Monday, January 11, 2010

Do Not Go Gentle, or, Have You Ever Really Seen a Woman?

For my mother, it’s kindness. For my father, it’s you-can-do-anything. For me, it’s a rock and a hard place, this question of gender in the 21st century. I missed something in the conversation I recently had with them about what their hopes for me and my sisters are and had been. Or, rather, I thought I could bridge the gulf between these two positions. Turns out I got tired of being walked over.

What does it mean to live like a man, if you just happen (?) to be (?) a woman? I want to live the life my father hoped for me, but I don’t want to forget about my mother’s concern. Maybe what I really want is the chance to find a term we both can live with. I want to be ethical, rather than kind. I want to finish the damn PhD, write the best books I can, teach the best classes I can, make a living, and a life. But I also want companionship and conversation. I want good sex. I want excitement and possibility. I want not just a life, but one bursting at the seams. Is this something I can have as a woman?

I don’t pretend to know what it means to be a woman, really. I’ve no fucking idea. But I do know that the goals my parents set for me, if not carefully parsed, appear to be in tension. It’s not kind, precisely, to put your work ahead of the needs of those you love. Not kind, precisely, to be jealous of your time and space. But it is, perhaps, ethical, insofar as an ethical decision is one you make because you must.

The question then, as I see it, is whether the decision to live ethically, and to do-anything, is a tenable decision in today’s world. Fact is, we’re not collectively as far away as I wish from the notion that the unwed mother, the sexually active yet uncontrolled woman, is the height of abjection. We may have forgiven the bastard child her impossible sins, but the mother is another story.

And what a story she is. Wed or unwed, mothers terrify us. As women, they terrify us with their demands—for connection, for comfort, for kindness—but more than that, with the demand that we remain theirs. Mothers have a certain under-acknowledged power, and for that we hate them. We are inextricably caught between the kindness of our mothers and the law of our fathers, and the net is that much tighter if you happen to be a woman.

I’m not saying that all mothers are kind. But the system begins to break down when they’re not. Some crack opens up in the space we occupy, and we find that we’ve learned something all too terrible all too soon. You can catch a glimpse of this via other paths, but the journey will shape you differently. My mother was kind, and my approach is perhaps a bit gentler as a result. But I’m not sure gentle is what’s needed here.

I’ve been trying to live, at least in part, like a man. I’ve been trying to carve out space in the world for myself and my life. I don’t know that this is actually what living like a man means, but right now that’s what it means to me. I remember well the scene in Hemmingway’s unfinished novel, The Garden of Eden, where Catherine tells a family friend that she’s spent the morning walking through a museum as a man. An Indian Chief, to be specific, if also to participate in something a bit politically retrograde. Catherine wanted a bit of freedom from gender, for which I admire her. Too bad Hemmingway soon after showed her going off her nut.

The imperative for kindness is something I sometimes resent, sometimes value, and always very much want to understand. Is this a female thing? If not, how does it play on the other side of the gender divide? Do we even know what we mean by kindness? Is it in tension with self-determination? These questions are neither rhetorical nor facetious. I just really wish I knew.