My cousin Liza loved purple amethyst geodes when we were growing up. She would break them open with a hammer, slamming them against the concrete until they cracked open wide and their jagged purple crystals caught the sunlight and reflected it all around.
Cancer was the hammer that smashed my heart. It was so painful.
My heart was in many ways, open and wide and big before my cancer, too. I loved often and hard and big and sweet. I risked less, and I assumed more, that I had all the time in the world. I did this assuming without even noticing I was doing it. I was driven, I was going places, I was achieving. I loved to travel, to write, to read, to get into intellectual arguments, to live in the world of possibility and ideas. In so many ways, six years after cancer slammed into my life, I am still the same.
And in so many ways, I am not.
For once a hammer comes down upon a geode and crushes it, once it cracks open wide, once it's secrets and reflections having nothing left to protect them, there is no going back. I could not glue together the pieces of already slightly broken geode I once was, because the fact of the matter is, they took my left tit away. And they threw it in the trash, so there are parts of my geode that don't even exist anymore. The completeness that once was is an impossibility.
It often felt like that hammer slammed into the little geode that was my heart again and again and again, and I wondered again and again and again why I was the target of such prolific violence, such insensible trauma. I will say again, it cracked my heart open wider than ever before. I did not need the cracking. I was good enough, shining enough brilliant light, focused enough on doing good in the world, that even without the cracking I would have cast light onto this world.
But that light would have been different.
It would have looked more like a different grrl. There would not have been magical playdates with twins, for the twins were born of the surrogacy, which was not ever how I planned on becoming a mother, but magical nonetheless. There would not be a warm and cozy California home, close to my parents and so many dear ones, because my focus was the tenure track, which lures young, bright scholars all over the world. There would not have been these women in my life who I revere, adore, and need. There would be much less heartbreak, for I am certain I would not be able to fill my Day of the Dead Altar with young women who were failed by the medical machine that could not cure their cancer.
And yet- I wouldn't trade the friendships. I wouldn't trade the heartbreaking understanding I have of me in world- the understanding that I can't wait until I'm dying to live the life I want. I wouldn't trade the twins for single babies grown in my womb.
There is some stuff I would love to trade though. I would love to trade the funerals and the lack of feeling in the tips of my toes and finger tips, and the numbness in my reconstructed breast. I'd trade the tamoxifen, the mistrust of my own body, the knowing that I could die, the chemical menopause.
But here I am, and my heart is broken open, and it's useless to speak of trades anyhow, because there is no one to bargain with.
And so instead, I snuggle in bed. I let my girls run their fingers along the port scar on my chest. I always pick up the phone when someone calls me to tell me about their new diagnosis, their new friend's diagnosis, their recurrence or their worry.
For if nothing else, I want my experience to be a lighthouse. A flicker of knowing, a pair of warm hugging arms, for people just now crashing on the sharp, painful rocks of cancer.
When I was newly diagnosed, I met some others- and there were no lighthouses. We were crashing against the rocks, bleeding, crying, drowning with nothing to do but grab onto each other for dear life, and sometimes when you are in dark water grabbing other people, you pull them beneath the surface with you and it is harder for everyone to breathe. But sometimes, you link hands and talk softly together and float atop the ocean waves.
Those were the kinds of friends I made, crashing against the cancer rocks, our geodes shattering into pieces. And once, three of us got a rocking chair tattoo: it was a promise to get old together, to not die, to sit on porches in the summer sunlight and be old enough to watch grandchildren frolic while we sipped old lady drinks.
We didn't all make it. We are a rocking chair down.
The promise has shifted. But we are still together. The rocking chair friend that has left this world did so to the tune of Bob Marley's three little birds, which she had tattooed on her wrist. Every little thing, is gonna be alright.... seemed so ironic after her death. And yet I feel her on the gentle breeze, and I take her motto for my own, and somewhere deep inside, I know she is right. Every little thing, is gonna be alright....
I miss her. Badly. But I also feel things shifting. Here's the proof: I had a sore throat last weekend, and it didn't even occur to me that maybe it was lymphoma, and I didn't google the frequency of breast cancer metastases to the throat.
This is wild progress. I am going to be ok. Six years out, and I'm going to be OK.
Also, I got a tattoo today. Every little thing, is gonna be alright...
I see you shrinking into yourself even as you express joy and pride and wonder at what that other person has done. I see you measuring yourself, your accomplishments, your life, your you-ness with someone else's yardstick. Sometimes it seems everyone else is doing things. Writing books. Getting promotions. Having more perfect children who only play with expensive wooden toys. It feels like you're behind and lagging so much that they've already stolen all the ideas from you, and blossomed them into something that you would've done, if you hadn't been so sluggish. If you had been quicker. If you had been sharper. If you had been clearer. If you had had more.
