I am hungry for stories of activist folks who fall in love deeply, who grapple with what it means to commit in their own lives.
In honor of Durga Puja, my husband (V) and I committed to exploring local mandirs (Hindu temples) in search of spiritual home(s). As we were driving, V pulled out his cell phone and wanted to read a love letter I had emailed him almost exactly a year prior. This post is an adaptation of that letter.
I think more activists should share the love letters they write to each other, to themselves and to their lovers.
What letters have you written? What do they uncover in you?
October 12, 2012
When my mom got home from work (she is a third grade teacher), it was obvious that I had something I was excited about. You. I felt my internal resistance to talking to her. I was finishing an online posting at the last minute (as per usual) and we didn’t have much time. From my swivel chair she acknowledged that I haven’t been home as much… where was I hanging out?
“I’ve been visiting V in Los Angeles.” I’m trying not to grin.
“Uh oh. So this is serious.” She looks tired. She looks suspicious.
I knew she’d say that. I don’t tell my mom about male friends or boyfriends– I know internally that I do that because I’m afraid of disappointing her. I’m afraid that someone comes around and then disappears. I’m afraid that I bring someone home she doesn’t like. I’m afraid I repeat the same mistakes she did, or my grandma did– giving up my power for someone who isn’t worthy of it. I’m so afraid of settling. I’ve been afraid of “settling” all my life. This is typical of a #7 Enthusiast in the Enneagram.
Its almost 5PM. My post is due at 5PM. We agree to talk at dinner.
I begin frantically reading. Its an essay from a book, Mining the Motherload: Methods in Womanist Ethics by Stacey Floyd-Thomas. I’m caught by the definition of Womanism proposed by Alice Walker in 1983:
1. From womanish. (Opp. of “girlish,” i.e. frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.) A black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, “you acting womanish,” i.e., like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered “good” for one. Interested in grown up doings. Acting grown up. Being grown up. Interchangeable with another black folk expression: “You trying to be grown.” Responsible. In charge. Serious.
2. Also: A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health. Traditionally a universalist, as in: “Mama, why are we brown, pink, and yellow, and our cousins are white, beige and black?” Ans. “Well, you know the colored race is just like a flower garden, with every color flower represented.” Traditionally capable, as in: “Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.” Reply: “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
3. Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.
4. Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.
I scribble “DAMN” in the margins with a black pen. How long have I held my heart back, not loving myself, not loving the Spirit, not loving men, out of fear? Why do I care so much about what other people think when it comes to love? Why do I approach love with a linear, phallocratic, Eurocentric understanding of being a “virtuous person” as someone who would have to “get it right” and “keep it together” and prove to the world she doesn’t make mistakes– because she has the intellect and moral righteousness to discern what is “good and right”– even with men. “Ah ha!” I would prove and show them in total perfect togetherness, “I figured it all out!”
The text continues, “…to survive in the subjugated roles as daughter, mother, and wife, but also to create a context in which she can audaciously, courageously, or willfully be responsible , in charge and serious about her own self-determination.”
Have I ever felt that way about my personal life– the deeply personal, the intimate, the sexual, the creative, the regenerative? I do that in my non-profit work just fine, but that is external. That is like a phallus. It hangs out there and is in the light and “classically” masculine. But the divine feminine within me? Has she ever felt that way? Deeply responsible and self-determining? Not painfully conscientious of what “it might look like” to other people if she lost it, if she fell into it, if she was broken open or apart or fragile?
I think I understand Kali. I get it. I did something similar. There was a wedding at some point and the person I had been waiting for, my true love, showed up with dreadlocks just too long for an over-protective father, and the whole thing got called off, and I lost my sense of self-determination… and the world would know. And I would let my non-profit be a shield for how deep the rampage would be. On the outside I’d just look like an old soul with deep purpose and on a mission, not someone avoiding real vulnerability and the pain of a broken heart and an over-functioning parental archetype.
I finish my post. Mom and I pour wine. She starts into it. She says she has been thinking about this– this me liking “…R… or is it V? Well, R is easier for me to say right now, so, I’m going to say that…” and she wants me to know she gets it.
