Boobs and Bravery on the Move: Everyday Magic, Day 1061

It’s been a week of boobs and bravery on the move (and I don’t mean the supreme court, which I have other names for rather than slang for an often beloved part of our bodies), all as a consequence of me having had breast cancer and harboring the BRCA 1 genetic mutation. Part and parcel of unfortunately passing this genetic anomaly led us to Minneapolis this last week to support our daughter through her second breast cancer prevention surgery.

Natalie made the courageous decision to have a double mastectomy rather than face what’s likely more than a 90% chance of developing breast cancer. It’s been harrowing to watch her pain and fear while going through several cancer scares already (including one just before Thanksgiving when she had to wait a week after a biopsy to find out she was okay). What a brave 30-year-old she is for taking such a leap, entailed big surgery, subsequent pain and limited movement, six weeks of deep recovery, and now, four months later, a second surgery with much of the same although easier. Thanks to good genetic counseling and her own wise heart, not to mention what she witnessed me going through with multiple surgeries and aggressive chemo, she was able to make her own best informed decision.

She comes from a line of women spanning three generations who have also had to make such decisions. Five of us have had mastectomies, three of us because we had breast cancer (some more than once), and two to prevent getting such a diagnosis. It’s a strange legacy to be living, but here we are and here we’ve been, sometimes passing around our silicon boobs around at family visits to assess the weight and droop so that we can find what works best for us. We’ve also shared stories of the pump-you-up process of inflators followed by swapping those out for implants.

We fear for the next generation, not knowing who will end up with the cancer card in their genetic testing. For those of us who do possess that card, there’s screenings and blood work, careful monitoring of related cancer risks, and passing around whatever article we come across about new breakthroughs in surveillance and prevention.

Our bodies and psyches are geniuses are adaptation, something I know down to the bone. Not having breasts is truly no big deal to me anymore, 19 years after my double mastectomy. As wrote about in my memoir, The Sky Begins At My Feet, each morning I put on my glasses, when my prostheses, which spent the night cozily sleeping in my mastectomy bra. It’s not heroic or extraordinary, just the old normal.

Yet there are some unintended opportunities born of all this. Right before we left for the long drive up north, I got a new pair of prostheses in the mail and consequently mailed off my old pair to a young trans friend, who otherwise wouldn’t have any medical insurance to buy a good pair of expensive prostheses.

There’s also the strength and beauty I see in my daughter’s face, sitting up in her bed the day after surgery and the morning after being awake all night and sick as a dog from the meds (yes, this is a photo of her just then). There’s the deeper understanding of life and health, even for the fortunate with good medical insurance and loving support systems, as she walks outside with us, ten minutes up the block and around the corner as instructed by her surgeon. Each steps takes perseverance and a willingness to feel pain on her way to healing fully.

Each step and each choice sing of hard-won autonomy, a word that became even more precious and vivid to us the day after her surgery when the Supreme Court decision crashed so many of us into anguish. But when I look into Natalie’s face and the faces of so many of her generation, I see a fierce hope rising.

I’m Heartbroken for Our Country: Everyday Magic, Day 954

Yesterday, a woman spoke with great poise, integrity, and courage about how she was terrified that the supreme court nominee would accidentally kill her when he put his hand over her mouth while sexually assaulting her. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford told a room full of career politicians and also our nation and world about the attack and trauma that derailed her life when she was only 16 years old, a moment when two men’s laughter — with all its scorn and privilege — landed in her psyche in a way she could never forget. Recounting how a combination of Kavanaugh being drunk and her wearing a one-piece bathing suit under her clothes was all that saved her from being raped, she spoke of her survival and its cost. This she shared with a room of old white men and some women who were determined, no matter what she said, to confirm Kavanaugh, possibly right now as I’m writing this. “I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified,” she told all of us.

I cannot fathom how anyone hearing her testimony and Kavanaugh’s smug and angry testimony (not to mention his tone and demeanor that’s not what any us, despite our political views, want in a supreme court judge) could not be moved, could not think about the women, men, and others they know who have carried the burning weight of similar trauma. I cannot imagine how any senators or representatives from Lindsey Graham to Kansas’ own Pat Roberts can vote to confirm Kavanaugh given what happened yesterday. What must it take to have siloed your own conscience in such a way that you could go the party line at the price of your own humanity?

But I can fathom what it is to carry — as I titled my book about the Holocaust — a needle in the bone — the remnant (that can’t be removed and we make a protective shield around) of being tortured, yes, truly tortured, by another human. I’ve listened to many people share their stories of sexual assault and near misses: a woman whose brother regularly raped her, a man who was date-raped, a friend who just barely made it to her car in time after a date, another who didn’t. I hear my daughter telling me how she’s cat-called almost daily in Minneapolis. I drive by frat houses where I see gaggles of young women tipsy in their high heels heading into a party. I read stories of trans people beaten close to death or murdered. I’ve heard many testimonies of middle-aged men, still ripped apart when they trip in their wounds of being sexually abused decades earlier by their priests.

The soul-stealing damage of sexual assault, whether full-on rape or almost, isn’t the kind of thing that fixes itself with ease like a minor break in young bones. It surely lands on our deepest vulnerability, registering as a threat not just to our bodies but to our lives. Other kinds of trauma born of bullies bullying also can leave life-long wounds to continually mitigate and navigate. As the daughter of a physically abusive father, I have some practice in decades of revisiting the violence done to my young body and soul, and I know that healing is, at best, a spiral path leading to resilience, not a door out of the house of our being where loose boards and broken stairs abide.

