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.
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.
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.