As I pass the standard “mid-life” markers, I find myself laughing more often, more ironically, and with more gusto. Laughing at myself, mostly. No, I don’t think it’s generic old-age loonies; instead I think it’s an accumulation of wisdom overheard in my younger days finally getting through to me. There’s a group of women that visit me, as memories, from time to time. I can still see their faces and hear their conversations on topics that were totally disconnected from my reality at the time. Not anymore. I’m remembering, and I’m listening more closely than ever.

While in college in my early twenties, I taught an aerobics class on weekends at a gym exclusively for women. The proprietress (“Ginny”) was a statuesque former beauty (you could still see it in her bones) somewhere in her seventies. She walked like a model, wore a silver bouffant wig, tons of bangles on her wrists, and kept a bottle of vodka in her personal locker. I liked her, a lot. Most of Ginny’s clients were well past middle age. Some of them were in their eighties. They were a different breed of gym-rat back in the day: always dressed in fashionable gym-wear and always in full makeup, perfumed and wearing jewelry. Perspiration was to be avoided.

These ladies eased-into their “workouts” by having coffee with Ginny when the gym opened, around 7 a.m. on Saturday. When I got there a little before 10, ready to teach my class, Ginny was in high spirits (Coffee Lace, as they say in the south, I always thought.) and usually welcomed me with a bangle-jangling hug and cloud of fragrance. During stretches, the women continued to talk amongst themselves non-stop. After about 20 minutes of low-impact Step, I’d guide them through a mild bit of circuit training. Through which they all talked. I don’t think anyone there (besides myself) ever broke a sweat. That wasn’t what this gym was about.

Menopause. Cheating husbands. Feeling ‘invisible’. Slowing metabolism and weight gain. Sagging body parts and wrinkled skin. It was pretty much the same loop every weekend, and fairly easy for me to tune-out. Not only did I tune them out, but I actually thought “What bizarre conversations they have, and what boring lives these women lead.” I had the total impertinence and smugness to think that their concerns could never in a million years be my own one day.

Turns out, as I laugh at myself these days, I do so in the company of these women — now long-gone, most of them. I remember the 85 year old who always washed her face in ice water and never used any other moisturizer than Crisco (I kid you not). Nowadays, almond, olive, apricot and other oils are “de-rigueur” for skin. Then there was the woman who told me that my metabolism would some day slow to a sluggish crawl; that I wouldn’t be able to snack on nachos at midnight without packing on the pounds. My, my — do tell. Finally, there was the woman who complained that becoming Invisible was the worst part of aging for any woman (she eventually became one of the Red Hat Ladies, which I didn’t “get” at the time, but now I do.)

No question that in Western culture we value youth above all things (next to celebrity and celebrity-athletes). But there’s a time period of ‘limbo’ for women — before our kids start joking about pushing us out in a canoe or leaving us on an ice floe — in which Invisibility is a definite problem. Doctors try to convince us that 20 pounds is ‘normal’ weight gain, post-menopause. The fashion industry follows suit by creating Mom Jeans with Tummy Panels to console us. Eye doctors tell us, “Get ready for cataracts — they’re inevitable!” With the aging process, apparently, comes a whole complement of things we’re to assume we must accept. To my thinking, this is the very definition of the Invisibility that my gym-lady was describing so long ago. “You’re a woman, you’re growing older, your body is going to hell but it’s really ok because no one cares, unless you can compete, which you obviously can’t.” Reinforcing this invisibility is the husband who trades his wife in for a model “with fewer miles on it”. Not just a cliché, but a common reality.

What’s a woman to do, when facing Invisibility? Start wearing a red hat, a crimson lip and leopard stilettos? Commit to a strict Paleo and prep for a 10k? Give up cocktails and chocolate? Resolve to find summer and winter-weights of sweatpants? All women will face versions of these questions, and more, as they age. Speaking as one well-into this phase, I can offer two pieces of advice: the first is that Invisibility has distinct advantages, and becoming older brings a certain wisdom and cunning that comes in really handy, when used correctly.

My second piece of advice is to know — or learn — what feels right to you (body weight, fitness level, diet, makeup — clothing- accessories) and jump on that, with all you’ve got. Challenge doctors, dentists, stylists, nutrition and fitness “experts” if or when their suggestions clash with your own inner knowing. Learn to flow with aging according to your own rhythm and sense of well-being. I don’t have a red hat, but I do have a very dramatic, femme fatale black cloche with an iridescent peacock feather perched jauntily on one side. I don’t wear it that often because, when I do, the ‘drama’ of the hat attracts a lot of attention and questions about where I bought it. Sometimes I enjoy that, but sometimes I enjoy being invisible.

