Shame’s extra dose of gravity is resting on my chest. It doesn’t press enough to labor my breath, nor bring any sort of panic, but the nerves of my scalp are wired into this additional pull. It’s been two days since shame laid its heavy head down.
Words will be the death of me.
Also, words are kind of the life of me.
Maybe because I spill so many words, it doesn’t always occur to me in a timely manner that some of them have not simply dribbled down my chin but have been spat into the center of a group where people look uncomfortably at them, then at me, then at each other, then back at my words throbbing there among us.
On Tuesday, it took a good hour to recognize the weigh of shame, the heaviness on my chest. On my drive home from a deeply meaningful meeting with some of the smartest women I know, my chest and scalp asked me to glance back at what I had said at the end of the meeting.
We were talking about women and the issues of strength, ego, timidity, and taking (or not taking) up space in our work lives. Someone said it was hard for her to claim her space because it meant shedding so much of her training as a young girl: make sure everyone else is happy, and do whatever you can to accommodate others.
I live in the South, now. Things are different here regarding genders and expectations. A dear friend of mine has indulged me in several long conversations about gender roles in his beloved South – and how it has been for me to encounter this since I moved here a decade ago. During these unhurried and thoughtful phone calls, we have talked about how he noticed I enter rooms differently, that I take up the space I need in a room or a conversation, that I perceive my role in a given setting differently than, say, the women in his family or his childhood church have in his experience. We have wondered aloud, maybe even hypothesized, about whether this difference in my manner is a California vs. The South thing. Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about this.
So, as the Tuesday conversation with that group of smart women turned to this topic I had considered in a labored and focused way, I asked the question that bubbled up from my gut. When one of my Sisters said taking up space in her work life takes some dismantling of her childhood training, I asked, “Is that because this is the South?”
My ability to be obtusely unaware when I have spat words into the middle of a sacred space is quite keen. I didn’t even notice my words were just lying there while my sisters stared at them. Nope, I just kept talking. I added words to the embarrassing pile, strings of words like, “I walk into rooms like I belong there. I take up the space I need. When I moved to the South, I found that it’s different here.”
Gratefully, one of the kindest, smartest, most articulate women I know stopped me short and said something like, “A better guess is that you won the lottery when it comes to your family of origin.” She was right, of course. My childhood was enchanted, and my parents were purposeful in their choices and patterns around affording every family member dignity and love. I learned that I belonged in rooms, conversations, projects, and planning because that’s what happened in my home. It could be that our cultural context helped shape it, too, but this dear woman offered me an out from the mess I didn’t even know I was making.
Until the meeting was over, and I was driving away.
Then my scalp prickled and my chest sank slightly under the weight of shame’s visit, which is seldom brief.
At the tail end of a productive meeting brimming with mutual encouragement, my curiosity and ego asked a question I had been mulling over. But, I hadn’t given any context of my months and years of observation and pondering. Instead, I basically said, “Huh. You Southern women are struggling with something that comes naturally to me. Y’know, what with being from California and all. I’m kind of kick ass and strong in ways we have just identified as important.”
Just typing that makes me queasy.
My chest is still heavy, and my scalp still knows something is wrong.
But, my brain chimed in yesterday. I started thinking it through, and anger showed up. Now, anger and shame know full well they often arm-wrestle to decide how long I’m going to wear shame around to remind myself that I am a loser. Shame has very strong arms, and often wins the tussle. However, when anger shows up to the fight, she usually brings defensiveness along with her. When they win, I get to dismiss other people’s reactions and opinions as ridiculous.
This is what anger has to say about the clumsy words I spoke on Tuesday: “All you did was say something that’s true, that others have told you is true about yourself. You didn’t mean to hurt anyone, and if stating that you have confidence is a great and cardinal sin, then what was all that talk among your Sisters concerning ego, timidity, and taking up space about?!”
So, here I am tonight. Imagining calling up each of those Sisters to explain how much I’ve thought about the questions I posed, how I should have offered context, how if my words stung or were pompous – then, I apologize. And, I’m also a bit mad that my body has physically responded for two days, that my chest and scalp nudged me all the while I was at a writers’ conference I’d been waiting to attend.
Writing this here – and the possibility of sharing this publicly – has worked a bit of a miracle. Shame’s extra dose of gravity is not nearly so extra, anger and defensiveness really aren’t that interested, and the nerves in my scalp have mellowed.
In a writer’s workshop today, a presenter suggested we write 600 words every day. I’ve splashed more than a thousand onto this screen.
To quote Farmer Hoggett in Babe, “That’ll do, Pig. That’ll do.”