A day’s story of womanhood in four parts.

Today has been an interesting day to be a woman for me. It’s also interesting that it happens to be International Women’s Day, when many of us are talking about the experiences – both shared and distinct – that represent womanhood for us.

My husband, son, and I are in Los Angeles this week for the annual Code4Lib conference, an annual event that brings together the people who build and support digital innovations in the library space. While Adam attends the conference and Eliot spends much-needed family time with his grandparents, I ended up spending time on my own and had four separate experiences – all in the course of a day – that represent facets of a beautiful, sometimes terrifying, sometimes affirming experience of existing in a woman’s body.

I. The energy of a hundred women talking in a room together.

In the morning, I took a Lyft (my first ever!) from Westwood to Santa Monica with a driver named Carlos (Hi Carlos!) to General Assembly for a session of Lightning Talks with eminent women from the LA area. GA in Santa Monica is an open, bright, industrial-chic space, and this morning it was packed with women, their voices clamorous and energetic and finding homes in all the corners. The room was at such ease that it wasn’t possible to know who was familiar or who were strangers until that morning. The speakers gave feminist advice mostly of a sort of ‘Lean In’ garden variety, though there was a shining moment where the Public Policy and Community Engagement Manager at Facebook mentioned intersectionality.

I’ve found that, perhaps because of the necessity of women having to take their problems into their own hands to solve, feminist talks often focus inordinately on how we can change to better position ourselves for growth and greatness – stop asking for permission, make your own jobs, find/be a mentor, lean in, etc. – not leaving enough attention for the systemic issues that are more appropriately to blame (non-inclusive hiring practices, retaliatory/predatory policies). These talks were not an exception. But the women’s stories brought more to the table than the teaching moments. Each speaker brought elements from her own history as a woman – an affirming conversation with a parent, or a career-deciding moment with a mentor – that gave dimension to the mosaic of womanhood they represented.IMG_1336

Perhaps the greatest opportunity of all was just the sheer number of women gathered to meet and celebrate each other. I had the chance to meet Eileen Rosete, founder of Our Sacred Women, a company that makes ethical accessories and gifts with messages that honor women, and buy one of her beautiful pins. No event can be perfect, but there is some magic to us being all in a room together, and it was a wonderful opportunity to do that.

II. Sometimes you can’t go on strike.

After the session, I moved to a sunny coffee shop, bought a plain black coffee and settled into a booth to take a work call for an hour. I so would have liked to say that I had gone on strike today along with many other women, and in fact I didn’t work a full day after my call was done. But my customers on the call were with the department of public safety in the division of emergency management, and our task was to finalize requirements for a new solution to improve the process of mobilizing resources for fast and effective incident response. We’ve been working together on these requirements and process for months (it is not a full-time endeavor for any of us). They took time to speak with me despite the fact that they were simultaneously battling multiple fires in my state. I am privileged that the reasons I was required to work are not tied up in pay or job security, and that I have the option to work remotely to make my life easier. Working for an hour on a day that I wished I was striking was a reminder, frankly, of how good I have it.

III. Gratitude, black girl magic, and gratitude.

After I finished the call, I took off my jacket to enjoy the warm sunshine and walked up a block to the Third Street Promenade. I grabbed a table at a bougie fast casual open-air restaurant called Bruxie and got a chicken sandwich on a waffle. It’s not important to the story but it was delicious.

In the tall booth across the restaurant, four young black women had lunch together. They sat in shorts and tank tops on bar stools with towels draped over their shoulders, maybe having just come from the beach, and sipped on strawberry lemonades. One took a picture of her waffle with her phone. They chatted, laughed, and ate in familiar and comfortable silence. They were beautiful. They seemed so easy together. Maybe I’m just attuned to noticing women together as friends, and I’m not sure why it seemed so miraculous. Maybe because I sometimes feel overwhelmed with the cultural idea that we should expect women to compete with, envy, manipulate, and undermine other women. When that is our social precedent, enjoying a comfortable, sunny lunch together does seem more miraculous, more revolutionary, perhaps more sacred.

I ate my lunch in silence and drank my own lemonade; the breeze and sun came in and lightened the whole space; I witnessed not only these young women but a whole restaurant bustling with talk in several languages; I reflected on the good fortune of an entire morning in a room filled with a hundred women who are willing to be vulnerable and use the words ‘sisters’ and ‘goddesses’ without a hint of insincerity; and I ate a chicken waffle sandwich topped with honey infused with chili and cider coleslaw and marveled at how I could truly be there. People with anxiety are often not in the present but actually in one of many possible scary and bad futures. I was truly present and was awash in gratitude.

