When Will Turns to Won’t: Three Ways Women Sabotage Our Dreams
#1 We Abuse Our Muse
by Sheila Gallien
I am convinced, for women, the betrayal starts with our bodies.
Last year, a campaign traveled the web intended to empower girls. In the video, they asked teenaged girls and boys to “run like a girl,” “throw like a girl,” “kick like a girl.” Each girl and boy performed their task with hands flailing, hips jiggling, hair flipping. Every act was one of utter surrender, no intention or even dream of a goal, except to be watched, seen, judged, not even for approval, but disapproval.
Then, they asked 10-year-old girls to “run like a girl.” They ran as hard and fast as they could, arms pumping, breath coming hard, faces focused with intensity, headed for an imaginary finish line.
I recently saw another video, about the top woman surfer in Brazil who, despite being twice the Brazilian champion, spent most of her career unsponsored, because she is not, as she puts it, a “babe.” She does not look like a girl. No matter, this woman, who had grown up in a shack on the beach and built her own first surfboard, started breeding puppies and paid her way across the world.
And so we are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.
We hear stories like this amazing surfer, the ones who make it no matter what, whose passion burns so brightly they hurl themselves into their victories, propelled by the pain, instead of crushed by it. We may even be inspired by them; it is the American dream. But most of us do not experience this. Most of us lose our way in the noise of expectation, identity, the endless quest for love and approval. Most of us learn to “run like a girl” instead of “doing whatever it takes,” our focus so intensely on what others think that we lose track of that fire, that light, that thing that calls and inspires us. Call it the muse, your essence, your calling, your spirit, you.
As we mature, we accuse our bodies, compare them, measure them, until we can no longer feel them. And yet it is our bodies that first tell us what we want. What we yearn for. What makes us feel alive. As we separate from our bodies, we separate from our dreams.
It happens in loving families, not to mention truly broken ones. I had parents that loved me, praised me, a budding feminist mother, but I still managed to learn that my brother’s dreams came first. Our weekends centered around his football, his baseball, his basketball, and until I was about 9 years old, the only sport I played was his cheerleader, uniform and all. I had a body that loved to move, to dance, to roller skate, to climb trees. It’s just that no one thought to ask me what I wanted.
To make matters worse, what felt best to me, what made sense to me, my “gifts,” were weird.
Instead of running for touchdowns, or shooting baskets, I climbed trees so I could dream in them, of them. So that I would be closer to the sky. At the ocean, I was more enthralled by the warmth of the sand on my skin and the rush of the cold salt water than sand castles and frisbee.
I felt everything. I remember, at 3, listening to Puff the Magic Dragon over and over again, weeping. Understanding not just the bittersweetness of Puff’s loss, but Jackie’s self-expulsion from the land of Hanalei. At 5, at 6, I wrote poems about trees, the wind, the sea. I read The Prophet, “Let the winds of heaven dance between you.” I remember the words rolling through me, the delicious, tantalizing mystery.
My gifts were extreme sensitivity, which my parents called “hypersensitivity.” Extreme empathy. Which becomes co-dependence if you don’t cultivate yourself. Intuition. A kind of mystic access. And a visceral connection with words.
My parents liked my poetry, even encouraged it, but it wasn’t really contest kind of poetry, if that even existed back then. Deep inside I knew it wasn’t poetry, or writing, in particular, that drew me, which is why studying it later gave me no real joy, or assistance. It was the act of translation. I was trying to experience, then interpret, to bring forth, that moment that defines the life of trees. I was trying to access that place where the divine entered the world.
What the hell do you do with that? I had a glorious muse: fearless dancer, climber of trees, dreamer of oceans, opener of hearts, lover of fingers. But where did she fit? I didn’t have a name for what I was trying to do. So I began to shoo her into quiet, private corners. It was just too weird. I was far too weird.
I gravitated towards practical abilities. I was good at school, really good, and, very quickly, it became my identity. My brother, the athlete; I, the student. I got straight A’s through high school, barely doing my homework. I wrote all my papers the night before they were due, in one draft. I was on autopilot.
As the muse retreated, my mask became more polished, and the schism within me grew. I actually convinced these people I could live in the world. I was admitted to a fine university. Given a scholarship. I leaned into academics, into thought, into thinking, studying accomplishment, but the ivory tower was all scaffolding for me. Soon, I was taking psychedelics and dancing to the strange light of the Grateful Dead, seeking divine communion wherever I could find it, and the world made some sense again, at least when the music was playing. When the music stopped, I hung in there as best I could in school, wrote papers, analyzed, discussed world hunger over croissants and lattes, but I felt like a fraud.
Of my own volition, all I talked about, all I thought about, was the Dead, and what I was really talking about, was the swirling magical intersection of mundane and divine. Until someone, probably exhausted by the monotony of my conversation, finally asked me, “So, what else do you do besides follow the Dead?” Uh.... There it was again. I was such a good Deadhead. I was so good at communing. But I couldn’t seem to write about it, or play it, to create it, only be it. What do you do with that?
