“Is that an upside-down cross you’re wearing?”
I looked up from my instrument as I prepared for first period band class. A girl I’d never met from one grade down stood above me, curiously studying the silver pendant hanging from my neck.
I shrugged. “Yes, that’s what it is.”
We were both stating the obvious. There was no mistaking the symbol suspended from a thick rope chain over the center of my chest. A sharp-angled, inverted cross at least three inches long flashed defiantly over the black backdrop of my heavy metal t-shirt.
“Why do you ask?”
She smiled. An open, genuine kind of smile I didn’t see often back in those days.
“I’ve just never seen anyone wear one of those before. It tells me you must have a different point of view, that maybe you think deeply about things.”
She tilted her head, waiting for my reply.
And she captured my attention then. Her flowing, multicolored skirt sweeping the floor, just high enough in front to reveal her Birkenstock sandals, long auburn hair flowing over a floral, woven top. In one hand she held a clarinet. With the other she reached out to me.
“Hi, I’m Jen.”
I smiled back and shook her hand. She felt open, not closed like me. She felt light and warm. Not cool like me: cool on the surface but screaming hot on the inside.
I wondered where a girl like her came from.
As a young girl I emerged early, much to my mother’s dismay, as a tomboy. Despite her tireless efforts to dress me in flowered jumpers and tights, I preferred bare feet and shorts. She enrolled me in ballet lessons and gifted me barbies; I rejected them in favor of model cars and construction sets.
I writhed in annoyance on the couch at night while my mom yanked my hair into curls and pinched them to my scalp with bobby pins. In the day I learned to cook and bake, plant a garden and fold the laundry, all the little things that helped our household run smoothly.
My younger brother was held to no such standards. He was perfectly happy—and allowed—to spend his free time climbing trees, making mud pies and setting things on fire.
I was well aware of the patriarchal double standard that restrains girls and rewards boys in our culture. I’d heard women on TV talk shows complaining that while they felt diminished by society as they grew older, men their age were considered distinguished. I learned, via sitcoms and ladies’ coffee-table conversations, how our culture shames women for living fully into our sexuality, yet celebrates men for doing the same.
I saw my mom get up early to make breakfast, take us kids to school, work all day, come home just in time to make dinner and put us to bed before crashing into her own mattress, late and exhausted.
I saw my dad come home from work, crack open a beer and watch TV until the credits rolled on the Johnny Carson show.
In a culture that pitted men and women against each other in a social hierarchy of power, it was clear to me who was winning.
In fourth grade my mom finally gave up fighting my fashion sense and allowed me to choose my own clothes. I dropped the dresses for corduroy pants and polo shirts. I bought myself a BMX bike with my paper route money and never looked back.
No one told me to do these things. I wasn’t trying to please anyone or be anyone. It was my natural way.
But I quickly found that my “natural way” carried with it some excellent perks.
In response to my outward changes, grown-ups and even some other children now started kidding me, “You’re such a tomboy!”
On their faces were smiles of quiet approval.
When I grew my hair out over my face, eyes barely visible behind stringy bangs, people now smiled and shrugged their shoulders. When I asked for a skateboard instead of a manicure set, my request was obliged with a wink.
I realized that the tomboy in me not only felt more natural, she earned me a reprieve from the pin curls, the dancing lessons, and the boring barbie doll play sessions with the neighbor girls. She gave me railroad tracks and toolboxes and fishing for water skippers on my belly by the ditch. In contrast to the constraints of girlhood, my tomboy gave me freedom.
It didn’t take me long to heed the cultural signs and lean hard on the tomboy for the benefits she gave me.
What had been merely a preference for pants became a strict mandate of no dresses. My simple delight for dirt over dolls morphed into a self-imposed requirement to avoid anything girly. No pink. No purple. No painted fingernails. And Absolutely. No. Crying.
I saw my classmates insulted for throwing like a girl, and I took it upon myself to learn to throw “like a boy”—harder, faster, longer.
When I realized I didn’t have a good throwing arm, I just stopped playing.
I adored singing, and auditioned for the school choir. When I was accepted to the chorus, I was thrilled. When I learned I’d been assigned to the girls chorus, I promptly dropped out.
My masculine had taken over as a self-reinforcing identity, locking out the feminine from my life like an annoying little sister.
At the time, I suppose, I was fighting to be free.
But in the process, I was quitting things, dropping things, and shrinking my sense of self. I was becoming not only less free, but less me.
By the time I met my new friend Jen in high school band class, I was fully ensconced in the patriarchal worldview of masculine power supremacy.
There was no fearless maiden archetype in my world, no warrior goddess, no wise crone to inspire me toward a higher vision of the feminine. No heroine but perhaps Wonder Woman, who fought bad guys with long fingernails and large breasts and wore a swimsuit to work. That would not be me.