That though, is just the thing. It is still their yardstick. And this world is nothing but a cacophony of voices, colliding and interrupting and finding each other in harmony only after colliding, only after sharp and edgy and unpleasant and unharmonious encounters. Somewhere deep inside of you, you will find your own yardstick. It is deep in your pocket and it will disappear into fairy dust the minute you begin to lust after someone else's life, someone else's accomplishments, someone else's dreams. It's magic only shows up when you tune into your own vibration. When you tune into you.
I often have this experience with non-fiction books. Sometimes I'm even weary to pick them up, asking others if they are good before I buy them, allowing them to languish on my bed stand before I open them, judging myself at every turn because i should have written this and now someone else has so I can't. And yet, that is not the case at all. I can write whatever I like. When I was a little girl, I loved to read and one of my favorite authors was Beverly Cleary. I wrote to her, and asked her how I could become a writer. She responded with sweet words, suggesting that to become a writer, I needed to write, a lot! So when did it happen, that I stopped reading because my ego shut me down, because jealousy began to take over, because I persistently believed I was not enough?
I used to write late at night when everyone was sleeping, from a 24 café in Vancouver. It always felt sneaky and secretive and delicious, because I felt like I was getting to have all the ideas, to browse them all slowly and carefully, to play with them as I wished, to discard them if I wanted- because everyone else was sleeping. But this is not it at all. It's not as though there is a set number of ideas and if you don't get them, there will be none left.
There is infinite possibility. Endless ideas, each of them formulated only for you. So much brilliance, emerging in its own time. Someone else's book was never mine. My feet would hurt if I walked their path, I might shrivel and dry, so thirsty for what was meant for me.
And yet, here we are. I cringe a teeny bit every time I hear of the grand success that people I used to be with are having. I admonish myself for cringing, and I try to lean into gratitude, to notice what is going well. And I wonder what I'm doing wrong. I wish I was clearer, more accomplished, more driven, just- more. And I try to remind myself that I have no idea. I have no idea if they are in tears every night because they are fighting with a family member. I do not know if they lay awake and run through every conversation they had, wondering if they said the right thing. For all I know, they are on the brink of collapse.
Why is it so hard for all of us to see the wondrous things we are already doing, the people and communities that we have impacted, the stuff that is so incredible and so important and so necessary?
Since it is so hard for all of us, we need to be telling each other. We need to be reminding each other we are enough. We need to be noticing for each other, how much we are doing, how perfect it is, how incredible we are. And maybe, just maybe- somewhere down the road, enough others will have flexed this muscle for us, and we will be able to see how important and amazing and sweet and necessary and brilliant and enough all of us are.
So this is your reminder, for today. You are doing exactly what you were meant to do. You might not yet recognize that it's exact, but it is, if you can trust. Your sweetness, your kindness, your goodness, your contribution, your desire, your fire, your love, your big giant heart, your softness, your love- it is enough and it is perfect.
It is not scarcity at all, it's not as though if someone else is going to get all the ideas- everything that you are, everything that you've done, everything you will do- is only ever yours.
It may not be how you imagined, for we humans love to put containers around experiences and envision futures with scripted lines and goals and pathways that we convince ourself we must attain. And yet, its futile. All we can do is be where we are, notice how wonderful it is, lean into the tender and the sensitive and do the holding I know how to do, the loving I want to do, the being together that feels important.
Because you, dear one, are enough. Exactly as you are. Exactly doing what you're doing. Exactly with what you've accomplished. Exactly as you are, dear one, you are enough.
I was just off a call about my parenting business. And as I tried to reorient myself to the journal article I was writing about a girl activist, my email pinged- an urgent request. I looked at my calendar- I was so busy last week I forgot to write anything down. I have been running, leaping from meetings with school superintendents to play dates to workshops with dozens of teachers and going from decorating cake pops with the girls to slipping into heels and showing up for consulting gigs. And then I come home, and after my girls sleep, I curl up in my office and dream big, plan curricula, write posts about marketing and scribble notes on feminist theory.
And tonight, my sweet hubs took the girls for bath and bed even though it was my night. He did it for me because he saw the tears pooling in my eyes before I even felt them.
But then my girl began to scream. I leapt from the leather rocker that was my most impractical first time mom buy and now resides in my office (because not even the coolest mom can rock twins in a chic leather rocker, it just doesn't work), and raced to the bathroom. Skyebird held up her finger, stuck in a bottle of bubble bath. I unscrewed the bottle from the top. The top was wedged well below her knuckle and her little finger was turning purple. I tried butter and soap and mayo and EVOO and cold-pressed coconut oil, to no avail. She screamed.
I lifted her from the tub and called for my hubs to hurry, to do something. I wrapped her in a towel and rocked her. He raced around, trying to cut it off with child's scissors (really?!?!) before showing up with some wire cutters. I was ready to make an urgent care run and was imagining my child's finger dying for lack of oxygen. Skyebird continued to scream, burrowing her face in my neck. And then Papa came through. He cut the plastic, and cracked it. It opened right up and the purple drained from her little finger, and I breathed a giant sigh of relief because this wee one still has ten perfect little fingers.
