Who Would You Be Without Rules?

You know that meme deal, you see it going around Facebook now and then — how old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were? (37, that’s my answer.) I have a different question, the answer to which is so clear to me, and always has been clear:

Who would you be if there were no rules? And by ‘rules’ I really mean gender rules more than anything else. I hope younger woman don’t feel them as strongly as I always have, but at 58 (born in 1958) I have grown up with the rules that define what I can be — even when the rules are pretending to relax and change! Even when those changes are “ladies can even be astronauts!”, things like that, because that kind of rule still contains the idea that ladies aren’t really astronauts. It needs to be stated, and so it’s not inherent in my possibility.

The older I get, the heavier are those rules, the weightier my recognition of them dragging behind me my whole life. When I was very young, a newly married 21-year-old girl, they were completely invisible to me, and so therefore weightless. I think I had too much to do just trying to figure out the whole breathing thing, the ‘what was all that stuff that happened to me’ thing, so imagining who I might be was completely beyond my ken. As Nancy wisely told me once, I have a lack of imagination for myself. And of course now that my country is descending into the clutches of the American Christian Taliban, which defines itself so much on the backs of women (as religion tends to do), and now that I’m older and at the invisible stage of life, I am so keenly aware of the gender-defined strictures that I often feel like screaming.

SCREW THAT. I will never dye my hair. Younger women need to see women who look like women my age. They need to know it’s great. And beautiful. This has become a seriously political issue for me.

I should dye my hair (I am one of the very few older women I know who doesn’t dye her hair). I should have long hair. I should be appealing, even though I am all but invisible. I should not have strong opinions (that one is regulated hard by other women, in my experience — a couple of women in Austin came to dislike me a lot because I had opinions, and they let me know that quite pointedly . . . one in a furious email, and the other by ghosting me after a meeting where she was so angry with me because I asked about times we have all been angry it was palpable, and fuck her to be honest.).

I should smile, be nice. I should be interesting at all times. I should like womanly things and interests. I should be gracious and hospitable. If wronged, I should make the best of it, be the bigger person, let it go Lori. I should always and only be kind.

I should not be filled with rage. I should not hate men for the destruction they wreak upon us all — after all, it’s “not all men.” I should not be loud and demanding. I should not make waves, unless it’s within a defined space. I should not want too much, and certainly not want a life that doesn’t fit the lives of those within my personal sphere, those who want me to be who they expect me to be.

But you know what life I would want if there were no gender rules? If I had had ungendered freedom from an early age? I have one answer for me now, and one for me back then.

The answer for me now is a rambler. I’d just leave. I’d do whatever I needed to do to earn enough money to keep rambling. I’d drive, and sleep, and work, and write, and sit, and watch, and drink coffee, and talk to people, and move on. I can’t even begin to imagine that freedom — in part because there is now a second generation beyond me, and I care about those little ones so much. But if I were free, oh how I would ramble. I’d be a modern boxcar gypsy. I’d hit hard spots, lonesome times, dark nights, I’d be sick and alone sometimes, I’d have glorious days, wondrous nights, scary times, and who knows how it would end up for me, but that would be my problem to solve. I’d have my banjo and guitar, and a notebook, and just as I did when I was a homeless girl, I’d lie awake in a lonely night and play music to keep myself company when I was scared.

The answer for me back then, assuming “back then” is when I was ~18, the age most kids are looking at their futures and either falling into what’s expected or making their own paths, is that I’d have gone to college and then graduate school to become a paleontologist. I’d have gone to Mongolia, or Africa, or Indonesia, for field work. I’d have been dusty and scared and exhilarated, and maybe I would’ve succeeded or maybe I’d have failed, but the path would’ve been mine, and it would’ve definitely been scientific, and academic. I wouldn’t have married. My life would’ve been just mine, and the inevitable suffering I’d face might crush me, but every day would be decided just by me.

I’ve never really been a girly girl, wanting a wedding and little fenced-in houses and neatly dressed children who grew up and married well and had weddings and little fenced-in houses and neatly dressed children. I remember being a very young girl, maybe 7 years old, wondering what was the point: so I’d get married and have babies, and they would get married and have babies, and they would get married and have babies, and that’s it? That would be my life, to get the next round going? But what about ME? I never played with dolls, didn’t understand how or why that would ever be fun, and always imagined for myself a life as a scientist. It was more than gender rules that kept me from pursuing that, for sure — it was a lot of stuff, primarily including the damage done by my severe childhood and the need to dismantle all that — but gender rules absolutely played a part in my imagined life.

Me and my darling Lucy

And I say all this from an expensive leather chair in a living room of a second home in the mountains, with a first home on the Upper West Side of New York City — the luxurious imaginings of a settled older woman with three grandchildren carrying my light blue eyes into the future. At this point only one is a girl, and for Lucy I hope with all my heart that her future days are hers to shape. That the rules she lives within are the ones she decides are OK to keep. That the future she sees for herself is the one she’d choose even if there were no rules. Those options are more easily available for my grandsons Oliver and Ilan — they’re more a given, really. Maybe by the time Lucy is arranging her own life, things will be different. Maybe as my grandchildren carry my light blue eyes into the future, they will have very different options, and their lives will be so dazzling to their Pete. I imagine that will be true, whatever happens.

