It came to me last week, lying on the table during a cranio-sacral session, a feeling kept locked in my chest for years by a constant contraction in my body. All of my muscles have been complicit in holding this belief in its hiding place. When I finally relaxed to let it surface, this is what it said: “no matter how much work you do in the world, the lives of girls will never be valued.”
If I heard someone else say this, I would probably fight them on it. But there it was and still is, my most deeply held, embodied belief. This is the belief around which I have shaped my whole life, unconsciously but still somehow deliberately; a systematic holding on, piece by piece, muscle by muscle, year by year. I am shocked, but not surprised. The shock feels familiar–it pulls me out of time and place and floats me like fog above my life. I feel the wired-tired adrenaline surge that has been my normal speed since I can remember. One foot in front of the other, I have trudged through the world like this for decades. This is why I am unsurprised. I was crushed before I even started. I was befriended by futility before I even learned to tie my shoes. One foot in front of the other is the siren call of the perpetually resigned, the pre-emptively hopeless.
The voice was loud and constant when I was a kid. “No matter how hard you work, no matter what you do, how good you are, how smart, how funny, how competent, your life will never be worth anything.” I let this message seep into the marrow of my bones until the voice no longer had to say its’ piece at all. I acted accordingly, never really cared enough to try hard at anything. I skated through school bemused and somewhat disgusted by the high-achievers around me. Bemused because I really couldn’t understand why anyone would get worked up about not understanding algebra, when I felt like my life could be snuffed out at any moment. Disgusted because they dared to show what they cared about, dared to think their lives mattered.
It was my father who taught me to resign. My father threatened my life almost every day, until one day, he didn’t have to anymore. One day I unconsciously committed to living a life that would be so unimpressively mundane that threatening it would be a waste of words, and he stopped saying it so much. It was my future he threatened. The story was that he would send someone to kill me when I was an adult, and didn’t need him anymore. He said the person he would send to kill me would be somebody I loved–the last person I would ever expect.
My father had to keep me afraid and disappearing to cover his tracks because he sexually abused me for years. He taught me not to trust my own mind by telling me that my brown eyes were, in fact, blue. He made me repeat it until I believed it, until I looked in the mirror and saw what wasn’t there. Then he would change his story, say, “Oh baby, I’m so worried about you. Why do you think you have blue eyes? Look at them, they’re brown. Why would you say something like that?” My credibility and sanity was always in question.
This is what married me to futility–the idea that even if I got away from him, he would find me and kill me, some stupid future self with an adult life, letting her guard down for a second and getting garrotted in her car in the parking lot of the grocery store or frying in a toaster-dunked bathtub. I never had a chance, so why bother caring about anything? The nail in the coffin of my resignation was this–all of this abuse happened while I was surrounded by people. My mom, my sisters, my teachers, friends, neighbors. All sorts of things happened in plain sight. No one else seemed to see, so again, why bother showing them something they have already seen and deemed irrelevant? I felt like a thing, an object, a rag doll. A figment of my own imagination. I am only just now understanding that I am human–that I have a place in this world. There is a seat at the table for me that has been empty for years.
I have left behind an exhaustive trail of confused teachers, friends, and colleagues. I show up bright, shining and strong one minute and the next I am gone. I can articulate a clear vision, then don’t show up to see it through. I forget for a minute that I’m supposed to be invisible and I appear suddenly like light through a fog. When I realize I have been seen and I run back underground. I’m like a prairie dog. I am Persephone, so digested by half a life in darkness that this light is unreal, unbearable, impossible to do anything but stand here blinking, blinking, blinking, trying to make out the shapes of things.
I am not grounded in this world. I am undergrounded.
But there is more than just one thing that is true. “One foot in front of the other” is also the battle cry of the unrelenting. It is the action of the indomitable spirit. This is the truth that runs alongside the darkness like a stream: Yes, I embody futility. It sits inside me like a clot in a vein, a dam in a river. There it is again–deep in my gut–that no matter how much work I do, with myself, in the world, the lives of girls will never be valued. Yes, there is a dam in the river, but there is also, still, the river. And, left to its own devices, even if it takes years, the river will break the dam down.
I know this, because I also embody the river. I know this because even more than the darkness in me, I feel the light-filled fingerprints my daughter has left on every last one of my cells. She is worth fighting for. Her spirit is worth stoking into flames. I know this in the choking sobs that wrench out of my gut–the sobs are full of grief for all the girls who never got to know how precious and valuable they were, but they are also full of so much joy and hope. Yes, that’s hope. That’s what it feels like. I am starting to remember.
And if my daughter is worth fighting for, then I need to be, too. She absorbs who I am, and I want for her to absorb as much love, resilience, worth and joy as possible. This is what I haven’t said yet–after I heard that voice–that belief–no matter how much work I do in the world, the lives of girls will never be valued–there was another voice that followed, immediately. Self-assured in a quiet little way, clear as a bell, and from a part of me that’s even deeper than my knotted gut. It said, “you know, you haven’t ever really tried.” And trust me when I tell you, that voice was full of hope and expectation and hearing it was like coming home. I am coming home. I am going to take my seat at the table.