I grew up in the deep South, land of cotton fields and family trees that are more stunted bush than towering oak. You introduce yourself to strangers as, “Lynn, Ken’s daughter,” and spend the first five minutes finding out where your family histories intersect.
Where I grew up, people weren’t encouraged to write their own stories. You were born in the family town, went to the family alma mater, came home and took over the family business. We were filler chapters in the middle of stories decades in the making. We weren’t supposed to think for ourselves, dream for ourselves. The patriarch was the hero, the matriarch the heroine, and we were lucky to qualify for a supporting role.
The deep South didn’t write storylines for women like me. Proud women. Loud women. Women who don’t want to be defined by the men in our lives. I know you’re all thinking about Scarlett O’Hara, but her very existence ended the day Rhett Butler said, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
I got older, moved away. I went out west. I went up north. I moved to Europe. I was forever on the hunt for a place and time that would write a storyline where I was the star. When that didn’t happen, I’d move on to the next locale.
Then I was invited to visit Israel, to meet and spend time with women there who are making their own way in the world. I spent several days listening to their stories and I thought, “Finally! Here is a place that writes starring roles for their women!”
They introduced me to an actual star – Meskie Shibru-Sivan, a gorgeous Ethiopian woman who is center stage on Emmy award-winning Israeli prime time television.
Despite being a television diva, Meskie is a mom just like me. She juggles work and home. She has kids to raise, paychecks to earn. She has crinkles around her eyes, an infectious grin and skin which a supermodel would envy. As we drove around Tel Aviv in her little blue Ford, I asked her what advice she gave her daughter.
“I told her to write her own story.”
“If you wait for someone to come along and write a part for you, you’ll be sitting there for ages. I told my daughter, and I tell my drama students to step up and create something for themselves. Don’t let anyone else define your story. Don’t let anyone crush it. Maybe it is a bit part, maybe it is the star. You alone are responsible for ensuring there is a space for you in this world.”
Israel wasn’t writing stories for these women. It was nothing more than a blank piece of paper. Those women held their own pens.
It took me forty years to realize I was putting the pen into someone else’s hand. I was passing responsibility for achieving my dreams over to someone else. Someone would come along and say, “Sorry Lynn, we don’t have a part available for you today,” and I would pack up my toys and head back home. I had never, ever written my own tale.
Dear daughters of mine, write your own goddamned story. I will send you out into this world with a pen and a notebook. It is up to you to write down what you will do next. It doesn’t matter whether anyone else thinks you can do it. Write down the where and the when. Plan out the how. You don’t need anyone to tell you why you will do these things. You will do them because you have dreamed them. You will become the person you choose to be.
To anyone, in any subculture, write your stories. Live your truths. Stake your place. Then paper the world with the vision you want us to see. We need to hear and see who you are, and no one can tell your story better than you can. We believe in you. Believe in yourself.
(I got a chance to meet Meskie Shibru-Sivan on a trip to Israel. The trip was funded and organized by Vibe Israel. Their mission is to create conversations – the topics and the choice of story angles is entirely my own.)