When I was preparing to start this project, I read a few books I thought might be helpful in giving me inspiration or motivation: Stephen King’s On Writing, which was both informative and entertaining – and made me wish I wasn’t such a wuss so I could read more of his work; Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia, which I was hoping would give me some insight into navigating the blogosphere, and which I highly, highly recommend for its pure entertainment value; and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, because in telling people about my upcoming project, a few friends made a connection between my blog and this book – except that no one is paying me to travel to exotic locations for my healing journey.
In general, I found that Eat, Pray, Love was not worth all the hype it received – although it does have some good moments, and I think that maybe if it were less hyped, I would have enjoyed it more. I also heard that the movie does an excellent job of highlighting what’s best in the book and cutting out what may be a little long-winded or whiny or slow. In any case, I’m not interested in critiquing Gilbert’s book here, so much as I am in drawing attention to one particular passage from it.
In yesterday’s post, in the midst of a thousand words about therapy, and how I hold myself in my physical body, I made one off-the-cuff comment regarding strangers trying to figure out who or what I am, or where I belong in the world, based on the way I look: “My place in the world is this in-between place, waiting for something better.”
Even though it was not the point of the post, that sentence drew the attention of a few of my fellow mid-late-twenty-somethings. The in-between place seems to be something we are all either struggling with – as I am – or embracing – as I would like to be.* And it reminded me of the one passage of Eat, Pray, Love that I had felt compelled to make note of when I read it:
“To create a family with a spouse is one of the most fundamental ways a person can find continuity and meaning in American (or any) society. I rediscover this truth every time I go to a big reunion of my mother’s family in Minnesota and I see how everyone is held so reassuringly in their positions over the years. First you are a child, then you are a teenager, then you are a young married person, then you are a parent, then you are retired, then you are a grandparent – at every stage you know who you are, you know what your duty is and you know where to sit at the reunion” (p. 94).
When customers come up and ask me whether I’m in school, or married, or have children, they are trying to place me at a hypothetical family reunion table. But the fact of the matter is that I’m none of those things: I am neither a student, nor a wife, nor a mother. Nor am I a successful young professional, which they’ve usually already gathered based on the fact that I’m working at the grocery store. I think not being able to place me makes people uncomfortable; it destroys their simplistic and logical view of the world. It also makes me uncomfortable: how many times have I chosen to focus on what I’m not, rather than on what I am? It should be easier to see what is concrete in my life than it is to see the space around the picture, but I often catch myself looking into the void – looking at the tables of different types of people and not knowing where to sit. I guess this is why my therapist wants me to do grounding exercises.
What these strangers don’t know, because I don’t tell them, is that I have been, or have almost been, all the things they believe I should be at my age. I have been a student; I have been a wife; I have been a successful young professional, an Executive Assistant for a small non-profit, which was not as glamorous as it sounds; and I almost became a mother (give or take seven months). Even so, I doubt I could have sat comfortably at a table with other people fitting neatly into those categories at the time that I fit the categories myself. So the question becomes, is it really necessary, or fair, to section people off like this?
There’s a funny-sad joke I like to make when talking about my upcoming high school reunion. (And yes, I’m going, and dragging Doug with me. I already bought the tickets, and the cocktail dress.) In the midst of all my classmates, a ridiculous percentage of whom now seem to be doctors or own successful businesses, I will have to say that I got married – then divorced, got pregnant – but miscarried, and now bag groceries for a living. (The punch-line is something along the lines of, “I suck at life.”)
“Yeah,” a friend of a friend retorted one night at happy hour. “But at least you’re skinny!”
I wonder what would happen, though, if instead of looking at the typical, societal markers of success which I lack, I decided to brag about the things that I do have. What if, when a customer asked whether I was in school, I answered with a seemingly non-sequitur, “I can make an amazing chocolate cake out of garbanzo beans”? What if, when asked about my marital status, I said, “I’m fluent in French”? What if I responded to, “Do you have children?” by saying, “Last night I went to a really good yoga class”?
People would probably think I was crazy. Maybe I should rephrase all those responses with a “No, but…” Even then, I think I would catch them off guard. It would force them to twist their thinking before passing judgment on me and my place in the world. After all, you can’t label someone a failure if she speaks French, does yoga, and turns hummus into cake.
*Three separate people now have recommended a recent article from the New York Times that deals extensively with this subject. I have every intention of reading it, but it’s ten pages long, and I’ve yet to find a large enough chunk of time to give it my full attention. Once I do, I’m sure we’ll revisit this topic.