Okay… Fair disclosure? I have what many women take for granted—some do not want it nor do they seek out; others pretend they don’t have it or need it. But what any girl raised by wolves craves, at least on some level, and maybe, probably and tragically will never have is …
the company of women. Sisterhood.
Now, as much as we try to paint it with a rosy brush, it’s not all love and light, even with the communities strung together by letters (oh and shared um… discriminations…). It doesn’t seem like it should be a miracle, but then it also doesn’t seem like anyone should have to worry where they go potty either … ah, reality—good old slap your forehead in disbelief, you gotta be kidding me, somebody please wake me up, reality. But yes, it’s true. So, that’s why having sisterhood is such a rare and precious thing. It’s not a given, it’s not a done deal. Not even a slam dunk. It’s … a miracle.
Yes. it is a miracle, this sisterhood thingy..
And it’s not lost on me that I am the new girl, the baby sister, embraced by some as a wonderful, joyous chick with fluffy stubby little feathers where my wings will be, and the gawky, awkward gait that needs the shoulders of my older sisters to keep me from tripping over myself as I start to spread my wings and fly.
At 54 years of age, this is admittedly a little weird for me to accept, but not in ways that may be obvious – having been raised and regarded and expected to succeed, to have my “feces cohesive,” to know where the four-letter-word I’m going and how to get there. As a professional leader, I was expected to make sure everyone else was safe including every new baby whatevers. I made it my business to know where the threats were, how to deal with them, and how to make it all work to our advantage (or at least, not take advantage of us).
It’s a skill that fed me and Mylove (literally) for close to 30 years.
So, to be the new girl, the one who doesn’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t know; the one who’s “heart is blessed” (in the southern “bless her heart” dismissiveway); the one who, in many ways, is “back at square one.” Whenever I get help from my big sisters, it’s a lesson in humility.
The reason being back at square one is humbling is this:
as a 54 year-old woman, I have to admit … I am immature. In many ways, I don’t know how to be, as my big Sis Kathy would say, “in polite company.” I am humbled by knowing there’s a lot I don’t know. All I can offer in my defense (which I tried to explain in my book) is that I protected myself from the crash that would come whenever I allowed myself to be myself by ignoring this thing called life to go by me untouched. And so I never did learn which fork is for the salad or why you don’t wear white to a wedding.
Now, this isn’t that important in the long run, right? On what planet???? Of course this is important. Women have to master “being” as a survival skill. Fortunately, it’s in our DNA. We do know how to be; it’s how we live … together. But we still have to learn where the fine line is between being gauche and standing out.
At this point in my life, knowing this and knowing how to do it, are a platform and a train. And you can guess where my feet are.
If you can’t imagine what it’s like to have to redefine your life at fifty, consider this: you have slowly (imperceptibly at times and dramatically at others) been “making” this person known as you. However, those of us raised by wolves have had to try to make a “persona” to show you, while keeping a parallel track of consciousness that is our self-self, slowly maturing as we age. The persona track gets to try and fail, to step out and stub its toe, bump its nose, trip over its own folly, and learn from its foibles, as well as its successes.
But the self-self, oh the dear and sweet self-self, lives like Rapunzel in her cold stone tower, or worse, like Sleeping Beauty, waiting fora prince’s kiss to free her from her sleepy curse. The self-self’s so-called life gets lived in theory only, with a silent, longing whisper documenting “couldas, shoudas, and wouldas” that fall further and further out of sync with a growing intellect and ever-changing sensibilities. These sensibilities are ethereal, with no practicality to test their validity.
For me growing up, my feminine self-self’s constant whisper put everything it said into ideals, “I would never do that as a woman.” “I would never let anyone talk to me like that.” “I would never let a man define my life.” “I would never wear pants.” “I would celebrate my femininity every day.” Etc. Etc. Etc.
But those were the declarations of a girl who never dreamed that she’d ever get to descend the cold stone tower’s hewn steps one day, never thought she would ever cross the courtyard, never believed that she would feel the sun’s warmth on her feminine cheeks.
In other words, the woman I would’ve been eventually became only the product of my mind. And I’ve had to be brutally honest with myself to accept that this is usually called a fantasy. This fantasy woman would, of course, look amazing in anything, never get sore legs or feet from heels that were too high, never get cold from hemlines too short or necklines too long, never attract derision from revealing too much cleavage, never engender disrespect, would be loved and admired by all.
But, when the day did come in this lifetime that I filed the bars of my prison and broke free, I was to encounter, in the warm light of day, the real me, the real woman, who would be living in the physical reality of 2016 … a woman who was larger than many but not than most. she was not super comfortable with how some clothes showed too much of a good thing, and didn’t really look good with too much eyeliner.She was smart enough to know how the games are played, was more confident speaking up and speaking her mind than many would dare, even if her voice is deeper than she’d like. Was a bit more (I dunno the best way to say this)cavalier than most? The boy word would be… cocky. (Ew, it’s creepy to even type…) But, she is. Cavalier that is.
