A new venture: Wandering WordsWomen

Wandering WordsWomen Logo

At the beginning of the year, I posted about beginning some minor cancer treatment–as if any cancer treatment can be minor–and I want to let you know that although I haven’t posted again, I am fine. Although it will be a while before I can be declared cancer-free, all indications are good.

So then what have I been doing, you might ask? I’ve been dreaming of how I can develop a community for women writers and travelers who want to learn how to create location-independent lifestyles. After many different iterations, this has become Wandering WordsWomen, which I launched on September 1, 2018.

This means all of my attention will be going there for a while–probably a long while., so I don’t expect to be posting much here. But you never know.

If you’re a woman writer, I hope you’ll join my mailing list and hang-out with me in our Facebook groupWandering WordsWomen A learning community for women writers who love the outdoorsThanks for all your support!

Sexual harassment forty years later is still sexual harassment #MeToo

Unwanted sexual advances from someone in power over you is not about you. You are not the guilty one and you don’t have to let anyone get away with it (waves background)

Today is supposed to be my day off after an inspiring and exhausting weekend with three hundred and fifty writers at the James River Writers Conference in Richmond. In my stupor, I dragged myself from my bed to a recliner and settled in to read. Before opening my book, I checked Facebook. There, I read that my long-time friend “was taken to church to tell the priest in the confessional that ‘I allowed a man to take liberties with my body.’ I was eight years old.” “Me too,” she wrote.

I immediately felt sick. I read more status updates from more of my friends. Me too. Me too, Me too. That’s when I first learned about the #MeToo campaign, the social media campaign to document the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment of women.

My stomach churned and I kept reading. Me too. Me too, Me too.

My own story wrestled its way to the surface as bile gathered in my throat. I tried to force it down. I had rarely spoken about it. I had never written it. Was now the time?

I read some more posts. Me too. Me too, Me too. I could feel my doubts, my hesitation, and, before long, I heard myself whisper, “Me too.”

I was not eight years old. I was 22. It was my first job after college. For months, I woke up every morning and threw up.

A few months in, went to the doctor to find out what was wrong with me. The upper and lower GI the doctor ordered showed nothing. Although he didn’t say, “it must be in your head,” I knew he was thinking it.

I returned home, went to bed, woke up the next morning, and, as I got dressed for work, threw up.

My boss never threatened me with losing my job if I didn’t comply with his advances.

I could have said, “No” when he pressed the elevator stop button between floors of the County Building to kiss me or wriggled away when he pulled his car over to side of the road on a lonely highway as we returned home from an evening meeting, a meeting he stipulated I should attend with him so he could “mentor” me. I could have refused to open the door to my apartment when he showed up after I’d called in sick one day.

I did none of those things. I let him kiss me. Sometimes, I even kissed him back. He was an attractive older man who desired me. I fell into his trap. I let him fondle my breasts, and I might have even touched him – that part I’ve blocked from my memory.

I do remember that I resisted his invitation to go to his house for Sunday dinner with his wife and children.

And resisted.

And resisted.

Until I finally complied.

I remember the cross hanging on the wall in their dining room, the Bible reading before dinner, and the conversation about the importance of the Christian faith in their lives.  I remember making excuses to leave as soon as I could after dinner. I remember stopping my car on the side of the road on the way home, opening the door, and throwing up.

I left this job after only six months and, miraculously, I stopped throwing up. It wasn’t until years later, when Anita Hill was testifying before Congress about Clarence Thomas, that I made the connection, that I understood I was a victim of his sexual harassment.

I’m sure he’d say, probably even today, that this was a consensual relationship. If I could track him down I would ask, but so far I’ve been unable to locate him.

What I now know is that it was an abuse of power – his over me – and that I became an unwilling participant in his pursuit of that power.

I pray no one else fell victim to demands. However, I suspect this behavior was not directed only at me, that it continued long after he left Michigan for Wisconsin and might even continue to this day.

