I have been thinking about integrity.
firm adherence to a code of moral or artistic values.
an unimpaired condition.
the quality or state of being complete or undivided.
This concept fascinates me because of its relationship to womanhood. To be a woman is often to battle with integrity: defining it, establishing it, maintaining it. The Latin root of integrity is integer, which means whole: “a number that is not a fraction. A thing complete in itself.” Complete in itself.
But a woman from the moment she is born wars against competing ideals, expectations, promises: that she can be a “strong woman” (i.e. man-like!), that she can (and should!) do anything men can do, that she can have balls, that she can be good…for a girl, that she had better fulfill her feminine duties (be sexual, motherly, likable), that she had better not cave to feminine weakness (hide that pregnancy, put on a cardigan!), that she can “get ahead” in spite of her femaleness and its betrayals, that she should simply “give up” and embrace the inevitability of her role, that she is betraying herself/her children/her partner/her generation, that she isn’t going to just stay home and make cookies, that the noblest thing is staying home and making cookies, that she speaks for other women, that she is a “guy’s girl,” that the only thing that makes her a woman is a vagina, that a vagina is actually a significant thing connected to organs that balloon to ten times their size and gush blood approximately every 28 days and build human life and give birth. A woman carries around all that, every day, trying to find, within it, integrity.
A soundness: no clanging, broken parts, no unsettling rattling. A wholeness: no fractions. A completeness: no hollowness, emptiness, unfulfilled reservoirs.
For women, the question what do I want is always layered. It’s not simply what do I want, but what do I want in a patriarchal world that devalues and belittles the things I’m supposed to want?
What do I want in a patriarchal world that almost exclusively recognizes, celebrates, and idolizes that which is stereotypically male: linearity, “reason,” progress, achievement, financial success, cultural and academic prestige, rational intellect, wealth, dominance, “mastery,” superiority?
If I shear away that which I’ve long been conditioned to want because it leads to acceptance and approval, to outside affirmation that recognizes me as good and worthwhile because of or in spite of my womanhood, what, actually, is integral? What makes me whole?
This is what I’ve been asking myself. It’s a tough one, folks. The problem being that it’s natural and okay to want some degree of what society wants me to want: for my work to be read and financially lucrative and celebrated and honored. For, essentially, pats on the back and affirmation that I belong and I’m doing it right. But then it becomes not okay and toxic and destructive and manipulative and a crusher of one’s instinct and fundamental happiness, so…when and how to extricate the two?
In all honesty, I started writing about integrity because I’m not feeling it.
I’m feeling something more akin to…a sort of quiet despair. A block. Maybe that’s it. Not necessarily “writer’s block,” since I’m not really sure what that is and if it’s a diagnosable condition and I’ve become skeptical of the notion of diagnosable conditions when it comes to the psyche, but let’s say it’s like a big stone sunk in the middle of my life that displaced a lot of the water and left everything lower, and heavier, than usual.
I suppose I am wondering what happens when you lose your faith in the systems that have held you so tightly for so many years you haven’t even known they were systems at all; what happens when the systems that have defined your very notion of success, health, meaning, purpose, suddenly present themselves as just a story, a construct, as whimsical and arbitrary and freighted with historical baggage as that of the Three Kings? When it becomes clear that what once was simply reality is actually merely belief, as poofy and mystical and reeking as incense.
I went out for drinks with a group of women recently. I was friends with one of them, but didn’t know the other three. One of them asked about the project I was working on, and inevitably the conversation turned to birth. “I have a friend who was really into woo-woo natural stuff,” one said, “like Gwyneth Paltrow-level woo.” At one point, I would’ve rolled my eyes along with her: oh, women! Silly women, “doing their own research!” But this time I asked her, “Did you have a natural birth?” and she said, sighing in the way of 99.9% of women who have wanted a natural birth and ended up in the hospital with either major abdominal surgery or a suite of explicitly unwanted interventions, “Yes, but it didn’t happen that way.”
