Archive for October 18th, 2017

The Gift of The Self

amywink October 18th, 2017

“Do not press me to leave you or turn back from following you.” Ruth 1: 16

“So which one of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves? And he said, “he who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” Luke 10: 36-37

When I returned to teach at Southwestern, in 2003, after a long and damaging struggle to find a place for myself in academe, I had to balance my desire to return to the place where I had first felt completely in the right place and the knowledge that I was no longer the person who had felt so at home there as a student and that the place I might be looking for was no longer a place I was for which I was suited . When my favorite professor and former advisor, T. Walter Herbert, stopped in at my office one day to welcome me, I was profoundly grateful for his presence and his quiet support as I tried to explain that I felt I was no longer the person I had been when I left there in 1987. He said quietly “I am so glad you are here.” and thankfully, I did not weep but I did feel sheltered, and just as he had done during my 4 years at Southwestern, he shepherded me toward my new life, reminding me that he had always seen me and he still saw me and valued me, even wounded and different I felt I was on my return. The moment between us could have been labeled the Parable of the Kind Teacher and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t exactly like a visit from God after a really bad day. As I sat there in his presence (and His) I was again in the exactly right place, where I could begin again.

Years earlier, in 1986, Dr. Herbert, who had been my academic advisor since my first year (1983), and all of whose classes I took and absorbed with rapt attention of a literary disciple, had taught the first Women’s Literature class at Southwestern, out of which grew my dedication to women’s literature, women’s lives and women’s stories. It was a class that profoundly changed the way I thought about the world, not because my thoughts had been changed, but because my thoughts had been validated. While I had been quietly holding–sometimes not quietly– onto the idea that women were important (raised by feminist parents, don’t you know), I hadn’t seen much evidence in my education. While I had read women writers in other classes, their presence was only spotty, one or two out of 10, and even though their coverage had been mostly respectable, it was the history department that offered women’s history (which I took and loved). I had had to read unassigned books (gasp) in high school to find where the women writers were. While I loved the history, the heart of the writer is always stirred by literature and I was always an English major.

But not until 1986, when the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women was published, did I see the entire possibility of women writers captured in the giant book, with bible paper pages, similar to the other Nortons I had used in all my classes. The Nortons that said “This Body of Work Is Literature. The Names Herein Are Valued.” (As a graduate student I would later explore what had been left out and come to understand the challenge of canon formation and whose story gets told and whose story does not but that was later). My 1986, my brilliant professor, a Melville scholar, took the risk to value women when he could have easily remained a voice of the patriarchy but he decided the creative risk was for growth, ours and his, was entirely worth it. As John O Donohue writes in To Bless the Space Between Us, “to truly live a creative life, we always need to cast a critical look at where we presently are, attempting always to discern where we have become stagnant and where new beginning might be ripening. There can be no growth if we do not remain open and vulnerable to what is new and different and different. I have never seen anyone take a risk for personal growth that was not rewarded a thousand times over.” Everyone I know still remembers that class as life-changing–and I still know many of the members of that class. That class gave many of us insight into ourselves and the gift of the stories made our own lives more valuable. I think it gave the four brave men who took the class made up of, I think, at least 30 women, insight into themselves as well. For me, Dr. Herbert and that class gave me the gift of my writing self. It in that class that I made the first real effort toward finding my own authentic voice as a writer.

So in 2003, after I sat with Dr. Herbert again, I began to think of who I had been in my days at Southwestern, the self I had become in my four years there, the self that had been encouraged by teachers and by fellow students who made up the community I loved so much, the core of myself that I still carried with me even as I had been asked afterward to be less than myself, less intelligent than myself, smaller than myself, quieter than myself, different than myself, less threatening than myself, not at all myself. In thinking about why I loved my time there, I recognized that it had not been all pleasant and sweet–as some people think of privilege college students lounging around “not doing any work”– and especially not safe from challenging ideas but had instead been an extremely tumultuous time, filled with emotion and change as we all came face to face with the world of our friends and learned of the differences in our lives away from home. We learned to see each other and make connections, to make a practice of working toward understanding as we walked with each other through the process of becoming adults (There is a shirt at SU these days that explains something fundamental about that small learning community. It reads Mouthwestern: Where Your Secret is Safe with Everyone. It is entirely true and probably why SU grads are so kind to each other–we know what we did there. What happens at SU stays at SU).

One particularly emotionally and culturally charged issue everyone seemed to be confronting then were questions of sexual identity. In the mid 1980’s, the range of sexual identity letters LGBTQia (for those who are unsure what those letters mean, it’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intrasex/Intersex, and Asexual) were not being explored. The choices were very binary: Gay/Straight. Either/Or. Bisexuals just can’t decide. Pick a side and stick with it. People were in one camp or the other, never the two shall meet. And sometimes each camp decided for another person’s identity themselves, without bothering to inquire. Being so labeled could be deadly and can still be deadly. Being forced to decide just so everyone can safely be labeled is also very damaging. Being claimed by either side without being asked, also quite troubling because a person’s own identity is exactly that, her own.

