Thursday, February 28, 2013

In Which I Am Not Pretty

This poem by Kate Makkai is making the rounds again, and it hits me so hard every time I hear it.

When I was younger, I wore "I am not a Pretty Girl" like armor.  I've never fit the measured social standard of 'pretty'.  I am too large, too curved, too strong, too loud, too smart.  My features are described as 'striking' or even 'majestic' and 'beautiful' but I never fit into the pretty pink size four prom dress, and so many of my high school colleagues tried to make sure I'd wear that failure for the rest of my life.

Every 'friend' who said, "It probably doesn't come in YOUR size," every young man who rejected me in favor of some tanned and slender, soft and smiling creature, the teacher who 'inspired' me with "It's OK.  You don't really need to worry about your looks, because girls like you are admired for what's inside," all served to remind me that there is a mold for 'girl' in this world and I grew out of it somewhere around the eighth grade as the Pretty Girls were just learning how to grow into it.  The Pretty Girls took that power and they made my life hell for years.  And I let them.

I wore my rejections as a reminder that 'women like me' didn't have to be desired to be valuable.  I told myself, for years, that I didn't need love if I could just be smart enough to figure out how.  I had crushes like the other girls, but I assumed their futility from the start.  I operated under the expectation that who I was, this too-tall and too-present body, the unafraid opinions and the aggressive pursuit of my own ideas, the fast-moving mind and the mouth trying to keep up, spelled a diminished mating fitness that everyone could see.

I spent years of my life believing I'm not (and never could be) the sort of woman men pursue; as much as I've always flirted and joked, I secretly believed anyone showing interest was settling.  When I look back at my 20's, I have to admit that while I dated some wonderful men, I also threw my time away on some real losers just because they showed an interest and I didn't think I really had the room to be picky.  Girls like me, I was made to believe, should learn to take what they can get and not complain.

In short, I lived Makkai's premise as a defiant embrace of failure, a deliberate rejection of my own pursuit of happiness.  Fuck 'pretty', I said, which was a good start, but then I took the fatal step of missing the point entirely, of becoming complicit in the exact thing 'fuck pretty' is supposed to reject.

I agreed to accept, somewhere along the way, that only pretty girls deserve to be loved, desired, happy, and fulfilled, and that by embracing my own lack of 'pretty' I was giving up any chance at all that.  I decided I would reject their stupid notion that women have to be pretty, but instead of taking that next step to "I deserve the chance to pursue what will bring me joy regardless of whether I grew into or out of the 'pretty girl' mold," I said, "I'll just get used to not having the nice things pretty girls get.  I'll content myself with more cerebral, more spiritual goals and maybe find love with someone who's willing to look past the outer me," never realizing that by doing so I was automatically devaluing myself, those goals, *and* anyone who might look twice at me.

Whether I meet that standard or not has nothing to do with whether I deserve to be loved, whether it's reasonable for me to want to be desired, whether it's shallow for me to want compliments, whether I build loving relationships or spend my life alone -- or move between paired and alone as life moves and changes.  If I choose 'deeper' pursuits, it's not settling for having a 'nice personality'.  If I seek partnered relationship, it's not a desperate chasing for something I'm not 'supposed' to have.

These days, pretty's not my enemy any more.  It's just another way for people to be.  Pretty is more than just 'easy on the eyes'.  Pretty is easy to know, easy to approach, easy to like and accept.  Pretty is more comfortable, more pleasant.  There's nothing wrong with being any of those things; pretty people are actually pretty nice to have around -- especially once we all got out of high school and 'pretty' stopped being a weapon in the wars girls fight to destroy each other.

But...I will still never be one of them.  I cannot fit the pretty mold and I won't kill myself trying.  I'll keep being too big and too loud and too 'striking' and I'll keep challenging assumptions about beauty and I'll keep on being just awkward and ferocious enough that 'pretty' falls off when you try to hang it on me.

There are any number of people who'll read this and want to reassure me that *they* think I'm pretty.  While I appreciate the sentiment, it's not necessary and I'd rather they not do it.  I've come to terms with it.  It's not a denial or a resentment, not a resigned acceptance of my 'never have' status.  Not pretty is a way to be, just like pretty is a way to be, and I've abandoned "Fuck Pretty" for "Hey, Pretty, did you know we're on the same side?  Let's go get a beer and hang out."

