“Women who die alone at midnight
contributing to the end, to
lost time, to the rain and flies,
seeing the bird they saw trapped in the airport
surviving by the water fountain”
—Mary Ruefle, “Women in Labor”
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet esteemed poet Mary Ruefle at a writer’s retreat in the Missouri Ozarks. As I listened to the North Fork of the White River rush by, I flipped through Ruefle’s book, Selected Poems. Overhead, an increasingly frantic hummingbird kept flying into the green plastic roof of the outdoor clubhouse where all of us were gathered for the early evening. Maybe Ruefle was reading one of her poems, or maybe another visiting writer?
All I remember is the panicked bird, who kept flying higher and higher into the rafters, continually bumping into the polycarbonate ceiling. I was sure, as the internet later confirmed, that this bird would die if it did not escape. A few others in the crowd noticed the hummingbird, too, and we watched helplessly, communally willing the bird to realize that flying higher was not a sound exit strategy.
Eventually, the hummingbird did figure out that up was not the answer. And every time I hear someone mention the glass ceiling, I think of that poor bird.
Maybe the sanest, most effective strategy, whenever possible, would be to fly outside the invisible and visible barriers society imposes. I am all for trailblazing, but I also wonder what would happen if we continued to work for a better, more just world by not just shattering ceilings, but also building anew?
The bird trapped in the airport I take to be every person who has ever had to thrive in a less than ideal environment. The water fountain may have water, but what does that bird eat? Table scraps from Sbarro Pizza? An errant French fry that falls to the floor? Whatever remnants we are given or find? How long can one sustain such a subsistence lifestyle?
We live in an era where many lament that ‘identity politics’ has divided our nation instead of considering that the term has been, as U.S. Senator Kamala Harris told The Washington Post, “misused pejoratively to marginalize legitimate concerns in minority communities.”
The thing is the term “minority” is not even accurate as of 2015, when a majority of the nation’s youngest citizens—babies—are racial or ethnic minorities. I think about this fact especially in light of Women’s History Month, this week’s International Women’s Day, and The Economist’s release of their annual “glass-ceiling index.” The United States ranks No. 20 out of 29 as one of the “best and worst OECD countries to be a working woman,” largely due to our nation’s ongoing issues of unequal pay, the absence of a national policy on parental leave, and the stalling out of women in management roles.
Ultimately, as Ruefle’s poem suggests, women around the world are in labor every day: building movements, protesting for equal rights and equal pay, and not sitting down or shutting up. While we may be the bird trapped in the airport, there is going to come a time when we will not be. I hope I see that change in my lifetime, and, at the very least, in my own daughter’s lifetime.
In the meantime, we keep surviving.