I spent 23 years of my life in school but what did I learn? Not much really. In fact, the last few years have been about trying to UNLEARN what my "education" taught me. Why? Because the world we need to build is going to take an entirely new way of being that requires an entirely different way of knowing...
Picture mini-me. I am seven-years-old, leaning against the wall of my second grade classroom. Considered “more advanced” than the other children, the teacher has given me my own assignment. Which makes me feel special. Sitting alone, I realise that being "special" makes me feel really really good, and really really lonely.
So begins a love-hate relationship with "cleverness", coveting it and yet suffering under the crushing burden of aloneness that it brings. Something within me wants companionship, but my competitive, attention-hungry ego wants to share the spotlight with nobody.
I am nineteen and sitting in the Bodleian library, flipping through the pages of an ancient text. The topic of the essay I need to write holds no interest for me but I am determined not to be shamed. And so I persist, dragging my eyes over the words, challenging myself to go just one more paragraph and then just one more, wishing I was a real intellectual.
Winter comes, and the bright, golden light of an Oxfordshire morning beckons me from my warm bed. It is time to begin studying for finals. My entire undergraduate career will be decided during eight exams spread over five days. The college nurse encourages those of us whose periods might interrupt exams to go on the pill. Natural cycles are burdensome and unwelcome interruptions. This is an important passage into womanhood, what really matters, what will determine our futures and our fates. The stars, the cycles of the Earth and the will of the Gods are nothing. This IS IT. Attempting to push away my fears of inadequacy I work harder and harder so that nobody will see how unmotivated I really am.
A few months later and the judgement arrives. I receive a good and yet undistinguished result. I have survived but I am a burned out, terrified shell of a woman. I find an administrative job that will not challenge me followed by a stint at some women’s magazines where I write about celebrities and handbags. Anything but return to "intellectual" pursuits. I cannot bear to be that vulnerable again. My jugular is still aching.
I am twenty-six and I'm hanging out at a café in Buenos Aires reading Gloria Steinhem. The long hours of solitude have finally weaned me off my fear of books, and the sexism of Argentinean men has chased me into the arms of feminist writings I had previously scorned. Reading Betty Friedan and now Steinem, I excitedly underline whole paragraphs, and scrawl long notes to myself.
What has changed? Everything has changed because I have lived. I have tried out careers, moved continent twice, married and then divorced. When I write “Yes!” in the margin it is not because the prose is pretty or intelligent but because it speaks to my life; to feelings I have denied, insecurities I have hidden, and frustrations I have endured. These women, unlike the men I read at university, are talking to me. The thrill is indescribable. This is what it means to be passionate about learning.
I sigh with relief, realising that it is not that I was broken or stupid. It was because I thought learning was to prove one’s intelligence rather than to set oneself free. I unfurl my wings and prepare to fly.
I am twenty-nine and I’m sitting on the floor of my kitchen in Manhattan, clasping a knife and wondering whether to plunge it into my chest. The excitement of Argentina has led me to a Masters degree in London, and then a PhD in New York, both in psychology. I have made so many arguments and won so many intellectual battles and yet, after a year of exhilaration, the emptiness at my core has returned, and now it is threatening to take my life. I am baffled as to why. After all, I gained a distinguished grade in my Masters and a coveted scholarship for my Doctorate. I made it back to being "special".
And yet the aching remains. I begin to mention to others that my PhD does not fulfill me. Some look at me incredulously; others scorn me for my ingratitude. My mother’s eyes fill with terror every time I threaten to quit. I conclude that I am the problem, that I desire too much. As the pain mounts, it manifests in procrastination, physical illness, and then a thick black depression. I am purposeless, hopeless, suicidal.
Two months later and I find myself in an addiction recovery program. I attend daily meetings and find myself a sponsor. He is a construction worker from the Bronx who barely finished high school. Of course my ego judges him intellectually inferior but I am desperate and so I place my ego on hold, buckling down to work the Twelve Steps.