Thursday, February 14, 2013

In Which I Love You

Today is a frustrating and upsetting day for many people who are important to me.  Social pressures and personal anxieties collide to create a terribly perfect storm of guilt, loneliness, resentment, and bitterness.  Those who feel the lack of a partner feel it ever more keenly today.  Those whose relationships don't follow traditional dynamics face a reminder that they're outsiders.  Even those with stable, joyful, happy relationships still may face a minefield to be navigated.  Do I make a gesture?  Do I plan a date or buy a gift?  What if I do and he doesn't?  What if I don't and he does?  What if I do the wrong thing, and I hurt the one I love?

Awash in a broad cultural message of "Have you DONE ENOUGH to deserve your partner's love?  Did you EARN it today by proving your worth as a partner?  If you don't have a Valentine, you FAIL but if you have a Valentine and don't do everything right you still FAIL and if you have a Valentine and do everything right your Valentine might still FAIL and not love you enough," many end up lost and angry.

But we don't have to listen.  I know it's easier said than done, but we can speak louder and fight harder than that voice.

Love does not fail.  Love never fails, because its simple existence is victory.  When you stand your ground and let the love flow out from you to the Universe, you beat back the tide of hate, of judgment, of fear and inadequacy, and you are mighty.

Choosing to love is allowing the sacred to act upon the world, through you.  When you open your heart first to yourself and then to those around you, what flows through you is divine communion with the deepest essence of the Universe.  I don't mean something as limited and finite as gods.  I mean the primal stuff, the heady swirl of matter and energy from which everything that has ever been or ever will be is made.  A loving spirit is a conduit for pure creation, a beautiful and perfect moment in space -- and that moment can be created every single day, every single second, if you choose to.  The longer you spend immersed in love, the easier it becomes to tread those waters and breathe those vapors.

Love is revolution.  Everything and everyone you love, you make beautiful, even if it's just for one moment.  We're under tremendous pressure to let the ugliness of the world beat us down and back every day, to admit that it's all crap, all worthless, that happiness is a crock or a thing other people get to have.  Love is the best defense, the only certain way to shine a grace even the meanest spirit can't deny.

It's been almost a decade since I took this risk, since I committed myself, heart and spirit, to living a life of conscious love.  I won't say it's been easy, because it hasn't.  This is the hardest thing I have ever done, and I am still doing it.  I still fight with the need to have my love validated by reciprocity.  I still struggle with the difference between "I don't have a partner" and "I am not loved."  I still hold out love to people who don't value or even notice it and haven't quite managed the lack of attachment that would take away that sting.  I am not always loved on the terms I want, and I have to remind myself that it's all right to love someone even if I don't like him very much.

But what's made it more than worth it, a thousand times over, are the moments when I stand, basking in the primal power of the Universe, head spinning with the energy of pure potential, loving eyes open to a world so beautiful it breaks and heals my heart all at once.  Les Mis told me long ago, "To love another person is to see the face of God."  It's more than that.

When I am wrapped in love, I do not see the face of the Goddess.

I wear it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

In Which I Still Expect It All To Change Every Few Years

I spent the early part of my life as an Army Brat.  The core result of this is that I tend to make new friends fairly easily, and that every four years or so I start looking to make life changes.  As of 2011, I had lived in Austin longer than I'd lived in any other city in my life.  In 2014, if I stay in my current apartment, I'll have lived there longer than at any single address.  I have, since being born, had between 20 and 30 addresses, depending on how you count dorms and subleases.

Mid-2009 I started to get itchy, to think that maybe it was time to move along.  Then I thought, "Where to?  I don't want to be anywhere but Austin!"  I made some other life changes instead, shifting my diet and exercise habits around to be healthier and more active.  I made some shifts in my friendship paradigms, stopped wasting time on people whose friendship wasn't a positive effect in my life.

Four more years have gone by, and I'm starting to feel the Time To Move Itch.  It's not time to move, because again, I love Austin and don't want to be anywhere else.  If I could think of somewhere else I'd rather be, I'd pack up my kitties and books and set out on the adventure, but this is where I belong right now.

So, what to change?  I like my job, I like my friends, I like my apartment complex.  I might move into a bigger apartment, or I could start looking at buying a house.  The changes I'm feeling, though, are very different.  I'm shifting perspective, and I'm doing 'adult' things.

Not 'adult' things in the pervy sense (though maybe I am and I'm not telling; I'm a mystery) and not 'adult' things in the 'no fun pay bills' sense.  Adult things in the sense of fleshing out the bones of my life.  Last year I started taking vacations, fully frivolous non-essential non-family non-working trips to simply get out on my own and have my own, personal experiences.  I picked up a camera to take on the trip and have begun to find that I'm really enjoying photography as a hobby.