It turns out she’d had an ultrasound (unnecessary, but now routine, when the average woman receives 5-9 per pregnancy) that revealed a supposed abnormality, which necessitated induction, which created supercharged contractions, which led to an epidural, and so on, and so on, and so on, culminating in a lot of shouting, drama, fear, and stress, although “luckily,” not surgery. The baby was fine – the ultrasound had been wrong. I took a breath.
“What you experienced was woo, too,” I told her, “We just call it medicine.”
This startled the table for a moment. You donned a gown, I said. You were told stories. They aren’t truths. They’re stories. Ultrasound is a story: here, we will use our magic to show you your baby, and pronounce you and the baby perfect or flawed. We don’t, much of the time, actually know. Even if we think we know, we can’t, most of the time, actually do anything. But we will tell you stories and most of them will be scary stories and you will believe us, because we will threaten you if you don’t, and because our stories carry so much more weight than your story about your autonomy and personal willpower and strength and female body that our stories aren’t even considered stories but ‘science,’ and you will let us do whatever we say we need to do because of the strength of your belief, which you see not as belief at all but simply reality. How is the belief that it’s good to birth your baby out of your vagina with no medicine woo, and not that?
She was considerate, polite, but clearly thought I was nuts.
“Woo” is such a handy term. It’s a baby word. A silly little coo. Woo. A woman’s word.
Once an epistemology has taken root in a culture, implemented and established itself, anything that counters it bears an almost impossible burden of disproof. Woo woo. I wrote in Ordinary Insanity about how there is no benefit for a mother who defies our culture’s obsessive, pathological, often psychotic (read the book for more!) framing of risk, but one who adheres to it even to the point of driving herself actually insane – needing medications, maybe hospitalization, barely able to function in her day-to-day life – is seen as comprehensible, normal, if maybe a bit pathetic. Similarly, there is no mainstream social, cultural benefit to, say, homeschooling: the child who is miserable in school, loathes it, cries to go every morning, gets bullied, does their homework reluctantly and with distaste, slogs through their days waiting for the final bell, etc, etc, engenders more sympathy and its-for-your-own-good understanding than a child who is unschooled (!!!) and delighted with life.
I spoke to another friend recently about homeschooling. It’s something I still cannot imagine doing, but have flirted with. The friend asked me, “But don’t you think it’s important that kids learn how to deal with boredom and doing things they don’t want to do?” And I said, “But why would we want to teach kids starting at age 5 that learning is essentially boring and likely something you don’t want to do, and that this is just how life works? Why would we want to accommodate them to that reality before they can even read?” But this is a mainstream view. Let kids learn: life is hard, we’ve all gotta do stuff we don’t want to do. Look to the experts to learn how to do it.
I don’t want to come across as too grim or radical here. I am grateful for school. I know Elena’s school is deeply imperfect. I have all sorts of feelings about it. But at the same time I am grateful that she drank fruit punch and ate egg salad sandwiches to celebrate reading Because of Winn-Dixie, and that she discovered and loved the word “melancholy,” and that she knows how to solve a math word problem I struggle to figure out at age 40, and – let’s be honest –that I have seven hours each day to write and think and run and read without interruption. I am grateful for my health insurance, I am grateful for scientific research and for the New York Times and “the system” in its interconnected entirety for what it provides me, while at the same time recognizing with breathtaking and disturbing clarity just how partial, flawed, and backwards it is, and how hostile to any alternative thought.
A shining example: this New Yorker article about postpartum psychosis, which even as it details the incredibly disturbing, tragic stories of women who have been shuttled around the medical system, misdiagnosed with one disorder after another, pumped full of dozens of different psychiatric drugs that exacerbated their conditions (and in at least one case, arguably led a mother to kill her children), spends most of its energies turning to the very same experts – the medical doctors, the psychologists, the diagnosticians, etc – who trained in, practice in, and sustain the very system that failed these women.
Something is not normal here. Something is not right. We are an ouroboros, going round and round, from school to doctor, doctor to work, work to psychiatrist, psychiatrist to home to Netflix, Netflix to the NYT to school to institution, to work and back again. And so Foucault wonders: “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?”