Everything- the paper and the urgent email and the tears pooling in my eyes and the book I was reading and the texts from a young person in crisis- it all stopped because she got the bubble bath top stuck on her finger. It seems silly, that a finger wedged into a bottle would stop everything, but it did. And I am grateful.
Everything stopped, and it was enough for me just to mother this little girl. When she came into the world, she was breech and her little legs came first, and my eyes were wide because they were so limp and so blue from lack of oxygen. Tonight, her little finger was turning purple and blue, just like her little legs as she was born. And both of those times, it was enough for me to sing to her, to hold her tight, to rub her back, to fix the thing making her hurt, to nurture her, to make sure all parts of her got oxygen, to stop everything else in my life as abruptly as necessary so I could be with her at a moment's notice.
That is enough.
It is enough to mother. Rocking and rubbing and caring for little bodies, it is enough.
I often feel like I need to do all the things. Like the world is hurting and there are many fires, and I have a hose, and I should fight all the fires. And in between the fires, I see all these beautiful pockets of possibility, garden plots ready to be planted, tiny buds waiting to be nurtured, stories waiting to get written, friendships ready to be born. But the truth is, lots of us have hoses. And if I spray all my water all over everyone else's fires, there's none left to fill the girls' bathtub or pour myself as glass of water.
The hope is big. Big hope. Big desire. Big caring, wanting, loving.
But sometimes it just all feels like too much. It feels like hold up, mama. Make pancakes with chocolate chip smiley faces in them. Stay the extra hour at the park. Put on a movie and take a nap. Paint my nails. Make something with that bookshelf full of art supplies that I look so longingly at every day when I settle into my home office. Indulgence. That bookshelf is my indulgence.
But all around me, I see things that need doing, projects that could be inspired, work that could be meaningful. The need and the desire and the caring is all so much to manage sometimes. It feels like my heart breaking in a million pieces all the time. It is not sadness; it is generative and beautiful and hopeful. But it is also broken.
Sometimes it feels like, well, I shouldn't complain because there are so many wonderful things, and I want to do them all, and I love them all, and there are so many ideas, and, and, and.... Someone said to me tonight, "but chels, it's not just that you want all the things. it's that you want them because you care, a lot." And of course, then the tears came.
But you know what, the things I care the most about are these three small humans, who are here in my life, who's bodies I care for, who's hearts are big and bold and need tending. It's so striking to me, the way I am so often pulled back down to earth by my children's material, embodied needs. Fingers stuck in bottles of bubble bath, or knees scraped from falling off a bike, or a shirt with a drip of water across the tummy that needs, according to my youngest, immediate changing.
All of those things are enough. It is enough to just be in it with these three babies. Enough to change their shirts and go to the zoo and wipe their noses and turn over rocks hunting for worms and rolly pollies with them.
It is enough.
Some people have one job, and they do it, and they spend the rest of their time doing other things- like reading books or going to yoga or taking their kids to the park. I do all of those things too, but I have one job, two businesses, a contract here and there, multiple rotating projects, a book contract, a paper on the back burner, a seat on the board of a local organizations and, three gorgeous girls all of them under five, and, and.... I've been wondering why I'm tired.
There is so much I want from this life. And so I stay up late. I say yes to projects that are exciting, and I find new opportunities. At one of my jobs- one I really love- everyone pulled a leadership card at our recent retreat. Do you know what mine read? RENEW. There is a quote on it by Anne Lammott that reads, "Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes. Including you." These cards are meant to frame our year, to be a source of reflection and resilience and... renewal. But come on, RENEW?!?!?! I don't want to unplug- I want a power strip so I can plug in more projects, do more things, say yes more often. I'd especially love an extra ten hours while my children sleep. I recently tried this coffee drink meant to increase productivity and happiness, and I felt like I was on speed, which I thought would be great until I realized being on speed makes it really hard to do actually accomplish anything. It was the idea I loved- the idea of being able to do more, do faster, add more, say yes more, be with more people, more projects, more things.
Part of it is how I've always been: growing up, I did all the extra curriculars. But there is something deeper going on, that hit me like a load of bricks as I pondered about how I ended up pulling RENEW out of a deck of cards filled with cards that would have been a better fit, like ACCOUNTABILITY and COLLABORATE and DIRECTION and AWARENESS and TRUST. What beautiful words most of those are! RENEW though, renew is scary.
To renew is to rest. To unplug. To be still.
