I didn’t want to go to Beth’s friend’s house. We had gone downtown for tacos, margs and a comedy show and it would have been so easy to have called it a night. I’d much rather go back home, pack up for my morning flight, and guzzle some water to stave off the inevitable morning headache. But Beth being the social butterfly that she is, determined to cram as much joy and connection into every single day, we HAD to stop by, and I knew it. It’s something I love about her.
Rebecca, the taut brunette with a Midwestern smile and accent, hugged me immediately and beckoned me in. I heard a whirl of high-pitched feminine laughter in the next room and seized up. Jesus Christ, I am really not up for this shit, I thought to myself. I have always had a hard time interacting with groups of women. I’m a feminist, but I struggle with sisterhood. My version of hell is a bridal or baby shower, antiquated homemaker/domesticity tropes, and women with shrieky voices.
And, being from the East Coast, I convinced myself I had one over on these cardigan-clad flyover state moms, who were drinking wine and yenta-ing it up at 9:45 pm on a Saturday night in the home of the woman (Rebecca) whose husband was out of town on business. Now, 24 hours later, I can see that I was being so judgy because I felt like an outsider. I was not “in” the group, and it felt good to reduce them to a stereotype to alleviate my anxiety.
Red wine flowed, spicy pretzels followed and I fielded polite questions from Beth’s enthusiastic friends: “When did you get in? Where are you from in New Jersey? How old are your kids? What do you do?” There’s nothing wrong with any of these questions, yet with each answer I gave, I could feel myself mentally withdrawing. I wanted so much to be different, to not be like “these chicks.” But I glanced over and saw Beth and remembered, she’s “these chicks,” and she’s the best. Maybe I’m one too.
I’m at the stage of my healing when I notice my judging, albeit belatedly. Because I know my initial judgments are sometimes not true, I am able to take my snap observations with a grain of salt and allow things to unfold more. So I sat there listening to their conversation which glided from the difficulty and frustration of raising teenagers to the Halloween party Beth had hosted last week, to their MAGA-sympathizing inlaws. It’s precisely the same kind of banter I would have with friends or family of my own.
And as I began to settle in, I began to relax into the welcome. Each woman made an effort to draw me into the conversation and to share my own story. Yet, I could feel myself assessing each one of them … “How is she so thin? Is it her resting metabolism or does she not eat? When people are that skinny are they hungry all the time? What is this strange life here in Oak Park, Illinois, scattered among Frank Lloyd Wright homes and book clubs and PTA/PTO and gossip about other moms and other families.” I was in my little world.
One of them asked me what I did before I was a professor and mother, and I was very eager and proud to share about my prior career in the entertainment industry. It’s always been a point of pride for me … it made me feel special, important, and unique. Oddly, I also felt important because I was adjacent to one of the most high-profile #MeToo scandals in American media. I loved being able to share the “inside dirt” and denounce the monstrous actions of a man for whom I once wrote speeches, remarks, and presentations
How strange it is to ENJOY being attached to something awful. To feel IMPORTANT because I was a bystander to a wretched man’s abuse of power, crimes, and hubris. Why do we love our pain? My husband and I recently saw Chris Rock’s standup in New York City and he said that people these days get famous in 3 ways 1) Excellence (ie Serena Williams) 2) Infamy (ie Harvey Weinstein) and 3) Victimhood. It really resonated – I agree with him. While I have never published anything about my experiences in the vortex of a horrendous corporate sexual assault scandal, I have always fantasized about doing so, and exacting revenge on those I perceived as being weak, immoral and wicked.
Something always told me to hold off, hold back. Bottom line, I was part of it too. I knew he had a volatile temper and was straight-up scary to be around at times. I knew he had slept with subordinates, as had many senior executive men at the company. I knew he had been physically violent toward at least one woman. And I knew that the people surrounding him covered up for him over and over and over, kowtowing and catering to him in constant pursuit of Daddy’s praise and approval.
I had been more than happy to slide into this twisted hierarchy of denial and subservience. It was a role that so very familiar to me, that allowed me to avoid myself and live in constant reaction. So who was I to call it out after staying in it for 13 years, after earning a living and constructing my career and identity around it? These days I know my role is not to call others out but to work on myself and to release my habitual patterns of avoiding my own calling and power.
Yet, it was still fun to share the story. I loved being listened to, and the fact that I really had their attention. I do not exclusively define myself in relation to this chapter of my life anymore, and I can see how tightly I once held it. We think fame and even infamy can help us feel seen and confer us with self-worth. But it’s a bottomless pit of need. So many of my colleagues in the entertainment industry and quite frankly in any industry like to glom on to external power and therein avoid our inner selves. Others do it by obsessing over politics or social media or even sports. Blaise Pascale called it in the 1600s: “”All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
“Comparison is the thief of joy,” said one of the women, apparently underscoring the theme of the conversation we had belatedly joined. Beth’s home is massive and her husband makes a LOT of money. She enjoys a level of financial ease and free movement (travel, space, options) that is somewhat foreign to me, and that I covet. But I am happy for her. I celebrate her prosperity and release the need to judge her or myself negatively. My Yoga teacher says that it’s very important to be able to celebrate those who do what we do, and do it better. In the case of Beth, I see how she makes and nurtures social connections and community with ease and grace, and fun. I want to be more like her, and in the meantime, I am so grateful to be in her orbit.
Corporate life nearly destroyed me. I had constant aches and pains, terrible sleep, a dysregulated nervous system, extreme exercise, and consumption trends (both buying shit, eating shit and drinking alcohol) that were neither supportive nor sustainable. I knew it was making me sick when I left, and I am grateful for how different I am now … how much more self-aware, balanced and authentic I am. So when I walk into situations that challenge me and my constructed identity, I am able to pause and suspend judgments. More than ever, I am open to the present moment and whatever it is teaching me.
Beth mentioned that she had bought a new car and when it was time to leave Rebecca’s house all three of the women came outside to see it. They examined it up close and walked all around inspecting it, raving about how cool and pretty it was. While I was once again annoyed because it was cold and I wanted to get in the car and head home, upon future reflection I noted the beauty and grace … the supportiveness of Beth’s friends. My simultaneous admiration and envy of that female circle of friends made me realize I want more mutuality, connection, and regularity in my friendships. We cannot get to really know and see people if we are busy judging them.
A big part of my connection with Beth is not just our shared history but also our shared passions and values. We love reading and talking about books. We watch shows and movies not just to consume them but to analyze and discuss their meaning with others. We believe in our duty to serve others and to dedicate our lives to something bigger than ourselves. We struggle with self-love and society. When I first met Beth, I was 18 years old and had never witnessed the kind of loving presence and expansiveness she was oriented towards.
Her family was totally foreign to me – she was allowed to be her own self and didn’t have to exalt her parents or obey them unreservedly. This was because their dysfunction was out in the open. Exposed. They talked about it. Her Dad was laid off and refused to get another job. Her mom resented her Dad. They fought – ALL of them, parents and kids. It was ASTOUNDING to me that they could talk back to their parents and complain about shit. It would never have flown in my home. Over the years Beth has supported me in my times of greatest need without expecting anything in return. She makes me want to be that kind of friend and to find a community of others like her.