I read a book that, for all intents and purposes, was really just fluff. Okay, fine, I’ll be honest: it is just fluff. Furthermore, it wasn’t like I didn’t already know this: I’d read the book a time…. or two…. before. Nothing profound about it. I started reading this particular author when I was in high school and, pretty much, fell in love with her stories. They were whimsical, they were set in the Regency period, most of them, and they contained not only the most lovable characters but also the most…. fascinating and warm relationships I could dream of. The truth of the matter is that, despite my open, friendly nature, I’m not altogether convinced men are species I can, or even should, trust. I’ve staked my piece of ground and marked it as my own: no man needed. Indeed, really, why should I even want one when chances are fairly good I’ll be left, humiliated, patronized or just ignored eventually? Nothing about that sounds fun. Which is probably why I’ve been totally alone for going on 3 years and emotionally alone for a lot longer. I will shout to the mountains for days about how I’m doing just fine, happy as can be. But…. even the most cynical among us have layers hidden beneath all the self-protection we wrap our hearts in. Even the most cynical among us have secret dreams we’re really just too afraid to chase. And sometimes there are songs… or books… that drill a hole through the walls to those hidden dreams and are capable of making us melt in an instant. Books by this author have always done this to me. It’s like she concocts a potion made of lyrical prose and absolutely enchanting dialogue, waves a magical pen, and poof, right before my reading eyes is my dream relationship—-yes, the very one I’ll never admit to ever thinking about. Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly nostalgic or ‘girlish’ or when I desperately need something to distract my mind from memories my writings and speeches and signings conjure up, I’ll pull out these totally useless books and re-read them. Twenty years after finding them, the same book still makes me laugh out loud and cry and feel my heart soften. Not very many books can do that to me. So, fluff or not, they’re staples in my home. And I re-read this one, in particular, last night.
It was still fluff.
But this time, I caught something else.
Recently, I finished writing a book that took more from me than any other book I have ever written, save maybe one. And one of the things that it made me think about was core characteristics of women. I couldn’t put my finger on the rather vague ideas up in my head and, quite frankly, I didn’t want to think about it. So I just kind of put it in a corner and moved on. Well then, I started thinking about Abrielle and Clayton, who were characters in an early book I wrote called “Me.” In this book, Abrielle is about as weak a female as you can imagine. She stays in a home fraught with abuse, even when she has a way out. She never directly stands up or confronts her abuser. She raises her voice a time or two, but she never shows any aggression or any real anger at all. Abrielle is the epitome of pain: a portrait of the emotion if ever there was one. She really doesn’t have a “flaw” at all…. except maybe that she’s loyal to a fault. And I never really liked her. I felt sorry for her. I cried for her. I cared about her. But I didn’t really like her. As I re-read the story this week, though, I felt my heart soften. I wrote that book when I was a teenager and, while she’s not my “strongest” character, Abrielle had every reason under the Sun to be withdrawn and cautious and shy and “weak.” I spent a couple hours mulling over the story, then moved on.
And then I (re)-read this fluffy, non-sense romantic book.
In this book, women are patronized. In fact, the “hero” of the book, whom I deeply love, actually disciplines the heroine when she does something foolish. Eventually, the woman starts to feel like her only ambition in life is supposed to be a woman of “silk”: she isn’t supposed to think for herself, she’s just supposed to look pretty and “be a toy.” She caves to this notion and, basically, accepts it as her lot in life because she loves the hero and wants him to love her back. Like I said, fluff. Now, of course, in the end, the hero refuses to allow her spirit to be broken like that and decides that he doesn’t want “silk” but “strength” and intelligence and life instead. They marry, they have a kid, they live happily ever after.
Normally, I’m good to let it go at that.
