Like a lifetime of paper cuts

I was 10 years old the first time I got cat-called–not that I had that name for it then.

I was in my front yard, wearing a bathing suit, playing an imaginary game with my small ceramic dogs and horses in the dirt under the fir trees that grew in the front corner of our corner lot. I really loved that bathing suit, my first two-piece. It was hot pink, and cute. I felt free in it in a way that I didn’t in a one-piece.

There was a stop sign at that corner; a car full of teen-age boys stopped and the hooting and hollering and laughing began. I don’t remember exactly what they said. What I remember is my surprise and shame. What I remember is that they said something specifically about my bathing suit, and I never felt as free in it again. What I remember is packing up my little dogs and horses and going inside to play, even though the trees’ roots created hills and valleys that they loved to run over.

In the grand scheme of hurts, this one–and all the many others of its nature that followed for years and years–was not a big deal. Maybe, especially in the moment, especially if looked at singly, it had an impact on par with a paper cut. And who is going to make a fuss about a paper cut? No one. We all get them. They sting like a mothertrucker, but they aren’t a big deal. They’re just part of how it is, with paper.

You know, it’s not like I go around feeling fearful of paper all the time. No one does. I mean, I’m an educator and a writer. I love paper. I need paper. Hard to imagine my life without paper. But then–never when I’m expecting it, usually when I’m being a little careless about something, when my mind is on something else, when I forget that paper can cut–one of those sheets slices into me. And it hurts.

A lifetime of paper cuts, though, adds up to a sum greater than its parts. Each has contributed to my understanding that cutting is something to avoid and paper is something to be careful with. It’s part of knowledge I carry so deep in my body that my caution and wariness around any technology that can sever–knives and saws and all manner of power tools–feels instinctive rather than learned.

Of course, this is just a metaphor, and like most it doesn’t hold entirely true. Men and boys are not tools, and the proclivity many have to treat girls and women as objects for their amusement are not an inherent part of their design, the way, say, being sharp around the edges is part of paper’s. I suppose if we really cared more about paper cuts, we’d change our way of making it, and maybe there is something in the way we make boys, the way we raise them, that makes some of them treat us like things and, seemingly, not even know that they are doing it. But unlike paper, men have the capacity to change themselves, even if we haven’t raised them as well as we might. They have the capacity to learn and transform.

Because they can’t experience this in the way we have and do, they will never have the capacity to truly feel how it is for us. But they do have the capacity to understand that ten year old girls should not have to pack up their toys and play inside to avoid sexual harassment. They can believe us when we tell them how pervasive it is and how it impacts us. They can take the lead in transforming our world so that we do not have to walk so carefully and vigilantly through it, always aware, at least in some way that feels instinctive, of how the sharp edges of men might at any moment slice us open.

10 thoughts on “Like a lifetime of paper cuts

  1. Kate says:

    Oh Rita, this is so beautiful and sad and true. I know I can look back and know the moment I learned to be leery. I wonder if all women can. And you’re right, on it’s own that moment isn’t significant, but what it symbolizes is…

    I’m so sad our at collective lifetime of cuts – some paper, some much more damaging. But I’m also hopeful. The world is changing. Slowly. Too slowly. But it’s changing. Thank you for your writing.

    • Rita says:

      I’m sad, too. This week. This year. So many things being peeled back, aren’t there? I tend to think that change is actually happening quickly, and that is why we are all so disoriented. And uneasy because we don’t know what the change will be. I’m glad to be riding this wave with you.

  2. Dana Brenner-Kelley says:

    Thank you Rita. Your voice is needed. My first cat call happened when I was 13. My kitten was sick. My mother was at work. She had me walk to the vet a mile with her. It turned out she had feline leukemia. I had to make the decision to put her to sleep. I was walking home right afterwards when it happened. The man in the truck had no idea I was crying hysterically.

    • Rita says:

      I’m so sorry, Dana. Wouldn’t this world just be so much easier if we could all just be kind and treat each other decently? Why is that so hard for us to do?