My colleague and friend Deepak Patil recently published his doctoral dissertation. His topic was related to the Theory of Collective Intelligence. Think:  the wisdom of bees, ants, migrating birds and whales, and even plants and trees. A kind of inner-knowing, without a whole lot of empirical evidence beyond the research and speculation of scientists that study systems and patterns. What my friend Deepak did was investigate an emerging application of this theory, to human organizations.

While doing his research Deepak uncovered some very interesting, fairly recent studies and subsequent conclusions about how Collective Intelligence functions in groups:  allowing humans to come together more productively by exploring – among other things — the power of empathy, compassion, tolerance and something called “social perceptiveness”.

Why should we care about this? Because despite what our eyes and ears might be telling us at this very moment, Humans Beings – as a large and complex Tribe –actually have very positive tribal instincts. (I’m not referring here to the media’s version “tribalism”, which is more narrow in focus and typically pernicious.)

At the very depths of our being, we humans recognize the practical value of unity and cooperation. In the process of survival, the emotions and skill mentioned above become the “glue” that forges and cements relationships, ensuring that nurturing and protection is extended to all members of the tribe. This is the foundation of our Collective Intelligence as human beings.  And even though it’s not exactly‘ on display’ in the world around us, it’s not just an ideal, or a dream. It’s evident, in studies that began (Carnegie Mellon Institute) back in 2010.

From what I’ve just learned from Deepak about the actual science of it, on a human level I think that Collective Intelligence could  be casually defined as “what happens when we listen to our better angels.” Or, what happens when we try to stay in that “higher vibration” of daily living.

The Carnegie Mellon Institute (after its lengthy study of organizations worldwide), identified the presence of Collective Intelligence through a variety of assessments and observations. The resulting data indicated that significant Collective Intelligence could be identified and measured by three factors. The first was a high degree of Social Perceptiveness (the ability to read non-verbal cues); the second was the Distribution of Conversation (the degree of shared and transactional dialogue); and third was the Proportion of Females in the group (the higher number women, the stronger the Collective Intelligence.)

The full Carnegie Mellon study is much too detailed to summarize here, but I’ll offer my own takeaways: Our Collective Intelligence will, if we allow it, see us through our challenges as a Human Race. Also, when (not if) women are fully validated by global societies (females, by the way, scored much higher in Social Perceptiveness and in the facilitation of Conversation), we’ll experience how profoundly this benefits everyone.

Now: all we have to do is remember that we are better, stronger, smarter, happier and healthier when we are truly “Together”. Nothing else matters – arguments, divisions, disagreements – as much as this particular reality. It’s not really up for debate…is it?

We’ve all heard the phrase, “You never get a second chance to create a positive first impression.” I’m sure that many, if not most of my Readers have experienced symptoms of anxiety prior to a high-stakes first meeting:  an interview; the first day on the job; a first meeting with any individual or group of people that – momentarily, anyway – hold important keys to our happiness. It’s a very human thing, to want to project the appearance of whatever the desired qualifications are. As long as the Image is not that far from Reality, all is well (depending upon the competition, of course!)

As women, sometimes we get a little carried away with the Image part. In fairness to myself and my Sisters, the scrutiny on us in many (most?) professions or industries is more intense – regardless of what the majority atmosphere (gender/s) may be. We’re not only aware of, but self-conscious about how we’re perceived by others. It’s important that those perceptions (and reactions from others) be in keeping with our professional goals, and also with how we see ourselves.

Unlike men, women (I’m speaking in the binary sense, here) are almost always in the process of balancing their sex with the demands and expectations of the job. How we wear our hair; how we use make-up to enhance our faces; how we dress and accessorize. More than a few times I was told by female mentors, “Never wear your hair down in a meeting!” (Who knew that long hair could be a professional saboteur?)  Any style or adornment that transmitted even a whiff of ‘sexy’ was considered either a transactional killer, or, it communicated the wrong kind of signal (I’m decorative, not functional; here to play, not to work). This balancing Act can be flat-out exhausting; but there’s evidence all around us that the Act is still expected, if not an explicitly stated requirement in many organizations.

One of the most image-conscious  jobs I had while climbing the professional ladder was working in a Communications Unit in a large Southern-California city. The director of the unit was a woman, “Carol”. This woman was always perfectly coiffed (hair bleached a dazzling platinum blonde, styled in a chin-length bob); her makeup was a perfect So-Cal tan, year-round; her suits (always a skirt and jacket) conservative. Carol always wore high heels, and always wore hot pink lipstick with matching pink nail color. I was the Editor of the Communications Unit and only saw Carol as she hustled to and from meetings, or when she wanted to meet over copy. Our conversations were cordial, but professional.

