Silent on the Sidelines

Many many thanks to Marla for sharing her space with me!

So one of the first things that grabbed me about Marla’s blog was that she seems able to make friends anywhere. I know, I know: she’s not without her awkwardnesses, and has shared more than one cringe-worthy exchange in which everything she tried to say came out wrong. But, fundamentally, she really seems to have an open heart and a natural ability to make connections with others.

When Marla asked me to do a post, I was first really excited, because it’s nice to know that people like what you have to say, but then I got really anxious. Like, what if I was boring?! And I was almost certain to go on too long! But I thought about her blog – her travels, her writing – and where I met that. And realized that she can travel like she does in part because she connects. In beautiful ways. But I didn’t really know what to do with that observation.

And then I was doing a little reading around a few days ago for a post of mine dealing with a Dylan Thomas poem, and I opened a rarely used old Norton Anthology. There was an old plane ticket in there – the kind where they staple the receipt to that little envelope into which they push your boarding pass, long before the days of print-at-home passes or any of that. It took me a minute to place it: Nashville to Detroit? When on earth…

And then:

Oh, right: the Michigan Womyn’s Festival, summer 1996.

See, I quit college in 1996, and drove across the country with a friend of mine. (Let’s stay here just a minute, because I think it will provide useful shading, even though it seems like a tangent.) After some camping and wandering, we went to San Francisco, and settled ourselves first at a hostel, and then at a seedy by-the-week hotel, in which we shared a double bed and a private sink, and a bathroom with our floor-mates. Interesting time.

My friend was gay, and I was 20 or so, and it was an incredibly emotional period. I mean, my friend got a job at a pizza place in the Castro, which – to her – was the first place in her life where she felt able to be fully, completely herself. I think a lot of her excitement and passion rubbed off on me, because that’s when I felt my first glimmers of political interest – largely in support of gay and women’s rights.

Anyway, we had our crazy time (which felt like years but was really only months); my world was widened by a factor of ten or twenty; she went home to help her sick dad; I moved to Nashville because why not. But we made plans to spend a week together at the Michigan Womyn’s Festival that summer.

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Trillium in spring, 2013

So this festival is, like, this enormous week-long, internationally known event in which a whole rural area is cordoned off as a woman-only space, and there are literally no men allowed, and there are all kinds of drum circles and dancing and writing workshops and poetry and art… and, yes, a whole lot of toplessness and hairy armpits too, if you’re curious. You noticed, I’m sure, that ‘womyn’s’ is spelled with a ‘y’, for instance. That kind of festival. I was just finding my feminist fire, and this festival seemed like the perfect venue for me to fan it in.

I had a little tent to myself, since my friend was sharing a tent with her girlfriend. And we must have done things together, but frankly my primary memory of the event is of being alone. And not just ‘being alone’ in the way that I’m often alone these days, where I feel relaxed and comfortable in my own company. ‘Being alone’ like I was watching all these people open up, drop defenses, shed clothes, share old wounds, make new art — and I was silent on the sidelines, unable to respond to their openness or enact my own.

Like, here is what I remember of that festival: dreading meal-times, because I couldn’t pretend my aloneness was just ‘waiting,’ or ‘resting,’ or ‘expecting.’ It was just fundamentally being alone. Or a writing workshop, where a woman shared some secret pain, and broke down weeping, and the other women closed in around her and rocked her and held her, and I stood back, watching. Or my own dialogue with myself about whether or not to go topless, and my ultimate decision that I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself, so I wouldn’t.

(Why I thought one more pair of boobs at that boob-fest would have drawn any eyes I can’t say.)

I was talking to the husband about this after finding the ticket – he was terribly curious about the whole thing, not knowing me to be a person willing to engage in such festivals – and he asked if it was the first time I’d ever realized that I couldn’t connect to people like ‘everyone else’ (obviously it’s not literally ‘everyone,’ but we’ll go with that for convenience’s sake).

And the answer is no, but it was the first time I ever put myself in a situation where I was surrounded, for days, by people making beautiful, deep, moving, personal connections with each other, and I saw that I myself was entirely, fundamentally, unable to participate. I mean, I went to workshops, and learned to play a song on the shekere, and chanted some empowering lyrics, and even wrote (but did not share) poetry. I learned, I grew, I explored, I loved. But I don’t think I talked to a single person that whole week apart from my friend and her girlfriend, and I certainly didn’t make any connections.

It kind of makes me sad that, looking back, the main thing I remember from that week is the crushing realization that I couldn’t do what most people seemed to do so naturally. I felt so alone. Surrounded by so many women who, I’m sure, would have wanted me to be celebrating every moment with them.