I picture him reading accounts of Harvey Weinstein, Garrison Keeler, Matt Lauer, and so many other men, and squirming with discomfort. Would the women he had relationships with accuse him? Would his past come back to haunt him? Might it still?

Let me extend an apology to the women who might work for him now for not naming him all these many years later. He has a common name and I don’t want to implicate someone who is not guilty of these offenses, so until I locate him, I will not name him. I’m hoping he is now retired but if not, I know that puts you at risk and for that, I am sorry.

Let me also apologize to his wife and children. I know what we were doing was wrong, even if I didn’t understand the power dynamics at play. I’m sorry I didn’t fight him off for those reasons.

I will not, however, apologize for not warning other women who followed me. Through no fault of my own, I did not have the consciousness to know that this was much bigger than me, that it reflected a patriarchal society, which still exists today, in which men assert their power over women through sexual conquest and claim it as consensual. I cannot be held responsible for what we had not yet named. Taking on guilt for this is yet another way women are victimized.

“Why didn’t you say something?” Why didn’t you report it five years ago, ten years ago, thirty years, or in my case, forty years ago when it happened?”

I didn’t report it for the same reason women don’t report the millions of other abuses of power we’ve experienced — because we are made to think it is our failing, our guilt to take on, our indiscretion. It’s part of the control perpetrators exert over us — to make us feel guilty for the part we play but never allow us to feel like the victims we are.

So although I cannot protect his other victims, what I can do is let young women of today know that unwanted sexual behavior from someone in power over them is not about them. You are not the guilty one and you don’t have to let men get away with it.

If you find themselves throwing up every morning, seek help, and not necessarily from a doctor, but rather from someone you can trust with your story.

You do not need to be taken advantage of.

You do not need to engage in behavior that makes you uncomfortable.

You do not need to throw up every morning before you face your boss at work.

Me too. Me too.

The revolution toward gender justice

Transgender Day of Remembrance Flame“Is it a boy or a girl?” is the most common question asked of parents-to-be. The answer to the question makes us think we can imagine the child’s life and the experiences the parents will have raising them. We are taught that knowing this will determine what presents to buy, what color to paint the nursery, and what yarn to choose for the baby blanket. In places like the United States since colonization, people have had two gender categories in which to place the people they met: boy or girl, male or female, woman or man. Every day, many of us define people according to a whole host of binaries: If we are male or female; If we are white or a Person of Color; If we are able-bodied or disabled; If we are cisgender or transgender and on and on.

What happens when we do this is obvious: a paradigm for dominance, power and privilege emerges. If your identities are privileged, you are taught your identity defines what it means to be normal. If your identities are marginalized and dehumanized, your ability to move in the world is profoundly impacted and limited based on existing systems of power.

In the 1960s and 70s and on into the 80s, second-wave feminists, of which I was one, tried unsuccessfully to overturn this paradigm. We challenged gender roles in ways that had never been done before. Why couldn’t a woman be an attorney, a doctor, a CEO? Why couldn’t a woman live by herself, get married when (or if) she chose, get a credit card in her name? And though these efforts to challenge traditional gender roles provided a platform and increased opportunity for cisgender women, this organizing rarely included and failed to center the priorities of transgender and gender non-conforming people- in an effort to achieve gender justice more broadly.

In addition to demanding wider access to roles that had previously been restricted to men, second wave feminists challenged language in new ways. Policeman, mailman, any use of the word “man” excluded women. Policeman became police officer. Mailman became postal carrier. “Goodwill to man” became “goodwill to all.” “He” became “he or she,” “she or he,” or even “s/he.” Diminutive suffixes such as “ess” were also discouraged. Stewardesses became flight attendants. Actresses became actors.

Not all welcomed this revolution against language. People recoiled from demands to use non-sexist language. But feminists of the day would not be ignored. I’ve attended church services where when the celebrant used the word “mankind,” women in the pews collectively shouted out “humankind,” or “men and women” or “people.” I’ve been in meetings where women left of the room because the speaker used sexist language. I’ve done it myself. I’ve shouted out, walked out, and corrected sexist language on too many occasions to count.