One day, however, we happened to be in the womens’ lounge at the same time. I don’t remember what I was wearing, but – being a writer at that point in my career, pretty much behind the scenes for most of the work day – it surely didn’t compare to Carol’s bright red suit and silk chemise. Feeling feisty, as she was touching up her make-up in the mirror, I commented on her appearance. Something left-handed and safe, like, “You’re always so put-together!” Carol turned to me, smiled indulgently, and simply said, “I’m so tired; I just don’t know how much longer I can do this.” Then she turned back to the mirror to blot her lipstick. She grabbed her huge handbag and exited the lounge. I was dying to know what she meant, but I had to wait until several days later – when I had some copy to give her – to casually bring up our previous conversation. (I framed it as, “Just wondering if you’re ok…?”) To summarize, Carol told me that, basically, her work image was all ‘show’, and not at all who she was “at home”. Image, she said, is Reality:  the reality being, How You Want to Be Perceived, not Who You Really Are.  Silly me, I thought smugly: my only ‘reality’ is who I am inside, regardless of what I’m wearing! Carol may as well have patted my head like the ‘innocent’ bumpkin she obviously thought I was. “You’ll see,” she said. And of course, I did see.

Recently I overheard a young female colleague (who works in male-dominated Finance) talking with another young woman about her image and how she deployed it in her work setting. No particular emphasis on clothing, accessories or make-up; no pressure to present aesthetic perfection. What she did, however, was telegraph her femaleness and sexuality by ‘batting her eyelashes’ (yes, she actually said this) and lowering her voice during a meeting with the male CFO, her immediate boss. I quickly realized that I needed to walk out of earshot, before my feminist hackles became obvious. But another colleague of mine, an older woman, had heard the same comment and was clearly fuming. I watched her walk toward the two younger women, pretty certain that I knew what was about to happen. Not feeling like sticking-around, I just whispered to myself, “You’ll see.”

So, I thought I’d just let this go, but my mind kept circling back to it. With me, that means, Time to add my two cents’ worth of commentary.  I’m referring to a recent Instagram ‘flap’ (creating a collective gasp and flurry of chat in our cyber world) over 53-year old model Cindy Crawford’s decision to Post “racy” (her word) photographs online. Nicely done, Cindy. I mean that. The pictures are tasteful, yet undeniably sexy. Crawford’s still a beautiful woman, regardless of how much air-brushing or photo-shopping was done:  The Bones are there.

I’ve had more than a few friends who’ve taken what used to be called “Boudoir Photos”, feeling the urge to capture for all time a fantasy-like beauty and sexuality. Most haven’t posted them online, however. Crawford’s reasoning for doing so – she was vocal and righteously snippy about it – is that she wanted to speak to the fact that women should not feel they have “Sell-By” dates, when it comes to their sexuality. I couldn’t agree more. Especially if they look like Cindy Crawford. In her statement, Crawford implied that the photographs were also sort of a ‘gift’ for her husband. Not going to argue with that either; but there’s a bit of a weird mashup here:  a political statement and a little eye candy for her spouse? On Instagram? You claim to be speaking for me here, Cindy, so I just want to make sure I’m understanding you.

In my view, a woman’s beauty and her sexuality are inextricably intertwined. In using the word ‘sexuality’ I’m not referring to sex, or the ability to conjure sexual feelings in anyone else. Feeling beautiful is something every woman on the planet is entitled to, and she should get to define what that means to her, and for her. But there’s a particular aspect of beauty that all women share, and that is our sexuality. Our sexuality is based, first and foremost, on the simple fact that we were born female. If we choose to embrace this (feel comfortable in our birth gender), our sexuality as females blossoms as we age. Our sexuality originates as a sense of self, a knowledge of self, a celebration of self and the ancient power inherent in being a woman. A woman’s sexuality does not , nor should it, require a male’s attention or validation in order to flourish.

Despite the “Swinging 60’s”, the brief illusion that women could truly celebrate being female in ways that suited their own bodies, minds and spirits, all women have faced a narrowing of the definitions of ‘beauty’ and ‘sexuality’ over time. Yes, faces on glossy magazine covers have become more diverse (a good thing), but many of the images we see – within the pages of the top fashion sellers —  still project a version of femaleness that is unrelatable to most women. There are also plenty of examples (movies, music, social media) guiding us in how we should feel about our sexuality; defining what it means  for us. No wonder that, as women age, many begin to feel what Crawford called out as the “Sell-By” date fears.

I’m cheering for Cindy Crawford and her nude photos, regardless of the reasons they ended up on Instagram. (I’ll be curious to see if the next decade brings a new photo shoot). I’m just longing for the time when an Influencer like Crawford’s proclamation includes a shout-out empowering  all women, of all ages, shapes and sizes. She has a right to do her thing, for as long as she chooses to. I’m just not convinced that the 53 year-old women she’s talking to are the same ones I know.

