What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.
-Muriel Rukeyser, from “Käthe Kollwitz” (1968)
I discovered Muriel Rukeyser’s poem “Käthe Kollwitz” in the late 1970s, just as I was discovering my feminist consciousness. The words resonated with me as I struggled to tell the truth about my own life. Poetry is powerful. Something about the intensity of the condensed language and the cadence. It worms its way into the unconscious and lies there dormant, ready to reanimate with a new layer of meaning when you least expect it.
Feminism profoundly threatened the status quo of my pre-feminist life, stitched together as it was from the small scraps of self-worth and autonomy I could put together. With the help of Rukeyser’s poem, I learned to stop fearing that my patchwork life was coming apart, and to see it instead as splitting open, metaphorically, giving birth to something new. The task of hatching an authentic self required every ounce of my courage; I had to accept the risk of being reckless, disruptive, even crazy.
Once I burst the seams and admitted – to myself and others – that I had fallen in love with a woman, I began emerging. That was in 1980. I didn’t fully hatch my authentic self for a number of years—you can understand why if you remember what the world was like for LGBT people in 1980. Nevertheless, I persisted. Kept living through the reverberations.
Not everyone today is in a celebrating mood, however. I hear the old language being applied today to women who dare to be strong, vocal, independent: words like nasty, angry, aggressive, cold, histrionic, and, of course, crazy. Although much has changed for women since Rukeyser wrote her poem, her words rings true to many women today.
And not just to women. The personal truth of her words reaches far beyond the borders of their 1968 context to touch the lives and hearts of any human beings who feel different, who dare to be different, who try to be honest and vulnerable, to be themselves no matter how weird or undisciplined, nasty or crazy they may appear.
“Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind—even if your voice shakes,” wrote Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers. Yes, the world may well split open when authentic voices speak. The aftermath may not be pretty, or easy, or quick to resolve. Yet in my experience, it’s worth speaking the truth about our lives. We all have our stories to tell – some softly, some loudly – and we must tell them, even if our voices shake.
What would happen . . .
- If one veteran told the truth about deployment?
- If one black woman told the truth about fearing for her son’s life?
- If one Muslim woman told the truth about the discrimination she faces?
- If one frat boy told the truth about being scared or sad?
- If one Jewish person told the truth about fearing attacks on person and property?
- If one older white man told the truth in economic down-times about the pressure to be the provider?
- If one gay man told the truth about being bullied?
- If one lesbian told the truth about feeling shame from her friends?
- If one trans person told the truth . . .
- If each of us told the truth…
THE WORLD WOULD SPLIT OPEN
And when it splits open at the stitched-up seams, there is a possibility of new life, new freedom, and a new kind of wholeness, even if sometimes still stitched-up in rather haphazard ways, but uniquely yours.
Please ask questions, make comments, affirm or challenge my assumptions. This series is in the embryonic stage, and I expect it to grow and evolve as I dig deeper into the subject matter.