“You get it?”
I’m easing up a bit. The fear of judgment is leaving. Mom is being vulnerable with me about her fears for my loneliness. So often, at family gatherings, we talk about me in the context of “probably not getting married or really being partnered with someone else.. just being single… doing social justice.”
This opens me. And I begin to share with her the little things, the details, the visions, that light me up about you. She listens, she responds, she affirms that something has shifted in me. “You’ve been lighter the last week or so. We’ve noticed.” I tell her that I believe something is deep and important about you and me. That I trust it. That I think… that I believe… it is something here to stay.
“Wow,” she says. “This is serious.”
Then she does something I don’t expect: she admits that she has been thinking about you and I since you first met my parents. When I was in elementary school/middle school my mom returned to college to complete her bachelor’s degree. My dad (biological dad) was working the graveyard shift in Los Angeles for satellite system development. They were a poor match. It was going south fast. And it coincided with my mom going back to college at Cal State San Bernardino. She wasn’t sure what she wanted: major in Liberal Studies and become a teacher OR major in Music?
I forgot this story– but it was big. This is part of my narrative and my mom and I relived it tonight through her story-telling.
My mom was stuck between music and teaching. She loved piano. The first year of her returning to school is characterized (in my mind) with the sound of piano – 24/7 – in the house. She practiced hours and hours. 3AM, 4AM… the sounds of piano. I’d fall asleep to her playing piano, woke up to it. She’d have classical music playing and would be memorizing the phrases, hungry to do well in her theory classes. She lived and breathed music. I’d sit and listen to her with chocolate milk, or I’d be responsible for turning pages. I’d feel proud if I could keep up with the music and turn the page at the perfect time.
She is reliving this story with me tonight at the dinner table. She went back and forth so much about her major… “Minor in Music and major in Liberal Studies? Minor in Liberal Studies and major in Music?” I’d make her these little print-out certificates off of our old computer that congratulated her and affirmed her every time she made up her mind about what she would do. There were probably three different certificates that went something like this (over the course of a year):
“Congratulations: Making Your Mind on Majoring in Liberal Studies and Minoring in Music.”
Then she’d take a theory class that would blow her mind, or she’d go to a show. I’d have to make a new certificate.
“Congratulations to My Mom: Master of Making Her Mind About Majoring in Music and Minoring in Liberal Studies.”
Then my parents got divorced. My grandfather disowned my mom and I for being too liberal and independent. She was doing three jobs to keep my sister and I with a “normal” life of comfort in the house we grew up in. We ate food she picked up on the way home from her work and her school at night at 8PM or later. She had to ask herself “the hard questions about what would actually make money.”
At this point tonight she is almost crying. She is wiping her eyes. I’m pushing our empty plates to the side to hold my wine glass in one hand and reach out to her with the other.
“My professors said I had it. I could do music. I could be a piano player. I could be a music teacher. I could be an artist. But it wouldn’t allow me to take care of you. Teaching would do that.”
So there was a third certificate I made back then. And when I made it then I probably didn’t realize that it was my mom making a sacrifice to take care of me and my sister rather than fall into the fierce heat of living.
“I have to admit,” she says. “That one night when V was here and said he played in the Rite of Spring, my mind couldn’t stop. Could I hear that music again? Could I have that part of my life again? I pushed it aside, I put a lid on it because I decided to take care of you all. The most important job I’ve had in my entire life was being a mother– taking care of you and your sister. But, I miss music. I want music in my life. I want that music in my life.”
“…to survive in the subjugated roles as daughter, mother, and wife, but also to create a context in which she can audaciously, courageously, or willfully be responsible, in charge and serious about her own self-determination.”
My mom continues. “Did you know your grandma has perfect pitch?”
I smile. “No. But I believe it.”
My grandma was a show singer. That is how she met my grandfather (the same dude that disowned me and mom, they are divorced now, of course). She was singing at Radio City Music Hall in her twenties and my grandfather ran into her on a street corner in New York. He fell in love with her eyes– a lit-up lime green, with a huge heart to back them up. He asked her to dinner that night. She couldn’t, she had a show. She invited him to that. He heard her sing. They were married within months.