I’ve been confronted by personal and professional jealousy my entire adult life (who knows why — I’ve always been pretty low-key about whatever assets I have). Not confronted directly, as in verbally, but informed by an organizational ‘rumor mill’; even when I was a relative newcomer (aka, ‘peon’) in the org. pecking order. Have I been jealous of other people? You bet. Jealous people are ones to keep an eye out for. Not all of them are like me, feeling quietly insecure, in my private moments, acting out these emotions through insomnia and obsessive worry. Some jealous people are assertively so – feeling the need to “take someone down” a notch or two. I’ve seen this in action more than a few times, in different organizational settings. I’ve felt this when I’ve been on the receiving end at work, and even within my own family.

Recently I was conducting a group interaction in a way that was less formal, more transformational for the participants. I was lucky to have a very experienced colleague observing how I handled myself with this group (I’ll always ask to be observed, if I have the option, when trying-out something new with teams). I also had onlookers who were taking notes, so as to be able to make informed comments in our de-brief. When the time came to do so (de-brief), I was amazed by the ‘mix’ in the feedback.  I use the word ‘amazed’ because I continue to marvel at how people in the psychological professions (a supposedly enlightened and more humanistic group, right?) can seem like experts at walking the tightrope between professional detachment and personal criticism; careful not to engage in what looks like score-keeping or one-upmanship; skilled with “left-handed compliments”. Turns out, I’d done well with my group that afternoon (per my experienced colleague) – too well, in the estimation of some, based on their ‘snark’ wrapped in‘recommendations’ for my improvement.

What causes people to act jealously? I believe, at its root, jealousy’s prompted by fear:  feeling  a need to competefor attention or resources, typically. If I don’t feel good enough (in whatever capacity you choose), I’m going also feel threatened in ways that are very primal:  hard to understand, hard to talk about, and hard to overcome.

What’s difficult for me to comprehend, is how common jealousy can be among my older, wiser female colleagues. It’s impossible to not feel the need, when someone is being so obvious about it, to reassure a jealous person through repeated acts of deference or humility:  “I don’t need to take the lead on ( project); go for it!” Or, “I’ve had lots of chances to speak at (event); I’ll be the note-taker and you can run the show!” No. With a jealous person, such “largesse” only increases the ire. Once, when I felt caught in a vortex of no-win exchanges with a deeply jealous woman (I think it was both personal and professional for her), I pulled a last-resort move. I was new to the organization (a negative); was hired from “outside” (another negative); younger, single (considered “on the prowl”); more educated, and more “worldly” in my experience. This was the Intel I gathered before I asked for a private conversation with this person who’d been trash-talking me behind the scenes since my hire.

My ‘last-resort’ is a personal conversation in these instances. Why is talking one-on-one a last resort? Because jealousy lives in a very tender place in a person’s being. It’s not an easy emotion to discuss; you can’t just call-out a person’s glaring insecurities. (Well, you can, but working with them afterwards will be hell for the entire team). The topic has to be approached sideways, with tact, diplomacy, discretion and gentleness. The end of this story is a happy one:  we became friends and the gossiping and back-stabbing stopped. Still, the more I engage with a larger circle of people over time, the Green Eyed Monster (origins, Shakespeare’s play “Othello”) continues to play a part. Attending to the jealousies of other people can be a bore and anxiety-producing. Each time I do it, however, I recognize in myself the fears we all cope with, at one time or another. On a purely pragmatic level,  I’ve worked too hard to get to where I am, to let jealous people highjack my progress.

With Father’s Day approaching, I was thinking back to the many things I learned from my father while growing up. His childhood was marred by the Depression years. His perspective and message to his three kids was usually “Here’s the grim reality; deal with it!” Got to love those Greatest Generation men and women:  they don’t ‘play’. Not overly emotionally-intelligent, my father focused on practical lessons that, ironically, eventually became metaphors for coping with Life. Learning how to change the oil in my car turned into a lesson in Self Reliance. As did learning to keep a kitchen garden, fix a flat, splice a garden hose, find a stud in a wall, catch and clean a fish, and myriad other survival skills he believed a woman should have.

One of my earliest lessons , as a really young kid, was how to swim. In a river on the outskirts of our city, I learned how to float, dog-paddle, then actually swim (never with much grace, to this day). True to my nature, pretty soon I began pushing my own limits. One day we were swimming in a large lake in rural Virginia, near my father’s ancestral home. I was showing off, I think, by trying to swim out to a rock where my much older cousins were lounging and laughing together. I became exhausted about halfway to the rock. I had to admit to myself, I wasn’t going to make it. There was momentary panic, but then I turned on my back, puffed up my lungs, and floated on the surface of the water. I closed my eyes, tilted my head back in the sun’s glare and focused on the pink and orange swirls on my eyelids. I let the water in my ears muffle the voices on the rock, and soothe my pounding heartbeat. I stretched-out my arms and legs, letting the water and rippling waves from nearby ski boats slide under my body, as if I was a water bird and the lake was my home. No longer in panic-mode, I turned and swam back to shore and realized how really good it felt to be on terra firma.

