I am no stranger to organizing things when I see a need.
When I was 10 years old, at my homeschooling co-op, one of the boys was running a “police academy” after lunch during free time. It turned into an exclusionary event where the boys – and those who were good at sports — ran and did push-ups with the boy who was leading it yelling at them. I tried it a couple times. I even tried to offer him some feedback. But mostly, he yelled at me that I wasn’t running fast enough and that I had to do more push-ups. Afterwards, I felt awful and I cried.
I wasn’t all about that.
So, I started a dance and creative movement group after lunch for anyone who wanted to join. It was mostly the younger kids, so I checked a book out of the library on creative movement for young people. Every week, I packed up my Fisher-Price record player and a couple of my dad’s old music records (this was 1995, but my trusty Fisher-Price record player was all I had). Every week, I wrote out a plan of stretches and exercises and games and I encouraged the hell out of every kid that showed up.
I don’t know if the grown-ups in my life knew that this was an act of opposition, but given the social pressure to join “police academy” in those days, part of me likes to think this was my first feminist stand: “why do I have to listen to him yell at me every week after lunch?” I asked myself. I wrote tormented 10-year-old journal entries about how he had “hurt my feelings,” and how the adults weren’t listening to why this was a problem. In not quite so concise terms, I wondered: “Why does he get to organize and be in charge? Why do we leave all these other kids out? Why are our choices police academy or nothing? Why is it okay for him to make me feel badly about what my body can’t do?”
Quitting “Police Academy” was hard. It meant I felt looked down on, because everybody who was anybody at co-op was spending their after-lunch hours getting yelled at by an 11-year-old boy on a power trip.
This image of me at age 10 with my record player is one that has stuck with me every time I set out to organize. I can still picture myself upstairs in that cold church in my bare feet, waiting for someone to show up: I felt alone. I felt confused. I felt like no one quite understood why this was such a big deal to me. And yet I also felt determined that I was doing the right thing, so I showed up every week with my record player, ready to move and encourage the hell out of anyone who showed up with me.
After the Women’s March, a colleague sent me a link to this video. Watching it, I was reduced to tears in my office. Later that day, I went to MILCK’s website – and found that she had the sheet music available online. I sent a Facebook message to a couple friends saying, “soooo….we’re doing this, right?” Because, even though my voice is anything but amazing. Even though I don’t know anything about organizing people to sing. Even though I have never done anything remotely like this. Clearly. Clearly this had to happen.
And it did. It really did.
But see, this time was not like me showing up with my Fisher-Price record player. This time, when I said, “this is the place where my heart is beating,” people said, “me too.” This time, when I said, “this is the place where my heart is bleeding,” people said, “me too.”
And somehow, through that, we gathered a group of 18 of the most amazing women and girls I have ever known. The courage and sheer badassery I have witnessed from them has been beyond what I could have imagined. They have offered themselves to this project and one another. They have taken risks. They are funny, smart, hard-working, talented, vulnerable, and brave. It has been so beautiful and such a gift to witness the ways this has been a labor of community love.
When we first put our voices together, it was rough. And we did it again. And again. And again. And then this thing happened where, suddenly — holy shit we didn’t suck. Like, not only did we not suck, we were *magical* in this strong, empowered, “LISTEN to us, we are *owning* this goddamn song” sort of way. It was everything I could do not to cry when I left rehearsal that night – not because I was sad, and not because I was happy, but just because I felt so much.
I don’t think I’m overstating it when I say that organizing this project and living with this song changed something in me. The phrase in my head about matters both personal and political has been the refrain from this song: “I can’t keep quiet – no – not anymore.”
I’ve written before about March being a difficult month. One of the many reasons March is difficult is because it marks the anniversary of my sexual assault. To be living with this song as I wrestle with these feelings has been profound. One of the first poems I wrote a few months after the assault said this:
One story. One thing to say.
I want to scream it from the mountaintops
with a bullhorn the size of Nebraska,
I want to tell my story to all generations of women.