Have a breakdown.
Drop out of school, have an affair, live in the mountains, follow an eagle, get really drunk, get beat up, go back to school to be a writer, maybe a dancer, write a bunch of shit, kick your muse in the shins, do a bunch of cocaine, dream about playing the guitar, fall in love with a guitar player instead, dance all night. Give your muse the walk of shame. Almost kill yourself with drugs.
Have a breakdown.
Quit the drugs. Practice completion. Graduate. Polish the mask. Get a real job. Impress people. Get really good at decoding people’s stories, at supporting people’s stories. Move far away from the thing you love the most, the ocean. So far, you become ill, depressed, immobile.
Have a breakdown.
All this time, I knew she was there, my muse, me, my essence. She, it, I was there, tapping at the glass, but I could never break through. I was in a constant battle between success and freedom. Every job I took was on the wrong planet. Wrong jokes, wrong language, wrong oxygen, wrong water, wrong food. I truly tried, I did.
The closest I came to fitting in was working for a brilliant writer. There I watched him shape his stories and his words and pull the shiny objects into the light. The craft was mesmerizing, and I learned to follow those shiny objects, and polish their meaning. I toiled at my own craft, writing hours upon hours, hundreds upon thousands of words, struggling, yet failing, to find my voice.
Then had the mother of all breakdowns.
I called the suicide hotline. They put me on hold. (I'm not kidding.) I called a therapist. The marriage crumbled. My stepsister was killed, shocking me back into my body, a body in crisis, in meltdown.
I moved back to the sea, found solace in the crashing waves, my feet pounding the pavement on a daily run. I was raw, split open, rejected, destroyed, but I could hear the faintest heartbeat. Every day I ran, closer to the ocean, high on the cliffs. From my deepest instinct, just to stay alive, I began to count my blessings.
I can trace the opening of my life back to those visceral sensations. My skin steaming in the cool misty air, the smell of salt, towering trees imprinting on my retina, the hard striking of my shoes on pavement, the roar in my ears, “I am thankful for my eyes, I am thankful for my legs, I am thankful for the water…” I can taste the salt and feel the pounding surf and recognize that moment when, from this simple act of receptivity, something shifted, and I began to run more on instinct. Run like a woman. Run embodied, with drive and sensation and connection to it all.
I had lived above these waves years ago, spent hours gazing into their depth and foam. There had been no surfers, but there they were. I was completely dumbstruck. I became obsessed with watching them, their boards carving and dancing along the water, until I found myself on the beach tracking them as they came in. Boys, men, boys, men, until there she was: a woman. Older than me. In a wetsuit.
I stalked her until I had the courage to talk to her. She told me how she had started surfing, and it became my mission. I cannot explain it, nothing has ever been more clear. I finally found a class, a board, a wetsuit, and the next thing I know I was in the water. My feet hit the icy salt and it was immediate, the transformation. I paddled the board, I stood up the first time, and I was forever changed, as if the locks had all clicked into place.
Every day I paddled out, hard, for hours. First it was just the whitewater. Then I faced terrifying, roiling waves, powerful currents, hold downs. I was sliced, bruised, got concussions, almost knocked a tooth out, thought I would die, and could have. It rebuilt me, healed me, not only restored me, but gave me back who I always was, with an added element. I had the connection, the ability to express that power and ride the wind, but I also had the strength to recover when I failed, to keep going, to never give up.
I embraced it with complete selfishness, with ferocity. I let everything and everyone else from my life drop that was not fully present in this quest. And then, and THEN, I heard my voice. I saw my muse.
My muse, it turns out, is a surfer.
I heard my voice! I wrote a story about this awakening, a screenplay, in language I understood, with a truth that was bubbling, growing, surging out of me. Out of it came a champion, a producer, an agent, options, assignments, a star, and almost a movie.
I tried to be a screenwriter for a minute, but it never felt right. Something in me had become so focused, so crystallized, so honed in the split second of knowing what was mine, I could put in the effort but find out fairly quickly that it was not my path.
Instead, I followed a beautiful surfer to Hawaii, had a beautiful daughter, and, when it all fell apart, had one more breakdown.
A big one, a bad one, but the best one.
This time, I had surfing. The wind in the waves. I knew who I was. I met my muse in the aqua blue water, and we rode those badass barrels together, got dragged over the reef together.
And started my true path.
It turns out my calling was just ahead of its time. Who knew there would be a vocation in transformation? In connection? In helping others to hear their own voice, to connect to their own magnificence? To translate that true connection into something concrete: a blog, a book, a dance, a song, a business? Who knew that weird was the new thirty. At least in my circles.
I still believe It all comes back to our bodies. Being able to feel them, because they will tell us the truth. That little girl in you knows just what it takes to get to the finish line. You just need to help her remember who she is. Take her on walks. Take her running. Take her surfing. Take her dancing.
Trust me. She knows.