Talking with someone very dear to me yesterday, I heard over-whelming exhaustion and frustration with his career, turning into the kind of panic we all feel from time to time: “I thought I could do this, but I can’t”; “I thought I wanted this, but I don’t”. Our realization is that we’re mid-way through a mistake – we’ve mis-calculated, mis-interpreted information, made the wrong choices – and we’re now feeling ‘stuck’. Sometimes the answer is simple:  rest for a minute, then turn around and swim back to the shore. But sometimes it’s not at all evident what the next step should be. We feel immobilized.

It saddens me to share that I have more than a few friends who are in jobs, careers, education programs, cities, relationships, marriages and other situations that feel stalled to epic proportions. The moment we realize that we’re in this ‘place’ is a moment that requires, first and foremost, stillness. The ‘rut’ we’re in is our heart speaking a Truth that our rational minds often ignore. Once that Truth is faced (as painful as it may be), we can transition from rut, to ‘holding pattern’.  Regardless of how dire a situation seems, with no solution readily apparent, as long as there is breath in our lungs, we have Choices we can make that will provide a measure of relief. Some choices involve truly horrible-feeling consequences. In a previous Post, “Who Do You Envy”, I shared with my Readers the story of a friend of mine who realized she had to leave her decades-long marriage. She’d known for many years who she really was (a woman who loved women), but had never felt able to be this person. Her decision to leave the ‘rut’ she felt she was in shot through her family like a white-hot arrow, piercing the hearts of the adults and children involved. My friend’s ‘holding pattern’ was finding a place of her own to live. This lasted almost two years while the personal and logistical details of her separation and divorce were worked out.

The last phase of moving ourselves out of a rut is recognizing the ‘opportunity’ before us. What that opportunity turns out to be is wholly dependent upon the person and the original ‘rut’. But one thing that’s universal in this process is the absolute necessity of seeing beyond the current scenario you’re in. You might detest the job you have, and mentally leave the ‘rut’ by realizing you want something more-aligned with your needs and desires. But you’re in a ‘holding pattern’ because that new job hasn’t materialized yet. The ‘opportunity’ lies in being able to turn on your back and float, so that your heart and mind together, have time to sift through your options.

As you listen to your heart and face any ‘ruts’ or ‘holding patterns’ you might be in, I hope that your options extend beyond having to swim back to shore. But, sometimes back-tracking a little, taking more time to rest and re-assess, is the best move. Back in the days of horse-drawn carts, when a wooden cartwheel got stuck in a rut, instead of whipping the horses to pull harder, the wise driver coaxed his horses gently:  step forward, step backwards, rocking the wheel in the rut just enough to lift it up and out. Easy does it.

For a long time now, and with even more effort lately, I’ve been trying to recall my dreams the minute I wake up in the morning. Most of the time, even a vivid, totally-immersive experience during sleep evaporates as fast as my conscious mind tries to grab for it. This morning was different, though:  not only did I wake with a complete memory of what I’d dreamed,  but I was also keenly aware of the message from my subconscious mind, as to what it was trying to tell me. Last night’s dream was all about my relationship with Love, and how that relationship has changed, through both luminous, and harsh, experiences.

Being in Love is uniquely personal. I can’t, and wouldn’t try to describe it for anyone else. First Love (which was what my dream-memory recalled) was an absolute free-fall and deep-dive into the other person, without any fear or hesitation. I often had the sense that we were in sync at a cellular level: at times seeing, breathing, thinking as One.  Everything that I thought I was, and everything I wanted to be, was intertwined with this feeling. Love was authentic and trustworthy. Love was a kind of protective insulation from the world; a special way of feeling, and being, that sprinkled fairy dust on anything  we wanted to conjure together (even the mundane, like our first apartment). My first love lasted almost 9 years. Even then, the love didn’t ever wane, but our radically-different ideas about ‘stability’ became impossible to ignore. We were a cliché of the times:  the ambitious professional, constantly – and becoming bored with — propping up the starving-artist who wanted to play music and do little else. Still, over the years that First Love remained imprinted on my entire being;  it was my metric for how I knew a relationship could feel. But as I continued to date, even falling in love two more times, I began to change, and my lovers did too.