But despite what the larger social culture wants (everyone in a nice neat box), sexuality and gender identity are very fluid and even in 1948, Kinsey reported this fluidity on his now famous Kinsey scale. People are wide-ranging and change during their lives. It’s the reason we now have all the letters to explain it including Q (Q=questioning, or “it depends”)– though sometimes I wonder if we are getting so many narrow slivers of labels (cis gender) to name gendered identity (gender is the cultural construct, sex is the biological component and both are fluid and wide-ranging) that the those defining labels do nothing but divide us further from each other and somehow keep us all from simply just being. The labeling is still an attempt to make us decide. We must all settle down and decide, no one can be a nomad because that makes everyone really uncomfortable and God forbid anyone be uncomfortable. It’s just not natural to be uncomfortable. . . .is it. And also, make sure you couple up. Pick a side and couple up. Single people are just plain weird. (And we are, in fact, usually Highly Sensitive Introverts and we’re all good with the singleness and weirdness).

In my sophomore year at SU, I was surprised to be offered a bid to join a sorority. Very surprised. I didn’t really think sororities were for me (rent-a-friend, and all that judgy-ness). I judged the members by my assumptions about them. I did not go through Rush but was offered what’s called an “open bid” after Rush and I remember the complete timidity of those women at my door and my own complete surprise at being asked to join Delta Zeta that spring. I do not know who was more shocked about it. I generally assumed I was invisible except for a few close friends and they generally assumed I was terrible hostile to sororities but they decided to risk it anyway. That entire fall, I had been hanging out with my friends and making more friends than in my first year and I really enjoyed the company of the women who were already in Delta Zeta and also everyone who was in the pledge class that year, including my dear friend Kristi. I came late to the party but was happily welcomed into the pledge class of 1985 (many of whom I am still friends with and who are all terrific people in their own way) and walked right into my first controversy regarding women’s sexuality and community. Not long after I accepted my bid, the rest of the sorority was embroiled in controversy regarding offering a bid to another young woman who had not received a bid from another sorority because she was gay (gasp) and tensions mounted in the pledge class about allowing a lesbian into the sorority (which, of course, already had a fair share of lesbians in it, as well as heterosexual women and also the entire range of sexualities). The tensions were naturally, of course, as we were all young, 18-19, and facing new things and wondering about what other people’s sexuality had to do with our own and what our own had to do with anyone else’s (not a damned thing, as it turns out) and what we should do about this young woman, who we had been told was also suicidal because of her rejection. Since I had already known someone affected by the suicide of her mother, that information seemed paramount to me and my heart was not inclined to reject her and cast her out of our community to her doom. But my pledge class had to decide, the sorority had to decide and we had to vote as a group to offer the bid. It’s all actually very weird and clubby and just the kind of thing I, with my egalitarian nature, completely hate. I am terrible gate-keeper. If you want someone kept out, ask someone else because I will likely figure out a way to let them right in anyway.

But one of my pledge sisters, Anji, came and asked me to hold the gate closed. Someone had told her “Go talk with Amy” (Thanks) and I was brought into the choice before us in a way I had not expected. At the time, I was struck by her anxiety and her concern and remember watching her as she spoke with me, whole body closed and stiff, her eyes clouded and dark. I felt for her just as I felt for the other young woman who needed so much to be let in. Which way to turn, which choice to make? I promised Anji I would think about it.

I could say I prayed about it except I was not much of a prayer in those days, not like people think of prayer, but I was very good at having long internal conversations with God (despite what some people thought of as my lack of religious faith), and I am still good at those conversations, I like to think, and often my writing is like one long wonderful conversation with the indwelling Holy Spirit, by the end of which I have learned something powerful or beautiful or gained a completely new understanding of my experiences. So at that time, I thought about it with God, and my faith and my compassion, which were already essential aspects of myself, even if I didn’t practice those things very publicly (the inner life of an introvert is extremely rich. It’s why we don’t always have to talk.) Unlike Huck Finn, who found his close place in a struggle between what he had been taught was right and what he understood to be right, my Christian (Methodist) upbringing was open-hearted and open-minded. My parents had, even when uncomfortable, favored kindness and compassion when faced with choices like this. I did not have to choose between hell and the kind thing. And that is exactly what I decided, the kind thing for the woman who needed the community. I could not harden my heart against her. I voted yes and kindly held the gate open. That kind thing, as it turns out, happened to be the kind thing for Anji too. Sometimes the fear of others is actually the fear of self. We see the frightening truth in someone else that we can’t yet manage to accept about ourselves and we fight to keep that frightening truth at bay, to hold back the forces of change as we grow toward the self we truly are, the true self that God knows we are. Anji and the young woman we accepted into our sorority spent eleven years happily together in a loving and committed relationship that also ended gracefully when both were ready to move on to new lives.

Anji and I are still friends and we often talk about our mutual interest in women’s history and I helped her with some of her writing and thinking about her dissertation and first book. And when I asked her if I could tell this story, she graciously agreed and wanted to know what I remembered about that challenging time. She also told me the rest of her story, which I also have permission to tell. She had voted no, but someone she respected and loved came to her to read her the riot act and Anji realized the person she loved was also lesbian. Confronted by this new understanding, Anji returned to the chapter room where the debate continued, withdrew her No vote . She learned that the sorority actually intended to extend the invitation despite the single no vote but she was very glad she had withdrawn it anyway. She was also glad I was so tender-hearted because so much of the rest of her life turned on that moment. I was glad to have chosen wisely and given the gift of myself and in doing so, given Anji the gift of herself, because it is in the giving that love wins.