These steps seem to be asking me to put down my thinking. But what - I wonder - could there possibly be beyond my thinking? My sponsor asks me to have "faith". It’s this or suicide, so I take his suggestion. Things begin to work better in my life. I feel less frustrated, I start to have gratitude when things work out, even sometimes when they don’t.
I am also beginning to reconsider my definition of what it means “to know”. I have known about things for years, things that I am unable to practice in my life. I write about feminism and yet I have alternated between a doormat and a scheming manipulator. I have read Marx and Engels, arguing passionately for a more egalitarian society, and yet my true motivations often boil down to a cold-hearted desire to be seen as better than others. I am considered accomplished and proficient, and yet I feel incapable of running even my own life.
After all of my years of study what do I "know"?
I am thirty, and sitting in a Social Theory seminar with six other grad students and a professor. Frustration builds in me like a pressure cooker. We examine Bourdieu, Derrida, Foucault, batting a ball across the net in a seemingly endless game that is becoming physically painful for me to play. - something to do with my new approach to knowledge and an increasing connection to my gut. Also because, after twenty years in formal education at some of the “finest” schools the world has to offer, I have gained my most useful and profound lessons from a construction worker and the "Big Book" of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Today my frustration turns to a seething anger that bubbles hot in my veins. I want to shake them and scream: “Don’t you feel it too? Aren’t you wondering what the point of all this is?”
The class turns to a discussion of varying political systems. A young woman makes the comment that it is very difficult to distinguish between the principles of democracy and those of fascism. “How can I ever be sure which one I’m living under?” she asks, puzzled. Before my brain has even engaged a small voice inside of me comes to life: “It’s easy,” say I. “You just listen to your heart.”
There is silence. I imagine tumbleweed rolling across the floor. Some students stare at me inquisitively, others avoid eye contact in the same way you might do if someone was muttering to themselves about elves. Finally the professor makes a nervous sort of sound and resumes her ruminations on Foucault.
I am thirty-one and I’m in a hotel room at a women's spirituality conference. Before my thirtieth birthday I would never have attended anything “spiritual” but thanks to the 12-Step programme, my prejudice around such things has lessened. I now have a connection to a loving Higher Power, a universal source of wisdom much smarter than my thinking which has led me to this circle in San Francisco. The website for the conference informed me about its speakers and topics, but it was the pounding in my chest that told me I had to come; that’s how I knew. "Higher Power" often comes to me as my own bodily sensations.
In this circle I can admit that I don’t know and still be considered wise, I can cry, or giggle one moment and still be trusted to utter profound words the next. With these women my ability to listen is considered as crucial as speaking, my presence is as important as my voice, my experience more pertinent than my opinion. I feel...relief.
Suddenly an elder breaks down in tears and a story tumbles from her lips. She speaks of a man who beat her and children who disowned her. Part of me worries that this is not “the topic” of our circle but her vulnerability seems to open up a portal and is followed by a torrent of other stories, including my own. I realise that I have spent so many years talking and yet was afraid to speak my truth. And so I speak it here, admitting my fear of other women and of their judgment. As I open up my bruised heart, I feel the compassion swell in the room and in that moment I "know" compassion, not as a concept to be discussed, but as a bodily sensation, a collective reality and a force that can move mountains.
My body whispers: “This is the kind of knowledge that transforms.”
I am thirty-three and I’m sitting cross-legged on the shiny hardwood floor of an Upper West Side apartment. We are the women of Soul Womb. Each month we gather together to midwife each other’s dreams. I am here to birth my PhD proposal, which has been sitting hot and heavy in my belly, weighing down my organs and making me slow on my feet. It is long past its due date.
We begin with silence, each woman diving within herself. Some of us hear Goddess as a sweet voice in our heads or as a tingling that runs up and down our spine. Others are sent visions that splash across the insides of their eyelids. When we surface, the energy in the room has changed. We are stronger, wiser, more aligned; we carry with us ancient knowledge not gathered in this lifetime.
Going around the circle each woman speaks of her project and the rest of us listen without interruption. When we do speak, we reflect back what resonated in our own souls. I do not feel pressure to offer an opinion at every turn, the purpose of a circle is not to prove one’s intellectual acumen. When I speak, I am simply giving voice to a universal knowing that I happened to hear in that moment, channeling something that is open to us all.
