Who were the women that showed us what was possible in our lives as we made our way from the 70’s to now? Much more responsibility, much more possibility in living with our own definition of what it is to be a woman began in those years. Outside the roles we learned, the examples of our mothers and aunts, we found new ground often from the women around us, just ahead of us or coming behind us inspiring us to find our own path. Often those women, those teachers of what it was to be choosing our expression as women were not just the feminists, but the examples we saw around us of authentic expression and living life in a realm that spoke to our desires, our imagination and our hearts. I wonder if we all have an experience of that; here is my experience:
Ruth at first meeting didn’t seem to like me that much. I had been invited to her party by Luke who lived with me when I first moved to Berkeley. It had been a few months since I broke up with him and he had left angry and resentful. He phoned and gave a friendly, no pressure invitation to meet the people he lived with who really “understood love.” The implication that I didn’t was clearly the scent of the invitation, but for some reason at that time in my life I would go toward challenges as if not meeting them was a loss in and of itself. Still, I think even now that the day of his call was the day I had driven all night to get back home from a devastating trip to Disneyland with the children and my ex-husband. I am just sure that on another day I would not have said yes to the party invitation by Luke; another day I would have walked in and out of the party scene that I found and not have absorbed an experience that would take me the next twenty years of my life to comprehend.
This was a period of time where I had made the decision to break from my boyfriend Luke, launch myself in personnel consulting and become very successful at that job. I often said working with women in the 1970’s in job placement required everything I had and I loved feeling very competent and skilled in this job that fit me so well. That job required all of my experience, all of my passion and was gratifying as I took on clients who did much better than they expected every time. Very simply I just needed to get to the truth about what they wanted, and convince them not to apply for jobs they didn’t. I came to know that when a person is hired on a job, it’s about how they fit in the pre-existing group, that they add to the environment. This was the beginning of Affirmative Action and many companies and non-profits needed to hire women and minorities to fill the needed percentage of Affirmative Action hires. Working with women to align our passions, our imagination and our understanding of how the world worked showed up very well in my relationship with my clients seeking work. Negotiating for my clients with the companies seeking for my clients had me gain relationships with those companies. It was a great time to be a woman in the work world, and the my salary reflected how very well things were going for me.
I felt effective and in charge of my life and my family of three children as I never had before. Beth, age 10, Tommy age 8 like to argue and fight but with an aupair , Jeannie-from Dayton, Ohio who was new to California and thrilled to have found a way to make a life for herself, was just excellent with them. Susan the youngest at age 4 was very happy with Jeannie as well, so life was going very well for me. Because life was going so well, I accepted an invitation from my ex to have Jeannie, the au pair and the children to join him at Disneyland. We had been divorced about four years and it felt good to think we could together give a happy Easter trip to Disneyland. The fall from grace that I felt in having our marriage fail and our children without a full time dad was a cloud that lifted in anticipation of that trip to Disneyland. Alas, at that time in my life I liked to believe what I liked to believe, and once we were there, for both my ex and I-we didn’t enjoy being around each other, the children felt the tension and they had their way of dealing with their discomfort that made the whole waiting in line for a couple of hours for each ride pretty miserable. Though all of us were invited to stay at my ex-husband’s house, I knew that was not the thing to do, so Jeannie and I left to drive back to San Francisco. Coming up 101, the radio full on, an Jeannie telling me about her life and friends in Dayton felt so much better than trying to have things feel better with my ex, and the discomfort and confusion that was stirred up with the children in staying for the Easter weekend.
Once home from the Disneyland debacle, Jeannie left for the week to be with her friends while the kids were gone for that Easter week. Quite unexpectedly, all alone in the house and for the fist time in ten years, not having my children with me, I felt a panic. My youngest 7 year old Susan, now at age to join her two siblings in custody visits with dad, was having her first week away from home and me. The stunning silence of the house and the anxiety, not the relief I thought I’d feel, with my children gone was a surprise. Suddenly untethered from my three children I was in touch with how much I needed them as the core and center of everything in my life.
The phone call from Luke broke the deadly silence as he in a very cheery voice invited me to his new place to meet his new friends. What he presented and what I accepted was agreeing to the notion that we were not longer together, and now we can afford to be friends. Again I liked to believe what I liked to believe in those days. In fact, I asked Luke to leave my home because he went through very serious bouts of anger and resentment toward me. I saw the ugliness of his pain filtered through behavior I didn’t want around me or my children. Had I held with my decision, much pain-many huge public scenes, great loss and uproar would have been averted. But I felt a lot of doubt about myself. Whenever he accused me of being too assertive, too proud I took into account to some extent the fact that he came from a middle-eastern country where women “knew their place.” But he also had the Berkeley relaxed attitude and could be very liberated in his views toward women, and seemed to like who I was. The problem was that how he would respond to things either very charming and warm and relaxed or in full tilt rage could not be predicted. I owned my own home, had my own car and family; he resented that and it was so bizarre to me that I didn’t take it seriously. But I had ended the relationship.
The very attractive, charming Luke greeted me at the door at the address he gave in the Elmwood address he gave me. Jessie Colin Young and the Youngbloods could be heard from the stereo in the candle lit room was full of people nestled in small groups. No one looked my way as I entered, and but all enthusiastically engaged with Luke as he brought me through the room to meet Georgia and Bernie, seated on the sofa surrounded by a circle of people absorbed in attention focused on them.