If we stay ‘single’ or get divorced, at a certain point, — or maybe it’s a certain age — men and women start to feel and act on the belief that Love is just not going to happen naturally. It’s over. Done. The time has passed.That’s when the small lapses start; the little half-truths or fully-baked lies.When I’ve had occasion to give a man the heave-ho because he’s grossly misrepresented himself (I once had guy tell me he was in a college nursing program; he was actually a gardener with no academic aspirations), I’ve always asked, Why? Why lie? A shrug of the shoulders is a common response. As if.  If I had time and space here, I’d share with you some similar, truly laughable, and even bizarre, online dating experiences I’ve had. (which is why I stopped taking that avenue!) Men have lied about their faces and bodies (of course, right?), but also their careers, interests, habits (smoking, vs. non-) and marital status (“married, but (not) in the divorce process”). Again: Why do this? It’s not like the Truth will never be exposed; but it’s a gamble that it won’t, so there’s the answer.

My male friends (not dating prospects, so they’re willing to be candid) back me up on this, telling me that I just don’t understand how hard it is for men to be “on their own”. They seem to think that women have the upper-hand, when it comes to coping with a solitary life; so, women are less-likely “cave” to deception and outright lying.

I don’t know about that. But what I do know is that it can feel increasingly difficult to remember Love, before the heart became jaded and wary; and, at the same time, easier to want to hide in seclusion, amidst the after effects of consecutive disappointments with Love. My dream last night, I’m convinced, arrived as a gentle reminder of the Power of Love, Trusting in Love, being Patient with Love, and the courage needed to take care of my Self until I cross paths with Love again. There’s really no point in trying to look for it; it knows where I am.

Yesterday, like many people in the U.S. and in Europe, I spent time watching the very somber and poignant D-Day Remembrance ceremony held in Normandy, France. As I do each year, I also reflected on the military service of my father in this conflict. Being drafted into the army at age 20 changed him forever; I’m convinced it’s why he became such a stoic personality, although I heard very little (his choice) about what he went through.

Both of my grandfathers served in the previous war (WWI) also reluctant to talk about their experiences. But my grandmother (on my mother’s side) was always willing to recall her experience being “courted” by a “beau” who was a soldier. My grandmother, Beulah Howell, was born in 1898, near the end of a succession of 13 children. Seven of her siblings, six brothers and one sister, most of them older than she, died from either tuberculosis or influenza before Beulah was 20 years old. I think I was around 13 or 14 when she first told me the full story. The emotional devastation of these deaths impacted my grandmother and the rest of the family in ways that you’d imagine. But, for Beulah, the deaths also changed her thinking, driving her to what I absorbed as a kind of calculated fury to embrace life on her terms.

In 1918, a few months before WWI ended in November, my grandmother was 20 years old and enrolled in a Teacher’s College in Toole, Utah. It was July, and very warm. After her classes, she and a friend decided to walk to a Sweet Shop to get ice cream. My grandmother, so she told me, was completely dazzled by two uniformed soldiers who were in the shop, sitting at a table drinking iced tea. (To prove this point mid-story, grandmother Beulah whipped-out a picture of my grandfather in his uniform, before they were married; I had to admit, the guy she had in her sights was gorgeous). My grandmother (remember, this was 1918, and women did not behave this way, generally,) left her friend where they’d been seated and went to the soldiers’ table. She immediately engaged my future grandfather (who, she recalled to me, was very shy and somewhat taken aback by Beulah’s approach). Her “line” was shocking in its day, suggesting that the ice cream was delicious, and Wouldn’t he like to try some of hers? (as she extended her glass toward him). According to my grandmother, the soldier was immediately ‘smitten’ (her word). The two spoke long enough for my grandmother to explain who she was, where she lived, and that she’d welcome him “calling in” at her home.

My grandfather — Homer — wasted no time. He and his unit were on a brief leave in Toole. Less than a week later, Homer produced a ring and asked my grandmother to wear it until the war ended and he could return home to marry her. Sounds romantic, right? But here’s where my grandmother’s grit and no-nonsense approach to life’s realities kicked-in. Paraphrasing what she said to me, she responded to Homer’s proposal by saying, “Why on earth would I wear your ring, letting all the other boys know I’m spoken-for, when you might not even come back ?” Now, I’m guessing that there actually weren’t too many eligible men around, given the war, but my grandmother did tell me about an older gentleman, “with a big, expensive car”, that had been aggressively courting Beulah before Homer arrived on the scene. Apparently, he thought he was a Serious Contender.

At this point in the story, I was pretty stunned by my grandmother’s steely pragmatism and, what I would now call, a fairly cold-blooded attitude toward my future grandfather. Nevertheless, I could see her point. Without a ring on her finger, clearly signifying that Beulah belonged to him exclusively, Homer was put on “the back foot” (as we still say) and, according to my grandmother, more motivated to return to her. She confessed to me that she was completely in love with my grandfather, but felt she had to put practicality above passion. While Homer went back overseas, Beulah let herself be courted by the “rich man”. But when her soldier returned to her, they were immediately married. They stayed so, for almost 70 years, until my grandfather died.