And, within the year of their marriage, he asked her to stop singing. It brought “too much attention” to her. He wanted to control, to own, to manage. She sang with so much expression– you could feel her emotion. Her heart. My mom sings the same way. People in church would say that it was almost too intimate to watch my mom sing– her whole body, her whole spirit sang. My grandma stopped singing. She sings at AA meetings (she became an alcoholic, got divorced from my abusive grandfather and ended up marrying a man in the entertainment industry to whom she is still married… barely.)
I’m sitting at the table and piecing this all together. I’ve thought about it before, but never with the full holding of my mom’s sacrifice of music to take care of me and my sister.
So, yes. I understand Kali Ma. I get it. I’d do it too. I’d destroy everything. Sometimes I feel like I’m responsible for destroying it all on behalf of these women. As if their fathers said, “No– you won’t marry the dirty Rishi.” And they went ahead with the nice boy at the party who studied at IIT and got the highest marks on the exam and came from a nice Brahmin family with great qualifications and fine Bio Data. And they held it in.
And the girl children they bore, if we are aware of it as the bearers of that internal sacrifice, hold within us a seed of that rage. That destructive, angry, rage. I know I carry it. I know I’ve fashioned myself armour from it. You have a metal armour you speak of melting… I think I have skulls and seeds and feathers. I’ve gathered the Earth around me, the days in the garden and in the forests, and I’ve built myself a wild thing to protect me from the metal and the cold and the plastic of nice boys who studied at IIT and the false promises they make to care for you when its really about control, management and fear of the flame.
And now there is you.
I don’t know if this metaphor makes you Lord Shiva. I don’t know if you’ve offered your chest for me to stand on, just enough so I open my eyes and stick out my tounge and stop myself in the midst of my rampage. And I’m scared to say all that I want to say, because I know we promised we’d go slow. “Deliciously slow,” in fact. But, at the same time, I know something. I know that this is all meant to be.
And the thing is this: I’ve been praying for you. And maybe the whole time Kali was praying for someone, too. It takes a lot of energy to run around and destroy that much. But its true, I’ve been praying for you. I used to lay in bed at night or while driving and pray there was someone out there in the world, somewhere, who was very busy doing amazing things. At night, in bed, when I felt most alone and longed to be held and loved and honored I’d say, “You. I know you are out there. I know you are somewhere in this world, inspired. You are. And we’ll meet. And we’ll ask where were you? And we’ll say, you know. And I hope you are loving and living wherever you are right now. And I can’t wait to find you.” Sometimes I’d cry when I’d think it. But I knew, there was someone out there in the world moving and shaking and changing things and that I’d meet them when we both sat down for a breather.
Its hard to know what to do with so much happiness. I am learning to float. But you should know that I am firm in my belief for what we are creating. And I don’t want to scare you, I don’t want to chase you away or me away or worry you. I just need you to know that you are the prayer answered. I’m awakened. Two poems:
The first, an e. e. cummings poem:
i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
The second, David Whyte:
It doesn’t interest me if there is one God
or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel
If you know despair or can see it in others.
I want to know
if you are prepared to live in the world
with its harsh need
to change you. If you can look back
with firm eyes
saying this is where I stand. I want to know
if you know
how to melt into that fierce heat of living
the center of your longing. I want to know
if you are willing
to live, day by day, with the consequence of love
and the bitter
unwanted passion of your sure defeat.
I have heard, in that fierce embrace, even
the gods speak of God.
And some kind of curse is lifted, a curse of women who left their music (their creation/their curves/their Spirit/their force/their food) for their men or their children. And I dare to believe I can fall in love and embody the ancient feminine, the masculine, the everything… and I can do it, not in spite of my partner… but because, just possibly, there is a partner that inspires it in me.
Now the ears of my ears awake and / now the eyes of my eyes are opened. And I promise not to hurt you, but to wake up at the touch of my feet to your chest. I promise to live with the consequence of love and the bitter unwanted passion of my sure defeat.
In that fierce embrace.