On Friday I got a text from Britta with a genius idea. She proposed we meet at Mission Bay to paddle board in the bioluminescent red tide. She pointed out it would be an appropriate, socially-distanced activity and something that would be freaking amazing. I was completely in and so were three more of our mom-friends.
We met in the dark at mission bay. I brought my longboard since I don’t have a paddle board and we paddled out into the murky bay water. I first noticed little fish darting around, like blue lasers. I was knee paddling on my longboard with my iPhone tucked into my wetsuit. As the water got deeper the little blue lights of fish disappeared and the water began to light up with each paddle until the water all around the edges of my board was illuminated. It was INCREDIBLE!
I knew I HAD to swim in it and I was the only one who came expecting to get wet, so I handed of my phone to Emily, who embraced the role of director with enthusiasm. I am not the most graceful swimmer…but it was magic. First, being in salt water in a 4/3 wetsuit is a very buoyant experience. It’s actually hard to do anything but float and then with the blue algae lighting up around me, I felt a little like Moana being carried by the sea. Magic!
Actually, you know what it was? It was play. And it was so fun! We paddled, I swam. We watched for creatures under the water creating spurts of blue light as we disturbed them. The stars and the moon were out. It was brilliant. And it felt so good to experience it with these women that I’ve missed during the weeks of quarantine.
Sometime last year I went to a work event called the “safety picnic.” It’s kind of a get to know you event. One of the activities was to answer the question, If you were a tree, what kind of a tree would you be and why? People were answering this question as I walked up to the picnic so I didn’t have a lot of time to think about my answer but it came to me so clearly.
I am a banyan tree. I first saw banyan trees in Hawaii. I was impressed by their size and the way they grow up and out and down. They are expansive. Their intricate root and vine system supporting the limbs as they press farther and father out into space.
I am a banyan tree, I said. I want to be as grand and complicated and reaching as I can possibly be in this life. It felt so true. Still does.
But female ambition is hard to hold.
I remember my mom lying down on the floor in my grandma’s living room when I was a kid. She was lined up next to three of her sisters, my aunts in their designer jeans and my mom in her fitted Wranglers, comparing body size. “Your hips! My waist!” They all teased and poked and prodded at each other in the way only sisters can. Why did that moment stick with me? I think I was learning, what does it mean to be a woman? It’s important to be small. To look good in jeans. Thinner is better.
I watched my mom put on make up every morning in her lighted makeup mirror. Beautiful blue eyeshadow in the 1980s, she styled her hair most every day. She almost never left the house without makeup. My mom was not fussy in her clothing but she was particular about her appearance whether she was cleaning the house that day or going to K-Mart and Albertson’s and picking up the girls after school for piano lessons. I watched her and I learned, pretty is important.
I went to church and learned that women of faith do not question. It was dangerous to question, like standing on the edge of a cliff so that one slight breeze or misstep might knock me to my doom. I learned that compliance is what God wants from his daughters. I trusted in that.
I got married and I saw that a good wife helps her husband. I learned the vision he had for his life and did my best to support it. I was patient with his requests. I didn’t make too many of my own, because God knows women are needy and unreasonable. My ambition served me as long as it served his vision of his life. But it was bothersome or dangerous when it went beyond that.
I got cancer and expected to die. In some ways that was a great relief. It felt easier to exit this life than to figure out how to go through it without bumping into anyone or saying the wrong thing or looking less than beautiful or talking too loudly. But death never came.
So I made a practice of shrinking myself. I exercised and watched what I ate so my body didn’t become too big. I made sure I was excellent at work because that was one area where I was valued. But even at work, I strived to be well-liked, i.e. not too needy and totally reasonable. When I went to God with my pain, I got back the answers I had been conditioned to hear. Be patient. A good Christian woman slowly disappears. That is love and your people will love you for it.
Female friendships became difficult. I didn’t know how show up authentically. I realized that appearing perfect was too difficult so I made an attempt to reveal some of my imperfection but even that was too carefully curated to be real.
When I moved to San Diego, I felt I had been living on an island away from real people for years. I NEEDED female friendship. So I approached it completely differently. I assumed the people I met were supposed to be my friends. I assumed they would learn to love me. I can’t even say how I did this exactly. My marriage was crumbling. The facade was crashing down and it felt like all I could do was stand in the debris and ask, Will you be my friend? to anyone who passed by.
The friendships (and family is definitely included in this) that are standing as the dust has settled have something in common. They are relationships where I can be the banyan tree. I can answer honestly, when someone at a party asks me how it’s going. I can make everyone uncomfortable on art night by revealing that I am not keeping the law of chastity and THAT’S how I’m navigating dating and sex after marriage. I look my mom in the eyes and confess that I’m not sure I could ever get married again because it’s terrifying. I can go weeks without contacting because I need space and my reservoir is depleted. I can call and text everyday because I need contact. I can talk about my ambition, my anger, my injustice, my fear. I can play the piano and cry and sing and paint and laugh and draw and rage. There is room for all of me.
And it’s not that I have 7000 cheerleaders for friends. There have been some painful moments with these women, but because of those, I know they will stick around. I feel held and I feel free. These women have given me space to learn how to put down my female envy.
Envy is actually what kept me from the women in my life for so many years. Envy is such an ugly word. Who could have imagined it was in me? But it was there when I saw women who shopped at Target with abandon. Women who “wore the pants” in their relationship. Women who were demanding. Women who made more money than me. Who paid lots of money to get their hair and nails done. Who traveled. Who took up space. Women who reached. I hated those women because I felt like they were claiming something that wasn’t rightfully their’s. Or if it was, then why wasn’t it rightfully mine?
Envy created a chasm between me and the women in my life. Or maybe it was a box. I put my self in a box that kept shrinking, all the while hating everyone who was outside the box enjoying their life. That was silly. I burned the box. I hope every time I discover I am in a new box, I will let that one burn too.
That’s what I felt swimming in the bay in the glowing water surrounded by powerful, ambitious, openhearted women. I felt held and I felt free.
The word humility derives from the Latin word, humilitas, which means “of the earth.” To be humble is to be grounded in knowing who you are. It implies the responsibility to become what you were meant to become–to grow, to reach, to fully bloom as high and strong and grand as you were created to. It is not honorable for a tree to wilt and shrink and disappear. It’s no honorable for a woman to, either.Glennon Doyle, Untamed, p. 286