I’m a pretty shitty feminist.

I don’t ground my writing in feminism because I’m deeply afraid of doing the whole thing wrong. Like I’m not academic enough. I don’t see the stamp of patriarchy & oppression in places where it’s so obvious to other feminists.

But, look, I’m 45 years old. And I’m focused on building a world where women can thrive–not only for me, but for my 10 year old daughter. So, I figured it was time to dip my toe back into feminism. I started with Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay. Good lord, y’all. I’ve not laughed that hard reading a book in a while. She also made my heart ache, and made me think, and suddenly I was like … OH, this is feminism, too.

Because Roxanne Gay is WAY smarter than I am. But she never once made me cry UNCLE! to her intellect. Not even once. And it opened me back up to really figuring out what a feminist worldview looks like.

When I cracked open Three Women, I didn’t really know what to expect. Sure, I’d picked it for the Bookish 2021 Reading Challenge because come on, just read this:

Hailed as “a dazzling achievement” (Los Angeles Times) and “a riveting page-turner that explores desire, heartbreak, and infatuation in all its messy, complicated nuance” (The Washington Post), Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women has captivated readers, booksellers, and critics–and topped bestseller lists–worldwide. Based on eight years of immersive research, it is “an astonishing work of literary reportage” (The Atlantic) that introduces us to three unforgettable women–and one remarkable writer–whose experiences remind us that we are not alone.

Despite the last line in the blurb above, I didn’t expect to see myself in any of these women. But I found bits of myself in every one. I found myself completely mesmerized not only by the stories but by Lisa Taddeo’s wizardry with language. I stuck a post-it in the book to mark a passage that resonated deeply… like a tiny explosion of truth in my chest. Then I had to scrounge for another post-it. And another. Then I just went and got a whole bunch of damn post-its. And that’s when I knew: this was going to be one of those seismic shift books for me.

The theme that kept weaving it’s way around in my brain was about identity and desire. Each of the three women sought affirmation from the men they desired… but they also sought, and rarely received, affirmation from the women in their worlds as well.

It was as if they had nothing positive to attach their identity to–so their constructs became based solely on negatives, on subtraction, on being less.

If I seem too invested, he’ll leave.

If I show too much emotional desire, he’ll leave.

If I eat too much, he’ll leave.

If I draw boundaries, he’ll leave.

Desire–or at least the outward expression of it–had to be so measured, so careful crafted for the object of the desire, that at points it seemed like a complete descent into madness.

I have lived that life of reduction. It is madness.

And part of the madness–what really fuels it–is that while outwardly desire is measured, inwardly it rages on, out of control, until nothing else matters. Nothing. else.

I wanted to jump thought the pages, grab each of these women and take them for coffee somewhere quiet. Because surely, if they could just look at this objectively, they’d see…

But the cruelest cut, the reason the book give the reader so very much to think about regarding the construction of desire is encapsulated in an end-of-life exchange between the author and her mother:

Don’t let them see you happy, she whispered.

Who?

Everyone, she said wearily, as though I had already missed the point. She added, Other women, mostly.

I thought it was the other way around, I said. Don’t let the bastards get you down.

That’s wrong. They can see you down. They should see you down. If they see that you are happy, they will try to destroy you (297).

Well, holy hell.

I sat with this exchange for a minute. I read it. And re-read it. The idea that women reflect off other women to create identity and to gauge their approval of the identity they have created (of their own selves), had appeared several times throughout the book.

But this one was a gut-punch.

Because as the narratives of the three women intertwined, it became evident that the cruelest cuts–the ones that undermined the women’s sense of self and pushed them toward a continued balancing act of trying to be just enough but, god forbid, not too much–happened at the hands of other women. Some were tiny cuts. Some were markedly more damaging. But all along, they were accumulating–so that when it counted, when desire swirled on the edge of madness, and when it wasn’t easy to locate a sense of self amid all the debris–what was left was a gaping wound, and nowhere solid to land.

Maybe the first step toward being a good feminist is making sure that women have a solid place to land. Even if we don’t agree with their decisions. Even if they’re outrageously happy. What if we just approved of and supported other women because… well… humans deserve that? Women, too. Especially from other women.

