sunshine,

and the sliding black river,

and the maple leaves still hanging,

were calling for a witness. 

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Gradual but fierce

For the first time in five months, I picked up my violin. A fall and subsequent wrist injury kept me not only from playing my violin but also from riding my bike, picking up pots and pans, opening doors without pain, getting lids off jars, and even driving. But after five months, I finally felt ready to try the violin for two minutes or so. It’s been a long wait. My hand, which has gained a good deal of strength over the past month, nevertheless shook from disuse as I struggled to move the tuning pegs. My pinky was clumsy as it pressed down the strings. But the music soared out. IMG_0752

In this time of recovery, I’ve learned and re-learned some important lessons about healing, lessons that are valid for all types of injury and restoration: personal, relational, societal. They aren’t universal truths, necessarily, but landmarks, reminders of the nature of becoming whole.

1. Healing is gradual but also fierce.

I had to be patient with the slow pace of my gathering strength, but I also couldn’t sit down and just wait for things to get better. I had to create the conditions for my healing. When I tried to do everything at once, my wrist rebelled with biting and throbbing pain. But if I neglected my exercises (or stopped using my wrist altogether), there was no hope of meaningful steps forward. I had to push my muscles, tendons, ligaments, and scar tissue every day, further than was comfortable but never beyond my capability. It was hard to notice my capacity growing, but my ability to bring out my violin today is proof that it has grown. I had to learn to balance sustained effort with gracious welcome. I’m not a master at it, but I’ve certainly gotten a lot of practice.

2. Consequently, recovery isn’t linear.

If I accidentally overdid things by trying to weed the garden or sleeping without a brace on, I might set back the process by days or weeks. Sometimes a good day would be followed by an abysmal day, and I would have to start all over again. I couldn’t predict the pace – I could only listen and be patient.

3. Visible trauma does not dictate the extent of harm.

When I fell onto the sidewalk back in March, my hand looked as though the only result was a mild abrasion. There was no swelling, very little blood, and nothing suggesting a severe injury. But the next day, I couldn’t move my hand. And my continued pain, weakness, and numbness was testament to the fact that something was indeed wrong. An MRI gave no further clues, but not once did my doctors suggest that my pain and difficulty moving wasn’t real. The hand and wrist is a complex system, they said, and it takes a long time to heal. So we made our best guesses as to the diagnosis and moved through therapy accordingly. Some of my own reading has been about the neuroscience of pain and the persistence of learned neural pathways after an injury. Whatever the cause of my pain, ignoring it was not going to produce healing. Only careful listening coupled with expansive thinking would allow us all to get to the root of my pain.

4. Everything is connected.

When I really started getting my arm back into gear, I noticed increased pain and tension in my shoulder blade. My muscles aren’t used to having an active arm, and they responded accordingly with protest. Nothing about my injury or healing is isolated. What I do in once place means paying attention to another place. 

It isn’t hard to see the common threads in these lessons: patience and listening. And I would qualify these as a relentless patience and a spacious listening; there is nothing soft or easy or quiet about the work of recovery. But wherever you or your community, or our whole world for that matter, may be in messy work of healing, we can know that a sustained and gracious effort will open us up to each other and to possibility.

Passing Peace

It’s happened hundreds of times. When the presider said the words, “The peace of Christ be with you,” we all responded, “And also with you,” and then we stood up to pass the peace to one another. “Peace be with you.” “And with you.” Over and over, grasping each other’s hands, giving one another a hug, gently smiling, reaching out. It happens this way every week on Wednesday evenings in my seminary chapel.

But this week, just an hour earlier, our buildings and the entire campus surrounding us had been on lock-down. Our doors had been shut and secured. Office lights had been turned off. Some were crammed together in a basement study room; others were crouched behind metal file cabinets. Those of us in the chapel closed our doors and continued to prepare for worship, unsure if anyone but ourselves would be able to come. I removed myself from the musicians practicing so that I could listen for the sound of approaching gunshots.

I’d received the email as the worship group rehearsed – there were reports of a shooter; everyone on campus should shelter in place. It was an hour before we were given the all clear, though we were told that one building remained under lock-down. At the time we began our worship service, we didn’t yet know that the whole situation had been prompted by a hoax report. So when helicopters continued to circle as we sang our opening song, and when sirens blared by as we said the Prayers of the People, I felt a prolonged sense of anxiety.

