I had a moment today.
I was walking on familiar trails, at a conservation area that was particularly crowded this morning; runners, walkers, dog-owners, parents and grandparents with young children, all outside to enjoy these last days of spectacular foliage and warm-ish temps. Earlier, I’d asked Mani what her three words would be for the day — an intention-setting of sorts. Mine were “spacious,” “pleasant,” and “restful.” I wrestled with including “productive,” then decided that this could be a lovechild of the others.
As I set out, a young couple walked ahead of me; I took several photos, knowing it’s impossible to “capture” these colors but still unwilling not to at least try. A group of five young male runners zoomed past me early in my walk; they looked high-school age and I guessed that they were on a cross-country team out for a long Sunday morning trail run. A little girl played on the bridge before hopping back over to her mom by the brook. “Hi!” she said. I smiled at her and said “hi” back.
I admired the thick ground cover of mostly yellow leaves. I thought about how the past literally gets covered up, and how by the time we can see it again, it will be something new. I reached many small choice-points: left or right? Up or down? I knew I didn’t want to hike up to the top of Mt. Orient, though surely there would have been a beautiful view of the valley. Instead, I turned onto a trail that leads to some No Trespassing signs; I’ve walked it before, and knew setting out in that direction that I’d simply turn around when I reached the warnings.
I was singing out loud a bit; that’s probably no small part of why I chose the trail-less-taken. It was a melody from the Yom Kippur service, and while I couldn’t remember all the Hebrew words, the great thing with Jewish songs is that you can just substitute “ya-da-dai-dai-dai” for the words when you don’t know them. So I walked, enjoying the feel of the soft earth, pine needles, and leaves beneath each step, and ya-da-dai-ing my way along.
But I really, really had to pee.
Now, like I said — these woods were pretty packed with humans. I’m not squeamish about peeing in the woods, but I’m also no exhibitionist who goes purposely looking to expose my bum. I did a quick assessment — eyes and ears in a kind of 360 — and decided to go for it. I bushwhacked a little ways off-trail and found a big tree to crouch behind, then unbuttoned my jeans. Immediate relief. I stayed crouched there for a moment to drip-dry, and the moment I stood up, heard voices.
I recognized them from earlier. It was the group of young men, running.
As I walked swiftly back to the trail (not singing out loud, mind you), acting as if it had been perfectly natural for me to have detoured into the unmarked woods, my mind took an unexpected turn.
Suddenly, I was a woman walking alone in the woods. It didn’t matter that I knew the parking lot was filled with cars. It didn’t matter that I’d walked these trails dozens, maybe even hundreds of times before. It didn’t matter that these boys looked all kinds of raised-in-good-homes (as if this is something we can ever, ever tell — and also as if that is any kind of ultimate safeguard against violent action).
What mattered was that there was one of me and there were four of them, and we live in a world where it’s not unthinkable that this could be unsafe. This could be considered unwise on my part, the walking alone. It is not preposterous that not having ever been raped is “lucky,” because the statistics are not in our favor as girls and women. Or, as Alice Sebold wrote in her unforgettable 1999 memoir, “Lucky,” lucky is also what you’re called when you survive a brutal rape. There is no winning this one.
The boys ran right by me; they were running at a good clip, all young muscles and camaraderie and easy conversation. I was fine, I was safe. But the fact that in that instant, a rush of memories came recalling all the times I’ve felt unsafe, all the times I was “lucky” that nothing worse happened, all the times I felt bored or gross but engaged sexually with some guy anyway, all the times I walked alone, all the trains I’ve ridden, all the houses I’ve stepped foot in — in New York City, in Boston, in Tucson, in Prague, in Salamanca, in Oxford, in Burlington, in St. Petersburg, in airports, in subway stations, at night, in the morning, on workdays, on weekend, and yes, even here in Amherst — assault happens everywhere. I thought about how I’ve held my head up high and felt untouchable. — but this wasn’t really true, never has been. And still isn’t.
I was imminently touchable. We live in a world where women are touchable. Women are supposed to be careful. Women should dress appropriately, not be “suggestive.”
As I walked the remainder of the way back to the parking lot, I thought about how I’ve been “lucky.” And how sad and angry it makes me that “lucky” is a word that comes to mind as a response to the fact that I haven’t been raped.
I would estimate that at least half of the women in my life have been raped, molested, or sexually assaulted. I would estimate that ALL of the women in my life have been demeaned, diminished, sexually objectified, overlooked, or looked at too closely and in ways that felt like shit at best and were scary at worst.
I think about situations I got myself into and out of as a much younger woman. I look at my daughter in middle school, and consider how much has changed in 30 years — and how much hasn’t. All the things we accept, swallow, downplay, and brush off. The male boss who asks if I’ve been working out. The female boss who tells me she worked full-time with twins and I had nothing to cry about (this was when Aviva was four months old and I was distraught about returning to a 40-hour work week). The Spanish bars and smashed bottles and no, I don’t want to go home with you. The blow job I wish I didn’t remember.
To be a woman in this world is to continually assess the trail. Is to have eyes in the back of your head. Is to develop powerful intuition. Is to watch out for other women. Is to have “finding your voice” be a thing in the first place. Is to be lucky if you haven’t experienced sexual violence.
I made a little blessing over those boys as they ran by, that they may be kind to women. That they will live as champions of women’s equality of mind, body, and spirit. That they may speak up when their friends or peers are being jerks or worse; that they will know that their power, their masculinity, their beauty, and their ambitions do not rely on women being lesser in any way. That they will treat their female friends, lovers, teachers, and leaders with deep respect.
I’m so floored by the stories pouring forth from the women in this country right now. I ache. I’m angry. I love us so hard and am so damn proud of our individual and collective courage. Let’s win this thing.