Contradictions

It’s absolutely stunning in Atlanta today. The sun is glorious. Everything is blooming in an explosion of color. It is as perfect a spring day as I can conjure.

Days like make it seem like anything is possible, probable even. Like the cosmos have aligned to heap blessings upon me.

Then, I watched a hearse back its way into the driveway next to mine.

And all day long, I’ve been sitting with the contradiction of the beauty of the day & the man who is suddenly absent from this beauty.

We weren’t friends, he and I. I don’t think he liked me much, to be honest. But I still found myself tearing up as I stood at the window and looked at the hearse.

Something about this death, one that I was aware of but existed wholly outside of, that happened on this perfect Spring day in Atlanta, made me hyper-aware of the contradictions, the both/and of the every day.

I am the cosmos. And yet, I am dust.

I am light. And darkness.

I am filled with wild potential. Yet, I gain the most through surrender.

I am my own. But I am bound to those I love.

I feel expansive, full of hope, energy and love. I also want to turn inward and shrink from a world that can be ugly, too.

I found out, shortly after watching that hearse back its way down the driveway next to mine, that a friend needs a miracle to beat the cancer that has dogged her for a year or more.

So, I did what I do when shit gets too real, scary and overwhelming: I laced up my shoes and I ran. I needed forward motion, to remind myself that the earth is still there.

And I prayed. Because she asked her friends to. And that’s the kind of request you do not ignore.

And, as I ran, this became increasingly clear: She deserves a miracle. Everyone deserves a miracle. Hell, we all ARE miracles.

I ran in the brilliant sunshine and I explained to the Great Mother exactly what kind of miracle my friend deserves.

It is the best kind. The most brilliant kind. The long life full of health and vitality kind.

I know it is possible.

Because we are all the cosmos, full of stars and dust, infinite and finite… and we are all unfolding miracles.

A few years ago, in the middle of the most heated, long-simmering, agonizing public situation I’ve ever been party to, a woman lobbed this doozy at me: 

You aren’t God, you know.

My initial response skewed heavy toward the snark (in my own head… or more accurately, much later in the shower—which is where I generate my best after-the-fact-comebacks): Whew! Thank God. My to-do list just got a helluva lot more manageable then.  

Then I moved quickly into full scale-character assassination (hers, not mine—and still, fortunately, in my own head). 

But, here I am, years after the fact… and it’ll pop back into my head: you’re not God, you know. It happens kind of randomly. But, honestly, most often when I’m writing. 

And then, once I’m all aboard that train, I think about my second favorite barb tossed to me by the mom with a daughter the same age as mine: Oh, yes, Jane your perfect child.

Huh. Well, that sarcasm smarts a bit.

Look, I’d love to dismiss both comments with an tsunami sized eye roll. But I can’t do that… because BOOM! They just show up in my head unannounced. Then, I feel like I need to make those little barbs some tea and invite them for a little chit-chat. Because clearly I’m supposed to do something with both these comments—neither of which were meant to be kind. 

I subscribe to two schools of thought:

  1. Everyone is my teacher. 
  2. I’m not going to take wholesale criticism from someone I wouldn’t ask for advice. 

Which really is to say that I don’t have a neat answer to this, even thought I’ve spun it round & round in my head. I do know that I’m an external processor… and that I’ve already processed things (for the most part) by the time I share them in writing. The people closest to me see the messy process. And maybe I should be more transparent that things aren’t always easy, and right & wrong isn’t always apparent. Not everything is as packaged to perfect proportions as my essays can seem to be. 

My writing isn’t messier because—to me—that feels like oversharing instead of vulnerability. I can admit when I fucked up. I can share hurt, loss, and fear. But only if there’s a take away—even if it’s as simple as acknowledging that we are all in this chaotic, messy, beautiful life together.

I write because I’m a huge proponent of the power of story. 

But, y’all … stories have an arc. 

When all I’m doing is dumping despair or anger or hopelessness all over the page—which is sometimes the case—I never hit publish. Because what I want to put into the world is hope (even in the midst of despair), love (even in loss or change or a fuck up of epic proportions), and a genuine joy and curiosity about the world. 

I don’t know why the refrain about not being God keeps jumping in my head. But I do know that it’s humbling—and that seems like reason enough to keep it top of mind on occasion. 