Then, near the beginning of the Communion liturgy, after the confession and pardon, we engaged in that ancient ritual of passing the peace. In that moment, it felt like a subversive act, a site of resistance to the atmosphere of violence we all breath. “Peace be with you,” said with both concern and sincerity. “And also with you,” spoken as we met each other eyes and touched each other’s hands.

Earlier, in her sermon on John 12:20-26, Dr. Nancy Bedford had exhorted us to look for Jesus in resistance to the “worldly” ways of empire and to follow in Jesus’ paradoxical and life-giving way. And even earlier in the day, thousands of teenagers had peacefully left their classrooms and demanded gun law reform, even in the midst of adults’ reprimands. Peace is not easy.

The Christian call to practice peace in the midst of what Jesus calls “the world” – the network of power centers that rule through military and economic might – is not new. The American worship of war and weapons is not the first imperial force Christians have had to contend with. When Jesus said the words “Peace be with you” in his resurrection appearances, he was offering a peace that flew in the face of Rome’s militarized “Pax Romana,” which ruled through subjugation and false security. Christ invites us into his radical peace, and it is not peace of passivity or of resignation. It is an active peace that reaches out in the midst of fear and violence and says, “I see Christ’s presence in you. I extend Jesus to you. I have chosen to give my life for your well-being.”

The later news that the report of an active shooter had been hoax does not change the poignancy of our passing the peace nor the world’s need for our witness. We still live in a profoundly broken world. We live in a world where, as my colleague Alexa points out, it was reasonable and likely for us to believe that someone had obtained a gun, shot their girlfriend, and intended to do further harm with it.  We live in a world where others have had to go through a similar experience, whether hiding in their schools from a gun or in their neighborhoods from a bomb.  We live in a world where violence is a punchline.

For all these reasons and more, Christ continues to call us to give our lives for the cause of peace that passes all understanding. Perhaps that is why we pass the peace every Sunday – to turn this ancient liturgy into muscle memory, so that our practice of peace will always be stronger than the world’s way of violence.

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Saint Brigid’s Feast

Today is the feast of Saint Brigid, an Irish leader and legend whom I have claimed as my own patron saint. She shares a name with the Gaelic mother goddess and a feast day with the Celtic festival of Imbolc, a day to celebrate spring’s first stirrings in the belly. She was said to be born in the threshold of a door and indeed has bridged the Celtic and Christian traditions. She was born on February 1 as both the daughter of a slave and a nobleman, and as she grew, she was known for her generous compassion for the poor. Once she was granted her freedom, she founded a double monastery at Kildare, where she began not only a farm and a convent, but also schools for metallurgy and script illumination. The story goes that when she asked for land to build her abbey, the King of Leinster grudgingly said she could have whatever land could be covered by her cloak. So she had her friends take a corner each of her cloak, and it miraculously expanded to cover the whole tract of land she desired, which included an oak grove and a holy well. This has led to the practice of laying out a piece of cloth on the eve of her feast day to receive blessing.

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Dancing Monk icon of St Brigid © Marcy Hall at Rabbit Room Arts (you can purchase prints in her Etsy shop)

Saint Brigid’s cross, which has been used as a symbol of protection in Ireland, was said to have been created when she calmly wove reeds at the bedside of a dying pagan king. When he asked what it was, she used the cross to convert him to belief in Christ. Echoing elements of the pagan legends, she is said to have lit a sacred fire at her monastery which was never to be put out. She is the patron saint of dairymaids and metallurgists, of midwives and scholars, of thresholds and of fire and of Ireland itself.

I wrote these hymn lyrics last year during my celebration of the feast.


 

Sung to the tune LAND OF REST (The Faith We Sing 2241)

We celebrate on Brigid’s day

a feast to call the spring.

We wait with hearts flung open wide

for stirrings change will bring.

 

We spread a cloth to claim a space

where healing waters flow;

we spark a fire to kindle hope

for light and warmth to grow.

 

We stand between the old and new,

the thresholds of our days.