Language matters. Language determines whether we feel included or excluded, considered or ignored. I know this because I’ve felt excluded and ignored by language. I still do, at times. It’s become a part of me.  The language you choose tells me how much you’ve considered my needs, my perspective, my sensibilities.

Today, organizing and action call for an urgent recommitment to work for a revolution towards gender justice. A revolution that seeks to overthrow the concept of gender as we’ve know it. Boy or girl, male or female, woman or man become fluid and self-determined constructs in this revolution. Today’s youth and young adults are leading us into a new world, one where biology is no longer immutable and the roles we assume are no longer defined by or restricted to our biology. Gender justice, and its connection to collective liberation, has been a consistent and central message of the Movement for Black Lives. 

Those of us who are older can choose to oppose this revolution, but if we do, we’re denying the work of prior generations who paved the way for this to be possible.  Instead, I’ve come to believe that we have only two moral choices: join the revolution or step out of the way.

As we head into Transgender Awareness Week and commemorate Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20, 2015, it’s time for us, especially those of us born before 1970 who are cisgender (someone whose gender corresponds to their assigned biological sex) to, once again, consider the importance of language. One way to do that is by making a point of asking each person we meet what name and personal pronouns speak to their identity. It seems like such a simple thing but, if we’re committed to making people feel welcomed in our congregations, our movements, and our families, it’s a simple thing that matters. Will you join the revolution with me?

I use she, her, hers. What about you? Which pronouns do you prefer?

(Originally posted on Standing on the Side of Love 11/16/2015)

A quiet revolutionary: Laura Matilda Towne devoted her life to a school for former slaves

Laura Towne marker
Laura Towne marker, Penn Center, St. Helena’s Island, SC

The Rev. William Furness’s sermons on the abominations of slavery angered wealthy members of First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia in the decade leading up to the American Civil War. Many withdrew from the church. Laura Matilda Towne (1825–1901) was among those who stayed to hear Furness preach, often with armed guards at his side, and his words left a lasting impression on her.

When shots were fired at Fort Sumter in 1861, the 35-year-old Towne decided she must act. With medical training from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and a love of teaching, she responded to Abraham Lincoln’s call for teachers to go to South Carolina to participate in the Port Royal Experiment. The Union Navy had captured Port Royal Sound, just off the coast of Beaufort and Hilton Head Islands, so quickly that the plantation owners there deserted not only their plantations but also thousands of people they had previously enslaved. The United States government declared these people (and other slaves who turned themselves over to Union troops) not freed but contraband of war. It set up the Port Royal Experiment to prove that if the former slaves could be educated, become landowners, serve in the military, and build a self-sufficient community, they could become productive citizens in other parts of the South.

This set the stage for Towne’s life work.

In 1862, Towne boarded a ship for St. Helena Island, South Carolina. There she found 6,000 people who had known no other life but one of bondage. In addition to putting her skills as a homeopathic physician to use, Towne began a school, first in her home and eventually in a building she had shipped in pieces from Philadelphia. She named it the Penn School, in honor of William Penn and Pennsylvania’s Freedmen’s Aid Society, which funded the school’s first years. Later, her family, other prominent Unitarians, and abolitionists of other faiths supported the school.

Within months of Towne’s arrival, Ellen Murray — described as Towne’s lifelong intimate friend — came to work at her side. Together they built the school into the center of community life on the Sea Islands. Towne became a bridge between the government and the people of the islands, often as an advocate for their needs and wages. She opposed speculators’ attempts to buy lands that had become delinquent through nonpayment of taxes, eventually making it possible for people to own the land they had worked on all their lives.

When Towne died of influenza in 1901, at the age of 75, several hundred of her island neighbors followed the simple mule cart that carried her body to the Port Royal ferry, singing the spirituals she had so loved. She was buried in Philadelphia, and a memorial marker was placed in her honor at the Brick Baptist Church Cemetery on St. Helena Island. But Towne’s impact did not die when she did.

