“It is June. I am tired of being brave.” Anne Sexton
I’ve been thinking about bravery. And weakness. I’ve been both, brave and weak, up and down, my whole life. If asked today, I’d say I’m weak. I’ve wrestled with weak for a long time — midlife has me punch drunk, waving the white flag, and the world delivers blow after blow. I can name moments in the past when I was brave, but it’s only in hindsight. And, in hindsight, bravery looks a lot like stupidity. Risky bravado does not a brave girl make.
I wonder — have I ever felt brave in the moment? Does anyone ever really feel brave?
And am I really weak?
After my first child was born, I ran into an old friend who had just had her first baby. We swapped birth stories and she said, “You’re the bravest person I’ve ever met.” All because of my natural, birth center experience. She wasn’t brave enough, she felt, to face birth outside of a hospital, without pharmaceutical and surgical intervention. The thought terrified her. I was mystified by her logic, because I wasn’t brave at all. The opposite, in fact — I was terrified of hospitals and shots, fearful of intervention. I was a mess. We were both driven by our fear, but seeing bravery in the other.
Another friend wept recently at my table, lamenting a lack of bravery. She feels cowardly and this single thing is keeping her from a good life. She is 60 and unhappy. Unsettled, exhausted, seeking solutions and blaming it all on her fear. She’s incredibly brave, a musician who performs and teaches, but she looks in the mirror and sees weakness.
Perhaps we’re all brave, all the time, just in the living. Reframing the way I think about it, I’m realizing that it’s not weak to suffer. We all suffer, and there is bravery in it. We get up, we go out, we do stuff. Or not! We stay in and make lists of the things we would do if we were brave. But the list is brave! The hope is brave! It’s brave to live here, knowing what we know. To keep going. To grieve and seek solutions, to face a world that tries to break us every day. It took bravery for my friend to cry at my table and tell me how she isn’t brave.
Obviously, people do brave, heroic things. Things we can’t imagine. There are superhero types who are just (sometimes performatively) brave. There’s fight-or-flight bravery, emergency courage that any of us can access under duress. It’s the daily grind bravery that we all have and don’t notice, or don’t appreciate. For instance, isn’t it brave to put your head on the pillow at night, when you know about dust mites? To taste the expired milk? Isn’t it brave to face the relative that saps your life’s energy? To take the job, pay the bills, drive the car? It’s brave to watch our parents wither and our children fly (or not). We may not be calm, but we carry on.
We brave our weakness. Our pain and sadness, fear and hunger. Bravery shows up as needed and we often hardly notice. We’ve been living through a plague, shepherding our people through a cataclysmic, global event. We have tapped into stores of courage just to face the mornings. We’re brave because we have to be — the only way out is through.
When Anne Sexton wrote that she was tired of being brave, I think she meant she was tired of living. Living requires bravery. Life requires showing up, and showing up is hard. Even when the living is easy, the slings and arrows never cease.
Do you know what’s brave? I haven’t had coffee in four days. In my scattershot attempt to fix midlife complaints, I’m taking a break. Not happy about it AT ALL. Absofuckinglutely brave. Video calls and bad-ankle hikes. Dr. Google at 3 a.m. Dizzy bike rides and conversations with strangers. All brave. Answering the unknown call. Consuming the breaking news. Having kids. Living alone. Moving. Staying. It’s all brave and we are all doing it, every day.
So I’m giving myself this gift, and offering it to you: You are brave. No argument. Did you get up this morning? Brave. Are you reading this right now? Brave. Think about the last few years of your life. There’s some tough shit there, right? And here you are.
How have you been brave lately?
Things to share:
Women share what they wish someone had told them about menopause. HA! I wish someone had told me anything! About it! Anything at all! Why have women been so tight-lipped about this forever? Shame? Patriarchy? Whatever, we need to talk about it. All the time. How’s the weather? How are the kids? How is the menopause? Talk about it.
Artemisia Gentileschi was brave - she had to be.
Kimberly Harrington read a book so I don’t have to. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap is “a 500-plus-page cultural study” from 1992 and, honestly, my TBR pile is already out of control. Harrington’s brilliant review is perfect, though, giving me just the tidbits I need. Example:
“‘The hybrid idea that a woman can be fully absorbed with her youngsters while simultaneously maintaining passionate sexual excitement with her husband was a 1950s invention that drove thousands of women to therapists, tranquilizers, or alcohol when they actually tried to live up to it.’ Okay!”
The book is on the maybe TBR list, but this review is a must read.