7 thoughts on “Who Would You Be Without Rules?”

  1. As always, a fascinating look into the person you are, as well as food for thought to your readers. I was never a rebel, a questioner, I followed the rules and loved playing with my dolls. I did love reading, though, and that’s probably what got me through my sad childhood. I’ve often wondered what I’d do if I were completely free. Not sure I’d have the courage to just roam, unless I had plenty of money. But to go wherever I’d like, whenever I’d like? Yes, that would be heavenly. There are, however, those ties that bind. Thanks, Lori, for another post that will stay with me for awhile.

    1. I was a rules follower too, Debra — in small part because that’s what girls were supposed to do, and in larger part because of the specifics of my frequently death-defying life, where discerning the rules might mean the difference between getting to keep living or not. I’m still a default rules follower, and feel very anxious when I’m with someone who flaunts the rules, like my husband. In fact, in the face of a rule he will absolutely NOT follow it just because. (He is oppositional-defiant to the extreme.) Books got me through too, and so often revealed possibilities that I never could’ve known, like the concept of ‘sanctuary,’ in Les Miserables. Even still it was never my wish to be a writer — in part, perhaps, because I exalted writers so much, they were WAY UP THERE, out of reach.

      The ties that bind — a bond is such a wonderful thing, but being bound isn’t. What a dilemma, and yet here we are. I sometimes feel a small rage that I didn’t just do what I wanted when I was very young, but the rage is muted because I know I simply couldn’t have, given everything.

      And yet here we are, two mature women who have lived real lives, and who have all the understanding we’ve gained, and maybe we can help the little ones behind us. Erikson described our stage of life as the tension between generativity and stagnation, and I don’t see either one of us stagnating. xoxox

  2. Just want you to know that I’m following your posts and have SO MUCH to comment on (ESPECIALLY the last 3!!, and the thought on going CITY to RURAL!!) but really shitty internet here in Norway!! I REALLY want to skype or FaceTime with you when I get back! Let make a love date in the next week — I’m Aving my Darlin Lori withdrawal!!

  3. Ugghhh…stupid internet! I am HAVING withdrawal! (And so! So!! Dreading my next 24 hours travel…via Copenhagen, Toronto, and Hou….oh well, the price we pay for adventure!!

    1. ooh…when we flew home from Norway, we flew through Toronto too and that was a complete and total nightmare. Their process of getting you through immigration was, well, you’ll see. We had several hours and we still almost didn’t make the flight. I’ve never been so outraged while traveling. I do hope you have a better time of it, though it’s not like it was especially crowded the time we were there or anything, it’s just their dumb process. UGH. But yeah, just the price, and the price is always worth it even if it takes a while to remember that. 🙂 Good luck with it, and yeah, we’ll talk next week!

  4. You know, you articulate exactly what I don’t know I’m thinking!!! I am filled with rage. Maybe there’s an age we reach and an invisible button is pressed and whoa, the rage just kicks in.
    I’m enraged that people particularly men and particularly younger men talk over the top of me, that they ALWAYS think they’re right, that they’ll never concede to a women. Yes, it’s still happening. I’m enraged that those same men see women getting angry and dismissively attribute it to them being too emotional.
    I’m enraged that our power, not huge to start with, is whittled away as we age, and only very few women are able to maintain power but even so are still targeted for their gender, their age, their children if they have any. Is there any greater example than Hillary??
    My prayer is that Lucy grows up and kicks their collective butt!!!!
    I grew up lining my dolls up and teaching them, not playing with them in the usual sense. They were boring. I read a lot. I am an anxious rule follower. I don’t jump queues. I wait my turn. And I watch while others just steam roll me.
    Growing up in a dictator-led family, I was more or less able to do what I wanted. I dreamt of getting married (I’d sketched out my dress) and having bundles of kids – probably a desire to escape and to be surrounded by laughter – but like you I questioned, really?? That endless cycle is all that it’s meant to be?? I ended up in a non conventional situation which I’ve had to hide from my father, who still tells me I should be doing EVERY SECOND I am in his presence.
    Boy. The rage. I feel it through my bones every minute of every day. Xx

    1. Oh A, YES. I feel that rage constantly — and I wonder if I’m feeling it more often (and more intensely) just because I’m older and have less patience for it, or if the world has just gotten so much worse. I think it’s more of the latter, but the former is true too. I am DONE with it. So done. Luckily I’m old and really don’t give a shit if people get pissed off because I’m so mad about it, if they tell me to, well, whatever, I’m DONE. But I can only imagine the rage you must feel when your father tells you what you should be doing. It makes my head feel like exploding, just trying to imagine what that’s like.

      So let’s help all the Lucys of the world, and raise boys like you are raising your son, and be the warrior gang of women. I would love to be that with you. xxxx

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