And when I do those things, I get worried about my cancer. I start to feel nervous that I won't accomplish all of the things I want to do in this life. I know so intimately how fast everything can be gone, in a single second, in a single moment everything as we know it can be obliterated, shattered, erased, untrue. I know how suddenly we can find ourselves in a metaphorical house of mirrors where nothing is at it seems, and I know how terrifying it is when the only reality that is tangible is a dissonance.
I recall once, a dear friend that has since moved on from this earthly world and I were laying on couches. She looked me in the eye and said... "I don't feel like I should ever nap, because I survived." She went on to explain how she wanted to do all the things, have all the babies, squeeze all the drops out of her life. She was going to do it all, because she almost didn't get the chance. It was a time in which we were both healthy- neither of us knew she'd be sick again with a couple years and dead soon thereafter. She didn't get the chance.
And when I thinking about all the things I want to do, when I decide not to nap even though I'm tired, when I say yes, when I start a new project- its a homage. It is a homage to all those who didn't make it. It's gratitude and respect for dear ones who had eyes full of dreams and time that fell too short. It's my way of saying, hey people I love so much- and hey, scariest experience of my life- I got this. I am here, and I am doing it, and I am squeezing every drop out of this life, and I am doing all the things, for all of you who I was with and who departed, for all of us who are afraid or tired or skeptical or worried about cancer invading our bodies again.
When I start wondering if I have too much on my plate, my dear and well intentioned Mom-friends will often say "you can have it all, just not right now." I have even said that to others. But it never makes sense to me. I can have it all, when? What if I"m not here, when the time comes? With my diagnosis, time went from being weighty and significant to becoming slippery, light as a feather, translucent and sometimes, not even there. I'm not sure how to get the weightiness back, how to reground myself in the present and the future all at once. Sometimes people tell me to just be in the present, but they don't understand that being in the present is facilitated by a deeper trust of the existence of a future.
That friend on the couches? She didn't know how little time she had left when she said those words. My sense of being able to inhabit and imagine the future was left behind somewhere between the chemotherapy chairs and the cancer friendships. I get whispers of it, when I imagine my children accomplishing milestones that are years or decades into the future. But when it comes down to the choices I get to make everyday, I make them because I want everything, and I don't trust the future, so I want the things now. And so now, I stare at this card with RENEW scrawled across the front and I wonder, if by resting I'm trading time for projects, time for relationships, time for dreams?
The question then, is what does it mean to renew? To rest? To be still? To say no? To decline? To curl up and nap?
I think it means feeling secure enough in the future to fully embody the present, including times of quiet, repose, sleep, connection, nothingness. What a gift renewal can be, if only I can stand to open the package.
Among the things you taught me were what kind of paste to use on my just-after-chemo hair, and how to style it with a headband. You taught me how to wear eye liner, too, and how to talk back to Dr. Batman Earrings. You taught me how wild and hopeful and brilliant the human spirit can be. You taught me how to hold paradox, know dark and light, and insist on the biggest and the boldest dreams.
We met in January of 2014, only days after my hair had fallen out. You wore a hat, and you showed me the tiny hairs growing on your head. You were so proud of them. I was so envious. Our friendship was tenuous: here and there at YACN, a text or a coffee, pictures of each other after surgeries. An immediate knowing was there, though. We knew each other. We could imagine each other. With you, I was visible.
And then we went on retreat together and we were roommates and we had a very special Mama Bear to love on us, and their was a hot tub and we soaked and looked at the stars. We clung to each other. We saved each other snacks from dinner. Our Mama Bear left us steaming cups of coffee in the morning, and you pressed snooze until the last literal second. When they spoke of death and dying, we escaped. We sat on a bridge overlooking the creek, and we dangled out feet. Your shoe dropped and I almost broke my ankle jumping down to get it. When I was in the creek fishing out your shoe, you looked down at me and said to me "I've just spent a year trying not to die. I'm alive. I'm not f*cking talking about death." I remember these words so vividly. So clearly. So instead we laughed until we cried.
We loved each other hard. You were the first person to ask my about the grief of losing my left tit, and to wonder with me, if the inside of your body looked different from your surgery, and what that might mean. And then we met two more women just like us- Aimee and Kristina. We were a cohort. A quad. We were an emergency picnic when someone got bad news. We were an intense and honest and real stream of text messages. We were the place for word vomit and big feelings and cancer jokes. We were mad and funny and we had a list of stupid sh*t people said to us and we thought we should publish a coffee table book. We named ourselves. I don't know who named us, or when we started calling each other CPs, <cancer peeps> but I do know without a shadow of a doubt that you were my CP, and I was yours.
We were going to get old together. We were going to grow wrinkles. We were trying to build our lives. We were doing that even as you got news that was not good. We were witnessing you continue to hope. We were having babies. We were going to rock in rocking chairs and drink old lady drinks and be healthy and live long.