But when I started spending time with Jen and other girls like her, my eyes opened to another side of power. Free spirits confident in their femininity, those young women were just as strong as me in body, mind, and spirit. But unlike me, they had not learned to prop up their power on the masculine.
Those girls, even the boldest ones, weren’t afraid to cry. They could throw the ball however they wanted, and enjoy it. They could wear pants or dresses. They could be tough, or kind, or both. And any way they did it, they were fine.
Jen was right about me when she met me. I did think deeply about things. I’d begun to witness the sorrows of our world, and they hurt me deeply. I had a poet’s heart, an activist consciousness, and a voracious appetite for questioning the status quo.
I was aware of the sociocultural power structures limiting the freedom of me and my peers. I knew our ability to live free lives would depend on resisting the suffocating directives of religious, state, and corporate power.
The upside-down cross that had caught Jen’s attention was a symbol of that resistance. It wasn’t meant to be satanic. It was meant to question authority.
I refused to be owned by organized religion, to have my values and choices defined by an archaic, hierarchical power structure. I refused to be controlled by “the man.”
But what I had not seen is that by empowering myself solely with the masculine, I had let myself be owned by another archaic and just-as-dangerous hierarchy: the patriarchy.
Now I saw it.
I saw that the unchecked masculine energy I’d cloaked myself in for my own freedom was the very impulse making the world around me so unfree. Military and war. Aggression and cold logic. Objectification and commodification of nature, beauty, and life itself.
I saw that by feeding the masculine and starving out the feminine in my world, I’d not only become controlled by the man, I’d become part of him.
I was pissed.
I wanted my feminine back.
But the damage had already been done. Because after so many years of practice, even when I wanted to cry, I couldn’t.
When I wanted to sing, I couldn’t.
When I wanted to jump in and play ball, good throwing arm or no, I couldn’t.
And even still, I hadn’t learned my lesson.
The next year I fell in with a group of boys whose masculine power was enticing enough to eclipse my newfound curiosity with the feminine.
These boys were tough, uncompromising, and competitive. They did what they wanted and took what they wanted. They pushed themselves, and each other, to a high standard of cool. I couldn’t resist.
It wasn’t hard for me to befriend them. All I had to do was offer rides in my car and take them where they wanted to go. I knew how to show just the sides of me that were tough. But the boys weren’t convinced. They let me into their circle of friends, but from time to time one of them would ask me quizzically, “You’re a girl. Why are you hanging out with us all the time? Don’t you have something better to do?”
But I’d fed my self-worth with my masculine for so long, I couldn’t break myself away.
So I tagged along, fishing (I abhor fishing), jumping off the highest objects we could find (not at all interesting to me), or dangerously drag racing our cars on the highway (actually, pretty interesting).
But the boys never stopped trying to push my buttons. They didn’t want me to forget I was a girl. They were jumping higher and fighting harder, not only for their own sakes, but for mine. They’d say, “Let’s see if Shannon can make this one.” And I would.
I subconsciously knew those games were coming from a place of disrespect. But instead of walking away with my dignity, the tomboy within me just tried harder.
Until one day after school, the boys and I set out to explore the remains of an abandoned warehouse in the canyon west of town, and my cover was blown.
Walking through an old gravel pit along the river we found the building, a sentinel reminder of a more industrious time gone by. A cavernous skeleton of rusty metal and broken windows, the sagging structure stood in stark relief against the quiet landscape of lava rock walls and sagebrush at its back.
From inside the building we heard the echoing coos and calls of hundreds of nesting pigeons who’d taken up residence in the rafters. The birds circled in and out of the jagged windows, swirling peacefully above our heads. Oblivious to our presence, they rose and dove between nest and sky on the warm, heavy air.
The boys’ first instinct, not surprisingly, was to throw something.
Without saying a word and seemingly in unison, they began scooping up handfuls of gravel and hurling it at the walls of the building. Rocks pelted off the metal siding like buckshot, exploding into the silence. Alarmed birds shot from the building in haphazard confusion, trying to escape a threat that must have seemed to be coming from everywhere.
As the boys laughed in their childish play, every protective instinct in my body caught fire. I began to scream.
“Stop it! Leave them alone! Don’t hurt them!”
The boys stopped their antics mid-toss and turned to look at me, arms half-cocked with hands full of gravel.
Sparks flashed in their eyes.
“Aww, look at that.”
“Shannon doesn’t want us to hurt the birds.”
“She loves them.”
“She thinks they’re beautiful.”
“Maybe we should get a couple down here so she can take ‘em home as pets.”