A hobby.  You see, I never really had a hobby before.  I read a lot and I like to play role-playing games and I like to play board games, and I enjoy baking and cross stitch as time occupiers, but none of my interests previously have carried the same sense of "This is a skill set I am developing because I am having fun getting better at doing a thing.  I am researching, and learning, and accumulating physical and intellectual tools to improve my experience."

When you're an Army Brat, everything in your life is as simple as it can be, because you may need to break it down and relocate it on a moment's notice.  It was only after I moved to Texas that I started having furniture that wasn't either modular and easily disassembled, or a hand-me-down I could discard without a second thought.  The bulk of my life could be easily packed into a single ten-foot rental truck and driven anywhere the roads would take me, then set up in a similar configuration elsewhere for an instant feeling of home.  I was a living MASH unit.

Over the last ten years, as I've finally come to accept that I can put down roots, real roots, I've gradually bought sturdier furniture and accumulated kitchen gadgets and put pictures on my walls and thought about curtains as actual decoration instead of just protection from nosy neighbors.

The last aspect of my life left to finish out and decorate, then,  I've started considering that I might have 'a style' instead of just buying interchangeably utilitarian clothes.  I've added the vacations, and the hobby.  I've started setting up long-term goals as a person and thinking about who I want to be more than what I want to be.  I'm genuinely learning how to express and embrace who I am in a variety of ways, which is something I'd never even considered a thing people did, much less considered doing it myself.

I can't wait to see what this next four-year 'posting' will bring.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

In Which I Am Not Yet Highly Effective, But Getting There

I used to have a genuinely horrible job selling wine over the telephone.  Truth be told, I've had a lot of horrible jobs, but that one really took the cake.

The company wasn't the problem, the manager was.  He was the worst sort of self-improvement hypocrite, spouting Napoleon Hill, Stephen Covey, and Tony Robbins in between racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic jokes.  He insulted and belittled those beneath him, and he berated us because our inability to sell $400 cases of untasted wine to strangers over the phone was obviously due to a lack of personal character and commitment.

The job paid $250 a week, on which I could barely live, and transitioned to straight commission after six weeks.  I sold two cases of wine in the two months I worked there, so I essentially gave them two weeks of labor for free.  My 'shift' ran from 1 to 10 each day, but I was expected to arrive at noon for the daily 'motivational lunch', where we all gathered around the conference table to eat our lunches (and have the morality of our dietary decisions critiqued by a chain smoking alcoholic carrying a good extra 80 pounds) and listen to self-help tapes, especially Napoleon Hill and Tony Robbins, and be lectured on 'fake it till you make it' and 'no is never an acceptable answer to any question'.  I would then sit through a prayer to begin the day, and spend nine hours on the phone, because if I took more than 15 minutes for dinner when I hadn't sold any wine, I was subjected to insults and ostentatious disappointment.

One of Pat's demands, as well, was that I spend five minutes a day reading some 'self-improvement' book.  He provided a list, topped of course by the Bible and various professional motivation texts.  He was livid when my first choice was the Tao te Ching, and my second was the Art of War.  That 'commie foreigner nonsense' couldn't possibly teach me anything worth knowing, and at that point he washed his hands of me, despairing of my ever being a 'decent woman'.  He found out from a co-worker that I read tarot, and from then on he 'jokingly' began asking every day if I'd like to begin the prayer with a ritual goat or baby sacrifice.  Why did I stay?  Because I couldn't find another office job and thought I was 'too good to go backwards to retail', and while I was at least making the $250 a week I wasn't getting evicted.

Near the top of the list he gave me was Stephen Covey's "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People."  Without reading a word of it or knowing anything about it other than "Pat thinks it will make me a better person," I dismissed it entirely out of hand as another example of the self-improvement genre geared towards becoming a pushy sales asshole.  I wanted nothing to do with that Covey fuck, whose planners all carried a bunch of (to me) hollow affirmations about personal growth and goal-setting and time management.

Fast forward fifteen years, during which many people I did respect and appreciate have said to me, "I think you'd really get a lot out of that book." Finally, last year, I saw it in the Amazon Prime Kindle Lending Library and thought, "Is it really fair to let one bigoted asshole influence my reading decisions forever?"  So, I started reading it and have been working through it slowly, reading each chapter twice before moving to the next.