Most of all, you wanted to be a mama. Like me. When we first met, once we laid in bed and talked about how mad we got cancer when we wanted babies. But we also talked about how we were going to have those babies. The embryos you made were your hope on ice. They were your future. They were you. I would give just about anything for you to hold those babies, but I don't need to tell you that. You already know. Each time I cried because I wanted so badly to have the pregnancy our surrogate carried for me, you were there. Each time I panicked a little about a baby, you were there. Each time I worried about cancer during my miracle pregnancy, you soothed me with your sweet words. Each time I thought I had cancer in my toe or that my sore throat was lymphoma, you got your nurse-voice on and comforted me until I believed I was well again. When M was a newborn, you were there at 1 am and 2am and 3am when everyone else was sleeping. And so we'd text: back and fourth about my babies, back and fourth about the ones you wanted.
Again and again and again you asked for pictures of my girls and that meant the world to me. I know how much it hurt to watch people get pregnant, and even so- you wanted more images of my girls, and what delight I had in sharing them. Even as cancer chiseled away at your baby dreams, you held onto your hope on ice- it was a deep knowing, a clear wisdom, an unflappable desire.
I have been reading and rereading our text messages about your babies. About my babies. About hope. They are all about hope. Even when they are angry and sad and bitter and livid, they are so hopeful. Through your words courses the deepest hope I know.
Thank you for loving me, dear one. Thank you for loving my babies. Thank you for being my CP. Thank you for all the chats and texts and late night calls when you had insomnia and I was nursing the baby. Thank you for the sass and the hope and all the love.
I am so grateful I got to know you. I am so grateful we shared big dreams. I am so grateful I have a little piece of you tattooed on my left arm, right next to my heart.
I can feel you in the breeze. It is funny because you weren't much of a woodsy girl, were you? But here you are, whenever I start to panic about who is going to answer my nurse questions or how we will ever balance out our CP quad with you-- there you are, on the gentle breeze. Of course we can only be balanced with you and so we will feel you, in the breeze and in our hearts and in the sunshine.
I am going to wait for you to come and visit, when I am old. I will wait in the rocking chair with the red cushion, and you'll see my wrinkles. Come visit me, you sweet and gentle breeze, you brilliant and blazing and sassy light, you kind soul.
So much gratitude for being my friend, even when I wasn't very friendly. Perhaps especially then.
Love you so, so, so much dear one.
P.S.: I've been missing you, so I made you this video for our CPs. It's in our texting stream for us to watch when we miss you. I love you so so so much.
I am told that when we were both six, we were on the blocks at a swim meet. And that the starter's gun sounded, and everyone dove in. But my goggles were funny, and I was trying to fix them, lest water cloud my vision.
And I am told that you waited.
That even though it was a bigger race (Pleasant Hill Dolfins versus Walnut Creek Swim Club) than we could imagine, you waited. And I am told that even when they yelled GO DEVON GO, you looked them squarely in their eyes and explained "I'm waiting for Chelsey to fix her goggles." And that then, once everyone was nearly across the pool, I was ready and you saw that I was ready, and that together, we dove into the water and swam. Presumably, we came in last. And presumably, our come-in-last scores did not help the Pleasant Hill Dolfins-Walnut Creek Swim Club rivalry. But presumably, you didn't care. Because decades later, after leading the Dolfins to victory again and again, you went on to coach Walnut Creek Swim Club, because that was what was best for you daughter.
I do not remember this goggle-fiddling story. My parents told it to me. But I can feel it's truth. Because in it, I can feel you, Devon. It feels exactly like something 6 year old you would have done. It is what six year old you did.
You didn't care, Devon, about winning. You didn't care about rivalries. You didn't care about what other people thought. In 1989, you cared about waiting for your little friend to dive off the blocks with you. In 2017, you cared about your daughter having a positive, hopeful, sweet swimming experience. You cared about friends. You cared about feelings. You cared about being a positive presence in the world.
You became the best friend of my best friend, Rebecca. She loves you so. And when I reconnected with her, I reocnnected with you, too. I am so grateful for you both.
You were diagnosed after me, Devon. First, I was diagnosed with cancer and first, you reached out. You told me you loved me, and I didn't respond because I was afraid. But I did keep writing my cancer blog, and you read every blog, and you kept telling me you loved me. Because that's how you were. And I heard you, even if I didn't know what to say.
And then you were diagnosed. And then it was my turn to reach out. When you started chemo, I sent you a box full of wigs- purple and pink and red and brunette and bleach-blond with roots. This was a box of wigs that I'd already shared with others, but you were the first to wear, as I had, all of the wigs. I was nervous to send that box to you, but of course you welcomed it with open arms, and you breathed new life into it.You were the first to add more wigs to the collection and to add hats to the box. How I cherished the photos of you in the pink and purple aqua wigs that I'd loved so.