But, and this was the big surprise, she was a bit awkward. Okay, no, a lot more awkward than most about the simplest things. Like… like, how to be. How to exist. How to relax and live.
I wrote last time about how I have been in an on-going discussion about “how a woman bes,” with my screenwriting partner and mentor, Valerie. As a woman of color who has deftly and gracefully navigated Hollywood, she has a four-letter-word ton of things she can and does teach me. But this discussion keeps coming back to behavior. What are female traits/things, etc., and which are male. She has taught me that being a woman is having the right to be free from ANY rules for rules’ sake. She loves Jaden Smith and his declarations that he’s not wearing a girl’s skirt, he’s wearing his skirt. She reminds me constantly that, up until the1930’s, pink was considered too strong a color for girl babies; blue was softer and more feminine.
In these discussions, I am guilty of constantly trying to draw distinctions between female & male behavior, quirks and tics. But Valerie checks me into the boards every time. (How very hockey night of me.) Having been raised by wolves, I figure, I do have a perspective that she might not have. but that doesn’t matter to her. She disagrees with the premise that there are definable male behaviors and female behaviors..
In fact, she challenges me every time without fail … I can hear her now … “not every time.” See what I mean?
But she is right. She naturally sees the world the way I hope to see it. Being a woman means YOU define the you that you are. And nobody, not society, not other women, certainly not men, not history, not yesterday, nor even tomorrow, defines you.
Well, except that it does.
You wanna test this? Watch Fox News (an oxymoron if ever there was one). It’s in their DNA. They have changed the way that women are filmed. Fox News treats women differently from their men, and it’s so not good—from the way women are regarded by their male counterparts on camera to the disparagement they endure at the hands of their management on down. Can you say, “Meghan Kelly?” But the women who do notice this have to ignore it, because this boy’s club has given so many women prominent jobs. The women who don’t notice … well, I’m not sure they’re reading this.
I mentioned all of this to my hair stylist, Tammy. This amazing woman is actually “number three” (the third person I “came out” to). She put her scissors down and spun another chair around to sit and give me a talk that I, having not had my mother’s knee or even the cliché teenage slumber parties to learn the ways of women, ever got. She was as serious as a heart attack as she rolled the words over in her head as if deciding if I was ready to hear the truth about the Easter Bunny …
“Our life as women, like it or not, IS governed by our appearance. It doesn’t mean that’s who you are… but it sorta is…. who you are.”
And this is how I knew estrogen is working on me. I knew what she meant by that conundrum. I can hear Valerie rolling her eyes from here. We may not want to have society judge us on either our ability to match shoes with our dress, or our indifference to that significance, but judging will be happening—even by our best and closest friends, family, and lovers. What the judger and judgee do with that judgment is up to both separately, and the stuff that makes this whole magilla the magilla that it is. We surrender to it, fight it, embrace it, buck it, ignore it or dismiss it, dance with it (to it or around it), tweak it, bend it, break it and break from it. Every day.
Sigh. This gets me to my point of this mining operation. This girl had to realize that, having been raised by wolves for most of my life, I have been cultivating two sets of criteria for this mad play. One was based on male values and the other on my values. The male set has been easily dropped, mostly (tho’ wraiths of their former selves creep up from the darnedest places and at the darnedest times). But the female set was based on theory only, with little practical application to confirm, refine, and expand. Double sigh. What’s a girl to do?
They say the universe hears even the slightest whisper of a prayer.
And three weeks ago, I found myself in charm school. I’m not kidding. My auntie Linda really and truly embraced the opportunity (and the obvious need) to use the two weeks of Marcy’s and mystay with her, as her chance to make a lady of me. She is a dear friend who invited us to come to Seattle to promote my book. And here’s where I got the above picture of a chick being kept warm and fed as it grew to eventually be pushed from the nest to fly on its own. Auntie Linda made it her business to get up in my business to sand off as many rough spots as she could in two weeks–the collateral damage from my time with the wolves.
Her motto was this: If I was ever invited to the White House, I should know how to conduct myself as a lady.
Now, let me make something crystal clear. I loved, loved, LOVED every moment of her loving and gentle tutelage. Every admonishment was a baby step forward. From chewing gum in public (apparently this is frowned upon in polite company), to cursing (when I got fresh blackberry juice on my white tennis skirt and tried to verbally shout it out, I heard from two rooms away a gentle, yet firm reminder, “Lady’s don’t curse”), to being practically levitated into the air by her stern look of shock alone when I bent down on one knee in a dress to pet a dog and was, well, giving it away for free, as they say.
But the harshest lesson was the day I sat back after a lunch I had made for us ladies and had, thank-you-very-much, totally nailed it. I pulled out my trusty flossing toothpick, as was my custom, and proceeded to clean my teeth. Auntie put her fork down and said with a very quiet and sweet voice, “Honey. Among family, it might be okay, but… well, you don’t… You won’t pick your teeth in public, ever, right? Ever! In fact … it’s really not okay among family, either.”
Now. I felt like I had been hit in the face with a bucket of cold sh… shame. As I sat there, face burning, mind racing in roaring silence, Mylove was doing a victory dance in her seat.
It burned me all night long. And then I realized why. Because I felt entitled to pick my teeth at the table that I had, all my life been schooled was rightly, and divinely… mine.I was the oldest of four children, and my father’s only heir-apparent. My sisters will probably say that my mom fawned on me, but I certainly was being raised as that chip off the old block, the apple that wouldn’t fall too far from my dad’s tree, the very image that my sisters would use to measure the men who would come to be their husbands. And I was treated to an intrinsic princely privilege.
But here we were, post estrogen, and the table was my Auntie’s. It was her house. It was her food. I had merely prepared it. Where in the four-letter-word, did I four-letter-wording, get off with this … entitlement?
I realized that the reason there were third-degree scorches on my heart was the double shame of discovering yet another forgotten trip wire of male privilege, and the cold guilt from knowing that I had ever embraced any of them in the first place.
Look… before you either feel righteous yourself or try to help me off my hook, know that any privilege was a very small and bitter consolation prize for selling out one’s soul. And whatever perks I got have been taken back in spades. When the threat of getting raped and dragged behind a car because some psycho decides either that they get to decide what potty you get to use, or worse, that you are their new plaything, then you can call me on my supposed privilege. Until then, sit down, and put your mommy on the phone; this is a conversation for adults only.
Back in charm school, the cooling salve for me in the burn ward was my Auntie’s acceptance and love and genuine desire to help me make up for lost time. And I will be forever grateful for her and those two weeks.
Oddly, the universe must know I’ve got to work fast (maybe that evite to the Whitehouse is pending?), cuz the very next week, I got a crash course in being a woman in business from my wife’s dear friend and lifelong chum, Bunny. The Bun, is one of the most brilliant women I know. And it seemed like it only took her half a breath to embrace me as her baby sister. She seemed to instantly “get” that I had no idea how to go from one of the most respected showrunners in adventure TV to a woman in a man’s world. And once again, we had to act fast as I had an interview with a great production company in just a few days.
She grilled me as we sat in our bathrobes and slippies, sipping “fawkey” one morning, (coffee for those just joining this blog) and apparently she was x-raying me for signs that I could at least reach up to touch that glass ceiling. I’d like to think she saw potential because she quickly left the room to return moments later with a pretty silk pouch. She poured the contents into my hand.
I opened my cupped hands to see a beautiful, and now my favorite, pair of pearl and quartz earrings. The Bun looked at me and got very serious as we both sat and she imparted these instructions:
No necklace. It just draws attention to your chest.
You want them to keep their eyes on your face. If they stray the earrings will make them return to your eyes.
You want them to take you seriously as a woman with a brain.
And then her voice went down to powerful yet hyper calm tenor:
“You must really listen to the “suits.” They are stupid and afraid of making a mistake with their boss, so listen for their weaknesses and then you figure out a way to make them stronger. And you let them take the credit for everything, and then you’ll own them. You don’t ever let them own you. You give up your desire to do your own things with them. Forget about that right now. You care only about one thing. Making money. You do what they want, cash their check, get your fulfillment elsewhere.”
Now, if I hadn’t been sitting in the gorgeous seaside Carmel villa that she had had remodeled to architectural digest level of exquisiteness, with a now comfortably retired powerhouse who had started as a nurse and became a leading consultant in the ADA compliant business, I might’ve dismissed her instruction as being merely… I dunno, maybe battle-scarred surrender. But she is the exact opposite, sitting tall and stately the victorious conqueror. Yes, here was one of the strongest women I know, giving me a valuable tip in the language only strong women can understand–that strong women know they are strong. They aren’t strong because others declare it. They know that nobody can ever take away their power because they know to their core that they are limitless. Because only women are capable of creation without believing that they are the source of that creation—that their power can never be lost, taken away or even given away… it just is.
Powerful stuff over morning fawkey and a lesson still banging around inside my head weeks later.
And again, humbling, and heady, and pinch-me-i-must-be-dreaming-what-in-the-world-did-I-do-to-deserve-this-what-took-me-so-long…joy. As I try to process this all without exploding into a supernova of relief, I realize that… holy geezus, I am going to be… better than ok.
But this is how it is in the company of women. Shared knowledge and careful, mindful nurturing of the next in line, to be the best person I am capable of being. How beautiful is that?
And it’s lucky for me, cuz as it’s been pointed out I’ve got a lot to learn, and fast. But I am a good student. Maybe that’s why I have been accepted so readily into the company of great women,into Sisterhood?
Then again. Maybe it’s just love.
Scottie Jeanette Madden
Screenwriter, Author, Cook and Lover. Author of "Getting Back To Me, from girl to boy to woman in just fifty years"