We learn to love the in between,

to walk in Brigid’s ways.

Of Music and Mochi

Despite the wind’s wintery bite, Wednesday was a day of hygge (that newly ubiquitous Danish word), permeated by an inner sense of coziness and capped with little moments of happiness.

One of my favorite parts, appropriately, was listening to an album by a group called the Danish String Quartet. I first came across their music in NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series, and in a break from the quartet’s usual classical fare, they played their own arrangements of Danish folk songs. I fell in love. And then I did somersaults of joy when I discovered they had not one but two albums of such musical bliss.

As I was driving home from work Wednesday, I had their album Last Leaf blasting (can one blast string quartet folk music?) and I watched the pink sky mellow into dusk. (I also watched the road, of course, so don’t worry.) The track “Shine You No More,” which I have heard innumerable times now, blew me away once again and set my feet itching to dance. I heard in the “Unst Boat Song” the sorrow and joy and longing of 100 lives, and it invites you to write your own experiences into the music, too, whatever they are that day.

Music like this buoys my spirit when gray January settles in. It reminds me of the life that pulses even in the quietest moments and celebrates the softness and introspection of winter.

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Before I tell this next vignette, I have to share a secret, burgeoning desire I’ve harbored for the last several years: I really, really wanted to try mochi ice cream, the sweet cream and rice-cake frozen treat invented in Japan and made popular in the States in recent years. However, as someone who is sensitive to milk and always has been and probably always will be, I assumed that tasting this delight would forever be beyond my reach. Vegan ice cream there may be, but vegan mochi? It seemed unlikely. When I would see freezers of mochi  in the grocery isle and hear them calling my name, I would sadly turn away and inwardly bemoan my dairy-free fate.

So you can imagine my delight when my roommate Jess informed me in passing that not only was there vegan mochi, but it came in GREEN TEA FLAVOR, which was, just as secretly, the flavor I had always wanted to try. So I bought some on my way home, practically bouncing gleefully through the grocery store isles.

After dinner, I opened up the freezer to inaugurate the beginning of a beautiful mochi-filled life and have some for desert. I invited Jess to try one with me, and before we ate, she bumped her mochi to mine as if we were clinking champaign glasses. I took my first bite.

Reader, it was heavenly. It was everything I could ask for and more.

The world is often a frightening, overwhelming place, and we have so much work we are called to do. Small joys like music and mochi cannot change these facts, but they can help gird us through our fallow, restful months and teach us to keep wondering at the world.

“No, you may not hold my hand, Philip!” And Other Things I Was Too Afraid to Say (Or #YesAllWomen, #NotOkay, and #MeToo)

Phrase #1 “Those boys are bothering me.”

When I was in 1st grade, I rode a county bus that picked up students from kindergarten to 12th grade. My seat was the third on the left, and I shared it with my friend Staci. At some point during the year, some troublemaker middle-schoolers were moved to the very front seat where our bus driver could keep an eye on them. Because of the mirror directly above the driver’s seat, these boys could also keep an eye on me, and, though I’m not entirely sure why, they decided that their newest diversion would be tormenting me from several seats ahead. “Little girl, little girl …” they would begin in mock-high voices as soon as I had claimed my seat on the bus, ogling at me through the mirror. “Look in the mirror, little girl.” I suppose they wanted me to look in the mirror because it was, under the observation of the bus driver, the only way they could exert their control and superiority over me. To this day, I wish I had cheesily smiled up at them through the mirror and then shrugged—that I had somehow shown that they didn’t have the power to make me feel small. But they did have that power. Instead, I hung my head and stared at my feet, refusing to look even remotely in the mirror’s direction. The bus driver asked me once if they were bothering me, but I didn’t want to be a problem. And if she had to ask, I wasn’t sure she could understand just how much they were bothering me.

Each day, Staci would join me in my seat, I’d mumble to her, “They’re doing it again,” and be grateful for her company. I never told anyone but Staci about it. For some reason I felt embarrassed and guilty about their behavior, as if I was the cause, not the victim.   Until the bus driver finally moved them again, I truly felt like a very small, very powerless “little girl.”

Phrase #2 “You are very kind, but I’ve really spent about as much time with you as I can manage.”

