The Lion Queen

I spend a good deal of time watching women hack through the jungle of self-doubt with a dull, rusty machete.

Scratch that. With a pair of cuticle trimmers.

I’d like to say it’s difficult trying to figure out why so many unbelievably smart, successful, frankly kick-ass women have trouble valuing their self-worth, except it’s not, because at times I am one of those women. You see, I’m not just talking out of my increasingly expanding ass when I say that women, on the whole, have a confidence problem.

There’s a saying going around at the moment which resonates with a lot of women I know.

Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.

On the surface the statement is a flippant way of looking at the way society is set up to benefit and glorify the accomplishments of  men, (many of whom absolutely deserve the accolades). But dig a little deeper and you’ll get to the self-deprecating heart of the matter. Female confidence is a tricky tight rope to walk. Too meek? You get walked all over. Too strong? You’re a bitch in heels. Speak up? You’re called shrill, loud, overbearing. Don’t speak up? Well, no wonder you don’t get that raise. What’s seen as confidence in men often comes across as entitlement in women. What comes across as assertiveness and leadership among males is perceived as aggressiveness and ball-busting in women.

If women have to constantly recalibrate the poles they use for balance, to find some Goldilocks just right version of confidence, is it any wonder we fall flat on our faces a lot of the time?

But surely we get a little bounce back from a safety net of other women underneath us, right? Oh, honey…no. Plenty of times other women are more than happy to watch you fall flat on your face. Whether this is simply human nature, decades of conditioning, or a combination of a thousand other factors is up for debate.

I write nearly every day of my life. I have a successful blog. I’m published. I’ve won contests, been nominated for Pushcart Prize, been paid for my work, completed a novel….and yet when someone asked me to tutor their child in writing, I balked.

Surely I’m not qualified! (Yes, I actually said those words.)

When do you become enough of a writer to qualify guiding others in the writing process? When do you become good, better, best enough to do anything? Is there a magic formula to feeling qualified enough? If so there seem to be a lot of magic formulas kept under lock and key and away from the manicured hands of women.

I have a witty, whip-smart friend in the UK who is a lawyer. Another who is a doctor. And this summer I  listened to both of them tell me how unqualified they felt as they returned to positions they’ve been educated and trained for, positions they’ve held before. Sometimes while pregnant, managing a household, morning sickness and a toddler who refuses to pee anywhere but the corner.

Ah, women. I love ’em, but man! Even when we are good at what we do, hell even when we are great at what we do, we doubt ourselves. Forget locusts, if women suffer any kind of plague, it is the plague of second-guessing their worth. We under-value our contribution. We give our work and time away for free. We volunteer instead of assuming we should be paid. We politely inquire when we should expect. We’re happy when people recognize our talents, when they flatter us, and our bank accounts wither and die as our expertise is taken for granted, our time and effort devalued and expected to be given for free.

I’m not saying you should demand the PTA pay you for helping hang Halloween decorations. I’m saying we need to value our work because when all we do is volunteer? Our work ceases to have value.

Your grandmother was right. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? We can lip service volunteer work all we want, and we absolutely should all do it–from time to time–but when we give too much of the milk away for free, the cow develops low self-esteem, doubts herself, and undermines her worth. And as loathe as I am to compare women to cows, when the metaphor moos….

But more than monetary payment is what happens when your work ceases to be valued–internally and externally. You convince yourself  you’re not as good as, worth as much as, as qualified as. The chips on your shoulder get heavier over time. They weigh you down like a bra full of bricks until you can’t stand up straight, until you can’t walk with your head held high, until you start believing it yourself.

In my day-to-day life I meet and talk to countless women who doubt themselves, who disqualify themselves, who dismiss their qualifications as not enough.

I do it myself.

The men I meet? They rarely worry they’re unqualified. They assume a natural position of qualification that’s been inferred upon them since birth. Like Simba the Lion King cub, they wear the crown of accepted leader. Their position is accepted…and expected.

Sisters! Lean in, lift up, whatever it takes. Look into the mirror everyday and channel Al Franken’s Stuart Smally character: I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh-darnit, people like me. Whatever you need to do.