I asked my students this week, on the return from spring break, to write on the whiteboard all they remembered from Foucault. One wrote “integrity is impossible in the Panopticon.”
How do women get to be forty years old, fifty, sixty, and not know who they are? What they believe in? What they love? What they most want to do to pass their brief days on the earth? Ours is a system of disorientation and alienation – of giving in, over and over, so much so that we forget our own blood and veins, the wildness of our minds.
Last year – last year, my 39th on the planet Earth – I discovered plants. The sweet, dense oil of calendula on my fingers, and the sharp aliveness of lavender – nothing like its cloying synthetic counterpart – and bold, woody, straight-backed rosemary growing tall. Last year I got my chickens: birds with souls clear and bold as any dog’s, who will look you straight in the eye with their wobbly red combs and their pintsize geometric faces and their beady green peepers as if to say, yeah, what? Whatcha got? And your answer, cracking up, is a big fat humble nothing.
Part of the answer to our own systemic deadening lies in other creatures: the way they exist in the world. The way they sun themselves, their sharp eyes taking us in and blinking, their leaves unfurling so slowly and yet discernably – process, rendered palpable in velvet petal. I have found part of the answer in food: making a chicken pot pie, crumbling the butter, stirring the cream sauce, watching it bubble up in the oven, knowing with my hands and my tongue each step of creation. Nourishing my baby. I know that’s “traditional.” I know that’s something women are not supposed to want, and not supposed to talk about for fear of making other women feel bad for wanting or not wanting or wanting to want it. But I’m putting that out there, as someone who has desired for so long to be smart and prestigious and well-known and loved for her achievements, that integrity too can be knowing how to make a really good pot pie from scratch, and loving that knowing, and using it to fill people up. Integrity is the discernment of what is mine: what I love for its own sake, for the sake of my soul and its engagement with the world, versus what I love out of craving, because of what it’ll do for my ego, for other people’s perceptions of me, for my false sense of certainty and security, for control.
I have been on the brink of crying a lot lately. I think because I have been so fragile with this new project, and with spring, and with the intense not knowing of this period of life that is also a kind of knowing. Knowing what I have done that has not worked. Knowing that change is inside of me strong and tentative as a seed. I saw Ruth Ozeki speak this week as part of Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures – treated myself to an artist date – and when she said, “Remorse is incredibly productive for writers,” I let myself cry in the dark. Integrity is in recognizing what you have not understood, and accepting that: embracing it to feed the seed.
This time, in this period of struggle, I have been kept afloat largely by mindfulness. I don’t mean that in a touchy-feely way. I mean the actual, physical, daily practice of it. I have been dogmatic about following the breath. I meditated before by entering into a state of kind of heightened awareness, watching my mind as it drifted, coming back to my seat. But now I really trace the breath in to my belly, out of my nose: I follow the breath as if it were an ancient religious text. Breathe. Sit. Breathe. The integrity first and foremost of simply being. “Sit and know you’re sitting,” the meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein declares at the start of his meditations. Be alive and know you’re living. I am grateful to meditation because it is the first and most essential counter to our system: it is being despite the constant pressure to do. It is the anti-doing without really being anti anything at all: instead, it just sees what’s here. Oh, breath. Oh, smell of peppermint. Oh, plants! Birds. Butter! It’s all there. We can just show up humble and raw enough to witness it. That’s the first radical act.
In the body scan meditation that we had to do every day for weeks at the start of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course, the teacher intones, “Over time, as we offer this sensitive attention to our actual experience, we may find things shifting and changing, through no effort of our own.” I found the concept lovely at first, but I don’t think I really believed it. Change was instead something one had to come by via action, lifting weights and drawing up business plans and emailing in a caffeinated frenzy. And sure, that, too, is a kind of change. But I think more now of the slow, internal change that makes a person buzz with a different aura even when you see them every day and have known them for years. The kind of change that brings integrity, aligning you more deeply with who you really are, what you really believe. That change happens not so much with doing but with being: how you exist in the world. How you show up. How you listen to yourself, or don’t.