Georgia was beautiful woman of 40 something, wearing a gauze like top and skirt in a flattering shade of moss green set off by the turquoise and silver necklace and the lacy sandals on her feet. Bernie, gray haired with sharp green eyes laughed in response to what Georgia was saying. I stood awkwardly with Luke who waited for Georgia to acknowledge him in the circle of people. Her head was tilted forward to hear more clearly the girl closest to her. I noticed that the women in the room had a lot of cleavage with long skirts-with dramatic eye make up. Kind of glamourous for Berkeley where the style for me and my peers was blue jeans with dressy tops and boots. and no make up. I found myself provocatively suppressing a chuckle with not just the manner of dress and but the obvious flirtation by the women toward the men present. So very out of step with the feminism born of the protest movements that had been my circle of friends, and in most living room parties in Berkeley where cushions on the floor suited the casual garb and the equalitarian relating that stopped short of attempting to be sexually attractive.
While I was observing all this, suddenly then Luke broke into the group with: “Here’s she is! Isn’t she beautiful?” It stopped all the conversation, everyone turned silent as they stared at me. Awkward turned to embarrassment as I stood in the heat of the stares of strangers. Then abruptly, Georgia gave me a glance, then turned away and began speaking to the person next to her and the group went to where they were before Luke spoke.
That would have been a good time to leave, in fact had I left, a shoe different life for me would have been the result. It felt alien and yet I was intrigued. Who acted like these people? What kind of place was this this? It seemed brazen, it seemed bold but something about it seemed daring, even authentic. Authentic what I didn’t know. Rather than passing on the whole scene, I wondered where this could take me, what I might find out as I felt tremendous squirming discomfort and didn’t know why.
“Georgia is all about love,” Luke commented and I notice the size of the pupils of his eyes were quite large. ” Georgia and Bernie are doing the dance of life and love together for all of us,” one girl who stood outside the group as I did said, seeing what happened and my reaction. Luke said – “Here they tell the truth. What it is to be a man. What it is to be a woman.”
Laughter erupted from around Georgia who moved elegantly from her position on the sofa towards another person in the group, just as Aretha Franklin’s voice could be heard above the laughter. AS it grew quieter in the room, throughout the room could be heard “You make me feel, you make me feee-el, you make me feel like a natural woman…”
An overwhelming desire to feel, to be captivated and taken by love came through as I was taken by that song with Aretha. I had heard Carol King’s version but Aretha filled a while different context and a whole different experience to be had. The feeling of being totally in love, gone, surrendered to the power of love was being described, french horns of the melody piercing right into my heart and body. I sat as motionless as I could and tried to absorb whatever experience had overtaken me feeling embarrassed, and almost uncomfortably warm.
Suddenly all eyes were on me? Could everyone see how I was feeling? It seemed like the walk to the entryway and the front door to leave would require more exposure of myself than I could muster. I hoped this would all pass. Aretha went on: ” I didn’t know what was wrong with me till your kiss helped me name it,” and I felt a yearning I barely recognized.
Then Georgia looked in my direction and asked how I was doing and there was a kindness in her voice, like she understood exactly how I was feeling. She moved over to a seat next to me, the rest of the group not saying anything as she began a kind of a monologue in as much as I just listened trying to remain with her as I felt myself wanting to hide. I just couldn’t figure out how I could hide AND walk out of the room and to the door in full view of all the people there. Georgia spoke about love, about who men were with words unfamiliar to me. She spoke with confidence about the power of women to have anything they wanted and with a man. She came from the place of people being able to determine what happened to them, creating the life of their dreams, a course of study I had begun in recent years. Completing her discourse with ” And if Bernie and I can make it, anybody can. Nothing is more powerful than the love of a man for a woman. You can build a life on that….”
Aretha’s voice now shouted out “Chain of Fools,” breaking the spell of the moment with Georgia, and dispersing the group to the dance floor, and most everyone was up dancing. “It’s all about fun, life is really all about fun” Georgia said as she moved away and into the crowd after she had taken both my hands in hers and warmly embracing me as if I had joined the ranks of her club. The experience of desire, my own for an ecstasy of body and soul filled my body and mind, as well as confusion about what to do with that.
Weeks and months and for many years I tried to figure out what happened, and why it had such an impact on me for many years. Actually till I did find a way to claim and have my desire be the driver in my life-that it was safe to want what I wanted. That I could communicate for myself who I was and what I wanted, and a find a partner interested in that conversation. It was a door cracked in my life that led me down some difficult consequences. It was also an intimate encounter with a woman, and with myself as a woman. It prompted my reaching for a way of being, thinking and feeling about my own sexuality and the expression of that coming from me. It had me come to reach for finding what was true for me in the realm of my desire driving my sexual experience, honoring that, exploring my interests and appetites and ultimately to studying and teaching sensuality fifteen years later.
The cost of taking on this direction in my life could have been less difficult, but again there were things I needed to believe that made me comfortable in taking what to me were radical positions and directions in following what my path became in this process. A very unfortunate marriage with Luke could had been avoided if I didn’t need to justify my interest in exploring the alternatives to traditional sexual bondage rather than sexual freedom. Still I made it through but the cost was high and filled with doubt for many years.
Much of what women rely on for their growth and development, for meeting themselves in the midst of chaos and change, come from the place of seeing what we see in each other how to manage ourselves, our relationships, our encounters with adversity and doubt. We pull each other along by how we find our way.
Stella Reznick, a well known feminist therapist in the 70’s said something that seemed to capture the perspective for me: Liberation for women is to pick a woman, and accept her-love her- flaws and all. That is the only way women will come to truly love themselves.”
The canvass and texture of the potential for fully living out life’s full expression, the scope of my desire have all been enhanced by the recognition of who women are and what we contribute by being who we are: those discoveries have been worth it all, and entitled me to the sense of value and gratitude that fill I feel my life today.