  3. Marian says:

    Have you read this piece, Rita?
    https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/09/me-too/570520/

    Your post has made me think of many things: My own laundry-list of metaphorical paper cuts and the fact that those cuts began at such an early age that I literally have no memory of ever being comfortable and free in my own skin; the very difficult fact that some people cannot come in from the outside and find refuge in their home.
    It’s also made me think of this: I know, as a wife to a husband and as a mother to boys, that males also face paper cuts. I know that these are mostly of a more minor nature, that these scars are psychological, and that the physical safety of boys isn’t usually threatened the way girls’ so often is, but it still strikes me that these minor cuts are not just a female problem, they’re a human problem, and that humans in general need to learn to stop inflicting cuts on each other. (Many of my cuts have been at the hands of girls and women.)
    It’s also made me think of forgiveness and remorse, and stupidity and youth, and making mistakes and learning lessons, and owning up and being held accountable, and—giving zero quarter to the “boys will be boys” mentality—trying to understand what all that looks like. It’s made me think of how we need to simultaneously teach boys and men to be respectful and empathetic while somehow refraining from painting them all with the same brush, and how we also need to accept that girls and women can do harm as well.
    (I’m more than a bit worried that in posting this comment I will be perceived as condoning or making light of what’s going on with your Supreme Court nomination, so I’ll end by saying this: this Canadian woman will feel visceral outrage on your behalf if that man makes it on to the highest court of your land.)
    Marian recently posted…MakingMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      No, Marian, I didn’t misunderstand you. The longer I live and the more I experience and reflect, the more I see the world in infinite shades of gray. Like you, I’ve raised a boy. He did some dumb things as a teen. I did some really dumb things as a teen–things I hope never come back to haunt me. I believe in compassion and forgiveness. But as that article makes so clear, what it most important may not be the act, but what we do in its aftermath.

      I think your comments also make clear what I’ve longed believed: feminism isn’t just about making things better for women. If its aimed were achieved, so many things would be better for boys/men, too. These problems we’re seeing, they are symptoms of things that are so wrong for all of us. And, like you, I know that there’s a spectrum of harm, and many people of both genders reside at all points along it. I tried to say that in this post, but maybe I wasn’t explicit enough.

      I appreciate the visceral outrage. Isn’t he a pathetic piece of entitlement?

      • Marian says:

        “I tried to say that in this post, but maybe I wasn’t explicit enough.” I’m not actually sure you needed to. Your experience at age 10 was your experience. Period, the end. And while there’s a time and a place for pointing out all the greys, this is a thought process that can often—unfortunately—come across as diminishing someone’s experience. I feel as though I may have done that, and I apologize.

        Entitlement…I’m seeing micro- and macrocosms of this everywhere. It’s so hard to watch, and it’s such an uphill battle to speak out against it.

        • Kate says:

          I loved reading this exchange and agree so much with the idea that feminism isn’t just for females. I had a new shade of nail polish sent in a beauty box this month – a gray color that my son asked if I would paint on his nails. He’s liked nail polish since he was a little kid (we’ve had this talk before, I know) so I did. We got home from his soccer game and he asked if I would take it off. “I don’t think I can do that any more. The boys on my team said it’s weird. Only girls get to do that I guess.” It just made me MAD. It’s this idea that if a boy does something that’s “girly” that somehow makes him less okay.

          Sometimes I wish I could be a one woman army and burn the patriarchy to the ground. For my daughter AND my son.

          • Rita says:

            That story just makes me sad. I have a photo of my very young son playing dress up, and when he became a teen he got so angry with me once for showing it to others. Because he was wearing a dress. He loved doing that when he was little! It makes me MAD, too. I wish more people could understand how the patriarchy doesn’t serve any of us. Not really.

        • Rita says:

          No, I don’t think you were diminishing. I think it’s a valid question/critique. The beginning of the post was in the past, but it concluded in the present. I was trying to note the greys in the second part. I appreciate the feedback, seeing what did and didn’t work for a reader. No worries. 🙂

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