Beaulah, 1918

Most of the women I know consciously strive to release what we all recognize as unhealthy ways of thinking and patterns of behavior. The amount of introspection and effort required depends on how long we’ve nurtured an emotional wound. The act of Release is an amazing thing. Some women use lovely and elaborate ‘cleansing’ or ‘healing’ rituals that close with celebrations. Some simply meditate, breathe, then release what’s no longer needed to God or the Great Mother, or to the Universe. Some women are so strong that they simply decide: “That’s enough of that!” And then they go for a walk, or to the gym; they treat themselves to a shopping spree or spa-day; a new scent or adornment, or to a full-on vacation.

It feels like I’ve been finding and releasing this kind of “junk” for years. Likening it to one of my least favorite household chores, it feels like I’m stuck in a Groundhog Day of folding and putting away a never-ending basket of now-clean laundry. Just when I think I’ve paired and inverted the last pair of socks, I look down and see there’s more clean laundry in the ‘basket’.

This past weekend I did something (then berated myself afterwards about it) that I thought I was done with: I apologized ( to someone very dear to me) for apparently causing ‘hurt’ — which I felt in my bones was actually an overreaction to a casual comment I’d made. He was upset, and I wanted to soothe him; which I know really meant, enable him. Of course he felt better, having someone to pin his reaction on, but I was left feeling annoyed with myself for having taken on the responsibility for his outburst. Still, harmony was restored, so that was a net-gain for me. For a minute.

In the aftermath of this personal exchange, I wondered why and how my instinct to restore peace has always been — it seems to me — over-developed. As I’ve done my reading (academic and recreational) over the years, I’ve learned that this is a pretty common trait among women. (An underlying reason, I’m convinced, that the majority of males are so fearful of a woman in the White House.) Still, it’s important to be able to take a stand and remain firm in refusing blame that’s not legitimately your own. In the workplace I’ve become skilled at this. My go-to line: “I’m sorry you feel upset,” versus “I’m sorry for what I did” (because I didn’t do anything wrong). In our personal relationships, it’s often more difficult to offer rebuttal when someone’s put-out (unless it’s a child, and you are the parent). As women we’re expected to be receptive; to absorb discord; to offer ‘honey’ instead of ‘vinegar’ to disagreeable people. And we do this; but, at what cost to ourselves and our personal development?

Meanwhile, the Media shows us that a growing number of people appear to be acting on impulse, irrespective of others’ needs and feelings, without ever apologizing. It’s clear that more men than women are in this category. Ironically , we’re also exposed to an increase in outraged voices and very ‘public’ demands for Apology, for perceived slights or injuries. Thanks to our real-time media, public shaming can be instantaneous when/if an apology is not forthcoming. It’s as though our collective, internal perceptions or definitions of What I Believe I Did, versus What You Seem to Think I Did, and What I Really Did have become irreparably distorted and opaque. Are we doing this intentionally (avoiding taking responsibility), or are we really no longer sure of the standards of behavior in our personal lives, nor of the parameters or decorum in our social groups?

I know one thing for sure. I’m going to keep ‘doing my own laundry’ (back to my metaphor) and self-checking ,when an Apology doesn’t feel like mine to make. And I’m going to be totally un-apologetic about that.

Before reading further, please note that some of the material in this Post may cause some Readers (who’ve perhaps had similar experiences) discomfort.

I characterize my  “#MeToo Moments” as follows:  feeling sexually intimidated, coerced, or threatened by a male.

My first #MeToo Moment happened when I was only 9 years old. Not even an adolescent, and I was already the target of a 14 year old boy:  a good friend of my oldest brother, who was also 14. Both of my parents had 9-5 careers. After breakfast, and at the end of the day, my two brothers and I walked or bicycled to and from school. I was usually the first to arrive home in the afternoon; I never knew when my older brothers would show up at home, due to sports and whatever else they did. When they got home, it was still usually two hours or so before an adult was in the house. My brothers had friends over in this timeslot, from time to time. One day, “Doug” showed up at my house, ostensibly to meetup with my oldest brother. Not having any reason to feel fear about being in the house with a 14 year old boy, and a friend of my brother’s besides – someone who I recognized as ‘familiar – I wasn’t alarmed. Doug went into my brothers’ room , but then called to me. When I walked in the room I saw that he was lying on the bed, his legs dangling over the end of it, his pants down around his knees. Now, growing up with two teenage brothers and a pretty healthy balance between ‘information’ about body parts, and modesty, I knew what a penis was and had seen my own father’s once, when he dove into a river sans underwear, during one of our road trips. But a stranger’s anatomy was another matter. I stood frozen where I was, confused about why I’d been called into the bedroom, but Doug cleared that up quickly. He guess he assumed that my hesitance meant I was waiting for instructions. “Touch it.” (No) “Blow on it, then.” (No). Doug was about to ask for something else penis-related, but there was a noise from the hallway of the house – it sounded like one of my brothers was now home. He hastily did up his pants and gave a breathless, “Don’t say anything, ok?” Of course he did.

