birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

From Night to Fey

For six months I was up all night.

Well, not exactly—but it did feel like it.

What really was happening was that I was getting up at 3 am most days for six months. This was the way I got the time I needed to write my dissertation.

I had two small children and a full-time job, and I was nearing the drop-dead-line, after which I would lose my degree. So I had to finish, and I had to keep mom-ming, and I had to do my job. So, I would do after school pick-up, have dinner and evening rituals with my kids, and then go to bed when they did. And, then, get up at 3 am to go back to my office to write. For five hours each morning I wrote, before starting my workday at 830.

My husband did all the morning tasks—breakfast, teeth brushing, lunch packing, and hair brushing and braiding. Yes, he really did learn to braid! And, he got pretty okay at it, though he’d probably never put it on his vita. And he did the drive to school. And we were parent association presidents that year, but he did most of the work.

On the way to work I would stop at the local donut shop. I would get a large coffee, one glazed old-fashioned, one devils food with chocolate icing and nuts, and three glazed, raised donut holes—every morning for six months. I would be lying if I said I finished the task without gaining weight, but it was worth it. The sugar, fat and caffeine were a potent mix to jumpstart the focus on words and ideas on femininity, and masculinity, and the psychology of the same.

A Cambodian couple ran the donut shop (so common in southern California), and we got pretty friendly over time. They had seen my daughters, and they were very curious about the family arrangement that got me out of childcare. On the flip side, I watched their teenage kids learn donut making before they left for school.

Another thing I discovered from those wee hour stops was that the newspaper deliverers met in the parking lot to fold and stack their stock before heading down the residential streets to toss them one by one onto dewy lawns. They were a cliquish bunch. Over time they got used to me, and began to nod their notice of my tangential sharing of their space in time. I didn’t learn much about them, not even their fave donut choices, but they came to know mine. One or two would call it out for me as I got out of the car, so it would be ready for me before I even got through the door. They chattered together like the Pasadena parrots, but always quieted their call and response while I walked by.

It was a profound experience—the absolute silence of the street at 3am, the absolute emptiness of the campus when I arrived at 3:30, the chill in my office as I flipped on the light and turned up the thermostat, and the moment the computer flickered to life. It was lonely too.

The entire writing experience was so incredibly lonely—and, not just because I was physically, and socially, alone. It was lonely because I was writing my hearts song, which was an odd and unusual take on women and men—and shame. It is still, I think, an unusual idea that I had and wrote, and explored, and defended, and worried over.

I came of age in the early 70s, and cut my intellectual and social teeth in the second wave of the women’s movement. I was the daughter of a woman who was denied her dream of a career; she, and a couple dozen formidable women teachers (as well as a couple of forward-thinking men), raised me to be independent and strong and competent. But they did not tell me, maybe they didn’t know, that the price I would pay for achievement was an incredible burden of shame.

I was ashamed that I wasn’t “man enough” for the things I wanted to achieve. I was ashamed that I wasn’t woman enough for wife-ing and mothering perfectly. I was ashamed that I was not a man, and I was ashamed that I was a woman. I was ashamed that I was too masculine; I was ashamed that I was too feminine; and I was ashamed that I was not enough of either masculinity or femininity. I still don’t know what standards I was measuring myself by—not really.

And, I had to try to find out. So, I insisted, finally, on writing the dissertation on the shame of being feminine. And what a ride it was. After the births of my daughters, the birth of that book is still the greatest achievement of my life. It’s never earned me a dime, but the pride of seeing it published then listed in the holdings of college libraries is a rush all its own.

One of the most surprisingly pleasing moments of my life occurred at a national conference the year after the book was published. I went to hear a panel of theologians speak about—well, I don’t recall their topic, but it had something to do with gender and the Bible. One presenter in particular said something important to me, so I approached her afterward to ask for a copy of her paper. I handed her my card as I shook her hand.

She glanced down, dropped the card and enclosed my hand in both of hers. “Oh, my gosh, I just finished your book! It was amazing! Thank you so much for writing it!”

I was stunned. I was embarrassed. I was so damned pleased! I was speechless, and grinning stupidly. I just nodded, and finally got out a husky “welcome,” then walked into a bathroom stall and cried.

All those sleepless nights, all those lonely hours, all the moments of feeling “crazy” for having “odd” and “unusual” thoughts about feeling ashamed of being and not being feminine—everything—was paid for in those few seconds of her gratitude.

Now I get to write at leisure. Someday, I’d like to re-write that academic treatise in a more popular vein. There is still a lot of shame being felt, in this world—maybe the most ever—over thoughts, feelings and behaviors that constitute the stuff of “feminine”. Sexual assault and toting guns and even raping the planet, to my odd and unusual way of thinking, have everything to do with men (and more and more women now) being afraid of being “girly”, “pussy”, “wuss”—in a word, feminine. What can we do to end the shame? We must do something soon, or we all may die of the shame.
 

Saying Too Much

No Way I Can Do Without It