But tonight, before my girls went to sleep, I heard the song, “Amazed” by Lonestar. That song transports me to another place and time. It’s like a hand reaches into my very heart and grips it. I wouldn’t listen to it for years. And I haven’t heard it in ages. When it came on, time seemed to freeze. And my heart, it sort of just wilted away. I am extremely cautious about what my girls are exposed to. Fear of commercials is a big part of why we don’t watch TV. There are songs I have deleted from my phone because I don’t want them accidentally listening to it while they are playing games. And on our “Just Dance 4” game, there are a wide variety of songs I have banned from being played. A friend on Facebook joked that he was surprised I let the girls listen to that song and it stung because he was right. I shouldn’t have. It’s not really age-appropriate. And yet…. it was like I was frozen in place. My heartbeat doubled and when the line “I want to spend the whole night in your eyes” was sung, it wouldn’t have taken much more to make me cry. Normally, my girls and I rock out to songs like, “Stronger” and “Roar” and “Done.” This house is a strong house. But when I heard that song, my heart melted in less than three minutes. It reminded me that I’m not a pillar; I’m a woman.
And that made me wonder….
What is a woman?
It’s true that there are shared characteristics between all women but there is a lot of diversity, too. Some of us are natural homemakers and genuinely thrive only when we are caring for children or a husband. Some of us, however, are the polar opposite and thrive the most when we are among other adults. Some of us find a happy medium somewhere in between; we love being at home, but we also love time spent with adult friends. Some of us have rich, dark chocolate hair and perfectly tanned skin tones while others are golden blonde with more of a yellowish skin tone. Some of us get excited about nutrition and everything organic while the thought of coupon shopping scares the daylights out of others. Some of us are hysterical while, for others, laughing at all is a task, not because we’re sad, but because we’re simply more serious. Some of us are very introspective while others just aren’t. Some of us thrive on dressing in style because it makes us feel pretty while others prefer to be more real and natural, thereby choosing to dress in a laid-back kind of style. If you lined twenty women up and inventoried them, you would be amazed at just how many differences existed.
What, then, is the perfect woman?
I’ve spent my whole life in the shadows of the outgoing, beautiful, popular women. I’ve wished and prayed to be my sister, who is funny and the family’s ‘social butterfly’, capable of finding friends wherever she goes while I go completely unnoticed by a single soul in a party from the time I arrive to the time I leave. I go to synagogue very infrequently—-about once or twice a year. When I go, I stick out like a sore thumb; it’s hard for the other people there not to notice me. Hard as in impossible. Partly because there’s only about thirty-five people in the entire place but, whatever the cause, the case remains that they know I’m there. And yet… when, after the service is over and we go to Oneg, which is where they eat snacks and chat with each other, nobody says anything to me. I get a snack, I eat it and I leave. Crowds would gather around my sister, charmed by her magnetic energy. But no one notices me. They never have. I’ve spent my life thinking that the pretty women, the ones who are social and active and, you know, popular were women while the others of us were more like….. you know….. girls.
Tonight, I’m questioning this.
What is a woman?
Is it strength, like I’ve thought for so long? Is it vulnerability, which is what my character and the female of the fluffy book I like both exemplify? A pretty face destined to be in the shadow of the strong male? History bolsters that idea. That women are fragile and in need of protection. That they want to sit on porches knitting and sipping iced tea. We’re taught that women are nurturers, that they inherently want to comfort others. When you think of Joan of Arc, what comes to mind? Femininity or bravery? Pretend she’d really been a boy. What would you think of the story then? Bravery or ignorance? When you hear the name Scarlett O’Hare, what comes to mind? Femininity or bravery? What if Joan of Arc had been the heroine of Gone with the Wind? Would she have been just as memorable as the epitome of the Southern belle? Or would we all have laughed instead? What about Clara Barton? When the name is said, what comes to mind? Femininity or courage? We think of women heroines like Barton and Joan of Arc as trailblazers or as strong or as leaders. But do we think of them as women? How much confidence is too much before it causes her to lose a man’s interest? How much is too little self-esteem?