You stuck a little notebook into the wig box, and on the front of it you wrote "The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Wigs." Inside of it, you wrote some of your own stories. You wanted other young women going through cancer to get this book, and to read your stories. You didn't care who they were: you wanted them to know they were not alone. And for that, I am grateful. Other young women have read your words, and responded to the questions you posed. You yourself, needed that box of wigs again, and you added more stories, reflecting on your own and writing back to people you'd never met. That box will live on, Devon. A young woman desperate to have a child has it right now, and she's told me about the stories she read about you and Amelia, in the Sisterhood Notebook that you created. Your words, your thoughtfulness, your love for other young women with cancer lives on in that notebook, and in the Sisterhood of The Traveling Wigs.
We talked many times, of young adult cancer. We sipped tea and wine and lattes, and you offered hand me downs and leggings, and we wondered about how to solve the total mindf*ck that is young adult cancer. We had a hundred ideas, but we never did anything about them, maybe because we so easily slipped into talk about the swim team days, about the swim team drama, about the many friends we grew up with. You knew everyone, Devon, and you updated me on people who I hadn't seen in ages.
In your simplicity, you were totally brilliant and kind and full of light. I hate that what reconnected us was cancer; and I am intensely grateful that we got reconnected.
All my love, sweet Devon. I promise I will take care of Rebecca. And I know she- and your family- will take care of your beloveds Amelia and John.
Love you always,
Many people have carefully and beautifully explained why the persistent nature of what my cancer-friends call "Pinktober" does not help people who have/had breast cancer and most of the time, why it doesn't help us get closer to a cure for stage 4 breast cancer, which is the kind that kills (and thus the kind we need a cure for, and no, mammograms won't save us from stage 4).
So, here's a list of things you can do instead of sharing the color of your bra or some other random chain, and instead of spreading Komen-pink madness, and instead of using hashtags suggested by your nearest chain clothing store, online store, kick-boxing store, or other capitalist store.
I want you to buy, do, and consume in ways that either actually help and lift up and contribute to the lives of people who HAVE HAD or HAVE breast cancer, OR that offer monetary support, or funds, or links, or support to groups that actually are working on curing stage 4 breast cancer.
We need a cure. Thanks for your awareness, we've got it now. Now we need a cure for stage 4. So if you're gonna hashtag, it's #stage4needsmore or #metavivor.
One of the first social emotional lessons most children receive centers on the “I statement.”
The premise is pretty basic: speak from your own experience, beginning with “I.” So instead of beginning your story with “you….,” the suggestion is that we begin our stories with ourselves. Pretty basic, but also pretty deep.
The I statement assumes listening to each other- and speaking from our own experiences, instead of narrating others’ experiences- is a peaceful way to be in the world.
You shouldn’t be so angry. You’re too negative today, try being happier. You can’t expect a roomful of strangers to give your baby “good” compliments. You should lighten up.
These are some of the comments I’ve received for writing about how my baby and I experience an onslaught of comments about her prettiness whenever we go out in public. Some from people I know, some from trolls.
They all begin with you.
Not a single one of these commenters spoke from their own experience.
Instead, they narrated mine, presumably because me sharing how it feels for me and my baby to receive this onslaught of comments about prettiness threatens them or their way of life.
You functions to make me carry the weight of the comment. It functions to release the speaker from responsibility. It functions to neutralize the speaker and cast harsh light on the spoken about.
I suppose my writing threatens a way of life. I guess that suggesting that a patriarchy exists and that we all participate in it really brings out the feels in people. It’s pretty shocking (though not surprising) to recognize the ugly feeling that leaks out just because I suggested language matters, even and especially to baby girls.
I’ve never before considered the “I” statement as a feminist, political intervention.
But it is just that: speaking from our own experiences is risky. Listening to others speak from their own experiences means making ourselves vulnerable because it means we might have to consider our own everyday participation in some of these challenging dynamics.
Can you imagine, if instead of “you are being negative” they said “I’ve never read anything like that. When people tell my baby that they are pretty, I feel good because no one ever told me I was pretty growing up, so I felt ugly. I want to make sure my child hears that she is pretty.” Ah, now the conversation is open. Now we can get to the real stuff: feelings hurt because we never noticed. Now we can heal.
Can you imagine, if instead of “lighten up” they said… “So what would you say? What do you say? What else is there to say?”
Can you imagine, if instead of “you’re too angry,” they reflected “One time, I was really angry about X and so I did Z,” or they asked “Share your fire with me, and I’ll share mine.”
Can you imagine if they put themselves on the line, shared what’s going on in their hearts, offered up their vulnerability?
Things would be so different. We all access knowledge from our different experiences; our different experiences are born of our diverse bodies, lives, languages, experiences, families, and dreams.
Feminist research methodologists have long urged us to be clear about our own positionality: what that means is that when we are trying to know something new, we need to consider how our lives and histories inform what it is possible for us to know at all. Different kinds of people have different fields of knowledge that are possible.
