You Are Here

Training myself to take up space

Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

Long ago, as a teenage waitress scurrying through crowded kitchens and dining rooms, it was my habit to say “sorry” when I needed to pass.

Sorry to my fellow servers, each of us balancing trays of food and cocktails on flower stalk forearms.

Sorry to the earnest, bow-tied busboys with their baskets of bread and carafes of water.

Sorry to the noisy guests in their Sunday clothes, even on Wednesday, as they jostled in the front door and waited their turn at the tables.

Sorry to the busy shouting men in the kitchen.

Always sorry. Never excuse me. Never nothing. Never a thought that it may just be my turn and nothing needed to be said.

An older waitress finally pulled me aside at the back bar and hissed, “What are you sorry about? Why are you always sorry? Stop saying you’re sorry!”

My response: “I’m sorry.”

I was very young then and am not so sorry anymore. I’ve never been an elbows-out sort, but I’m counseling myself to at least claim my turf. Aging is teaching me to take up space.

I had a wild grandmother who took up more than her share of space. She was dramatic and haughty, and demanded the center of the stage at all times. As a young girl, I saw grown men quake in her presence, eyes down and yes ma’am, as she stood tall in tailored perfection, chin up, eyes like lasers. She beat one of them with an umbrella and spit on another’s shoes. She claimed her space and more, and never apologized, for better or worse.

My father is soft-spoken and agreeable, elbows in. My mother aspires to be, but has a streak of the wild grandmother in her. There’s room for all of us.

I was a kid who took up space. I spoke my mind and muscled around the world, making room where there wasn’t any. I was fast and athletic, bossy and vocal, but it wasn’t always tolerated. The messages were mixed for a girl in the 60s and early 70s: Demure politesse on the one hand; feminist empowerment on the other. Be quiet, polite, ladylike. Be small, a blonde whisper. But also, hear me roar and have it all. I grew very quickly to resent the freedoms of the boys — the big, loud, boisterous boys. And the girls like my grandmother, elbows out and voices raised. I brooded in trees and tried my hardest to beat them all on fields of play, but the older I got the smaller I wanted to be. I grew quiet, fearful of my own power, my own voice. Afraid of my space, but silently desperate for it. Tough on the inside, wary of the world.

My mother had open disdain for the sharp-elbowed women and reached back in time for her role models. She admired the likes of Melanie from Gone with the Wind — beaming, sainted Melanie, the soft-spoken moral center, a “very great lady” in Rhett’s eyes, and my mother’s. I saw only trouble in that ugly story, and in Melanie’s saccharine, cartoon femininity.

The chiding waitress schooled me, as did my women professors and friends with chutzpah. I learned a bit about my space, and began to fight for it. Very politely. Don’t mind me.

Later, as a mother, my job was to center the kids, teach them to find and take up their own space. I became a vigorous advocate and threw some elbows on their behalf. I learned to make space, stake claims, but it was always for the kids. Clearing paths for them to find their best selves. I let those paths get overgrown, resting back here and watching them push forward into the space we made together. Finding their own spaces. I need to learn the lessons I taught them, for myself.

Something is happening here in midlife. I’m finding my voice, and training myself to take up some space — my space. After all those years of apologetic, don’t-mind-me mincing, I’m trying. I catch myself, shoulders curled toward heart, upper spine curved protectively, and course correct.

When you stand tall and take up your space, you breathe easier. Your view is better when you’re not looking at your feet. You feel grounded, and confident. You move more assuredly. I know this because I’ve been practicing. Standing tall, occupying my space. It worked in the grocery store yesterday, happily.

There’s a line in Dennis O’Driscoll’s grumpily inspirational poem, “You”*:

The earth has squeezed you in, found you space

There’s room for me here, and for you, too. The earth has found you space, as O’Driscoll says. In spite of all the apologizing, the hiding, the low-talking, my allotted space is the same as that of the bullies and the billionaires, the same as my haughty, wild grandmother. Life is a lesson, if we attend. I’m learning. Claiming space, feet rooted, shoulders back, eyes up, deep deserved breaths. No unnecessary apologies. No need to beat others with umbrellas and spit on their shoes.

There is space for you here. Take it.

You are here, now. Be here.

by Dennis O’Driscoll

Be yourself: show your flyblown eyes
to the world, give no cause for concern,
wash the paunchy body whose means you
live within, suffer the illnesses
that are your prerogative alone —

the prognosis refers to nobody but you;
you it is who gets up every morning
in your skin, you who chews your dinner
with your mercury-filled teeth, gaining
garlic breath or weight, you dreading,

you hoping, you regretting, you interloping.
The earth has squeezed you in, found you space;
any loss of face you feel is solely yours —
you with the same old daily moods, debts,
intuitions, food fads, pet hates, Achilles’ heels.

You carry on as best you can the task of being,
whole-time, you; you in wake and you in dream,
at all hours, weekly, monthly, yearly, life,
full of yourself as a tallow candle is of fat,
wallowing in self-denial, self-esteem.

Write it down.

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