Photo: Isengardt

Women We Read This Week

Michelle Robertson’s “Recovery Season” in Orion Magazine

This essay is a quiet, sincere meditation on how the author’s eating disorder affects her relationship with her father. As a field biologist, her father finds himself most comfortable talking about the natural world. When the author was younger, she and her father bonded over monthly hikes spent discussing all of the plants and animals they found. But as she becomes a teenager, she sees her father’s inability to directly address her growing personal problems—to talk about anything other than nature—as an inability or unwillingness to really connect with her.

We used to hike the hills of the Briones Regional Park the first Sunday of every month, my dad and me, but we hadn’t been there in three years. When I became anorexic, my doctors forbade me from exercise in any form in order to preserve the tiny caloric intake I subsisted on. When I was first diagnosed, my dad refused to believe it. “She has a fast metabolism. I was a skinny teenager too,” I overheard him say to my mom over the dishes one night. I stopped really talking to him after that, and eventually he stopped trying to talk to me. He didn’t get it, didn’t accept that my sickness was real. Without our monthly hike, we lost all connection.

The piece is also about how recovery is an ongoing process. We tend to think of recovered as synonymous with cured, but that’s not really the case. After getting her life back, the author explores other destructive behaviors in search of that high she got from anorexia. When these other risky behaviors prove too dangerous, she returns to nature with her father and finds her path by observing the habits of newts. She comes to understand that her father has always been trying to relate to her, in the only way he knows how.


Ann Friedman’s “Me, Inc.” in The New Republic

Just about everyday, I find myself scrolling through feeds: Twitter feeds, Facebook, Instagram photos, all providing quick glimpses into the lives of the people I’m connected with, both directly and indirectly. This has become a given for people my age, or those of us who are suddenly faced with the apparent obligation to create a “personal brand” for the workforce. I wonder if I should be blogging; I wonder if I should begin thinking about what my true “niche” will be.

Ann Friedman’s “Me, Inc.” brilliantly tackles the idea of personal branding in careers, looking at how this phenomenon of niches both permeates – and perhaps limits – our approaches to the working world. She speaks with career consultants about the advantages of building such a brand for distinguishing oneself, but is largely critical of the idea of creating a clearly defined, polished sense of self because “life is not always on brand.” This piece comes at a relevant time; according to Intuit, 40% of the workforce will be made up of freelancers and personal contractors by 2020, and one consultant Friedman speaks to explains that branding occurs on every platform: “online, offline, in your organization, in your industry, on social media.” Friedman explores this overwhelming trend from multiple perspectives, and, in doing so, questions the core thinking behind creating an identity to consistently present to the world:

The more we think of ourselves as brands, the less personal everything becomes. Instead of the real you, with all your quirks and shortcomings, we get a polished YOU™, the version that is marketed to the world. Maybe, if you’re making a CEO-level salary, the trade-off is worth it. Maybe, if you’re naturally outgoing and find yourself in the right industry, it doesn’t feel like a trade-off at all. But it seems wrong to extol the virtues of personal branding without at least acknowledging this disconnect. Anything less would be inauthentic.


Lacy M. Johnson’s “On Mercy” in Guernica

Lacy M. Jonhson’s deeply felt and thoughtful meditation on mercy was wonderfully unexpected: I thought the essay was going to be about the trials and rewards of teaching poetry in a pediatric cancer ward – and it is – but that’s just one patch in a vast, expertly-crafted collage of different stories and subjects: the lives and deaths of the children she teaches, the remorse and remorselessness of men sentenced to death in Texas, the limits and strengths of our compassion, and the lessons Johnson learned about mercy growing up in a First Baptist Church.

This notion of mercy—the one of compassionate clemency, of divine forgiveness—requires that we believe people deserve to be punished. The deacons’ wives, with their loose navy dresses, taught me and all the other girls that we deserved whatever pain was unique to our experience as punishment for the sins we’d committed, or those we hadn’t committed yet but might commit later, or any sins committed by others on our behalf. It didn’t really matter how pious a life we led because we could expect pain, that great equalizer, to arrive at any moment to punish us for the sin of being born.

This, as Johnson writes, is “big mercy,” a form if violence itself, a purification of the world through fire and flood. It costs us everything. But “little mercy” – which is, perhaps, the true subject of this essay – costs us, Johnson writes, almost nothing. It often goes unnoticed it’s so small. This is the kind of mercy that Johnson, who does not feel very comfortable with physical intimacy, receives from the children she teaches: a small hand on hers, a little girl in her lap. She talks early on in the piece about the limits of language in the face of pain, so it’s no surprise that these mercies are, for Johnson, wordless.

There are many take-aways from this complex piece, but, mainly, it made me think about how the division between the roles of victim and perpetrator, of healer and bestower of pain, is more blurred than we realize. This makes the question of what any of us deserves easier to answer, ultimately. “Little mercy teaches a lesson, too: that everyone is human, just as we are,” Johnson writes. “There’s no one—no one—who doesn’t deserve that kind of mercy.”



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