How delightful, to recognize this value that I hold so dear in the very early lessons we (try) to impart to our children: I statements.
Something I’ve learned from all my work with diverse communities is that we humans are desperate for discursive space. Desperate to be heard. Desperate to tell our stories.
You though, you…. Silences. It shuts us down. The only way to make sense of this persistent you is through silencing. You is a silencer. And so, it really is time to go back to basics: I statements. Let’s speak from our experiences, and let’s offer some softness, some protection, some vulnerability to the stories we hear from each other.
In less than three hours, my seventeen month old daughter received compliments including “you’re so pretty,” “you’re so cute,” “your dress is adorable,” “that bow is the prettiest and so are you,” or some variant of the above more than seven times. And then I stopped counting.
Afterwards, I went grocery shopping and a stranger looked at my gorgeous, radical, wild baby girl and said, “you’re so pretty.” And I looked right at my baby and in earshot of the commenter said, “And you are so strong, and so smart, and so beautiful, and so kind, and so creative.”
My seventeen month old is beautiful, indeed: she has big, soulful, dark eyes. She has a ton of gorgeous, fine hair that I often pull into a top-of-the-head ponytail. She just learned to spin in circles and she likes to dance. She always points out airplanes and she has a sweet little belly that she likes to fill with cherry tomatoes from the garden, and she's got a smile that can light up a room. She is also a baby living in a patriarchy and we cannot possibly understand comments about her outside of this context.
What we say matters, and when we talk about something a lot, it garners importance.
So when the thing folks say the most often to my little girl with the soulful eyes is that she is pretty (and I am here, attesting to the fact that this is what most people say to her, most of the time), the message she receives is that being a pretty little girl is what matters most. This is communicated not by each individual but rather, by the sheer number of comments about her looks. It’s as though everyone got a secret message to comment on her prettiness.... but actually, it’s culture. This is how culture works. This is how we learn gender, through a million tiny comments about looks... all made by people who would surely agree girls are strong. People who give money to Malala and who support their daughters to get graduate degrees and who advocate for equity.
What she hears most is: “You’re so pretty!” She is learning this is what matters.
After all, it’s what we tell her the most.
Almost everyone we meet comments, “wow she is gorgeous,” or “what a pretty little thing,” or “look at those eyelashes!”
People on the street. The cashier at the grocery store. The mom of boys at the park. The neighbor. Someone’s mom’s friend. The aunt, the friend, the dog-walker, the museum attendant. Everyone.
I am her mama, and I hear the onslaught of comments, and I feel them.
And I can't look at her and hear these comments without feeling the little girl inside of me- the little girl who not pretty enough. Sure, no one ever said I wasn’t pretty enough- but there was an onslaught of comments about looks- and then there was their absence.
In the same time frame that my baby was told she's pretty again and again, I heard two comments about a a young woman's prettiness as compared to Disney princesses: “She looks like Snow White,” someone said, and then only a half an hour later about a completely different young woman, someone else commented, “total Disney princess, that one!” To my knowledge, I have never been described as a Disney princess. I have been described as “thick,” “freckley,” “Miss Piggy” and “pasty.”
And because I learned early on, by the sheer volume and frequency of conversation about looks that it matters what girls look like, I knew- early on- that “thick,” “freckley,” “Miss Piggy” and “pasty” were not good ways to look. These comments were the absence of Disney princess comments.
Absence is a tricky thing. And yet, when we are talking gender and girlhood, absence is everything: the absence of feeling beautiful is, but what other than failure? Failure to be, to do, to become girl or woman.
Never was this so clear to me as when I lost all my hair and eyebrows because I had cancer, only to be offered a make-up program to show me how to hide my failures at performing womanhood. There is a cancer-beauty program called “look good feel better” where women who are mostly sicker than they have ever been are taught to hide their difference- their ugliness- by applying makeup to look better (more like a Disney princess?), and in doing so, to feel better. I was handed a mirror and a bag of make-up give-aways and led through a workshop on how to paint my eyebrows on, by a woman who explained cheerily, "your husband will never know!"
She forgot to ask if I had a husband. She assumed my body should be concealed and prettified so a man could consume it.
From when we are babies to when we have cancer, we learn that much of our worth hinges on being and feeling beautiful.
If there is one thing I want for my baby with the soulful eyes and long lashes? It’s for her worth to never hinge on being- or feeling- beautiful.
I don’t care if she is beautiful. Frankly, I don’t care if she feels beautiful.
I care if she feels strong. I care if she feels creative. I care if she feels willfull, excited, sad, nervous, or hopeful.
It is not the same thing as commenting that a baby boy is handsome.
It is not the same because we know that boys receive many comments about their abilities, their actions, and their futures in ways that girls simply, do not. We know that even us parents speak differently to our boys than to our girls.