I tried to put this incident out of my mind. It made no sense to me, but I already felt complicit, somehow, in something bad. The sad truth is, a similar scene played out again, about one week later. This time, however, the boy had more in mind. He came into my own bedroom, where I was putting some little art piece from school on a small table by my bed. Doug got down on his knees, pushing his body against mine and the table, trapping me. He started to put his hands all over me, but this time I pushed past him and ran out of the house. I walked around the block several times – I must have appeared like one strange little girl to the neighbors – until I saw my oldest brother’s bicycle parked in our drive. I shot into the house and told him what his friend had tried to do. (I’d shared the first incident with my best friend at school, and she gave me an “earful” about how stupid I’d been.) My brother, when I told him, at first looked shocked. Then his mouth twisted into a snarl and he accused me of making both events up, trying to get Doug “in trouble”. To this day, I don’t know if my brother ever said anything to his friend – we never spoke of it — but Doug stopped coming to the house. I do know that I continued to feel ashamed, frightened, confused, betrayed and sad that I’d made my brother angry. I definitely felt as though I’d done something to cause this situation; I just didn’t know what.

The second incident happened when I was a beginning teacher, at age 23. I’d been trying to land a permanent position, but had no classroom experience. I was told that, by applying to work summer school, I might earn some quick status that might lead to a contract in the fall of the year. I’d heard that a particular principal had openings in his summer program, so I made an appointment to see him, at very end of the school year. To my amazement, the principal responded enthusiastically to my request and told me how to take care of the “details” of my official hire with HR. It was my very first week of teaching a 9th grade summer school English class. I was so excited, and so happy to be teaching in my subject area. I was also very nervous. I wanted to do a good job. I wanted the students to like me as a teacher and hoped they would enjoy my class. One day, I was in the middle of setting up a film (back in the day of reel to reel projectors!) to introduce a novel to my class. The principal walked straight into the room, directly toward me, with a very stern look on his face. He was at least 6’4″ and very powerfully built. He was also at least 20 years older than I. Of course I was terrified, and paranoid that I’d already done something wrong; something that would cause him to release me from my position. I need this job badly. The man leaned in close to my left ear as the very full class of (almost 40) curious students watched both of us. I was expecting the principal to say, “Report to my office, after class!”. I was sure that his behavior meant a reprimand was coming. Instead, the principal whispered in my ear, “I’d like to f*** your brains out!” Then he turned away and walked out of my classroom.

My face burned. The students in the front row, closest to where I stood, looked freaked-out. They were watching me very intently, perhaps expecting me to cry or to bolt from the room. I struggled to not “lose it”, but it was impossible to teach after that. I put the film on, let it play in its entirety, then dismissed my class at the end of the hour. Shortly afterwards I went to the principal’s office to vent about what he’d done, hoping he wouldn’t fire me on the spot. He accepted me into his office, shut the door and began making suggestive comments about meeting someplace later in the day. I stood by the door and told him clearly how his comment had made me feel and that I was not interested. How the man laughed ! His face was a strange mask of anger and amazement. He began ‘back-pedaling’. It had all been a joke. I was ‘stupid’ for taking him seriously. I had better ‘grow up’ if I wanted to work at his school. He continued belittling me, telling me I was ‘confused’, that I ‘flattered myself’, thinking he was interested in me. His words made me feel that I had somehow imagined the whole thing – a kind of waking nightmare.

I know that neither of the above events were as bad or as harmful as what other women have endured. But I also know that the memories of how I felt when I resisted or objected to being bullied sexually have remained – not only in my memory, but in some deeper, more private place – into adulthood. The shame of ‘the act’ perpetrated on me (especially as a little girl); the frightening moments of not knowing if my resistance would stave off an attack; being ridiculed after the fact; and being accused of making up stories or imagining events all impacted me as a girl growing up, and my perceptions of male authority figures.

When a girl child or a woman is sexually intimidated (or worse), I’ve learned — through my own research – that it’s very common for us to assume that something we did, or, the way we acted or looked, summoned The Beast. We provoked him, and therefore, got what we were secretly hoping for; or somehow deserved. This is the most vile misconception and obscene excuse for male arrogance and aggression toward women that exists.

The more women enter into full awareness of their innate rights, as well as their personal and professional power, the greater the potential for these scenarios to repeat themselves. At this very moment in time, the  growing hostility of males in the media and political arena makes clear how vulnerable we all are as women.

We must stand together; we must be proactive in our actions, showing strength and unity; and, we must protect one another by sharing our stories and validating each one.