on female voices

When I read this afternoon that Adrienne Rich had passed away, I could feel my face getting hot–that familiar precursor to a good cry. I held it back. This is not normal, I thought. I didn’t know this person. Who cries for someone they never knew ?

I was, am, the daughter of a feminist, and therefore the concept of women’s rights was omnipresent growing up. We read books about the first female candidate for president, we visited Seneca Falls to walk in the path of the women’s suffragists, we grew up honestly believing that anything my brother could do, I could do (if not better!). Barbie dolls were discouraged, as were toy water guns of any kind. In third grade, I went to school dressed for career as “Hillary Clinton and/or the first female President of the United States”. Well, you get the point.

By the time I reached high school, as with most teenagers, I was struggling to find my voice. I spread myself across so many artistic pursuits, looking for myself in each one. Art, poetry, and of course, music. I was inspired by female singer-songwriters. Ones with metaphorical balls, who weren’t afraid to flip a giant bird at the system. Ani Difranco, Tori Amos, Fiona Apple. I was mesmerized by the photographs of Annie Leibovitz, and lost myself in the paintings of O’Keefe, and Kahlo. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy art or music by men, but I found it infinitely more difficult to feel a connection to their work.

My last year at that tiny school in Maine, we read poetry. A lot of poetry. I was 17 when I discovered Louise Glück, Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood, and of course, Adrienne Rich. I had taken a couple stabs at poetry myself, but most often found myself falling into the styles of those I admired. Nevertheless, there was a long period of adolescence, where writing these poetic imitations was the only way I could get everything I was feeling–out. These days, I tend to put everything I’m holding into my music, my singing, but the writing phase of my life isn’t all that far gone.

I spent half of 2003 buried in the words of Adrienne Rich, savouring every syllable and wondering what she must have been living in order to express herself in such a way. I dreamed then, and I still do, to become a woman in the best sense of the word. To be articulate, to be artistic, and to be an example of everything I believe in. I was so lucky to grow up in a family where being a woman is something to be proud of, and it seems like such a simple and obvious right. But the more time I spend in France, sitting in rooms with fellow immigrants, I realize just how many of my female neighbors grew up in societies where they were not valued. Where their only purpose was to make babies, and raise them. I feel like woman still have so far to go in society, and that we have so very much to offer. I wish that our equality was valued everywhere, and maybe someday it will be, but for the time being, female voices are all around us. I’m so lucky to have grown up with Adrienne Rich as an influence, and perhaps this is why the news of her death felt so near to me. We lost a beautiful female voice yesterday, but the good news is that her poetry did not disappear with her life, and if I’m lucky, my daughter might find some inspiration in those words, and her daughter after that.

Because it seems appropriate:

For the Dead
Adrienne Rich
I dreamed I called you on the telephone
to say: Be kinder to yourself
but you were sick and would not answer

The waste of my love goes on this way
trying to save you from yourself

I have always wondered about the left-over
energy, the way water goes rushing down a hill
long after the rains have stopped

or the fire you want to go to bed from
but cannot leave, burning-down but not burnt-down
the red coals more extreme, more curious
in their flashing and dying
than you wish they were
sitting long after midnight

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