That image came up in my Instagram feed (the account is Nitch, and it’s reliably a source of something to pause and think about) and indeed, the quote accompanying it made me stop and think. It’s the verb he chose — ‘escape’ — that’s really the point, as if (my first thought) who you are is something bad. (I’ll come back to that.) I had a kind of instinctive reaction, a defense of self, and the size of my reaction also made me pause. WHOA, what’s that about. Why you gotta be so mad, Queenie?
So I sat with that for a while. You can’t escape from WHAT you are. Hmm. Not who you are — maybe who is a more socially constructed idea, the roles and parts we play — but what you are, and maybe that’s your essence, your unlanguaged center, the you that perhaps you think is bad, or too much, or too inelegant, or too chaotic, or too wild, or too [fill in your own blank]. Maybe that’s what we try to escape from. And in fact, that’s one thing culture does to/for us. We are tamed. We learn to wait (but we don’t want to wait!). We learn to take turns and share (but that’s mine!). We learn to wait for food. We learn to lie down even though we want to run and jump. We learn the discipline of focus and studying. And we learn the shared cultural knowledge, the stories we agree to believe in, the roles that are acceptable for us as a function of the culturally relevant variables. We learn what’s expected of us. We learn what’s in our realm of possibles. All of that learning is intended, among other things, to shape the what of us. Some of it is agreeable, some of it isn’t, and some we finally decide to reject. But we have been civilized in the process, and our wildness might get the corners knocked off. A bit. (But not permanently, I believe.)
What was I, in the beginning? I was a quiet girl, a serious girl, a girl who only wanted to read. I was an awkward girl, inelegant, clumsy. I was not a girl who made noise, who was rambunctious, who wanted to push envelopes. I did not like to play, and in fact couldn’t figure out how to do that. In part my environment played a role in this, but honestly I also think it’s what I am. Then and now I am a quiet person, a serious person, a person who loves to read, who does not make noise, who isn’t rambunctious, who doesn’t know how to play. As a young girl of 5 or 6 I wanted to be a paleontologist. The disciplines varied, but always I wanted to be a scientist, and always asked for (but never got) a microscope for Christmas. During a brief period of reading the Cherry Ames, Student Nurse books when I was 8, I wanted to be a nurse, but that was short-lived. Too much poop. I always wanted a future in a lab, surrounded by the stuff of science. I never drew or colored or painted; it was science for me as long as I can remember. Books. Lab equipment. Serious conversations. Academia. Not motherhood, ever, but more as a conscious choice borne of my quivering fear of not being able to avoid being like my own parents.
I tried so hard to escape what I was, and did a pretty good job of it. I was a very unpopular girl, in part because I was the smart girl (still not an easy place for young girls) — so I tried to be dumb. I tried so hard to fail, I remember consciously trying to fail in 3rd and 4th grades, thinking then maybe people would like me. I tried to escape my seriousness by making fun of myself and calling myself names, mocking myself, belittling the very things I valued, like my openness to the world. I tried to escape my seriousness by hiding it away because I didn’t feel strong enough to talk back to those who told me not to be so serious all the time. To take a joke. I played the clown, I played the dumb girl, I played the dumb woman. (Sort of.)
And the ‘sort of’ really matters, because it’s not a black and white story. At 36 I started college, and knew that I wanted to go all the way through to a PhD . . . which I did. And never made a single B, the whole time. Not one, and while raising three children. But I didn’t pursue neuroscience, which is what I really wanted (my first wish), because I didn’t think I was smart enough. And I didn’t pursue philosophy, which is also what I really wanted (my second wish), because it seemed impractical, and I had a family. And so I pursued psychology, which felt doable (surely I’d be smart enough) and practical (ha!!!). Still, though, I didn’t allow myself to be serious, and because my performance was so good (I just worked hard!) I blew myself off, minimized myself (I just worked hard!).
What am I, really? What am I, still? What remains of the me I was, what is the me that has developed? I’m winking at my crone years now, my wild woman in the wood years, my white-haired years, and it’s time. If not now, when? Time to quit trying to escape from what I am. My youngest grandchild, my beautiful granddaughter Lucy, turns 1 TODAY. I’ve waited long enough.