It was my freshman year of college, my first year of adulthood, and my first real foray into the world of dates and rejecting them properly. I can’t be sure Jeremiah was asking me out, but I do believe he was trying. I don’t remember if this was before or after the time he awkwardly stood in my room engaging me in conversation while I waited for him to leave, or before or after the time I literally had to kick him out of my room because it was past dorm visiting hours. But he asked to eat dinner with me, and I told him that I was busy that night—instead of, as was called for in each situation, saying, “You really are very kind, but you can’t take a hint. I’m done now. I’ve really spent about as much time with you as I can manage. Please leave me alone.” He meant no harm, but his obliviousness to my body language and even my verbal language erased my own desires, and if he didn’t understand these boundaries, what other boundaries could he cross? I was afraid that outright rejection would leave me exposed. So I gave an excuse and hoped he wouldn’t feel cheated out of something I owed him.

Phrase #3 “You think you’re being clever, but actually you are living into a misogynist narrative that does not become you.”

I was writing a paper—probably for my Philosophy of Gender class—about the stereotype of the over-emotional woman or some similar thing. I first decided to write the paper because of an exchange with a male friend in which, after expressing incredulity that I get in bad moods, he said finally, “Oh, well, of course you have bad moods; you’re a woman.” That, it seemed, explained everything.

Whenever I brought up the paper topic with my male friends, they would typically respond with a quip like, “the stereotype?!?” Of course implying that the over-emotional woman was no stereotype at all but verifiable fact. I would simply grimace and move on, but I used their responses as fodder for my paper. It was always disconcerting, though; my otherwise kind, enlightened, respectful male friends had no difficulty perpetuating the idea that women are more emotional than men and that this emotion is something problematic. I felt angry and dismissed, but also sad. They were stunting me, yes, but also themselves.

Phrase #4 “Our mutual existence in physical space does not give you ownership over my body!!!!”

So I probably wouldn’t have shouted that exact phrase. And perhaps it should have been expletive-laden for extra effect.

I was in Berlin, slightly jet-lagged and mildly culture-shocked, walking down a sidewalk at dusk. My two female companions and I were attempting to take up only the polite amount of sidewalk, but it was difficult with the myriad outdoor seating, recycling bins, and ornamental trees that shared the walkways. Some young men came whizzing from behind on their bikes, passing us on the left. One of them reached out and slapped my rear as he sped by. I didn’t say anything—not to the swiftly speeding boys, not to my companions, not to anyone, ever. I immediately assumed that I had been in the wrong in some way—that I’d been taking up too much of the sidewalk or walking on the wrong side. Somehow I convinced myself that my actions gave a random stranger the right to touch me. Even if I had been doing something problematic, which I wasn’t (sidewalks are for walking and roads are for biking, friends), my body and the space it inhabits is still my own. I wasn’t the one transgressing boundaries—the young man was. But it’s taken me a decade to come to that conclusion; so many other voices suggested otherwise.

Phrase #5 “No, you may not hold my hand, Philip!”

I was once again in Europe, this time in Paris, taking in the sights on a solo journey. One sunny afternoon, I walked down the Champs Elysee toward the Louvre, intent on getting in line for the museum’s weekly free evening. As I shuffled up a pair of steps, someone spoke to me, in French, and I responded, in my best but broken French, that I did not, in fact, speak French. The gentleman then switched to English, asking an innocuous question about where I had gotten my shoes. It seemed like such an innocent and normal question, and the conversation that followed was in the same normal-sounding vein.

It wasn’t until we got closer to the Louvre that things began to feel “off” with my new acquaintance Philip. His questions were more prying, his tone was more insistent. He invited me to come with him on a tour of the city. Internally I said, “Hell, no,” and externally I politely declined. He was persistent, saying I could go the Louvre any old time. I told him I really needed to get in line. He said it was much too early—the museum didn’t open for an hour. I didn’t know how to argue with him; I hadn’t learned how to say phrase #2 yet. For some reason, not offending him was more important than my wellbeing—or, perhaps, not offending him seemed paramount to my wellbeing. I finally agreed to sit with him on a bench in a nearby public courtyard until it was closer to opening time.