Because some days Sarabi** isn’t good enough. Go out and demand a crown of your own.

 

**Sarabi is the name of Simba’s mother. I had to look it up. You see how ingrained this shit is? I didn’t even know the name of Simba’s mother!

 

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A Tale of Two Valentines

pippiMy body has always been map of freckles and moles and what, as I was growing up, my mother euphemistically and gently called beauty marks. As a girl, I hated them. Passionately. I dreamed of miracle lemon juice bleaching cures and the day when I could wear enough pancake makeup to cover them up. I longed for un-freckled cheeks the way I longed for a Barbie corvette.

When I was a young girl, I didn’t want to stand out. I wanted to fit in. The constellations of freckles and connect-the-dot beauty marks made me self-conscious. I was convinced without them I would be pretty. When you are nine, ten, eleven years old, pretty is the base of your birthday candle wishes. That and a Barbie Dream House.

Somewhere in those elementary years we made self portraits of how we imagined we’d look as adults. My future self had long, loose waves and wore a tee-shirt emblazoned with a Foxy Lady iron-on. The other thing that stood out about my adult self was my face. It was completely blank of all freckles, beauty marks and the other complexion complexities–the very things that make me look like me. I’m not sure which is more note-worthy, the fact I thought I would be wandering around in shirt with a glittery Foxy Lady iron-on, or that my idealized self didn’t include the details that make me look like me.

Eventually I grew up. I saw past the freckles. I understood that foxy didn’t necessarily mean freckle-free. In fact my husband, way back before he was my husband, used to tell me how much he liked those freckles and beauty marks: the very things I spent hours trying to cover with foundation and blush and crayon and paint.

That freckle lover pulled out all the stops for the first Valentine’s Day we spent together. I flew into London. He rented a snappy little convertible and we had reservations at a swanky hotel for dinner. He had new shoes with slippery soles and I had a form-fitting lacy dress and boobs that were young enough not to need a bra. There was a fish course we weren’t sophisticated enough to recognize and silverware I hadn’t seen before or since.

Peggie Castle in a LOOK Magazine Valentine's Day Spread, ca. 1950s (3)

Before we made our way down the grand stair case and toward the dining room we exchanged gifts. A copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the much written about mixed tape for him, and a tee-shirt emblazoned with Foxy Lady for me. If I hadn’t already known I was going to marry him, the tee-shirt would have clinched it. As would his declaration that my freckles are one of the many things he loved about me.

Yesterday I was 4,000 miles away from my husband and sons on Valentine’s Day. There was news of a shooting in my current home city, another targeted terror attack. There was also a notice of a missed delivery. After I frantically searched for news and made sure everyone I love was safe and accounted for, after my heart eventually returned to a normal beat, a bouquet of flowers arrived.

A tale of two Valentines. For my husband and sons, I would gladly paint myself in any ridiculous-ness if it meant they were sound. I would happily traipse about in a tee-shirt with a glittery iron-on Foxy Lady and mark myself with Pippi freckles and a thousand Cindy Crawford beauty marks to know that they are safe and ok. I know they would love me still.

What more does a girl need on Valentine’s Day? Well, other than a Barbie Dream House.

A Novel Idea

IMG_0393 The catch phrase of the moment at school is ‘risk-taker’.  “Be a risk taker!”, they exclaim.  My kids are still young.  Being a risk taker usually involves trying a banana at snack time or attempting some long division.  But I like to think I encourage them to take risks in their every-day life, to try new things, to taste new foods, to read new books and talk to new people.  So it’s ironic that while I am encouraging them to venture out and try new things, I am holding myself back from doing the same.