I’m good at playing the part of a confident, strong woman. There are only one or two individuals on the face of this planet I trust enough to reveal any uncertainty I might feel, or to whom I would share some of those hidden dreams. With those singular exceptions, I’m strong. I handle myself. And I’m better alone than in a place in which I’d be expected to provide physical pleasure; for years, I was in a relationship in which there was an invisible scale. Every time, he gave me a present, I owed him something and, usually, the scales weren’t balanced until I gave physically. Over time, I felt devalued, especially since my thoughts weren’t taken seriously. Now, even on my loneliest of nights, I’d rather be alone than be seen as an object. My point is that I’m not very good in the physical department. I never, ever have been. I’ve always failed there. But I connect with children effortlessly. I light up when they are in a room. Mine, primarily of course, but really, any child of any age. I don’t have to pretend, I genuinely love the company of a child. So if you aren’t good at the physical aspect of a relationship, but you are decent with children, are you more or less of a woman?
These questions went on and on in my head, around and around in circles.
I remembered a woman from my childhood. She lived in my grandparents’ neighborhood. My sister and I were terrified of her. She had a real, honest-to-goodness mustache and she never, ever left her house. I don’t know how the woman got groceries since this was way pre-Internet. All I know is that my sister and I were scared to death of her. I don’t really know why we were scared, except that we thought it was so weird she had a mustache. Well, we had to sell candy for our school and, to do it, we had to go door-to-door. So we went together to this woman’s house and knocked on the door. Nervous, we waited. When she opened the door, she smiled and was friendly. I don’t remember if she bought any candy, only that she didn’t turn us into mice or anything like that. In fact, we felt rather comforted by her. As we left her house, I remember being stunned. And, thereafter, I never thought of her with great fear. Instead, she was just a woman. Not even her mustache detracted from that definition of her ever again.
And then there was Dr. Rachel Henry, a psychology professor I had as a sophomore. I never talked to Dr. Henry about anything. I just completed the papers, aced the tests and answered questions in class like the good student I’d always been. But she saw something. One day, she asked me to stay after class and she gave me a book on domestic violence. She said, “I’d love to go to lunch one day with you and talk.” She knew. She knew something was off and instead of doing nothing about it, she took action. Unlike the woman in my grandparents’ neighborhood, Dr. Rachel was very young and very pretty. She was well-liked by the students. But, like the woman in my grandparents’ neighborhood, she was kind and genuine.
A woman is the girl who garners 1,000 “likes” on every social media update she posts, so long as she is respectful of others and kind on the inside. A woman looks like a model every time she steps outside, as long as she sees beauty in those around her, too. A woman is the CEO of a successful business, as long as she remembers that family and friends come first. A woman is Abrielle, “weak” and withdrawn, as long as she tries hard to overcome whatever she is running from. A woman is an uninhibited lover who isn’t afraid of giving or receiving physical pleasure but a woman is also the girl for whom physical touch is difficult. A woman is a mother who carries a baby on her hip while playing tag with another but a woman is also the lady who decides children aren’t for her; a woman is the lady whose heart aches for a baby but is unable to have one for whatever reason. A woman is the average Jane next door, who wears sweat pants and t-shirts every day of the year, as long as she remembers to smile at those who treat her with kindness. A woman is a teacher, a doctor, a maid, a grocery store clerk, a survivor, a taxi cab driver. My point is…. a woman is not defined by external variables. She is defined by her heart. A woman is kind, intelligent, gracious and caring. Sometimes she gets angry; sometimes she cries. Sometimes she laughs and sometimes she dances. Sometimes she yells right alongside the boys at sports games; sometimes sports make her wonder if the male isn’t an alien species after all. She wants to be talked to; she wants to be accepted and valued for exactly who she is; nothing more, nothing less. She’s stubborn and sometimes her sense of independence is a hindrance. But, when push comes to shove, she’d give up everything she has for those she loves. Past all the layers of responsibility and stress, a woman clings to hope and love above all else. Vulnerability takes up different amounts of space in each woman—for some, strength is a shield and showing vulnerability is as terrifying as jumping out a plane; for others, their fragility is more easily seen and recognized—but they all have it.