Towne was a quiet revolutionary; she broke social barriers and attacked the assigned social place of African Americans by fighting entrenched patterns of subservience. As the people of the Sea Islands developed skills and knowledge previously denied them, Towne supported their journey toward independence. Rosalyn Browne, former director of history and culture at Penn Center (the former Penn School), said, “In 1862, before freedom came, [Towne] taught my ancestors how to free their minds long before the United States Congress freed their persons.”

When the school closed in 1948, it became Penn Community Services Center, an agency promoting self-sufficiency and the advancement and development of the Sea Island community and its residents.

Penn Center played an important role in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It was, among many other things, a safe haven for civil rights conferences, training, and retreats led by the Rev. Dr. Martin L. King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Penn Center is now a national historic landmark district.

Within the past few years, Penn Center has reconnected with its Unitarian roots through the efforts of the late Milton Rahn and the Rev. Dr. Audrey W. Vincent, members of the UU Church of Savannah, Georgia, and the work of the UU Fellowship of Beaufort, South Carolina. The Beaufort congregation has developed such a strong multicultural partnership with Penn Center that on May 18, 2013, the fellowship will be inducted into the center’s 1862 Circle, which honors supporters and luminaries such as Congressman John Lewis, Vernon Jordan, Phylicia Rashad, and Pat Conroy.

As Penn Center celebrates its 150th anniversary, it continues to inspire through education, leadership, and service—and Towne’s legacy lives on.

First published in the Spring 2013 issue of UU World magazine.

Standing on a street corner

When I first saw Sheila, she was standing on a street corner holding up a sign to cars that were stopped for the light. It was at the intersection of Azalea and Brook Avenues in Henrico County, Virginia, a place that proudly declares itself the oldest county in the United States of America—but it could have been anywhere.

She looked to be a rather small, middle-aged women with mousey brown hair pulled back from her face in a rubber-band. The sign she was holding was a piece of white poster board, the kind students use for school projects.  She was using it to beg for money. I couldn’t read all of the words she had scrawled there but what I read kicked me in the gut: “I lost my job. I never thought this could happen to me.” Who does? Who dreams of standing all day on a dirty, dusty street corner waiting for someone to take pity on them?

Sheila was one of marginalized people who occupy the corners of this country, left out of society, and in the cases of people like Sheila, thrust into a downward spiral that is ripping a hole in this country’s deteriorating safety net, a safety net very few of our politicians are working actively to repair.

As I sat in the comfort of my brand new 2012 Subaru Forester and ate my lunch, I studied her standing there. I tried to imagine her life and what it feels like to be so desperate as to beg for money on a street corner. My imagination failed me. While I watched, no one stopped and handed her money, or food, or anything. Most didn’t even slow down to read her sign. She was indistinguishable from the telephone pole and street sign she stood in front of.

I could see the pain coursing through her body as she took one hand off the flimsy sign, covered her eyes, and pressed it to her forehead, like she was trying to keep her head from exploding. I could almost see the tears she was fighting back.

She didn’t win the fight. She left the corner, sat down on the curb in the parking lot and starting sobbing.

I left my car and went over to her. “Hi, my name is Annette. I wonder if you feel like talking. I’d be glad to buy you some lunch.”

She looked up at me and through her tears said, “I just got kicked out of my house. I lost my job a little while ago.” She put her head back her hands. “I think it’s my teeth,” she mumbled through her hands. “I’m so ugly, no one wants to hire me.”

Although I couldn’t see for certain, it looked as if she had only one tooth on the top of her mouth and it protruded from her gum at an angle that made it appear as if it would fall out at any moment.

“I can’t afford to get my teeth fixed,” she said. “and now I’ve been thrown out of my apartment by the girlfriend of a guy I invited to stay there. He gets disability so the guy who owns the house now is letting him stay there and I’ve got to come up with $500 if I want to stay. And it’s my apartment and my stuff,” the anger in her voice intensified with each word. She looked up at me again. “But I guess it’s not mine anymore.” Her anger turned to defeat.