Sometimes we speak of things obviously related to our projects but in other moments we let our stories wander. We mention everything, whether it appears relevant or not because it might be that small voice in our heart, the unspoken fear or the long-ignored yearning that makes all the difference. Most exciting: I do not have to reference my sources, there is no curriculum and no final exam. No formal assessments are necessary because the most consistent evidence that I am learning is in how I live my life. Today it does not matter what I can articulate or who I can quote if I am not willing to live my words. It is meaningless to write manifestos for a new world if I do not attempt to be that change. I am a living, breathing demonstration of proof. I am the empirical evidence.
I am She.
I am thirty-five and kneeling on the floor of a San Francisco labour and delivery room. In front of me a woman is bringing forth new life and I am her birth doula. After years of agonizing I finally had the courage to drop my PhD and I'm not looking back.
My greatest assets as a doula lie in the ability to listen and a willingness to surrender to the unknown, both things that my sister needs right now. Tucked into the corner of the room she is the essence of vulnerability: eyes closed, legs open, mouth moving without sound. No need for words - her hands communicate everything I need to know. Gripping me, they convey when she is scared, when she is preparing herself, when she wants me to whisper assurance and when she needs silence.
I stroke her gently, rocking and breathing with the rhythm of her expansions. I offer bites of food, help her to the toilet, place her in warm water, braid her hair and rub oils into her feet. I make the room smell nice.
We have no idea how long we will be here; there is no predicting or controlling this situation. Instead she will listen, moment by moment, to the whisperings of her body as it remembers an ancient, primal knowledge that nobody could ever have “taught” her. This is not a given however. Perhaps her mind will switch on or maybe the medical system will interfere with her too much. Both her mind and her doctors have the power to transform her faith into fear and this body-knowledge will pass her by, slipping quietly away until the next time she is willing to stare her own Greatness in the face. As her doula I cannot stop this from happening. Nor can I give her the knowledge she needs - even if I had experienced birthing myself. I can only provide a safe space in which she might find the courage required to surrender. I can stand for her Greatness.
And so we move together, spiraling into the center of the sacred feminine – ancient, earthy, full of fury and bodily fluids and intense sensations – and I know. I know that I have found my own rhythm, my own wisdom and my own connection to Divine Wisdom. Wisdom that might just help us to birth a new world.
I am thirty-seven and standing in a log cabin in the woods. My feet are bare and my heart is wide open. I am a Soul Doula.
Today, trees are my companions, my lovers and my greatest teachers. As I press my third eye and my womb to their trunks they speak to me without words – bursting into my heart and shivering down my spine as knowledge and joy and connection and love. I cannot translate their communications with language but I can model their wisdom with my life.
And as it unfolds, so I unravel.
Everything I thought I knew about "Laura" falls away. I can't even label myself "spiritual" anymore; I am being asked to unlearn it all.
Women come to me so that I might doula their awakenings and witness them as they connect to Mother Earth, to their bodies, their sexual energy, their moon cycles and their inner wisdom. Before each session the only instruction I receive from the Universe is “DON’T PLAN ANYTHING”. And so - just as I did for each birth - I move with the certainty of someone who knows nothing until it happens. I don’t know what I will say until it spills out of me. Don’t know why I do something even as I do it. I am not a teacher in the traditional sense; I am simply a witness, a space holder and a cheerleader as my sisters remember themselves and step into their own Spiritual Authority.
Each morning I wake up without a plan. I keep it simple, move slowly. Cook, eat, walk, breath. I take long walks in the woods and spend as much time with my tribe as I can. I pay close attention to my womb. I dance when the mood takes me. I sing, sometimes to myself and sometimes to my trees.
Ahhhh, those trees. Who knew that they were so wise? That they held within them so much for me to learn? Who knew that I would turn to them for comfort, for safety and for guidance? Who knew that I would swap my degrees for trees?
Who knew any of this? This wisdom? This unfolding Mystery?