What is Woman? On the Sierra Nevadas, Anias Nin and Growing up as the Peter Pan Girl
June 8, 2012 § 3 Comments
I know a woman who is an art teacher and a botanist. On Monday, she is a painter. Tuesday afternoon she is a gardener. She crafts meals like art on the weekends – lemons and sage and garlic and California steaks, all laid in candles and bold red and blue and yellow dishes on big, wooden tables that have intrinsically bound food and beauty, for me. She cooked this way when I was six, and she called me in from the orchard with her sons to eat dinner. I’m 23, now, and we’re using the same dishes. But we’re both women. She spanked me once when I was five and wouldn’t stop screaming. Now, she is my friend.
My friend has children that live in worlds of their own – dancers and artists and wild, mountain men, this woman has raised. They come in and out of her home like hurricanes – bringing life and laughter and talk and booze and they go again, after the dishes have been piled high and washed – again and again – and all the meat and the sage and garlic has been heated and reheated long into Sunday night, when everyone climbs into their cars and drive home to their homes tucked in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas.
On Monday morning, I know my friend wakes up and makes coffee in her kitchen as a painter. On Tuesday, as a master of the garden – peonies be warned! On Wednesday afternoons, perhaps she makes coffee as a writer. She told me she might begin to write.
Last week my friend called me from the desk she sits at on the days that she is an art teacher who needs to file paperwork. She talked to me about children, but not as a mother.
She didn’t say, “as a mother.”
She said, “as an artist, let me tell you something…”
She said, “as a woman, let me tell you something…”
I’m working as a nanny two days a week – on the days I’m not a woman running a business, or a writer or a woman reading in Bryant Park. I was asking her for advice with the 20 month old. We talked the need for children to have autonomy. It was a segue.
Children need autonomy. And, so do women. So do people.
To give a child autonomy, you must have your own autonomy first.
She told me I would always be a woman first – that I would always be a writer, a business woman, a lover, a yogi and an artistic being. I would always be multi-dimensional, she said to me. Everyone is, you know.
“Should you ever, by whatever circumstance that comes your way, end up bearing children out of your body,” she said, “you will need to remember that the children you bear are not the axis on which your life turns. They do not define you. You do not define them.”
She told me I would never be a mother by definition.
“You will simply be a woman who, for a period of time, is carrying a child on her hip.”
Fluid. Continuing forward. Generous living. Conscious living. A woman.
But what is woman?
When I was a kid, the women around me defined womanhood as servitude. Woman is not for herself, and a woman must not live for herself. They talked about woman being made for man. Woman was words like: under, below, submissive.
They didn’t mean those words like Anias Nin did when she wrote them. Nin said, “I do not want to be the leader. I refuse to be the leader. I want to live darkly and richly in my femaleness.”
We might mistake her for a submission junkie herself if she didn’t, in the same breath, note: “I, with a deeper instinct, choose a man who compels my strength, who makes enormous demands on me, who does not doubt my courage or my toughness, who does not believe me naive or innocent, who has the courage to treat me like a woman.”
So Nin wants a strength that moves her to strength. She’s about the Yin and the Yang, XX and XY, carpels and stamens. The caryatid and the telamon.
I didn’t get my hands on Nin until I was in college because I was raised in the Sierra Nevadas, with all these women in jumpers and flats talking about serving my husband by keeping my virginity. That’s sex ed, in the conservative church. Your sexuality is something you can lose. If you give it away it the wrong moment, it’s gone like a rip tide, and inside you, in its place, a knot forms – a big, ugly knot of guilt and cosmic anger.
When I was little, I imagined my virginity as the shadow that runs from Peter Pan in the Disney cartoon I watched with my brothers. I spent hours trying to figure out how to attach it to me in a way where it would never get away. I made plans to stomp out my desires, to be good – to live in terror of consequence in order to save myself until the marriage bed.
It’s not monogamy I’m picking on. It’s the utilization of fear, shame and control in sexuality and femininity. I am dear, dear friends with a beautiful, homosexual man who hailed monogamy on the phone as I walked to the Path train last night. I resonate with him. I resonate deeply with commitment.
Christa Wells – “You’re in love with the truth about me/all the scars that no one else sees/and the creases that tell of the stories we’ve written together.”
Commitment is logical to me.
What isn’t logical to me anymore is belonging most deeply to everyone except myself.