The blog is now almost 6 months old.  I’ve got 40 ‘articles’ under my belt and just hit 400 followers (don’t get too impressed, the majority of that number comes from Facebook, which because I publish to my own home-page, counts all my ‘friends’ as followers).  And though there is always room for improvement, I feel like I am writing as well as I am going to, given the parameters and the flea market atmosphere of my posts (parenting!  ex-pat!  knitting!).  This weekend, snuggled up cozy in bed with my coffee, (we take turns), I thought I am ready to do this, I am ready to go there.  To take the next step, to test the waters in the fiction writing pool again.  A vague, soft focus picture of sitting down at my desk in my carefully arranged office cum spare room cum place where I hang my laundry started to form.  I thought about buying some fresh flowers, you know, to ambiance the place up a bit.  And that’s pretty much where it ended because the very fact that the thought made itself known terrified me to the point of hiding out in the kitchen and doing more laundry, which then got hung in my office cum spare room.

I have written for a long time, as long as I remember.  I wrote stories in 1st grade, on wide-spaced, lined paper.  I started a hand-written ‘novel’ when I was in 5th or 6th grade, a page torn from a notebook as a cover page, written in swoopy, pre-teen girl penmanship.  I was the one that always took the creative writing electives in high school, worked on the school newspaper, wrote bad, angst-y teenage poetry.  For a long time I wrote slightly better adult poetry that didn’t rhyme and therefore was taken more seriously.  I performed in spoken word readings.  I went back to college and switched over to short fiction.  I performed more spoken word readings, had work published in the college review, did readings at the school.  And then I stopped.

I have boxes of poetry and short stories.  I have half-finished stories and random paragraphs and bits and pieces of description and dialogue.  Some of them seem ridiculously childish now, written without the kaleidoscope of age and experience to fracture the written world into something colorful and interesting.  Some of them are pretty good.  A lot of them have a lone sentence or a paragraph of magic, words strung together like jewels in a necklace, hiding out in a mess of dust and grime.  Most of it is trite and not worth saving.  But words are like babies and it’s hard to throw them out with the bath water.

Laundry room
Laundry room

So why am I scared senseless, petrified of moving on and starting to write fiction again?  Because nothing is worse than staring at a blank computer screen.  And I am terrified of that.  Of drawing a blank, of writing crap, of staring at a blank computer screen.  I am confident that I can put words together and make them sound reasonably good.  I’m just not sure I have a story to tell.  And that is terrifying as well.  I have an idea, and it burns momentarily, and then fizzles, like a 4th of July sparkler.  All flash and pop for two minutes and then you are left holding a burnt stick.

More often than not, I’m not sure of what I am going to write before I sit down and write it.  That works out just fine for a blog.  But a novel is different.  If I just wrote what I felt like when I felt like it, it would be disjointed and messy and frankly, completely unappealing (so, a bit like 50 Shades of Gray).  My husband and I have an inside joke whenever one of us starts a new book.  We ask, ‘is it well-written’?  I want my book, if there ever is one, to be well-written.   But I also want it to be interesting and coherent and a good read.

IMG_0395There are writers that can write gorgeous prose, that can write sentences that make you weep with the sheer beauty of their words, but they aren’t necessarily great story-tellers.  And there are writers that are wonderful story tellers, who hit upon a cultural nerve or simply spin a suburb yarn, but aren’t necessarily the best wordsmiths.  Then you have a rare few that can make you cry and laugh in the same sentence, that write so wonderfully you are sad when you put down their book, when it has ended and you must say good-bye to the characters.

And of course in my head, unless I can write like that, there seems little point.  But that is sabotage of course, it’s how I get out of doing it.  It’s how I keep my fear at bay.  There’s no way to do that, to harness the way that I write, and produce something worth reading.  So I don’t.  I stop myself from, as Kingsley Amis said, “applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of one’s chair”.  But I am not sure if it’s the work I am afraid of, the process, or the result.

Write what you know, my professors used to tell us.  When I was young and naive and making questionable choices in boyfriends it was easy to write.  When I was depressed and felt that words were sometimes the only thing holding me up, it was imperative to write.  When I was in school, deadlines and grades and class schedules made it a necessity to write.  But now, writing is a luxury.  Don’t get me wrong, it feels ‘right’ to write.  Writing helps fill a hole which is otherwise left quietly gaping.  And yet, I am hesitant to take that to the next level.  I’m not sure if I am ready, willing, or able to be a risk-taker.

I like bananas and can do long division though.  I guess that’s something.