For women, maybe integrity is a kind of permission. So often, we need permission to do what we love, or believe, or feel. As humans, we’re generally really into obedience. Into doing what the group does. Into not being conspicuous and eaten on the savannah, laughed down in the cafeteria, photographed while meditating in the backyard with a chicken in your lap by your silently guffawing husband, etc. But – as I started exploring last week – it can feel so good to be unreasonable, especially when being unreasonable in a culture that’s gone off the rails is often the healthiest, most life-giving decision.
A friend came over the other night for a gin and tonic and, with kind intentions, offered me for the millionth time advice on getting a corporate job. This friend is a very high-powered executive type, whom I connect well with despite the fact that we live in basically polar opposite realities: strictly structured corporate world, loosey-goosey all-over-the-place artist world. Like many people, she struggles to understand what I do. How is this a job? Doesn’t it drive me nuts? It does, oh, it does! “How do you stand it?” she asked me, meaning the ambiguity, the not knowing if the work I do will ever be acknowledged or “successful,” meaning the instability, meaning, how do you do this in a culture that only values products, and usually only ones that make a lot of money?
And the answer is: sometimes it really sucks. But when it doesn’t, it is transcendent in the way seeing a flock of birds catch the light and turn to tossed silver coins in the dusk sky is transcendent.
I am listening to Rob Delaney’s gut-wrenching book A Heart That Works, and he writes about the experience of reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking as his two-year-old was dying of brain cancer. “I’d been sober for twenty years,” he says, “but the sensation that book gave me was analogous to three beers and a bong hit. Didion made me feel less alone. I called [my sister] and told her about it. We laughed at the fact that reading about someone being dragged by the ankles through hell could just absolutely wash me in the waters of peace.”
Last weekend, Elena spent seven hours – seven hours – listening to Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy. She listened to it in her bed, while eating grilled cheese, upside down in a headstand on the couch (she spends half her time upside down nowadays?!), while jumping on the trampoline. She was utterly transfixed.
I was in my funk of uncertainty about publishing, career, viability, integrity, etc, etc, and then I saw her sitting on the very edge of her trampoline staring at the Bluetooth speaker like it was an oracle, and I remembered: Oh, books! Humans love this! We love stories. We love to hear our pain and our struggles and our overcoming reflected, we love that zing of beauty as it arrives in our bodies, we love that resonance and connection, we love those words washing over us reminding us we are not alone – we are part of this epic planetary experience of longing and failing and craving and learning and eating too many chips and having babies and smelling flowers and living and dying. We are integral.
Ruth Ozeki read a bit of her work during her lecture. “Can I read to you?” she asked. There was a collective murmur of longing. “I love being read to,” she said. “It makes me a child again. And when I read to you, you are all children.” We laughed. She said it lovingly, gifting us the ability to close our eyes and be small again, told a story.
Integrity is an uncountable noun. You can’t have one or two of it. In this way it is like water: you can’t have three waters, or five, or ten. You can only have water. You can only float in it, immersed, taking in the filigreed oaks as they shimmy and sway above, the glint of sun on the bright surface, the clouds, the bluebirds zipping from branch to branch, your buoyant animal body as it drifts ever downstream, seeking ballast and grace, freedom, and release.
I listened to the audiobook of Lauren Fleshman’s Good for a Girl and OH MY GOODNESS wow if you have ever run/participated in any sport/thought about women in sports at all and 100% for sure if you have a daughter participating in sports you will be horrified, super-engaged, and very very educated by this book! Whew. The writing is quite solid, the story is captivating, and BOY (hahaha pun intended) does it offer a look inside what female athletes experience. Fleshman narrates it herself, which is always great. Excellent for listening to on long runs. I am now listening to Rob Delaney’s A Heart That Works, which is absolutely gutting. No other way to describe it. You need to be prepared to stop and heave with the pain of it. It is guffaw-out-loud funny and wrenching and real and painful and all the things. I’m sure it’d be just as good read as listened to. A friend and reader (hi friend! 👋) gave me Sarah Polley’s Run Toward the Danger and I am loving it just as much as I thought I would. I think Shannon Hale is just freaking awesome and love her writing and what she has to say about boys reading books about girls.