It’s not the same because boys don’t experience- writ large- a crisis of identity hinged on their gender, a falling out of confidence about what a teenage girl recently described to me as “science and stuff I’m good at but I’m not supposed to be good at.”
I’m sorry, but no. Handsome spoken about a boy and pretty spoken about a girl are not the same.
I only have girls.
I know this hurts boys and girls and genderqueer people.
Pretty is not powerful. It’s not strong. It’s not kickass.
It’s limiting and patronizing.
For girls, but also for those who are not girls- for your boys and your gender queer children.
So yah, the next stranger that tells me my girl is pretty?
I promise you this will happen tomorrow if we go out in public even once.
I’ll be sure to say, loudly enough for her to hear, that the little girl with me is also…. All kinds of other things.
I wish she would say to my little one, instead... "Wow! You are getting so big! Do you love to run?" or "What a love-bug- does she just adore reading books?" Or anything that focused on anything but her looks.
Be the single drop of difference in our life. Know that everyone is saying something about our looks, so decide to say something different. Comment on the language we are speaking, describe her as brilliant or silly or curious. Anything but "she's so pretty."
It’s easier to do with strangers than with family, but I’ll do it with family, too. I will, because my feminist work is in my home and with my family, and certainly, for and with my daughters.
And whenever I can, I’ll kill misogyny in its most potent form: that insipid, complementary, micro-comment form that makes up a life. I am a feminist mama, and I might f*ck it up sometimes, but when I can gather my strength I will respond.
Always. All ways.
Last night I participated in an event full of community building. People told stories and presented their ideas. I listened. We played games. I was introduced as someone with three children under three- which is a way I love to be introduced. I am proud of having three under three, and though it’s crazy sometimes I also love this about myself. And it is such a core piece of who I am right now. It was lovely.
And then we were getting ready to go home and woman about my age said to me, “wow, three under three, how is that even possible?” I smiled and explained- a set of two-year-old twins, and a little baby sister. She looked me in the eye, laughed, and said “Oh! That baby must have been a big old accident!”
I had no idea what to say. Literally. I could not even bring myself to entertain the comment. And so, I turned away and started a conversation with someone else.
Because this person had barely met me. And if she really knew me, she would have known that this little baby that turned me into a mother of three was no accident.
If she really loved me, she’d know I don’t owe information about my body, my family planning, my children, or how my littlest love came into this world to anyone. But she didn’t know me, and she asked the question as though I was sure to be on her side, to give over my experience for her viewing, to collude with her. She consumed my body, my story- and she forgot to ask me first.
If she really knew me, she’d know that after my cancer treatment, my oncologist told me I couldn’t have a baby. That to have my twins, I went out and found a surrogate. She'd know how I cried buckets of tears about this whole thing.
If she really knew me, she’d be intimate with the depths of my grief around not having been able to carry my babies in my womb, she’d know how much I wanted to breastfeed my twins. She'd know how much grief there was, and is.
If she really knew me, she’d know how hard I fought against other people's fear that this pregnancy could harm me. She'd know how this little baby who took up residency in my uterus even though it was impossible for me to get pregnant was the most hopeful, sparkly, incredible thing that has ever happened to me.
If she really knew me, she’d be able to feel the depth of my experience- she’d know I was so grateful to be pregnant. She’d know how breastfeeding this baby was the first time I’d experienced my breasts as life-giving since they tried to kill me with cancer.
This baby was no accident. She’s the universe conspiring to bring her into my life, into the world. She’s the most precious, hopeful signal of my own health. She’s so necessary in our family. She’s brilliant.
Being pregnant with her was everything. It was my body, finally succeeding. It was me, proving my own health. It was a glimmer of hope and future and possibility, born from the same body that tried to kill me.
My children are no accident.
My body was slashed and burned and torn apart, but this brilliant child still decided she could grow in me- she still decided I was enough.
That pregnancy was anything but an accident. Maybe it was a miracle. It was definitely hopeful. I am so very grateful.
And so I have to wonder. If she knew the depth of story behind that “she’s a mother of three under three” introduction, what might she have said?
And how am I ever supposed to offer this story to people I’ve only just met?
How am I supposed to protect my heart, then, from these comments?
How are any of us ever supposed to know that underneath each shared moment, there is a story as big as this one, a life woven in ways that we might not ever understand?
They birth our reality. Choose them wisely. Tread softly.
Know that behind each heart, there is a story- one you may never expect.
So, let’s use questions to open up little spaces of heartfelt curiosity. Let’s allow questions to be safe containers for connection, for making ourselves visible to each other.
What would it mean if, instead of assuming accident, or negative relationality to something surprising, we assumed hopefulness, or genuine wonder? What if we just opened up a space, and let the person having the experience define it for themselves?
Chelsey is a digital storyteller, geek, mama, researcher and yogi. She loves to make things and her favorite food is artichokes.