I reiterated my offer of lunch. She didn’t respond. I dug into my wallet and pulled out a $20 and handed it to her. She took it and thanked me.

“What’s your name, again?” she asked with enough composure I could imagine her welcoming customers to Hardy’s, where she said she used to work.

“Annette. What’s yours?”

“Sheila,” she said. Then she shook her head and said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

I asked her about life on the street corner. “Do many people stop to help?”

She told me how black women were the ones who helped her the most. “They seem happiest,” she said. White women her age helped the least. She figured they identified with her too much. She told me about the men who offered to pay her for prostitution. “I won’t do that. I’ve got enough problems,” she said. She smiled a little and added, “Some guy me gave me a double cheeseburger today. He gave one to me and one to his dog.” With that, she laughed a little, a laugh that only served to accentuate the poor condition of her mouth.

Dental care is one of the most obvious class dividers in our society. I’ve always been self-conscious of my teeth they are a little crooked but at least I have all of them. My mom took me to an orthodontist when I was a teenager and when she learned how much it would cost to fit me with braces, she swallowed hard and said we couldn’t afford it—and we were probably closer to middle class. No one living below the poverty level in this country can afford even the most basic dental care.

Sheila told me about her nineteen-year old son who is a student at the University of Richmond. “I can’t ask him for help,” she said. “My sister told him a bunch of lies about me. It’s all messed up.” She paused and looked down at the cracked cement in the parking lot. “That really hurts,” she said. I wonder what lies she told him. Sheila didn’t appear to be a substance abuser. She said she didn’t give in to prostitution. But whatever it was, it kept them apart. I wonder if he knows she is standing on a street corner begging for money.

She showed me how the heel of her black athletic shoe was falling off. “People gave me all my clothes,” she told me. “I just wish I wasn’t so ugly,” she said again.

“I’ve got some clothes in the back of my car you are welcome to take a look at,” I said.

She gave me wistful look. “I’d like some new clothes but I don’t have any way to carry them. All I have is that bike over there.” She pointed to a rusty, old, single speed women’s bike chained up to the light post across the street.

I asked her if she knew about the services that were available in town to help her. “I’ve used CARITAS,” she said. “They’ve helped me.”

CARITAS is an emergency homeless shelter and support service run in partnership with churches all over the city. I figured I could at least connect her to them but she already knew how to reach them.

I told her I hoped she found some help. “If I see you again I’ll stop and say hi,” I said.

She stuck her hand out and we shook, like we had just concluded a business deal.

“Thanks for talking,” I said and walked back to my car. It’s hard to help people, I thought. Maybe the money will help a little. Maybe the conversation helped her to know someone cares. But I suspect she’ll be back on some corner tomorrow. “There is no way for me to get out of this,” she told me. I hope she is wrong.

Maybe the politicians will suddenly find a heart. Maybe people will finally figure out that government austerity measures that continually cut holes in the safety net are not a pathway to recovery. But I think the reality is that people like Sheila will have to depend on the kindness of strangers on some street corner for a long time to come.

What would you have done to help Sheila? Is homelessness and poverty inevitable or do you think there are solutions that can make a real difference?

Doing my work

What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am a woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself — a Black woman warrior poet doing my work — come to ask you, are you doing yours? 

Audre Lorde

I first heard these words of Audre Lorde sometime in the late 1970s. At the time, I was a young white woman rebelling against her deeply entrenched Roman Catholic roots to accept herself for who she was, a woman who was sexually and emotionally attracted to other women. Lorde’s words echoed in my head like the incessant cawing of an angry crow trying to chase off a resting red-tailed hawk from her perch in the old oak tree. Perhaps it was the certainty in which she described herself. I didn’t call myself a lesbian then. If I used any label, it was gay. Homosexual was too clinical and before an adequate amount of therapy, which I was still undergoing, words such as lesbian carried for me an accusatory and scandalous tone.