In the book I read, the woman starts to think she’s nothing more than just a toy to be used and appreciated, but not valued and respected. In the darkest parts of my soul, that fear is so real in my own life it makes me skeptical…. skeptical of praise because flowery words can be a means to an end and nothing more…. skeptical of love because if a relationship would fail without any specific component like, for example, sex, then how is that relationship real love? I’ve responded to heartache and this deep-rooted fear by shrouding myself in dozens of layers of protection and sometimes it makes me think I’m a failure as a woman, simply because the idea of physical intimacy makes me…. cynical. In the book, of course, the hero comes along and, one by one, strips those layers of protection away to find that, underneath all the doubt, a passionate and exuberant woman existed. He called her a “satin butterfly” because, in order to discourage a man’s “want”, she taped her breasts down and dressed in old men’s clothes but when the layers came off, a beautiful woman lay beneath. It’s kind of like finding “the one” frees her to be the uninhibited, sensual and yet elegant woman we all admire, whether we admit it or not. Hm. That’s very interesting to me and undoubtedly needs to be the subject of another blog entirely. But for now… was she more of a woman, or less of a woman, when she was in her “mud cocoon”?
To end this rambling blog post that’s really just going around in circles, I’ll tell you about a story a wrote when I was in high school. It’s called “Strength Of A Woman” and, at some point, I will get it typed up. In this book, Laura is the heroine and she has a really hard life, eventually even losing a child. Regardless of what she loses, though, Laura never gives up. She continues to fight, to love. Even when she is pushed to her limits, Laura never quits being true to herself. I thought of her story today because she demonstrates the essence of a woman very well. A woman is defined as such through her resilience, her compassion and by refusing to let cultural ideas of beauty or the mind-games caused by trauma strip her of her own, unique identity. I am a woman not because I have breasts but because I stay true to my own heart and principles and ideals even when they are not popular. Just because my culture tells me skinny women are the most beautiful, I know dieting is both emotionally and psychologically dangerous for me because of my past so when others have been pushing food away, I’ve been consciously training myself to see food as my friend. I maintain a healthy weight but I probably won’t ever be 105 pounds or fit into a size 0 ever again. I may still feel ugly when in a room with “pretty” women, but I learned that my health–physical, emotional and psychological—is more important than trying to get heads to turn when I walk in a room. I am a woman not because I have children but because I put my whole heart and soul into every single minute of every, single day. Even during the nighttime hours when my children are asleep, I give 110% to my writings, to researching things for us to do the next day and to my work as teacher. I am a woman not in spite of the fact that I’m not good in intimate situations, as I have been led to believe, but rather, my difficulties with intimacy is just proof that I’m a living woman. It illustrates the fact that, under a challenging past, I haven’t caved to the stress but instead have pressed onward, choosing hope and optimism again and again. Womanhood isn’t about what we’re good at or not good at; it’s about how we choose to confront life head-on; about how we choose to use passion to direct our creativity and ideas instead of just floating through each day because it’s the easiest route. Our essence comes from being able to gain strength in our diversity; our power comes from the unity we find when we celebrate and embrace our differences.
This Summer, we will go to Beech Bend and other water parks. I will have to wear a bathing suit. On the inside of my right groin area, there is a scar that sometimes a bathing suit just can’t cover completely, no matter how hard I try. On my neck, there is a scar from the surgery in which they removed my thyroid because of cancer found within. I never, ever wear bikinis. In large part because I’m not a size 0 but also because across my lower abdomen there is yet another scar from 2 C-Section births. And, while I’m being so transparent here, under my left breast there is a scar that came at the same time as the groin one—those were from my heart surgery when they had to close a hole in my heart. I have scars all over me. These are the ones that are visible and sometimes, when Summer comes around, I find myself feeling overly conscious of them, especially when there are tanned women my age in bikinis that look amazing. Sometimes I feel like an overgrown kid beside them. But, do you know what? I don’t hate them for being beautiful. Because I know in my heart, on the inside, we’re a lot similar than we appear to be; we are both beautiful.