As for Jane not being perfect, well.. I take issue with that one. Jane IS perfect. All kids are perfect, just the way they are. It us, as parents, that sometimes fall short. Myself included. 

Because I’m not God, you know. 

Dream Big (or even at all will do)

One of the greatest joys of being sober is doing shit you never even dreamed of…

I didn’t have such a great imagination when I was drinking. Sure, I could sit on a barstool & tell you I was going to run a marathon the year I turned 30 (even though I’d never run more than 3 consecutive miles in my life). Or that I wanted to be a professor one day (even though I barely finished my Masters’ degree because that shit takes work). Or that I wanted to be a writer (even if I’d stopped writing anything at all because drinking doesn’t leave a lot of time for creative pursuits).

I was good at talking. Not as good at dreaming.

Dreaming gets a bad rap, I think. There’s idle dreaming… the kind you do on a lazy afternoon. More like wishful thinking. And then there’s big dreaming, real dreaming… the kind that catches you unaware and propels you into action before you even realize that you’re planning to take a big risk. Even if you’re not a risk taker. Not even a little bit.

When people ask if owning the bookstore was a lifelong dream… I mean, I hate to burst their bubble and all (they always look so hopeful when they ask…), but no.

Honestly, it was something even better.

It was this random idea on a day when I was leaving the coffeeshop in my neighborhood. I wanted a book. There was nowhere to walk to buy one.

And I thought, “There really should be a bookstore in this neighborhood…”

By the time I got home, it’d turned into “Maybe I should open a bookstore right here, in my neighborhood …”

From conception to reality was just under a year.

Because it was the kind dream that catches you–and you just know it’s right.

Even if you’re not a risk taker. Even if you’ve never dreamed of owning a business. Even if you’re scared to death of signing a commercial lease. Even if…

Things fell into place, one right after another to make this bookstore a reality. Never once did I believe I couldn’t or shouldn’t do it. The Universe pushed me one affirmation after another that YES this was right. That YES this would work. And that, in fact, this was more than a dream. It was a calling.

And none of it would have been possible at all, if I’d kept my head buried at the bottom of a pint glass. Instead, now I’ve got my nose in a book, living just beyond where my wildest dreams used to end.

Hesitation

I spent most of my life waiting for the other shoe to drop. 

That’s a pretty shitty way to live.

It means that every time you feel real joy, there’s a pin-prick of fear… because what if it all goes away? And that tiny prick of fear builds into a swell…because how would you ever survive that loss? How would you go on?

And then that joy you felt is washed away by the rising panic that you won’t be able to hold on to that thing you love so much.

None of this ever really occurred at the front of my mind. That would have been debilitating. But it was always in the back… a quiet current of dread that snuffed out joy—or at least tamped it down to a dull roar.

I’ve stopped doing that. 

Mostly. 

I guess I just finally reached a point where my life had been in flux for so long—and nothing turned out like I planned, and yet I was still happy. Like, really very happy.

So, I tentatively started to trust. The universe. Myself. Joy. 

And I stopped just plowing ahead with knee-jerk reactions. It’s so much easier to be balanced when I’m not off like a whirling dervish at every spike of fear or worry that arises. 

I’m better at listening—to myself. To the universe. 

Trusting and listening. I’m not sure either come naturally to me. But both are bringing me more joy than I felt when left to my own devices. 

But the past few days I felt this… hesitation. This nagging worry way, way back in my mind… maybe it isn’t going to work out. Maybe I want too much. Maybe I’m trying to grab at things meant only for other people.

Which is, of course, bullshit. 

So, I drug this hesitation in front of the Universe & laid it there. No use in trying to act like I wasn’t feeling it. The universe KNOWS things, after all. 

But, like fear, this hesitancy is really vulnerable to light. As soon as I put it out there—admitted that I doubted what I was capable of, that I could bring these big dreams to fruition—I felt an internal shift. To a quieter space. A more peaceful assuredness. 

The next day, I was mapping out new adventures, scoping new partnerships, and feeling wide open & ready to embrace the new possibilities that suddenly seemed everywhere. 