IV. Grounded in reality.

After lunch and a quick walk, I was tired and full and my shoes were getting uncomfortable and it was time to hail a Lyft back to the conference center. I started walking down Ocean Avenue looking for a good place to sit and wait before making the request (I had learned my lesson from this morning, when I had actually missed my first ride because I did not make it down the elevator in time).

On a corner, a boombox was playing and a man was dancing and as I passed, he moved toward me suggestively. I ignored him and continued walking. He followed.

His comments were just low enough that I couldn’t really make them out, but at one point he did call me ‘bitch’. He followed me for blocks. I tried to duck into a shop that turned out to be closed up; I heard him say, ‘locked out, bitch.’ He knew I was scared and seemed to enjoy that. I continued to ignore him because I thought the safest thing was not to engage at all. I lost count of the number of people who walked past both of us without saying anything.

As I got further from the commercial district and into more apartment complexes and he still followed, I thought fleetingly of calling the police but chose not to. This may sound dramatic to you if you’ve never been followed menacingly for half a mile. I didn’t do so because there was a racial dynamic and I didn’t feel it was worth the risk to this person. But no one should have to make that kind of judgment and I’m glad that I finally stumbled on a restaurant so I didn’t have to.

Relieved, I ducked into the lobby. When the hostess approached, I simply told her I was being followed and she invited me to act like I was meeting someone and sit as long as I needed. I was offered a water. I used the moment to breathe and request my ride.

The experience was a bucket of cold water after such a transcendent morning. It is a sobering reminder of a few facts:

  1. You would be surprised how much harassment happens in broad daylight in heavily populated areas.
  2. Very confident, outspoken, self-possessed people can still get scared when harassed/followed. There’s really no ‘right’ response to harassment.
  3. Many people will walk right by without noticing or may notice but may not get involved.

If you see a woman you think is getting harassed, I BEG you, PLEASE stand with her and wait and talk with her until her harasser is gone.

Thank you to the women who encouraged me to take refuge in their restaurant and told me to be safe as I left to catch my ride. You’re perhaps the most important part of this woman’s long story today.

My love to all sisters and goddesses and refuge-givers today.

Thank you, and happy International Women’s Day.

 

Work friends are life rafts.

My work is a mixed bag of face-to-face customer interactions punctuated with solitary work. As a business analyst, after I meet with customers and get them to talk to me about what they need, I spend long stretches documenting those needs, diagramming models and mockups, or doing more research. With customers dispersed across the state, we conduct many meetings virtually, meaning I take them at my desk. I often eat lunch at my desk or skip it altogether. A not-insignificant amount of time is spent in my car getting to customer meetings. I work on a team with other analysts working on other projects, so we only meet as a team every few weeks or so.

Most people with extroverted tendencies need a strong social undercurrent to our everyday life to help recharge our batteries. There was a brief period of a few months when I was on a dedicated program team in a shared workspace. It didn’t last long before a reorganization put me back in my cubicle, but I can’t remember a time at this job when I felt more engaged and integral to getting things done.

Some suggest that the social nature of the open workspace is an enemy to productivity, but my team and I shipped two new custom-built applications for our customers during that time while keeping the lights on for a portfolio of other clients. It should go without saying that this isn’t everyone’s recipe for success – it depends on the team dynamic, and since a team is not monolithic but is composed of individuals with different work preferences and social habits, it won’t work this way for everyone. But being in a social, collaborative workspace taught me how important it is to try to develop real friendships at work.

We called it the “circle of trust.” While we may have been poking fun at ourselves a bit, there is something to that. As I think on the most edifying relationships I have had at work, I realize that the common denominator is typically a sense of trust. This is not just the ability to depend on the other person to come through on their commitments – more than that, it is the sense that I am at liberty to express myself honestly without fear of judgment or reprisal. The obvious corollary is that the most anxiety-ridden interactions are the ones most marked with distrust or the absence of trust.

As careers have turned from long-term, pension-bearing relationships with single employers to sequences of three-t0-five-year stints, the need to connect with our co-workers has diminished. There’s no longer a sense that your relationships with your co-workers will be decades-long, so making a generous emotional investment doesn’t make as much sense as it used to. But studies have shown that friendships at work correlate to higher levels of productivity and employee engagement, and my personal anecdotes support that.

