by Maija Beattie
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Mary Oliver, Wild Geese
It was like a sleight of hand. If I was very good, I could keep secrets. I would be so good that I would take up as little space as possible. I would cloak myself in goodness so that I could disappear. I constructed a closet sheathed in goodness, and made myself comfortable inside. When you are hiding, you must be very quiet. Roaring was out of the question.
After 50 years the desire to be free finally overcame the desire to be good. Words pushed their way to the surface until I finally spoke out loud what I had both known and not known: I think I’m gay. It took everything I had to give those words a voice. If you had heard it, you might have said it was still so quiet. But I assure you that it was a roar. And with those words I stood and faced a hurricane whose force would tear the cloak of goodness clean off me and leave me naked, whose force would pick up the beautiful life I’d created and shred and scatter it.
As the cloak was swept way, I would find myself groping for it over and over again. It is so easy to return to the comfort of the familiar.
I worried most about everyone else. There were superficial worries about how the everyday circle of acquaintances would react (not well as it turned out). There were deeper worries about the reaction of friends (mixed as it turned out). And there was the searing ache and guilt about the impact on those I loved, on my family. There was the disappointment I would feel from my parents – how they loved the life I had led. There was the unraveling of my nuclear family and the deep pain I caused. I knew that ultimately I was setting my spouse free, and in fact he found love again. I knew that my children to whom I had happily given my life wanted their parents to be okay, and to be responsible for their own happiness. On the cusp of their own lives, perhaps there was some gift for them in my being true, and in clearing a path for them to do the same.
Even as I write this now, it triggers shame in spite of clear evidence that everyone is doing just fine.
As anyone who has come out will tell you, there is no welcome wagon waiting on the other side. Coming out is simply another step towards authenticity. It is an urgent, often lifesaving step, but it is just a beginning. I remember someone saying in an accusing tone, “well you must be happy now.” In the midst of severe depression, I did not even know where to begin.
As I began to sift through the scattered pieces of my life, I heard voices and one was more insistent than all the rest. Hers was the voice that would whisper to me ugly words – assurances that I had ruined everything, and that I would be alone forever. That I had claimed my voice, only to remain invisible and unheard. Hers was the voice of the mean girls that slip up beside you and appear to be your friend while they drive a knife into your back and twist it. Along the way I gave her a name – T.
T had support in the rejection of my everyday circle. I slowly realized that people stopped making eye contact, moved away, and rallied around my ex-spouse even though our relationship remained kind. T had support of a few close friends who disappeared into discomfort, judgment, confusion – I can’t really say where they went, just that they were gone. T pointed to these as she smirked – if only you were still good – you get what you deserve.
Allied against T were my few deepest friends, both old and new; the ones who cried with me on their couch, who told me they loved me, who made me laugh, who took me dancing. They tied me to their backs so that I would not drown. They were the voices of sweetness and of tough love. You’ve got this, they said. They believed for me until I could believe myself.
I searched for my own voice. I began to recognize her as one who was tender and strong, who would wrap me in light, take my hand and urge me on. I remembered that she was brave and powerful and loving and so much more than good. I understood that her voice mattered.
The roar that had become deafening at 50 had forced me to say the words I’d hidden for so long – I am a lesbian. And even as I came out, as I learned to say fuck you to those who would erase me, I tried to pay the price of roaring with the familiar currency of being good, of not taking up too much space.
It is slow, hard work to disentangle myself from the judgment — both others’ and my own — to stop fleeing to the safe prison of being good. This is the work of getting up off of my knees to stop repenting, to stop apologizing, and to simply be love. In truth, it will likely be a life’s work for me.
I found my roar, loud enough to claim myself, even later in life. I roared to save myself; to let the light out, to let the light in. I roared to allow myself to love who I love as Mary Oliver would say. I roared to choose life, to choose joy, to choose love. Learning to roar is just a beginning.
It is nearly 2 and a half years later and T still comes to me, though with less and less frequency. She sidles up beside me and sneers: Disappear, she whispers, you will always be alone. It is my greatest fear.
My own voice rises in my heart, in my throat: Roar louder, she says. Roar louder.
Maija Beattie finds joy and discomfort and humor in the vast spaces that have opened up in mid-life. She is committed to exploring new things – even those previously avoided — by which she has found that she is a visual person who loves to paint and find beauty in the seen, that the beauty of the cello can be revealed even in the D-scale, and that she likes cilantro. She holds on tight to her beloveds. She works in non-profit communications and writes words and her life in northern California.
The Roar Sessions is a weekly series featuring original guest posts by women of diverse backgrounds and voices. Read them all.