Success is scarier than failure for me. It took me years to figure this out. It took even more years to recognize when and how I got in my own way. It was usually through some sort of minimization of my accomplishments or efforts, a decision to change course midstream, running away or giving the big F-U and heading out the door. Years of trying to meet people’s expectations and please others at my own expense were a way of life. When I wasn’t doing that, I was heartily rebelling, making waves and reveling in outsider status. Either way, living in the margins became a comfortable uncomfortable existence. It’s not that I don’t love success, it just made me feel like an imposter.
It wasn’t always this way though. As a little girl, I read voraciously and devoured mysteries, biographies and books about ghosts, God and telepathy. I imagined myself as writers, poets, sailors, and pilots in multiple lifetimes. I figured I could do anything. I wrote stories about brave little girls making big escapes. I knew the power of my voice and imagination.
But between the magic of childhood and the cruelty of adolescence, things happen, even to brave little girls. Many things steal the voices of our young women, both then and now. If a girl doesn’t have a strong mother, or a mother at all, or an auntie or a grandma, or SOMEBODY who stands like a tree when the wild winds blow, she’s at a disadvantage on the self-worth front. Minimally, it is hard to be in your own court and believe in your worth. Finding and using the power of your voice? That’s for the OTHER girls, the ones who are confident and secure. There’s a big difference between the girls who live on the page and the girls who live in the margins. Or so we believe.
It’s not true though. We all do time in the margins. Shame and fear affect all humans equipped with the capacity to make connections and form bonds. Shame keeps people quiet and steals the voice far away. The pain of ridicule and betrayal devastate us. Ambivalence, invisibility, lack of or half-hearted support with a sympathetic smile devastates in a different way. It happens to all of us at some point. It makes us doubt our worthiness. It makes us think we don’t matter.
Shame is a cruel jailer that keeps folks in solitary confinement.
The secret we avoid sharing is that shame unifies us too.
It was shame that brought me to a friendship with Stacey. For several years, we co-facilitated groups for girls at a juvenile detention facility. We loved our girls and provided tools and encouragement for them to use on their journeys. They wrote, performed, danced and sang for one another. It was safe for them to use their voices and be free. For some, it was the first time.
Stacey and I lost our voices long ago, fought to take them back, often felt in the margins of life, but we were living life as successful women with advanced degrees and high level positions of responsibility. We had the tools, had done the work on ourselves, fought our demons and taken on big causes like racism, violence against women, child abuse and exploitation. We were fighters, activists, movers and shakers! But on Friday nights, in that room with the girls, our own voices were challenged to come forth in a new way. We saw clearly the girls we once were. We felt like them still.
Sometimes we need to fight for causes bigger than ourselves because deep inside we don’t feel that we are good enough on our own. Not that activism isn’t important, but it’s easier to focus attention outward rather than inward. We found our worth through efforts to make the world better. We found value through our usefulness, our common sense, our resilience, but not fully in ourselves, and not in our voices.
Singing with the Sirens was birthed out of that work and a reclamation of the lost voice. A woman of color and a white woman from different backgrounds and countries exploring the oppressions that bound our hearts tightly, some shared, some different, but the results much the same. The bound heart abhors feeling. Feeling is a privilege, but how do you authentically write if you don’t feel? Writing was a means of using the voice, and we had to take that back too. There were so many layers of old shame to get through. We grabbed hands and took it on together.
Our voices grew stronger through our friendship. We encouraged one another. Really, we stood in courage with each other, brave even when scared. It takes courage to be vulnerable. It takes courage to be seen and to have your feelings read. The world doesn’t come crashing down, and if it does, it would’ve anyway, and you can withstand it just the same.
Singing with the Sirens is about the loss of the female voice and finding it once again.
It was a scary endeavor for the marginalized girl within, but a brave endeavor for the woman who had achieved much despite herself. It was a work of love shared with a worthy and formidable companion. It was a lesson in standing with the true voice of my heart. It holds great healing powers. It humbled shame and made him a little less troublesome.
If you are struggling to write your story, or a story, then find a friend to share the experience. Choose a friend of the heart who has your back and loves your imperfections as well as your strengths. Then hold hands and dive in.
Find commonalities that alter the fabric of current society. Move the world with your presence. Feeling is a privilege. To feel, to write means vulnerability. The courage is to experience vulnerability regardless of outcome.
Get your voice into the world. And believe those who have ears for your song will hear.
First published by She Writes Press, September 2016.
Click here to purchase Singing With the Sirens, by Ellyn Bell and Stacey Bell.