It’s a clear walk from what is happening today, this week, this time in our world to the damage that patriarchal power has wrought on women and trans people, and for that matter, men too. The notion that one gender innately has more power than another, and the reality that our culture is set up in many ways to reinforce men, and more precisely, straight white middle- or upper-class men, makes for a difficult, at times impossible, way out. If Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony wasn’t a way into the hearts of those now ignoring her words and presence (some even while believing her), what does this say about who gets to make the rules for whom? A whole lot when it comes to the privilege some claim to cover the mouths and maybe even accidentally (or purposely) suffocate others.

So I’m heartbroken, America. I can’t believe we’re here with so many people poised to put someone on the court who clearly doesn’t see women (and perhaps others) as worthy enough to sit at the table. I’m especially thinking of all of you who have your own needles in the bone activated today, and I wish you all manner of comfort, and ways through to find your strength, tenderness, and peace.

At the same time, I know our outrage and pain isn’t going to go underground or vanish into the winds of political power. I think of a wonderful post Meghan Heriford, the owner of Lawrence’s Ladybird Diner, recently shared about a woman she was talking to after having Meg had the woman’s abusive boyfriend removed from the diner. Meg was concerned that the woman wouldn’t believe she was worthy enough to leave this man, and she reminded us us that standing together, holding those who need support, and saying no to the bullies among us is at the core of our work now.  “Poke a sister and you’re likely to get the whole swarm,” Meg wrote.

My heart is buzzing. Yours too?

Me, Too, and All the Women (and Some Men) I Know: Everyday Magic, Day 913

“Me, too.”

I was 19, and I knew it was sexual harassment, but there was nothing I could do about it. He managed the movie theater where I worked concessions, and after I refused to meet him a little apartment he had on the side — one his wife knew nothing about — he drastically cut my hours. He knew I needed the job to pay rent and feed myself, so he kept pressing. I kept saying no. Soon I was down to one short shift a week, but at least I knew why.

But my biggest “me, too” experience was something that I’m only now just seeing. He was a writer and leader I admired, so I was already enamored with him when he hired me as an intern for a publication. At 20 years old, I moved to a strange city where I knew no one,  lived in a horrible sterile apartment, and only had a bike for transportation in an area dangerous for bike riding. Mostly, I was crazy-lonely, and I only had enough self-esteem to fill the truck bed of a Matchbox car. So when this man over twice my age hit on me, even though I said no at first, eventually I fell for it. In the decades since that summer, I looked upon what happened as my fault for not following my gut, which yelled loudly at me to move back to my college town, and pick up my old job at Diary Queen.  In the years since, I was ashamed of myself until this week when it occurred to me that was also a “me, too” experience.”

Reading what people are posting on Facebook and writing in various publications about “me, too,” something clicked. We live in a culture in which men with the accoutrements of power often have the option of harassing, assaulting, or otherwise entrapping those without such power, women as well as some men (e.g. young people hungry to get and keep work as well as people of color and those are otherwise marginalized). Like every woman I know,  plus a number of men, I tripped into a youthful error of judgment, and then, as goes the cultural narrative, blamed myself and didn’t speak about this except to close friends.

“Now that we are speaking, let us never shut up about this kind of thing. I speak up to make certain that this is not the kind of misconduct that deserves a second chance. I speak up to contribute to the end of the conspiracy of silence.” — Lupita Nyong’o

All week, I’ve been reading and hearing heartbreaking stories. One friend bravely shared how she was gang-raped back in the day before there were rape victim support services. Another friend, over lunch, told me of how a boyfriend raped her. Other friends share the sadness, rage, old shame, and fresh pain about lost jobs, terrified walks home, near-misses that weren’t complete misses, and shocking betrayals from men they trusted. A straight man I’ve known for decades wrote how he was sodomized with a knife to his throat. Several gay and trans friends tell of brutal attacks or constant shaming. One night I read Ken the names of all our Facebook friends who posted “me, too,” and after a few minutes, I couldn’t keep from crying for how pervasive this was and still is, a secret the majority of people I know have kept in pain sight.

I’m also reading many comments from people, particularly men, saying, “I believe you,” and “we have a lot of work to do.” I see men offering to work with other men on what they’ve absorbed about male power in our culture, and how to get more cognizant of how it may bleed through their words or deeds. My friend Callid Keefe-Perry, who wrote about the need to be vigilant about the micro-monster potential he and others have in them, gave me permission to reprint this from what he posted on Facebook: “The leering weight of male power is huge and the cumulative press of it rests on the necks and spirits of our sisters, daughters, mothers, and granddaughters. And us. Guys, this pulls on us.” Yes, this also soils the humanity of the men who abuse their power, and the men who benefit from being silent and complicit (see what Quentin Tarantino says about this).

No, this isn’t a witch hunt, Woody Allen and anyone else who thinks so. It’s a reckoning, and just about all of us have work to do: we can speak from courage and love, witness one another in that same courage and love, and learn about how power-over — the kind of currency that comes from wielding control over another — betrays our potential and can destroy others’ potential. This is a time when the doors are swung wide open for hard conversations, deep soul-searching, and expansive healing. For those of you hurting from what’s been brought out of the shadows this last week, me, too. Now let’s together make greater freedom and safety for each other, and the reckoning changes necessary so that our daughters, granddaughters, great-nieces and others in generations to come aren’t saying “me, too” decades from now.