Monday, January 14, 2013

On Not Being Fearless, But Walking Anyway

Today a friend posted a link to part of this comic.  It's all about the idea of empowering women by advocating that we become fearless.  I wrote this post earlier this year on not being fearful, but I'm not *fearless*, not at all.

It's been pointed out to me that I occasionally give the impression of being 'ten feet tall and bulletproof'.  I'm not, and I know I'm not.  I am competent, and level-headed in a crisis, and pragmatic, but I am not invulnerable.  I'm just refusing to accept fear's limitations.

There was a minor kerfluffle with my dad lately, in which he said he wishes I would not hike alone, because 'something might happen'.  I tried to explain that I carry food, and water, and a jacket and a cellphone and a multitool, that I'm getting a handheld GPS so I'll be able to better know where I am, that I take reasonable trail precautions, but he's still holding on to 'something might happen.'  Later that evening, one of the dinner guests, a friend of my stepmother's, asked me about hiking, saying "And you hike by yourself?  Are you really sure that's wise?"  I said, shortly, "Yes, it is."

I know that things can happen.  I know that it's not a safe world for women, that it's specifically less safe for women than for men.  I know that the thing my father won't say out loud is not that I might get hurt or attacked by an animal.  He is afraid I will be assaulted, raped, or murdered, and he's correct in his knowledge that my gender makes me more likely to be so.  What he doesn't understand is how aware I am that I might also be assaulted, raped, or murdered by someone I meet at the grocery store, or someone who lives in my apartment complex, or the acquaintance of an acquaintance I meet at a party, or a partner, or any one of a dozen other scenarios.  There is no guarantee that any place is a 'safe place' for me, not my own house, not even his house.

It bothers me when people like my stepmother's friend offer "Are you sure that's wise?" in hushed and scandalised voices, with significant looks to make sure I understand the unspoken "...for a woman?"  They wouldn't ask this of either of my stepbrothers, one of whom has been working in bars and at after-hours parties in all sorts of parts of Austin and San Antonio pretty much since he finished college -- and neither of whom has the sort of skills and experience I have at taking care of myself.

The conversation with my father trailed off when I tried to explain that I was refusing to accept what I felt were gender-based attitudes towards my need for fear.  I said, "You wouldn't ask those questions of a son.  You're a father of two daughters you didn't raise to be cowards.  Doesn't it bother you that I'm expected to live a life in fear, that I'm just supposed to accept that the world is more dangerous for me?"  He didn't have an answer, except that "It's just the way the world is."

He thinks I'm being fearless.  I'm not being fearless.  I'm often very, very afraid, so afraid that my hands shake and my voice threatens to give out on me, but I know that being afraid must not stop me.  There are times when I am in a situation, on a trail as the sun sets or walking further than I remember to my car late at night, and I think, "If something happens to me, they will say 'she should have known better than to do that in this dangerous world' and shake their heads.  They will say I 'got myself' hurt, and that of course I didn't 'deserve' it, precisely, but what did I expect?"

But I walk on, and I force myself to hold up my head, to project confidence, to make each stride firm and decisive.  In part, it's because I have no other option.  I can't call my dad, or some other male, to come and walk me back to my car or finish that last half-mile of trail with me.  I can't just stop living, stop moving, stop having experiences just because my gender makes me a target.  I can't pass up my life just because I'm afraid to live it without an escort, a chaperone, a bodyguard, a buddy.

There's another reason, a stronger one, that makes me brave when I am scared: I never know who's watching me.  Maybe it's a predator looking for a soft target, who'll move along when he sees my squared shoulders and easy stride.  More than that?  Maybe it's another woman, another frightened woman who's being told she must stay in the light, must behave, must follow all the rules, must never walk alone, must never trust in her own companionship, and maybe she'll see me and straighten her own back, hold up her own head.  And maybe it's a little girl, building the character of the woman she'll be.  Maybe when people push her to fear, to hide, to stay with the herd, she'll remember me, walking alone in the places I have every right to be, and she'll accept the danger as I do, steady her hands, and set out to choose her own way.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

In Which I Am Thinking About Being Here

This article in Slate caught my eye today.  Aside from the catchy 'Hey, be like Sherlock!' pop-culture analysis of it, the points in it are very important, and worth reading.  I believe we're losing valuable observational and experiential skills.

Mindfulness is something many people, especially those on spiritual paths, set as a goal.  We want to attain that state of being fully present in the moment, but we're surrounded by influences that fight against it.  The cell phone, tablet, and laptop mean that I can 'stay connected' wherever I go.  Sometimes, this is good.  When I'm getting ready for the Dionysium, when I'm planning the safety arrangements for a festival, if I've got a sick or injured friend who needs my attention, then it can be critical for someone to reach me or for me to check details.  If I worked an 'on-call' job, my employer would need some way to get hold of me.

But...why do we have so many 'on-call' jobs?  Sure, doctors and emergency responders make sense: what if there's a major emergency?  Even IT professionals make a certain amount of sense, though the ever-encroaching business of "You're expected to take one week a month 'on-call' in addition to your scheduled time, to adjust your schedule and limit your activities, for no additional pay unless you're actually needed," seems like companies' way of saying "It matters enough to us to sell 'full-time coverage' to our customers that we'll inconvenience and frustrate our employees, but not enough to have sufficient staff to simply *schedule* someone full-time."

A friend told me a couple of years back that the manager at her part-time retail job told her, "During the Holiday season, refusing to come in and cover a shift on your day off (without a doctor's note) or not returning a call to come in within two hours is grounds for termination."  Really?  To run a cash register at little better than minimum wage, you're supposed to agree to be 'on call' for over a month and willing to rearrange your own schedule to cover management's failure to anticipate business correctly?  That's wholly unreasonable.

But, as Philadelphia Story reminds us, "Miss Imbrie must eat.  And she also prefers a roof over her head to being constantly out in the rain and snow."  If the terms of your employment require it, and you need the job, you'll give up that control until you can find a better option.  I don't like that the world works this way, but it's not a thing I can change.

I see dozens of people every day giving up that control completely voluntarily, though.  They walk along, head down to text or tweet, they stop everything to read an e-mail whenever the phone buzzes, they surreptitiously check a screen five times over the course of a conversation. Sometimes I'm one of them.  It's occasionally a conscious effort for me to get through a movie without pulling out the phone to check IMDB and see who that actress is, or text a friend the funny thing I would have told her if she were sitting next to me, but I get through.

Over the last couple of years I've been working to take that control back.  It started with festival.  I turn my phone off once I reach the land, partly to keep it from draining its battery, but mostly to focus entirely on where I am and what I'm doing.  My festival experience is *important* to me and I don't want to miss it.  I want to be alert and aware of what's happening, to understand the shifting social currents, the changes in weather, the magical energies.  When I go hiking, when I work out, I leave the phone alone (it goes hiking with me, turned off and in the backpack in case of emergencies, but for all intents and purposes I am inaccessible).  When I have an evening out to dinner (with friends or alone), I try to leave the phone in my purse (I admit, when everyone else pulls out theirs to check, I usually give in and do the same).

I still keep Facebook and multiple chat programs open when I'm online, and flip back and forth between tabs and conversations, but more often now on a lazy Sunday afternoon I take my book or Kindle outside, onto the porch, to read and watch the bird politics play out in the loquat tree.  It's amazing how many people have said, "I texted you hours ago.  Why didn't you reply?" and been confused by the answer, "Well, I wasn't near my phone.  I was doing things."

I've definitely noticed a difference in my awareness of the world; it's become more pronounced since I started messing around with photography as well.  Now, I'll walk along, looking around, and think, "Hey, that'd make a really good picture," or "Man, I wish I had my camera so I could catch that sky."  I'm buying a new purse, one that will hold the camera, because it's a good trigger for immersing myself in and noticing my surroundings.  And when I have those moments, whether I have a camera or not, I stop and take some time to fix them in my memory, to store them away in my brain-attic.  I'm feeling an increasing connection to my world, growing depth and color and texture in my daily experience.  Every so often, I stop walking and talking and moving and interacting for ten or fifteen seconds, and try to just be *present*.  It's a lot harder than I expected, but it's getting easier.

Truth be told, I've also been playing the Sherlock game.  I look at a person or a thing and try to take in as much detail as I can, looking at clothes and posture and appearance, looking for signs of disease or parasites in the leaves of a plant, listening to intonations and inflections and which cat's bell jingles at a higher pitch.  I'm getting better at making small deductions with my observations, though I can't imagine having the incredible body of *knowledge* required to differentiate two hundred and forty-six types of tobacco ash.

The only negative effect, if it can be called negative, is the desire to run up to people like the guy I saw on the trail a few weeks ago, grab the cellphone out of his hands and the earbuds out of his ears and shout, "Hey, you!  You're in a beautiful place surrounded by wonderful sights, and for the last five minutes you've been glued to that phone, head-down and oblivious.  STOP IT.  LOOK.  JUST LOOK, RIGHT NOW, AT WHERE YOU ARE."

I refrain, though, because I can't know if this is the only tune-out time he gets in a week of vigilance, if he's listening to a birdwatching tape or looking up whether or not that was poison ivy, or if he just simply doesn't care to be mindful and engaged.  I may be happier this way, but for some reason forcibly applying happiness to others through abuse of their electronics is frowned upon by the legal system in this country.