As you know, many online and legacy media publications have shut down or severely limited their budgets, and the traditional media space for essays has shrunk to almost nothing. Fortunately, Substack has carved out a new space for those of us who want to write outside of the box, and who believe that thoughtful essays matter just as much as news and political commentary. Unfortunately, the Internet has established the precedent of offering almost all content “for free.” This is not great for writers and artists of all stripes, BUT I believe we are brilliant humans who can reinvent this system, using new technology not to undermine art but to make it better, stronger, and more salient.
Show your support for the arts by either subscribing to Terms of endearment ($5/month, the cost of a cup of coffee!) or by offering a donation. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
VERY EXCITING NEWS.
I want to move mindfulness more into the center of my life this year, and I’m asking you to do it with me.
With that in mind, I’m launching a subscription program. Here’s how it will work:
Essays will still be free for everyone! (🎉🎉🎉)
For the initial price of $5/month (a coffee!), or $60/year (a dinner!), I am offering the following:
Weekly mindfulness practice every Monday morning. This will be a really simple, 5-10 minute exercise I encourage you to do on your own. It’s something I’ll do as well. It might be a loving-kindness practice, a gratitude practice, a short meditation, or something slightly different like an eight-minute phone call. I’ll give you very straightforward instructions on how to do it, and encourage you to see what it brings up for you. At the end of the week, I’ll put up a Substack thread where you can share your experiences and see how things went for everyone.
Access to a 20-minute, pay-what-you-want mindfulness session every Wednesday afternoon at 12 pm. Think of this like a mid-week power snack. It will take place on Zoom, and I’ll send a link. This is a great way to:
build a mindfulness practice without having to do the mental gymnastics of trying to find a time, willpower, an app, a program, etc. The call will be 20 minutes long and tightly structured. We’ll do a meditation together, reflect briefly on intentions for the week, then say goodbye.
connect with other humans (see the NYT on the importance of robust social ties!) and be part of a community.
The idea is to create connection, accountability, and awareness in our everyday lives.
If you find yourself lacking purpose, struggling to get some perspective, or longing to incorporate mindfulness into your routine but unsure how, this is a practice for you. It’s simple, short, and friendly.
Recommendation email each Friday morning. This will include my favorite books, stories, podcasts, etc, from that week. It’ll feature, every week, at least one female artist, because my mission for over a decade now has been to elevate female artists.
Are you ready?
Ritual matters, my friend. So take this moment, this ritual of the coming spring equinox, this ritual of beginning again, and begin with me.
Thank you so much for reading and being here, and have a wonderful weekend!
This is an astonishing read at so many levels that I might have to read it again in order to comment on it intelligently. Except to say that I am a fellow traveller and that I always stop what I'm doing to read your newsletter before going back to whatever I was doing (today it's pegging up washing, writing at the kitchen table, walking the dog, cooking croquettes) feeling much richer for it. Thank you thank you!
Oh my goodness, this essay is beautiful. Many of your points ring so true to me, and I especially love this bit: “Integrity is the discernment of what is mine: what I love for its own sake, for the sake of my soul and its engagement with the world, versus what I love out of craving, because of what it’ll do for my ego, for other people’s perceptions of me, for my false sense of certainty and security, for control.”
I’m starting to tease this out, to figure out what I love for it’s own sake, and also to deal with the feelings of being judged and/or measured and/or devalued for it.
Also your thoughts on “woo” and birth and the medical system. And on our education system. So many systems, and it feels like they’ve gotten too big, too rationalized, too reductionist. Systems so big that they make us all so small in order to fit.
I’ve just read “At Work in the Ruins” by Dougald Hine, and he talks about finding the proper place for our systems, our science (because they are valuable), finding a grounding for them in shared values of humanity and life. I also just read The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist, and it deals with similar themes (though is a hugely dense and wide-ranging book, thus hard to summarize).
Thanks for your essay and for the offering of the meditations. Substack is turning into a very cool place!