Hey, I’ve been thinking about what vulnerable is. Maybe I use the word differently than other people. Ming asked me what I meant by vulnerable, during a conversation we were having about sex and feelings, and recently someone else asked me the same.
Vulnerable is my whole life’s goal. It’s part of honesty, intimacy, and being real. I’m open, which means I risk being hurt. I’m exposed, my soft underbelly showing all the time. But that’s how I want to be. I’m on earth to be vulnerable.
Long ago I was in an art therapy course through the women’s center I went to, in Sacramento. We talked about strong front, soft back. The other people in the group put up a strong face to the world, but deep inside were vulnerable.
That felt all wrong to me. Oppositely, I have soft front, strong back. My back is solid and 100% reliable, trustworthy. So I’m safe to go out in the world encountering everything with soft vulnerability, a realness that can surprise people.
I made a bowl in that art therapy course that has a pink outside and red inside. It says open, and it was intended to be vulvic. The vulnerability that’s central to who I am reminds me of a vulva, always open, a sacred vessel. A vulva is not going to be hard and closed off–it’s always tender. That’s like me.
When I used the word vulnerable to a friend recently, and he asked what I meant, I was really surprised, like, “Who doesn’t know what vulnerable means?” I explained that it means bare, not covered in armor. My spirit isn’t hidden away, deep inside myself, tucked behind my spleen. It’s suffusing my body, in every cell. I’m not pretending–I’m present.
Armor would be thick and protective, a rigid layer between me and the world, deadening. If I stay vulnerable, I remain sensitive. Life can be difficult with more exposed nerve endings, but it also means I can do special things, uncalloused.
When I was a kid and flinched away from the violence in TV news and movies, people said about me, “If she’s exposed to it more, she’ll toughen up.” They saw that as desirable. But I never wanted to toughen up and be more normal in what I can take in–I wanted to be who I am.
Ming told me he thinks vulnerable has a negative connotation. I said, “Oh, you mean like vulnerable populations? Like people who are homeless or living paycheck to paycheck, about to lose their housing?”
“Yeah,” Ming said.
I think that’s a totally different kind of vulnerable. Yes, there’s a negative connotation to that. “Vulnerable population” is a euphemism for people who society is giving up on–people who are treated like trash, under-supported then blamed for having nil resources. The euphemism is a way to deny that capitalism fails. It’s not an accident, that some people are left to suffer and die. It’s by design, that there are winners and losers in capitalism.
Nurturing is vulnerable–you can be taken advantage of, lied to, used. The nipple is soft, and the baby can bite you, then laugh as you cry. Communicating is vulnerable–if people know your truth, they can use it against you later, or criticize you harshly. Sex is vulnerable, physically and spiritually–possible to transmit disease, get pregnant accidentally, ptsd flashback, break someone’s heart with rejection afterward.
Making art can be vulnerable; I was too afraid to make visual art for many years. Some mean inner art teacher was looking over my shoulder, saying, “Nothing you do is good enough–you are a waste of paper.” It was terrifying, just to draw a line. My circles are lopsided. How dare I think I could make art anyone could like?
I made this bunny the other day. The skeleton inside the soft bunny is ever present. This art is about death, always with us. Everything passes. Somos todos calaveras.
Disability, old age, death are all vulnerable. Pregnancy, childbirth, sleep, hunger, strong emotions. Hearing voices, grief, loss, having a body size that society shames me for. I’m not going to deny any of that.