With that they sneered and pelted a fresh hail of rocks at the building, setting off an avalanche of breaking glass and terrified pigeons. My heart leapt in terror as rock after rock barely missed the fleeing birds. I screamed furiously, trying to grab the boys’ arms and peel the rocks from their fists. “No!” “Assholes!” “Leave them alone!” They just laughed harder.
After a minute or so the boys got bored with their game, and we moved on, thankfully with no birds injured or killed in the process. Adrenaline rushing through my veins, I felt like I’d just outrun a freight train. But the boys walked with a calm swagger ahead of me, wry smiles of satisfaction on their faces.
They’d finally found my “weak” spot.
And they didn’t let me forget it. For weeks, every time we saw a bird, there’d be rocks and sticks and threats and taunts. One of the boys started carrying a slingshot and they passed it around in front of me to uproarious laughter.
Yet, I stayed.
Until one afternoon a month or so later, when they got me.
We’d all planned to meet after school at the “living room,” the hidden partying place we’d constructed below the canyon rim at the edge of town. A cave-like depression in the rock to the north framed by tall scrubby trees and brush on the south, the living room was a secluded respite from adults, school, and the boredom of small-town nothingness.
Stepping down the last of the jagged lava rock steps that afternoon, turning the corner to the living room, I was surprised to find it empty. I was the only one of our group with any after-school activities and I usually got there last. I wondered why I was the first to arrive.
Until I turned southward to look out over the canyon, and gasped at what I saw.
Suspended from the juniper and olive trees above me, strung upside-down from high above my head, hung the bodies of dozens of lifeless pigeons.
Each bird was hung by its feet, tied with twine to an overhanging branch, swaying silently in the spring breeze that whispered through the canyon. Twisting, bobbing, peaceful. Dead.
I stood for the longest time, staring blankly out into the sky.
Then I did the only thing I could think to do. One by one, I cut down each bird with my pocketknife, loosened the twine around its feet, and tossed it into the canyon.
The last bird down, I sat down on the rocks, and cried.
Our world doesn’t need more girls trying to be boys, or women trying to be men. The world has enough men already.
We don’t need more competition, aggression, or masculine warrior energy.
What we do need is the archetype of the strong woman.
The earth goddess and the protective mother. The fierce warrioress and the wise grandmother. The torch lighter, the well keeper, and the fearless truth teller. Maiden, mother, and crone.
The world needs whole, wild, unapologetic women. Women strong enough to be independent, yet smart enough to know we can’t do it alone. Women strong enough to fight, yet wise enough to know what’s worth fighting for. Women strong enough to push back against the patriarchy without becoming part of it.
A strong woman understands that tears cleanse the window of the heart and clarify our vision.
She understands that the power of jumping higher or throwing farther is nothing compared to the power of standing our ground.
She knows that kindness is strength and violence is weakness. She knows how to respond to suffering and pain without creating more of it.
And she knows that the way to be free as a woman is to reclaim the feminine—to embrace and uplift her—in a culture that has bullied our mothers, daughters, and sisters for millennia.
The masculine is not the enemy. And men are not the enemy.
All of us, of every gender, contain both masculine and feminine within.
The trouble comes when the masculine is allowed to be a parasite, feeding on the feminine, considering her at best a weakness to be devoured, and at worst, an enemy to be destroyed.
When this happens, all of us—of every gender, race, and species—are the victims.
And we get what we have now: a world rife with people who’ve lost touch with their hearts, pursuing personal profit and short-term gain over the welfare of all. A world of suffering and destruction that’s imploding upon itself. A world of people who can’t cry.
I have to admit, the tragedy of the birds was not my last disastrous run-in with masculine power. Embracing and owning the feminine power within myself is still a work in progress.
But that day I sat down on the rocks and cried for the birds, something broke free in me. I stood up and walked away from that place, and I never went back.
It turns out there was something those boys could do that I couldn’t. They could be cruel and heartless. That was something I was not willing to be.
And I could do something they couldn’t, at least not yet. I could take a stand for the sacredness of life.
To this day I still consider myself a tomboy. I still love bugs and dirt more than dresses and pin curls. (Who wouldn’t?)
But I’m second guessing whether I even want to use that word “tomboy” anymore.
Because if there’s any chance that calling a girl a tomboy will estrange her from her feminine power… well, I don’t wanna be that gal.
So I say, by all means, let’s play in the mud. Let’s climb trees. Let’s definitely set things on fire. And let’s wear our symbols of resistance with pride.
Let’s just remember what we’re resisting, and why.
And let’s celebrate every little girl for the fullness of who she is: masculine, feminine, and everything in-between. If we see a girl who’s lost her sense of her own power (or a woman, for that matter), let’s reach out a hand to her and help her rise. Let’s offer her a smile, and a warm and open hello.
Warm and open—and strong.