Work friendships are of significant and particular importance for women working in male-dominated fields like technology. Work friendships are at least a matter of convenience and can help pass the time. For a woman in tech, they can be life rafts. Talking to other women is often the only way that we know if we are being gaslit; sometimes they are the trusted venues by which we confide in one another about the frustrations of bias, discrimination, or harassment. Women are more likely to empathize with the nearly relentless questioning of our competence, questioning that comes from ourselves as often or more often than it comes from others. They provide emotional support for the issues that still predominantly affect them, like how to keep moving forward in a career with a family when working in an industry that often demands a deep well of ‘hustle’ and after-work work. Work friends, specifically, are important here, because even if you are lucky enough to have strong personal friendships as an adult (many of us struggle with that too), those personal friends don’t come with the shared context of the workplace. That shared experience becomes a shorthand. There is an efficiency to your understanding of one another.

While I still work in a cubicle and sometimes struggle with feeling ‘a part of things’, I have a group of women I count on to be game to get together over happy hour and shoot the shit. These women are sharp, bold, funny, and self-possessed. This is my new ‘circle of trust’, and it fortifies me against everyday emotional wear-and-tear. I’d be adrift without it. If you don’t have something similar at work, you should do something to change that.

On Anxiety and Serenity

When most people think about anxiety, they think of panic attacks. A panic attack is both a dramatic event to witness and to experience. It can heralded by the horsemen of heart palpitations, difficulty or inability to breathe, nausea, dizziness, sweating, and, of course, acute panic or worry. Many people feel as though they are actually dying. It’s searingly memorable.

My experience with anxiety – and, I suspect, that of many others – is less acute. It is not some antagonist that I encounter and defeat on occasion like a boss in a video game. It shares more similarities with chronic pain – a constant hum of worry that I carry inside me all the time, which can sometimes flare up if the weather serves or which can even occasionally leave entirely, but never for long. Like many who deal with generalized anxiety disorder, I have a personal fingerprint of stressors that I know can send me in the wrong direction – climate change is one; money is another – but anxiety is more inclusive than not, meaning that if I have an opportunity to worry about something, I tend to take it.

This means that much of the time, I have intrusive, worrying thoughts that are difficult to control. It can make my thinking feel frenetic and disorganized. Imagine the last time you left the house and felt like you had forgotten something important but couldn’t place it. Now, imagine feeling that way all the time, as the rule, not the exception.

Days like Friday, and indeed, the last few weeks have challenged me for reasons micro and macro. Like many, I met the inauguration with emotions that range from trepidation to outright indignance. There is a lot of build up to the ‘peaceful’ transition of power in this country, and we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. That’s a playground for anxiety.

I manage my anxiety through exercise, doing good work, being creative, getting quality sleep, and being mindful of the things that tend to generate anxiety for me and managing them. But sometimes, those things are difficult or impossible to manage – in case you haven’t noticed, you can’t go anywhere today to ‘get away from’ what’s going on (and I’m not convinced you should be trying to – in fact, it’s more important than ever to tune in and put ’em up). It’s on the radio, it’s consumed the Internet, it’s at the family dinner table, and it’s an adversarial climate at every turn.

Needless to say, my go-to techniques haven’t been working as well. Back in November, after election night, my anxiety full-on melted down. I went outside in the dark, went to my car, closed the door, and wept deep, loud, and wet sobs for a solid ten minutes.  That wasn’t the only time since, and it won’t be the last.

After a long time of accepting that periods like this were a fact of my life, I started to realize something very important: I needed “serenity now!” I know this sounds like a punch line at best and new-age bunk at worst, but listen: the experience of the last few months has made me realize I had made no room for peace in my life, so I couldn’t find it even if I wanted to. You need that place to exist, because it provides you the tools to be creative or productive in your worst moments, to mount the kind of resistance needed to battle the instruments of unpredictability, fear, anger and darkness wherever you find them.

It doesn’t mean you run away from or ignore pressing problems. It means you need to prioritize which you deal with first, how soon you attempt to solve or neutralize them, how much of yourself you’re willing to give to them. It means acknowledging them when they do present as anxiety, regarding them with a nod, and perhaps saying, ‘not right now.’ Maybe you’ve already set aside time to deal with them; let that plan appease them for now. Find an activity that brings you perspective, gratitude, or awe and guard that time against the worries that do nothing but thieve your energy and capability.

I am trying to think of myself like a river. My worries, tasks, thoughts, feelings, are all stones in the riverbed of my life. Hope, optimism, empathy, compassion, freedom from worry are gold. I make myself a sieve and separate the gold from the rest. I’ve surfaced the elemental human stuff. The worries are still there, but they’ll be constantly smoothed over and reshaped by time until, when I pick them up next, they’re soft to the touch. That’s what I mean by serenity.

I will be calm. I will be mistress of myself.  – Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility