I seem to be attracted to books with the word “Courage” in them lately. The Courage to Create, The Courage to Achieve, The Courage to Write. I stare at the word on the spine until it becomes a hieroglyphic—the C leaning urgently, protectively towards the O like an open mouth; the U like arms outreached, and then the rage rushing heedlessly towards the next challenge.
I want to unlock the secret of this word so that I can find it in myself. Instead, all I see are spaces where courage SHOULD live, but does not.
It's embarrassing, almost an eighteenth century problem, this problem of feeling silenced as a woman. Why should I feel silenced in a world that appears to be saying yes, yes, yes? Since childhood, I was groomed—gifted classes, honors track in high school, Seven Sisters' college. Again and again in my world, girls and women were encouraged to reach out and take whatever honors we could reach. This praise started to feel like loans I'd someday have to pay back, with interest. I felt that I could only survive inside the soft, welcoming nest of academia. I longed to go straight into graduate school, but I was afraid of making the wrong choice. Already I was worried about the impracticality of my education—I didn't quite feel like I knew how to do anything, but whatever I did, I should somehow do it exceptionally well. And my ambitions were equally hazy. I wanted to do something GREAT, to cover myself with glory and justify all of my awards. But...what? In the midst of all of this expansive yes, a stronger voice was already uncoiling in my mind, repeating its mantra of no, no, no.
Betty Friedan wrote of the “problem with no name”--the stifling of female ambition by a society that wished them only to stay home and clean house. But these women were trapped by external barriers. Once Friedan identified and dared to name the problem of the “feminine mystique,” the women's movement was effectively born. I know that I have benefited from this movement, and have always considered myself an ardent feminist. And yet, my life feels like a betrayal of those beliefs.
Oh, I don't mean being a stay at home mother—that just fills me with impatience, most days. It's difficult, as aforementioned, to butt heads with my willful Madam, but that's not the whole story. In spite of everything, I am thrilled to be able to watch her unfurling, growing, changing. This is a time I'd truly hate to miss.
No, I am talking about these persistent fears—this fear that I cannot take care of myself, that in some essential way, I cannot survive on my own. My mind is full of locked doors, where I hide my true, outsized ambitions. THIS is the betrayal, that I have such trouble admitting that I want to DO something, BE something that matters in the world. That I want to stop saying things like, “I'd just be happy with...” and “It's OK that...” It's NOT OK.
I want to be a writer. Not just that, I want to be a GREAT WRITER. And even more than that, I do believe that I have the potential to do so. But first I have to be brave enough, and honest enough, not just to admit it but to admit that I am afraid of the distance between me and this dream. I am so afraid of wasting more time, of going down yet another wrong road. I admit this too—I want a guarantee that I'm going in the right direction, that eventually, if I write a great deal and work hard, I'll find my way. I want to skip to the end of the book and read my ending. Because I am afraid (there is that word again) to spend the rest of my life working towards something that might never reach any sort of fruition.
I just don't want to fail—if I don't try, then I'll always be the one full of potential. But if I try, without coolness, being as open and geeky and occasionally pretentious as I KNOW I am, and STILL fail...then what am I? Someone who had every advantage, who was nurtured and aided, and couldn't make her name. Someone who let everyone else down.
So I read my books on courage, and writers' diaries where they confess the same fears I have everyday. But of course, somewhere, these writers found the courage to move forward in spite of the pervasive voices of their fears. In spite of familial disapproval, societal disdain, poverty, obscurity. I suppose this courage finally came from a wordless deep soul-breath, something inside of them that finally opened the door.
I hope that this confession of my ambitions, something I always, ALWAYS avoid, spurs me to move my hand towards the lock.
I am standing in front of it now.
Labels: navel gazing