I want them to know about the night my soul was shattered and I
had to pick up the pieces of splintered, shattered shards,
invisible to those who
see only with their eyes.
I couldn’t keep quiet. I wanted to scream from the mountaintops with the biggest bullhorn I could find. I hadn’t thought about this poem in, probably, years — and yet, it has been going through my head almost as much as this song.
I want my children and grandchildren and great grandchildren
to sit at my slippered feet and blanketed knees
as I tell them in the strong voice of a woman, re-formed,
the story of how I came to be reborn
through a process of my own reclamation.
I want to bless them with my wrinkled hands
and touch their young, pink cheeks as I tell them
they will always be beautiful…
I can’t keep quiet because every time I talk about sexual assault or sexual abuse, another woman I love says “me too.” I can’t keep quiet because I have talked to 4 year olds who needed vaginal sutures due to abuse. I can’t keep quiet because sexual abuse is so common, especially among individuals with disabilities, I ask about it every single day. I can’t keep quiet because quiet is toxic, is drowning, is can’t breathe. I can’t keep quiet. Not anymore.
I can’t keep quiet because I want all women and girls to be safe. I want us to be safe in our homes, on the street, online, on dates, in our bedrooms. I can’t keep quiet because I want women and girls of color to be safe. I want transwomen to be safe. I want women with disabilities to be safe.
I can’t keep quiet because this culture of silence led to the death of 55 people in Maryland by domestic violence last year. I can’t keep quiet because I want all women to have access to healthcare. I want all women to have access to birth control. I want all women to have access to abortion and to have the right to choose. I can’t keep quiet because I want women to have authority and autonomy over their bodies.
I can’t keep quiet because I am a woman in a patriarchal, misogynistic culture. I can’t keep quiet because keeping quiet hurts me and the women I love. Lives are in danger from keeping quiet — some lives in more immediate danger than others – and we can’t afford to keep quiet. Not anymore.
I can’t keep quiet because I want black lives to matter. I can’t keep quiet because I am white in a white supremacist society. Keeping quiet is a reflection of my privilege, and lives are in danger. Keeping quiet is a choice others might not have. Keeping quiet might be the only choice others have. I can’t keep quiet because fighting racism and white supremacy is the responsibility of white people, and my keeping quiet lets me and other white people off the hook. I can’t keep quiet because it’s taken me/us too long to get here. I can’t keep quiet because we’re too far from where we need to be. I can’t keep quiet because I have so much work I need to do, so much unlearning and re-learning I need to do, and none of it can be done from being quiet.
We can’t keep quiet.
A few weeks ago, I wondered about questions. I think one of the questions we always ask ourselves – or at least I do – is what am I here to do?
I don’t know if I’m supposed to have that answer at 31…but I don’t have it. I have an answer – but I know it is just one of many possible answers. I am a psychologist, sure…but is that truly what I’m here to do? I wrote a poem once where I describe myself as
“a barefaced girl with a handful of words
who answers the question ‘what do you do?’
by admitting she only
writes poems, and witnesses sunsets turning skies deep blue.”
Sometimes, that seems the only accurate description.
Here is what I know: I can’t keep quiet because there is a fire that is burning inside me. I can no longer afford to keep it covered: I risk smoldering. I risk becoming nothing; I risk disintegrating into ash.
Here is what I know: I am more than an apology. I deserve to take up space. I am neither mistake nor accident, I am not here to be quiet. I am not here to be quiet. I am here to be heard, to be loud, to allow the fire inside me to burn with all of its intensity.
I cannot be afraid of my passion. I cannot be afraid of my voice. I cannot be afraid of my intensity. These are not sins that exist to shame me.
Unlearning silence happens like a whisper. Unlearning privilege happens like a scream. I am doing both as I learn to speak.
There comes a time when intensity fills you and the only answer to, “what am I here to do?” is to unquiet your voice, your body, your self.
There comes a time when the only right choice is to speak.
I can’t keep quiet.
(Thanks to MILCK for the song and these lyrics. #icantkeepquiet)