Perhaps it was the challenge she presented in paring words such as woman and warrior. Women weren’t supposed to be warriors. Not only did that go against the pervasive patriarchal view of the passive women, it flew in the face of my growing feminist awareness that challenged the giant war machine fostered by men. And yet, here she was, calling herself a black, lesbian, woman warrior poet.

Lorde’s identities, chosen or not, were as much part of her as her arms and legs. She found meaning in her life by living into all of who she was and in doing so, established herself as a person worth listening to – a force to be reckoned with. I ached to possess the confidence to be unapologetically who I was without pretense or suppression. I wanted to know, in no uncertain terms, what my work was. Lorde’s words and her challenge to discover and do my work became a test that I have found myself taking over and over again throughout my life.

Now more than thirty years later, I am finally able to privately and publicly claim many of the identities that define me. I am an American woman with Northern roots who grew up in and again lives in the South, a white, anti-racist, lesbian-feminist writer and religious leader, a lover and wife, a friend, a women’s basketball devotee, a technology enthusiast, a nature lover, a gardener, a therapist, a trauma responder, and a social justice activist. And I am certain that this list only skims the surface. I am a complex person with a wide-range of skills, varied interests, and numerous passions.

As I’ve come to claim my multiple identities, I’ve learned that my work, the work that Audre Lorde calls me to do, is very little about content and all about process. What I do matters little compared to how I do it. I wish I could say I had a moment of enlightenment in which that all become clear. I wish I could say I followed an unambiguous path to defining my work. I wish I had the magic solution that I could package and give to anyone struggling with the same questions.

Sometimes I am envious of people whose life is defined around a singular passion and it seems everything they do is focused on that one thing. We all know about people like that – athletes, scientists, politicians, peace activists, and musicians. It doesn’t really matter what their profession is, when you think of that person, you think of that thing. It’s how they spend their time, how they spend their resources, what they talk about, what consumes them. I struggle with that idea for myself. Is it a sign of immaturity that I can’t settle on the one thing that defines who I am? Or are my diverse identities and passions a sign of strength?

It’s a romantic notion in a way – to be thought of by your one passion, to be seen as the person that does or knows one thing better than anyone else. Without people like this, from Martin Luther King to Yo Yo Ma, from Mother Teresa to Steve Jobs, the world would be a poorer place. We have a need to witness people exercising an undeterred commitment to achieving their goals.  We admire those people and, in many cases, try to emulate them.

But having only one known identity is also dangerously limiting. It creates one-dimensional, cardboard cutouts that fit neatly into pre-defined forms in our heads. We think we know someone because who know their cause, their interest, or their passion and we failed to notice that these same people have other aspects to their personalities, including flaws, misgivings, and trepidations. No story exemplifies this more clearly than that of Tiger Woods. He is the greatest golfer the world has ever seen. Millions of people from all over the world have witnessed his calm, his grace, and his mastery on the golf course. And yet when it became clear that, in addition to golf, he was obsessed with sex, his fans experienced it as a personal affront – they were shocked, disillusioned, and hurt. For many people, who were already cynical about our heroes, it was one more example of hero-worship gone bad. Because Tiger was seen for the one thing he does better than anyone, we never saw him as a whole person. His identity as a master golfer obscured all of his other identities.

In many cases, the superficial portrait of our heroes we have created in our imaginations serves us well. As long as we don’t have to think about the other aspects of someone’s life, about the entirety of the person, we can hold them in a cloud of innocence. They are stripped of the things we dislike about ourselves and become pure, almost holy.

Thomas Jefferson is a lot like that. This great American statesman is revered by many for his genius, his lofty writing, his grand visions, and his many accomplishments. Hardly one-dimensional, Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence, served as the country’s first Secretary of State, served as Vice-President and then two terms as President of the United States, and founded the University of Virginia. He is honored for his stanch commitment to religious freedom and esteemed for his grand vision that resulted in the Louisiana Purchase, an effort that doubled the size of the United States. His image is literally carved in stone on Mount Rushmore as a great American hero with the likes of George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. And yet, not unlike his three compatriots, Jefferson was a complicated man, some would say, even a conflicted man.

Jefferson’s identities as a statesman, politician, author, Virginian, American, inventor, educator, and historian also has to include that of slaveholder, adulterer, racist, debtor, and some would even call him a rapist for having sexual relations with a woman who was his slave. It is hard for us to hold all those identities at one time about an American hero and yet Jefferson himself struggled with his own conflicted identities. In discussing slavery and the Missouri question, he said to John Holmes, “But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” Jefferson was acting out of a conflicted moral code that Audre Lorde described as “tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own.” Our tendency to ignore Jefferson’s weaknesses and extol his virtues forces us to swallow those tyrannies, while, at the same time, by condemning him for his transgressions, we diminish his great accomplishments.

I was recently part of an 18-year-long struggle to change the name of a religious denomination’s geographic region from the Thomas Jefferson District to the Southeast District. The arguments of those who opposed the name change typically followed one of three threads: Jefferson was a man of his times and we can’t apply today’s standards to his life, the fact that he owned slaves was only a small thing when you consider the many contributions he made, or none of us is perfect and if we apply a standard of perfection to our heroes, we’ll have no heroes left. This third argument rang true for one 65-year-old man named Bob who said to me, “If you take away all our heroes, we’ll have nothing left to stand on.” Our heroes and the various identities we ascribe to them help us from our own identities, to hold on to those parts of ourselves that we want desperately so to believe in. If we can’t believe in Thomas Jefferson, how can we believe in ourselves? Bob, like so many others, feared that by losing Jefferson, he might, in fact, lose himself.

Those who supported the name change argued that by honoring Jefferson through the use of his name, we are ignoring the stories of all the people who do not experience Jefferson as a hero, who see his treatment of blacks, Native Americans, and women as deplorable and not something worthy of our adoration.  For these people, by holding on to Jefferson as a hero, we exclude people who do not see him as someone who represents them.

The fact that this question took almost two decades to settle is an indication of how much importance we place on identity. Which of Jefferson’s identities do we claim and which do we ignore? If we claim them all, how do we continue to admire him? If we ignore even some of them, what does that say about the people we are?

I’d rather be known for the complicated, and sometimes conflicted, person I am, even if that means, I will never achieve greatness. I have been fortunate to live a life that is dotted with accomplishments. Nothing to compare to Jefferson’s, mind you, or Audre Lorde’s, for that matter, but accomplishments nonetheless. I am seen as a leader and I tend to rise to the top in most of the roles I have assumed. I have a knack for developing organizational structures that work. People tend to respect me and as a result, will listen to me when I try to help them do their jobs better. I have experienced a lot of different things and have developed expertise in at least a few of them.

That doesn’t means I have extraordinary talents in all the things I love to do. In fact, far from it. I have studied Spanish for much of my life and I can barely converse with a six-year old native speaker. I have longed to have musical talent but no matter how much time I dedicate to playing the guitar, I find myself learning and relearning the same material over and over again. I can’t dance or carry a tune, and as much as I love basketball, I never have had the athletic ability to compete successfully.

But whether I am successful or not, I have accepted the fact that who I am is not defined by my achievements. My identities inform me, position me, provide me with opportunities, sustain me, fulfill me, categorize me, include or exclude me, but they do not define me. Who I am is defined, not by what I achieve or don’t achieve, but by how I engage in the task. My work, the work that Audre Lorde asks if I am doing, the work I am here to do, is to embrace the values that speak to me, most importantly, love, justice, compassion, equity, and honesty, and to live my life consistent with those values. That is my work. How I do my work is to surround myself with people who challenge me to live my values, to constantly challenge myself to examine my life, and to not let myself get away with being less than who I am.

I dream of being a great writer, of writing something so significant that it will literally change the world. I don’t know if I will ever accomplish that dream. But I know that everything I write has the potential of touching someone’s life. Audre Lorde challenges us come out of our silence and let our words speak our truth. That is my commitment today — to not allow myself to question whether I have something to say, whether what I have to say is good enough, whether someone else could say it better. I will let my voice be heard and in doing so, be clear about who I am. That is what I’ve learned in these thirty- some years since I first accepted Audre Lorde’s challenge.

“Doing my work” is simply being the best, most authentic me I can be.

Thank you, Audre, for showing me the way.

Rape is never a game

As part of my morning news-gathering ritual, I awoke today to a story on CNN.com about the explosion of a new category of games whose objective is the stalking, raping, mutilation, and killing women. These games, called hentai, originate in Japan, and, partially because of the outrage they have generated, are going viral around the world. Understandably, women’s groups are actively trying to ban them. However, the ubiquitous nature of the Internet today makes this impossible. The games can be banned from store shelves and reappear as free downloads on the Internet. They can be banned in one country, only to appear in another.

In today’s technological society, we cannot squelch what people feel is their right to free expression (especially when it involves generating income), even if that free expression promotes violence and hatred against women.

Here’s the CNN story: ‘RapeLay’ Video Game Goes Viral Despite Outrage

So what is the appropriate response? Outrage can only begin to express the pain that these games cause. It is not the games themselves but the reality that there are men around the world who get sexual pleasure from raping women, from seeing women raped, and in this case, from imagining women being raped that is most disturbing. It is natural for women everywhere to feel the anguish of every woman who has suffered at the hands of a man.

Whether it has happened to us or not, we carry around a deep-seeded fear that we might be next. And even if we never are victims of overt violence ourselves, we have all, at times, felt powerless, humiliated, and abused by men and the society that they control.

Women have long contended that rape is violence, not sex. But that doesn’t change the fact that some men derive sexual pleasure from this violent act. Whether we like to claim it or not, power, control, dominance, and submission are part of sexual excitement for human beings. I am not saying that everyone gets sexual pleasure from these things but, as controversial as this statement might be, I do believe it is inherent in our genetic make-up, just as it is for thousands of other species on this planet. It is the job of males to perpetuate the species, whether or not the female complies. We women get pregnant, have babies, and in most cases, rear the children, but none of this can happen unless men first impregnate us. This is a biological power that men carry with them throughout their lives that even sperm-banks and in vitro fertilization cannot erase.

When you add to our biology, men who grow up surrounded by violence and fear, who witness models of male dominance and female submission played out every day by their parents, the very people who are supposed to teach them about how to treat others with respect, it’s no wonder that we create millions of landmines around the world ready to explore at the slightest provocation.

The question is whether we humans can overcome our biology, the complexities of our psychological make-up, and our negative life experiences to see sexuality, and all human interaction, as the beautiful, trusting, loving act it can be.

My first reaction when I saw this story this morning was an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness. It was a familiar feeling – one that I’ve  had many times in my life when I have heard about similar abuses. Will this ever change? Has our seemingly endless work toward a peaceful world made the smallest impact on the future? When people get enjoyment from even pretending to rape women, is there any hope for the future?

What I know with certainty, and this might be hard for some of you to hear, is that no matter how hard we work for it, we will never achieve a utopian society where everyone treats everyone else with the respect and dignity they deserve, where children are uniformly nourished and loved, and where the entire planet lives in peace. Human nature is much too complex, and our biology is too strong, to control all the factors that cause people to strike out against each other.

This does not mean, however, that I can or should stop working toward this vision of what the world could be. It is this vision that gives my life purpose, fills my life with meaning, and keeps me moving through another day. Perhaps it is a foolish notion, a cause as hopeless as preventing a river from overtaking its banks after a relentless rain, but it is my foolish notion, one that keeps me from letting the hopelessness overtake me, that keeps me flowing down the river.

I can and will express my outrage. I can and will support efforts to ban any activity that promotes violence against women, against all life forms. I can and will do what I can to improve conditions that contribute to violence. I can and will work to improve human interactions and to personally work toward discovering what it means to engage in healthy relationships (and God knows even this small thing is a struggle some days). And I will do that knowing that I am but one drop of water in that river.

I cannot change its course alone. For that I need you.