Queer Femmes Respond – Liz Nania on The Speaker Sisterhood and COVID-19

Cheerful readers, you have perhaps been lucky enough to view queer femme artist Liz Nania’s stunningly lovely work either at an exhibit or on her website. Recently, she joined The Speaker Sisterhood, “a nationwide network of speaking clubs for women who seek public speaking skills, the confidence to share their voice, and a strong, supportive circle of friends to help them do it. We’re gathering women who are ready to make their voice heard and discover how powerful they are.” Here, in a speech delivered at her local branch of the Sisterhood, Liz reflects on fear: how she is honoring it, observing it, and meeting it with grace and courage.

Deep gratitude to Liz for her wisdom and generosity, for her deep commitment to queer community in general and to butch/femme visibility in particular, and for being so brave and SO FUCKING FEMME!

The Speaker Sisterhood was, for me, a lot like the coronavirus.

At my first meeting, our leader Jen asked us to speak right then and there, on the spot. I would need to instantly come up with a topic, and speak for two or three minutes. Did I mention I would have to fill up two or three entire minutes? With a topic of my choice. That I needed to come up with instantaneously. At my first meeting.

I felt the coldest deepest fear imaginable. I felt like the very blood in my veins was beginning to freeze. I felt paralyzed.  I stood there in front everyone. They at me expectantly while I just blinked, and my mind was racing so frantically, I couldn’t latch onto a single thought for what seemed an eternity. I babbled nervously about not being able to come up with anything, and trying to hide the burning terror I was actually experiencing in that moment.

As you may guess, I completed the exercise, sat down, and I neither passed out, nor died. No one ridiculed me. The women at the table had listened to me attentively and with expressions of genuine interest. Then someone else presented their own spontaneous mini speech, and then, another. This was a normal thing to do.

As I drove to work after leaving that first meeting, I was feeling pretty proud of my bravery, and also stunned at how deeply afraid I had been. I knew I was going to feel really scared, but I couldn’t believe how truly terrifying it was for me to simply speak. My own extreme fear seemed wildly disproportionate to the reality of the situation.  It was NOT a matter of life and death, for godsake! But I knew this speaking challenge would continue to be very scary. So I went right to my laptop and prepaid my membership dues for six months. I needed to commit. This group of women felt safe to me. We had even laughed together.

I began thinking about that frequently quoted “fact” that many people fear public speaking more than even death. Believing this factoid is truly soothing to me. I don’t beat myself to a pulp for feeling this shocking degree of fear over something that really does NOT warrant it, because so many others share that same fear too. So while I’m pretty sure I’m the most anxious person in the room at the meeting, I know I’m not the only one to ever have that fear. And that tells me that, with the repetition of practice, I can relax this fear. Maybe even conquer it. And conquering a fear that is so chilling, nearly immobilizing, in a safe environment, seems like an extremely valuable use of my time.

Little did I know, when I first joined the Speaker Sisterhood that I would really need to marshal those fear-slaying skills. Because we would all soon face, what is for so many, a genuine matter of life and death. The worldwide pandemic.

In the past weeks, I’ve felt that same ice-cold fear, roiling in my belly. That near-panic. The frozen sensation of being immobilized, my heart pounding. Times of tears. People I know will die! What if I can’t save my mother?

These emotions were nearly identical to those I experienced in the Speaker Sisterhood meetings when I knew my turn to speak was coming, or when the moment came when I all I had to do was just open my mouth and talk. It amazes me to recognize how similar my mental and physical reactions were, when only one of these scenarios actually poses a threat.

This made me curious. I remembered that at my second Speaker Sisterhood meeting, my blind terror shrank a few degrees, becoming just strong fear. By the end of my third meeting, having spoken up six or seven times in total before this group of kind, gracious women on the same path, my strong fear had transformed into “fear”— just regular, palpable anxiety, a mild stomach ache, very familiar, nothing that would drench me in cold sweat. And now I see that this softening of fear happened from the repetition of practice and the welcoming support my speaker sisters who are on your own speaking journeys with me.

A few weeks ago, my gripping terror and misery over experiencing the beginning of this pandemic loosened, and has now subsided a fair amount. Of course there is and will be plenty more to worry about. But I’ve had about as much practice in creating new habits in this virus-infested world, as I’ve had in the Speaker Sisterhood so far: like many of you caring for elder parents, I was trying desperately to convince my healthy 89 year old, very independent mother, to practice quarantining and social distancing, even from her own daughter. I’ve been creating entirely new systems so I can get her daily needs met, while trying to convince her to let me do that. I’ve been learning how to make disinfecting and quarantining and social distancing the new normal in my own home, and I’ve been shutting down my workplace, which is my dance studio, for the foreseeable future. Like all of us, now I’m weighing the fear and risk in every action I take.

I’ve practiced doing all these new pandemic-related actions about as often as I’ve practiced public speaking.

And though this is only the beginning of this hellacious global crisis, I’m grateful that I’ve so recently strengthened my ability to fight fear, through my practice in the Speaker Sisterhood.

I’ve already gained some skills and resilience I never imagined I’d need to rely on so soon.

And I’ve learned it’s through practice and community, particularly a really good community of women.

About her art, Liz says: Much of my painting is abstract, but I do create some representational work, too. My art explores love, time, celebration, being a woman and a lesbian, social commentary, and other things dear to my heart. And my textile art is unapologetically feminine; it’s even more girly than I am!

See Liz Nania’s work: www.liznania.com, and on Instagram at liz_nania_art.   

Every Friday, I showcase a queer femme goddess. I want to feature you! Write to me at thetotalfemme@gmail.com and let me shine a spotlight on your beautiful, unique, femme story! If you’ve written a femme story or poem or song, oh, please let me post it!

 New Femme Friday feature starting spring 2020: Queer Femmes Respond. Are you reading more poetry? Are you navigating various technologies in order to see your folx and not be so isolated? Are you still going out to work? Are you able to get out for walks? Who’s home with you? We queer femmes are meeting these unsettling times with queer femme panache, and I want to hear about it! Along the lines of the Corona Letters over at the Sewanee Review, please send in what you’re doing, how you’re staying centered and sane! Write me at thetotalfemme@gmail.com with questions or ideas or a full-on post (with bio, if possible)!

 At the Total Femme, my intention is to post three times a week: Meditations for Queer Femmes on Monday, Pingy-Dingy Wednesday on Wednesday and Femme Friday on Friday. Rather than play catch-up in a stressful fashion on those weeks when life prevents posting, I have decided to just move gaily forward: if I miss a Monday, the next post will be on Wednesday, and so on. Thank you, little bottle of antibiotics for inspiring me in this! (“…if it’s almost time for the next dose, skip the missed dose and continue your regular dosing schedule. Don’t take a double dose to make up for a missed one.”) As I recover from treatment for breast cancer, however, I’m just going to post whenever I can manage.