I won't say it's 'changed my life' or anything that dramatic, but today I had an epiphany:  what he was talking about doing was something that, in at least one area of my life, I'd been groping around trying to accomplish without fully understanding the transition or my reasoning.  At one point he talks about changing your focus from crisis response to relationship management, and I thought about the changes that we've been working on with the Guardians.  One of the big things that, after talking to the other Chiefs and our Director, we identified as a problem was that (primarily because of staffing shortages and shifts in paperwork management) many people often only interacted with a Guardian, especially with a Chief Guardian, when something was wrong.  Outside of crisis, they knew nothing about us, didn't have any reason to trust us except the reputation of the team.  The respect and trust accorded to me came from my possession of a green glowie and a laminate badge, not from a relationship and a history of personal integrity.  Other people's integrity and right action had earned me that trust, but we weren't working to strengthen those relationships the way we needed to be.  We can't effectively serve a community that doesn't know us as people.

We've been working to get back to that, getting the Chiefs out on patrol, getting our faces and our names in front of people so that they know *us* and not our titles, making sure that they feel comfortable talking to us on or off duty, about any issue even if it seems trivial.  Instead of spending a precious few off-duty hours hiding or relaxing in my camp, I've been taking more time off duty to peruse the merchants' wares, go to workshops, visit other camps, hang out with non-Safety friends, and generally make myself known when I'm *not* wearing green.  The effect is two-fold.  First, and most important:  I hope I never face a situation where people's lives depend on them trusting and listening to me, but with wildfires and increased animal sightings and weather oddities it's going to remain a possibility, and I'd rather depend on something more than "she has a piece of laminate that says 'trust me, I'm a Guardian' around her neck."  I want it to depend on "She has used her position with integrity, to act in the best interests of the membership, and I trust her as a *person* and as a Guardian, to know what is happening, have a plan, and do her best to help us stay safe."  Second:  I'm having more fun, making more friends, and ending each festival with less stress than I had when I started it, which tells me I'm doing something right.

'Doing something right' is the conversation I've been having with this book.  As I was avoiding it, I told myself that I'm pretty happy with my life (which I am, on the whole, even when annoyances and frustrations occur) and I didn't want to fight with some motivational asshat who'd dismiss my love-centered, joy-focused existence as meaningless and irresponsible.  It turns out that the parts of my life I'm happy with (the parts where I'm consistently aware of and acting in accord with my values) are the parts that already fit into the structure of the book, and the message I'm getting isn't "You're doing it wrong."  It's, "So far, so good.  Now, let's look at the next step."

So, what happened with Pat and the wine job?  Well, one day I'd had enough of the "Jerry's Kids" jokes and I told the Assistant Manager that they made me uncomfortable and I was pretty sure they were illegal.  He assured me that I could talk to Pat, explain how the jokes and the insults and the bigoted comments made me feel, and that Pat, who after all spouted words about positive thinking and affirmations and respect for the dignity of the individual for an hour each day, could be trusted to receive that information, think about it critically, and work with me to create a more positive atmosphere.  So, I did, because I was a naive young woman with very little professional experience.

What resulted was a screaming fight while I angrily packed the contents of my desk.  He insulted my character, I insulted his management style.  He called me an uptight dyke, and I lost my temper and suggested he'd been raised by chimpanzees.  He screamed a lot of things at me, things like 'filthy whore' and 'fat lazy bitch' and 'devil worshipper' and pulled out the termination paperwork he'd made me fill out during a 'personal counseling session' the week before, then said I might as well quit because 'worthless cunt' wasn't one of the options under 'reason for separation'.  I'm still not sure whether I quit that job or was fired from it, but he swung a golf putter at my head as I walked out the door.  Later, I sent a letter off to corporate detailing conditions in the Kansas City office and the circumstances surrounding my last day, and I cc'd it to the Missouri Department of Labor and the EEOC.  I don't know what happened from there, because I never heard from anyone connected to the company again.  I called a temp agency, who told me, "We were just about to call you!  A job opened up that's perfect for your skill set.  Can you start Monday?

The thing that really gets me is that if I'd read "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" when Pat recommended it to me, at the start of the job, I'd have quit right then and there, working at McDonald's or QuikTrip or wherever I had to, to get out of that situation.  Because I would have seen, halfway through chapter one, that there was no way I could work in that environment and keep that person in my life, if I wanted to stay true to my own principles and my own ideals.