I’m not special. Well… I guess I am and am not special in equal measure. There is no one exactly like me—but I am subject a terminal case of humanity like everyone else. But I’m so thankful I had folks along the way that taught me that breathing into joy is so much better than being suffocated by fear & dread.  And that honesty is the key to reaching joy. 

Acting like I have my shit together—even if it’s just me & the Universe in the audience of my one-woman-show—isn’t going to get me anywhere. But honesty… drawing fear and dread and doubt into the light… that’s magic. 

Wild Quests & Small Talk

I suck at small talk.

It’s taken me a long time to reckon with that truth. But there it is.

I love people, though. I think they’re endlessly fascinating. But only if they’re telling me about things that mean something to them.

This made me ill-suited for office potlucks. But uniquely suited to own a bookstore.

Books delve into the heart of the things we wrestle with when we are alone. They draw out into the light the biggest questions in our existence. And they play them out in narrative form.

Amazing.

Hell yes, I want to talk about that stuff.

Yesterday, I stood in the bookstore with one of my oldest friends and one of my most adored customers talking about pandemic social awkwardness, fatigue and sorrow, and figuring out the difference between self-care & flakiness. It felt both intimate and safe. And 100% normal to talk about the things that are weighing most on our spirits right now, surrounded by hundreds of books that explore some of those very same questions: what is our place in the world? How do we impact the larger universe (even in the smallest ways)? How do we survive the shitty things and still find joy?

I’ve found myself reading a bizarre smattering of books lately and finding each of them shifting my world view a bit. As good books do.

The latest was Into the Wild. This isn’t a new book. But that’s kind of the joy of owning a (mostly) used bookstore. Sometimes you just grab what speaks to you–even if it was written over 20 years ago.

I don’t read a lot of nature/adventure books. Hell, I don’t even read a lot of nonfiction. But we ended up with a bunch of copies of Into the Wild before we opened & it caught my eye. I do love a good mystery (I always want the whys behind people’s stories). So it’d been on my TBR list (which only really exists as a figment of my imagination) for almost 2 years. The other day, I finally picked it up.

The deeper I delve into my spirituality, the more I’m drawn to being outside, to the cycles of nature, to appreciating the wild (which really means for me a well-worn hiking trail somewhere relatively close by). But, even though my experience tends toward the super safe dipping in and out of nature, its long been a dream to pick up and move into a shipping container in the middle of the woods.

This runs counter to everything about me: I like people. I thrive on the energetic thrum of Atlanta. I also like my cozy bed, flannel sheets, and fluffy duvet.

But there’s something romantic about leaving it all behind, paring down what I own into the barest minimum, and making a go of it in a place where the rhythms of the universe aren’t just apparent–they are everything.

So, Into the Wild spoke to that part of me. And it reminded me what my ego would prefer that I forget: I was once a 23 year old hell-bent on making decisions that could have cost me my life. I (like Chris McCandless aka Alex Supertramp) also saw the world in stark black and white. And I also had no use for folks who didn’t see things my way–still don’t sometimes. I’m working on it.

As I read, I swung wildly between horror at McCandless’s carelessness with the people who loved him (note: I’m in recovery & was equally careless with the people who loved me when I was in my 20s) and an ever-evolving understanding of what he might have been after. I got stuck right between wanting to believe we had nothing in common & knowing that was bullshit. Because I’ve been on a spiritual quest my whole life (except for the parts I stayed drunk primarily to fend off that same quest) and finding meaning has been the driving force in my life. Just like McCandless.

It’s a beautifully wrought book when the author can take you from contempt for a subject and wind you back around to understanding how very similar you are… and how one decision can separate the living from the dead.

It’s rare to come face to face with your own searching and longing–and then to be overwhelmed with gratitude for your own life. I made so many decisions along the way that could have cost me everything. But I emerged from the spiritual abyss of my 20s, got myself sober, and now get the immense privilege of owning a bookstore & connecting with other people (who are so often where I find the divine) every day.

McCandless never got that privilege, the ability to continue his journey and discover where he might end up.

I think, when it comes down to it, I loved Into the Wild for the same reasons I love owning a bookstore: we are all so wildly different. And yet, there are these gossamer threads of truth that hold us all together.

Into the Wild tugged one of those threads for me.