Now, I just wouldn’t go to such a festival, knowing that I couldn’t integrate myself naturally enough to feel welcome (by no fault of anyone but myself). For instance, my old ATS dance teacher is hosting what looks like a pretty amazing weekend camping and dancing in upstate New York, and I thought about going, but… yeah… I think I’ll stay home.


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The Dancing Professor (c) The Dancing Professor

About The Dancing Professor: I’m a one-year-out-of-grad-school professor at a fancy-pants university, which is everything I hoped it would be. (Thank god, too, because earning that PhD was no walk in the park.) I’m enjoying my new normal-person life enormously – dancing, sewing, hanging out with my cats, fish and husband (not necessarily in that order), reading, playing piano, and generally liking post-student life – but what I am *not* doing is writing as much as I should be. Or, like, at all. So this is a place for me to get back in the habit of writing, and maybe start to work on the ideas that might some day become articles and papers. Til then, I will write for a at least a half hour a day, every day, on anything at all, and we’ll see what comes of it.


Want more of The Dancing Professor? Marla does! Marla wishes that (as a hairy armpit, topless dancing extrovert) she had gone been at the Womyn’s Festival, seen The Dancing Professor silent on the sidelines and sashayed over to her. Marla would have talked distractedly about her flowers in springtime, how the daffodils and forget-me-nots crowd together in showy displays of yellows and blues, reflecting their cliche of blue skies and summer sun, and how she would search the woods for the reticent trillium. She would talk about the flower appearing only three weeks of the year, in deep white or crimson on her property. She never cuts it; never brings it into the house. Because while the daffodils and forget-me-nots are an abundant rush of stimuli that carry over indoors, the reticent trillium blooms most exquisitely when left to its own environment. Marla would then have given The Dancing Professor a hug, apologized for her dangling baubles, and flitted away again.


Traveling Marla is unplugged for three weeks while she prepares for her move to South Africa. She put out a call for guest posts (see original request here), and is grateful to receive so much support! Please see the full list below.

Please support these writers by reading each of their guest posts and checking out their own blogs!

Thanks, as always for taking time to read my blog and comment. Although I’m offline right now, I will return in a few short weeks when we’re settled in South Africa and I promise to read all of your comments!

Love, Marla

Ingrid, of Live Laugh RV
Ned Hickson of Ned’s Blog
Rose, of On the Go Fitness
Pierr Morgan
Leslie and Amanda, of Survival is Relative
Colin of Uber Beast Mode
Robyn, of You Think Too Much
Baz – The Landy (Out and About and Having Fun)
Brandon: my quirky, brilliant, dashing nephew
Dallas, of Crazy Train to Tinky Town
Caroline, of Currer and the Bells
Dakota Garilli
Trophos, of The Dancing Professor
Leo, of Doggy’s Style
Kayla, of Encounter Peru
Benjamin Prewitt – Expression of my life – An evolution of art
Kriscinda, of Heavy Metal Homesteading
Lynne, of Home Free Adventures
Jeff: my witty and hilarious ebberlubbinbrudder
Jody, of Human Triumphant
Julie of

3 thoughts on “Silent on the Sidelines

  1. Sometimes making new relationships just seems like too much work and anxiety.

  2. Just the fact that woman is spelled with a y, I instinctively know that island of estrogen is not going to be the place for me. And as you know, TDP, I’m lesbian. I appreciate balance in my life, and that includes the company of the male of the species as well as people with outlooks on life that differ from my own, just not to an ax-wielding degree. Yet, in a group setting that has an almost cult-type quality as this sea of half-naked strangers bonding at warp-speed sounds to me, my natural reflex would be to recoil and keep my shirt on, too. As for bailing on the “pretty amazing weekend camping and dancing in upstate New York” if it’s not too late to reconsider going, do so. You love dance and the host is a teacher who sounds dear to you. That might be a getaway that is more suited to your temperament than holding hands and singing kumbaya in the company of an ocean of saggy boobs. Keeping your clothes on at this dance weekend will likely be welcome. You just have to be in the mood to cut the rug.

  3. Nice post! I can definitely relate to feeling alone, in a crowd- even in a crowd/group of friends! Growing up, I never really had any strong friendships, and even now I have a small group of close friends. Many acquaintances. Sometimes, I get in a “mood”- and I don’t know what triggers it- where I don’t want to communicate with anyone- not even my friends. I stay in, regardless of the season/weather, and I watch reruns, read books, ignore text messages, and eat junk. Sometimes I can be very extroverted- going out, doing karaoke, yelling fun things to strangers, exploring the city, whatever. But too often, self-consciousness keeps me from meeting new people or sharing any kind of feeling or emotion. Meet a new friend and share stories? Not today- Roseanne is on.

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