Wandering around the east end of South Street, Philadelphia, we come upon an outdoor market. The tourist sign says this structure, a long, narrow, roofed but open sided building, has been a market for centuries. Farmers would pull their wagons up to the arched openings along the side of the tunnel and sell until the wagon beds were empty. Now, instead of farmers and wagons full of vegetables and livestock, there are middle-aged women in Subarus and Volkswagens, hawking home-made junky jewelry and ugly water colors.

But my boyfriend loves this crap, so we turn into the market and start stepping carefully around over-burdened folding tables. Halfway along the tunnel, I’ve stopped trying to smile apologetically at the hopeful vendors, and instead pretend interest in their twisted silver wire and plastic beads, just to avoid eye contact. We are almost through when I see a vendor, a middle-aged woman, a bit overweight, a bit of gray running through frizzy hair, curled up on her side atop two folding chairs, fast asleep.  Really asleep. Slack mouthed, heavy breathing on the verge of snoring, asleep.  Her table full of doo-dads and thing-a-ma-bobs there beside her, exposed, vulnerable.

I won’t leave my apartment alone after dark. I think this is just common sense.  I’ll knock on wood as I type this, but I’ve never been accosted by a stranger in all of my life.  This isn’t luck.  This is simply never putting myself in a position where a stranger could attack.  I am female. I am small.   I know there are women out there who will call me a coward for only experiencing city nightlife in the company of a crowd, but your derision will not change my behavior.  There are other woman who will tell me all I need to do is take a self-defense class to feel powerful and strong.  But you see, I have taken that class, and I do feel powerful and strong.  I know exactly how to use my elbows and knees and the palm of my hand.  I am smart and quick and muscular.  If I am ever attacked, I will fight like a banshee, and if I lose in the end, the attacker will not leave unscathed.  But despite this empowerment, I believe only an idiot would expose themselves to the possibility of attack. Why would I ask for trouble? I know I look vulnerable.

The definition of vulnerable is “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.”  I wish there were two separate words, one for the emotional and one for the physical.  They feel like entirely different things to me.

My sister dropped her son off for his first day at first grade and avoided the eyes of the other mothers as she rushed back to her car.  She didn’t want them to see her tears. She felt vulnerable. Susceptible to an emotional attack. I said – but you should open yourself up to them, because it would make you feel more connected. I thought of Brene Brown’s Ted talk on vulnerability.  She says the happiest people are the ones who allow themselves to be vulnerable, to let themselves be seen.  And my sister would have benefited by letting herself be seen by those other weeping mothers. But by doing so, she wouldn’t have opened herself up to attack. She might have felt uncomfortable at first, but she would not have been attacked.  So, is vulnerable is the wrong word?

The woman at the market could only sleep like that because she did not feel vulnerable.  She probably knows the other vendors as well as anyone knows their co-workers.  She knows that they will look out for her, just as she would look out for them when they stepped away for a bathroom break or took a half-hour power nap.  What she felt was trust. What my sister needed to feel was trust.

But the market woman looked vulnerable to me.  My sister felt vulnerable in front of the other woman. I would appear vulnerable to an attacker on a lonely city street.  Perhaps vulnerability is in the eye of the beholder. It is a perception, not a fact.

Vulnerable (Photo credit: just.Luc)

Why is this on my mind today?  Am I feeling vulnerable?  A little. The summer is ending and I will start working more soon, flying all over the country, traveling alone, exposing myself to strangers and long, lonely hotel hallways.  I know how to appear confident and strong, how to look like I know exactly what I am doing. I won’t look vulnerable. I will stride into those ballrooms with my head held high, and the nervous presenters will think their slides are in the hands of an intelligent, capable woman. But they won’t know that I go back to my hotel room every night feeling stupid and sad and lonely. They won’t know how much I hate my job and how I hate being away from home. How vulnerable I feel, all the time, to the emotional attacks that are just a part of a stressful meeting.

To the flight attendants and the taxi drivers and the event planners, I might look like I have my shit together, but that is an illusion.  It is your perception, not a fact.  The fact is, I feel vulnerable as hell right now. Excuse me for a moment while I go throw up.

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