The women in jumpers taught me that God started in crushing woman’s independent spirit after the Garden of Eden. The serpent will bite her heel, and she will give and give and give pieces of herself to the men she’s created for until she turns to dust. The way I was taught it, a woman belongs to four generations and an institution – her parents, her husband, her children and her children’s children. After her family, a woman belongs to the church.
I was told I’d find joy in serving. But they weren’t talking about serving my fellow man.
They were talking about giving away chunks of myself until my whole life was caught up in servitude. They were talking about serving the lust and the evil out of me. That’s how you combat losing your footing, your good standing, your virginity.
Why do they call it that – “losing” – like something you were meant to keep slipped away? Why don’t they say that your body opens up, shifts, that the earth gives way? Why don’t they tell you that time stops?
I grew up terrified of losing something in my body that I’d never get back.
My own humanity began to blossom when I began to have acceptance of myself inside my body.
It sprouted legs and lifeblood and real, fucking skin on my body – I was Pinocchio that time.
Hey! I’m a real girl!
I hadn’t felt much but terror, until then. Everything a shadow – everything Peter Pan. I was raised on the expectation of domination and submission, like BDSM for the soul and the spirit – but with prettier words. When I was in high school, my family moved to New York, and a woman with tight curls and 80′s eye shadow told me about myself and my role as a woman. She had sausage fingers and white skin with freckles. She buckled her shorts high up over her protruding stomach, and she was always asking me if I thought I was appropriate.
Sausage finger lady made me afraid of losing my virginity and my reputation and my slot in heaven because I couldn’t be appropriate enough.
Her question about me being appropriate was always rhetorical. It was always over lunch. She’d take big gulps of sweet tea she sucked while staring out at me from under her green and blue eye liner and she’d begin to talk about ways I could serve the bad things out of me.
While I was getting my navel pierced, I imagined what she’d come up for me to do as recompence. The big, surgical needle went diving through my skin and ripped out the other end, and I felt deep, horrible powerlessness when I imagined all the sunday school classes she’d have me teach to get the early blooming sexuality and expression of rebellion in my ripped navel out of my body.
I didn’t have the words or the ideology or the understanding to break free from the lines she was setting for me. She was defining sexuality and womanhood and my role in the world through her sausage fingered lens, and I didn’t know how to stop it.
That’s what happens when your whole god damn life is a reaction – a submission, a role of help-mate – to the church, to a man – to a woman with sausage fingers and 80s eye shadow when she defines both.
Getting away took a separation of self – an unlearning and a relearning, a ripping out of ideas that defined everything for me. But, years later, unmarried and unafraid of losing something I’ll never get back – I live in a world where the earth shifts, and time stops. I give to my fellow man out of love, instead of fear.
Years later, I’ve learned that this concept of finding a man that who has the courage to treat me like a woman is necessary. I’ve learned that buying underwear I love is changes the way I feel when I walk down the street. I’ve learned that being in touch with my body, instead of afraid of what it could do to me, is integral for my mental health. I’ve learned that I like time to myself the same way I like to be in a room of people. I’ve learned to say no when I’m spent. I’ve learned to say yes when I’m not.
I’ve learned that I want men around me who listen to my ideas, and tell me their ideas. I’ve learned that the demands I want set on me have to do with my work, my capacity to have my own life, my ability to be patient with the lives of others and to be generous – as a partner. I’ve learned never to give myself up, but to give often of myself to others.
I’d like to find 80′s woman, and a room full of jumpers, and I’d like to ask them all where they came off being the way they were – making me afraid of losing something I could never get back, dominating me into fear and panic and lost identity. I’ve like to shake my finger in their faces and tell them to stop scaring little girls into submission and dominance, loss of identity and fear of their bodies.
Then again, I know that I can’t define sexuality and womanhood and their role in the world through my hot pop pink nail polish and my turquoise rings any more than they could do for me through their sausage fingers and jumpered vaginas.
Beyond that, I don’t need to define it for them, anyways.
There’s already enough people doing that – their churches, their children, their husbands, their grandchildren – their parents.
They’ve got four generations and a congregation to belong to.
I’ve got the world.
I went to my garden, dear friend, best lover! breathed the sweet fragrance.
I ate the fruit and honey,
I drank the nectar and wine.
Celebrate with me, friends!
Raise your glasses—”To life! To love!”
- Song of Solomon 5