I’m calling this “My education as a woman.” I’ve learned a lot, most of it useless. I think it might be fun to write about some of it before I’m too old to remember any of it. I don’t think I can write in this relatively public blog about all of it. I think I can get a pass on some, but not all, of it. It may be easier to accept and understand some things (I never became a writer or an artist, I never got married, my career didn’t use my best abilities but I was good at it) than others (some of the things I did, some of the risks I took).
If you decide to read, please remember that it’s all in the past, and that I survived.
If you’ve been a single woman for as long as I have, and you started out thinking you wanted to be a writer as I did, you will have had a lot of adventures by the time you’re my age, and a lot of them will have involved men. I think back on my life as a “woman.” I see a series of vignettes involving boys and men, and I see at the same time a series of same-different women, evolving, experiencing, reveling, and then slowly withdrawing and devolving. The accumulation of years and stories make a long, curved line starting from the timidity of a short, skinny four-eyes with goofy hair, through the sometimes reckless sampling of a self-assured “pretty” woman, and ending here, at age 67, closer in spirit to the thirteen year-old than to the 17-40 year-old.
Beginning in junior high school, everyone who knew anything – in my world that was teachers and writers because I didn’t know anyone who wanted to be a writer – said very clearly that if you want to write, you must experience EVERYTHING. You must throw yourself into life, all aspects of life, without reservation, without fear of consequences, without remorse. That was the only way you could really know enough about life to write about it.
It was an exciting prospect and gave me something to look forward to, an alternate universe that helped to move me away from the real suburban, lower-middle class world I lived in, inadequate to the popular culture of the day (late 1950s) and constrained by my own awkward, unbeautiful, self-conscious, skinny, inconsequential, skittish self.
It also was an unlikely prospect, and for years my only way of experiencing “life” was to read about it. Thomas Wolfe, JD Salinger, Joseph Heller, DH Lawrence, the Bronte sisters (I was a lot like Jane Eyre, not so much like Catherine Earnshaw), Lord of the Flies, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner, Gunter Grass, Pearl Buck, O’Neill, Mailer, Hardy, the Russians…I experienced war, poverty, absurdity, romance, evil, grace, every aspect of the human condition, all on paper. I was too young, too homely, too timid to do any first-hand research.
I’d had everything going against me. I was flat-chested, and my hips were so narrow that I couldn’t hold up a skirt without suspenders until 10th grade. I was too shy too look anyone in the eye except for my mother, father, cousins, grandparents, and two or three close friends. I was smart, which I didn’t believe at the time; I thought I got good grades because I didn’t have anything else to do. In the late 1950s, intelligence in a girl was something to be hidden or downplayed. I’d had dates and boyfriends, in a way, but they were as nondescript and invisible as I was.
On dates, I’d tried to follow the script handed down to us – defer to the male, be a good listener, smile a lot, don’t be smarter than he is, make his ego a priority. I’d never really had a good time, never connected in any meaningful way. Nothing that I’d learned about life came into play or had any bearing on those dates. I went on dates so I could tell my girlfriends that I’d had dates.
A big transformation began in eleventh grade. I got contact lenses and suddenly became visible, viable. It took years for me to get used to that, and I may have spent a good 10 or 20 years testing it. But in the beginning, I just started to get better dates, with the kind of guys I used to have crushes on. I never did date anyone in my classes, though. In high school it was always somebody a year ahead, or in another school, and I went to a girls’ college. By the time I was out, it was the real 60s, not the early 60s which were really the 50s. By then it was OK, more or less, to be smart, and I was still pretty hot stuff. I’d grown in courage, grown into myself, maybe gotten ahead of myself, but I was invincible, and it felt good.
In the end, I may have gotten so caught up in the “research” that I never put it to use the way I originally planned.