As we walked past the growing, snaking line, he grabbed my hand. Everything in me froze; I didn’t want to hold his hand. I didn’t even want to be talking with him. I didn’t want him anywhere near me. But something inside me was paralyzed. Instead of saying “no,” or forcefully—or even gently—extracting my hand, I felt I needed to justify my movement somehow. So I pulled my hand away to open my water bottle. I then kept my hands on my purse.

After we sat on the bench, his sentences and body language became halting, unsure, agitated. He talked for 20 minutes straight about everything and the kitchen sink. I nodded along and tried to summon up the courage to interrupt him. Finally, I told him that it had been lovely talking with him, but I really had to get in that line. He hung his head and said I must not have enjoyed myself if I wanted to leave. I don’t know if he bought my lies, but I had finally had enough. The frustration that might have propelled me to yell out, “You may not hold my hand, Philip!” won out over the politeness that had silently withdrawn my hand, and I said and abrupt goodbye and walked swiftly back the Louvre. My common sense had kept me from doing anything dangerous, but my fear of upsetting Philip kept me from living into my own agency. It felt like a living example of the phrase, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

Phrase #6 “Why don’t you respect my own authority?”

I got on a Chicago city bus with two other young women connected to the campus ministry I was working for. We sat near the back where there were more seats since we were waiting for two young men to join us. A man we did not know came to the back of the bus and sat among us. He asked us if we had anything to eat and then laughed. He tried to engage us all in rather condescending conversation—we all felt uncomfortable. I rolled my eyes at one of my companions, but I didn’t ask him to leave. I didn’t know what he would do if we asked him to leave.

Finally, our male friends joined us, coming to the back section of seats. The creepy man immediately jumped up and said, “Oh, I didn’t know you were with them.” In his mind, he now saw that we were already claimed by a man, and, because of that other man’s presence, creepy man now had no right to be there. I felt both demeaned and livid. And though I was glad the creepy man left us alone, I wanted him to respect us for ourselves, not for any supposed male authority over us.

Phrase #7 “Stop!”

I actually did say this one.

I was in the Grand Bazaar in Turkey, and we had to enter a tremendous press of people to get through to the other side of the street. It was a pedestrian traffic jam such as I have never seen. Bodies pressed against bodies, everyone trying to push their way through, a whole seething mess of humanity. Suddenly, one of my female travel companions came up to me and said, “Someone just groped my breast.” Her eyes were wide and terrified. I pulled her under my arm and tried to push through faster. Then I felt someone grab and squeeze my own rear end. I whirled around and pushed the person directly behind me. “Stop!” I yelled, not caring if this person spoke English. My tone would speak for me. He didn’t respond in any way, didn’t look at me, just stared at the ground. I was shaking. And I didn’t stop shaking all day.

As a group that night, we all sat together in one of our rooms and talked about what had happened. We talked about sexual assault and sexism, and I felt better for the conversation and discussion. Holding things in had made me feel less vulnerable initially, but sharing the experience eventually made me feel held in my pain and righteous in my anger.

~~~

I am not a timid person. I’ve been told more times than I can count that I am confident, even sometimes intimidating. My parents taught me that being female did not change what I could and could not do. I have surrounded myself with strong, loving, and encouraging people. I generally feel powerful enough to make choices that ensure my own safety. But somehow, in the midst of all this, I absorbed the cultural messages which said that any discomfort, pain, or embarrassment I experience at the hands of a man is my own fault, that to speak up for my own desires is to be too abrasive, and that a man’s agency is more important than my own. I have learned to keep silent, to keep the peace, to keep a man’s pride intact. I have learned to be afraid of using my voice.

I refuse to be afraid any longer. Some of these instances were minor. Some feel more pressing. None were life threatening, at least not in the traditional sense. But all of them threaten my life in that they each contain a moment when my existence was deemed less valuable because it was a female existence. Each experience on its own might not add up to much. But put together, along with countless other micro- and macro-aggressions against women, these moments threaten to silence and dehumanize me. I wish that I had been empowered to speak each of these phrases when the occasion called, but it is my choice now to speak up and speak loudly, until every woman’s voice is freed and heard.