I am outside on the porch, cussing the people who decided to set load-bearing posts on top of floor boards, my own ignorance in construction, the project-creep that continually blossoms before me, and my complete weakness in wielding a hammer in tight and awkward spaces between joists.
My sister is inside, sweeping the floor in the kitchen. Later, she’ll be trying to figure out a simple sewing project, the kind I made when I was about a third of her age. Where was her interest to learn sewing back when I would have given my eye-teeth for a sewing buddy? She is willowy and dreamy; she is an artist–she paints. She is sweet. Anyone who knows her, even in passing, will tell you how sweet she is. She has large, large eyes, and a scant amount of practicality that she barely knows how to wield. Indecisiveness is her bane.
My other sister is upstairs. She has feet like a hobbit, wide and thick soled (but still very ticklish when I have to wake her up in the morning). She has two very long braids that dangle to her waist, and yes, of course, freckles across her nose. She reads Shakespeare for fun, even though she’s not old enough to get a learner’s permit to drive. Right now, she’s perched on the edge of her bunk (the bottom one), writing a multi-page letter to someone in jail, but later she’ll go on an hour long walk in the woods. She’ll enjoy that walk all the more if it happens to be pouring rain; she loves the feel of rain pelting down on her. It can be hard to understand her when she talks, if she can barely keep the laugh out of her voice.
I started out in resentment that my sisters are not me. Why am I out here, cussing the porch by myself? Why doesn’t anyone else around here care about taking care of maintaining the house? Rapidly, I realize they don’t even know how to help if they wanted to. Why not? Ugly rants about the older children having to do more work than the younger children spring to mind, but that’s not true, either. I must have been only five, possibly younger, when I first started following Dad around when he did repairs, keeping track of his tools and anticipating what he would need next. If I wasn’t helping my brothers with their construction projects, I was surely watching. My sisters found that stuff boring.
Well, I found it boring to spend endless time sketching clouds and learning the names of their different forms, like my one sister did. And I had not enough patience for sitting for hours in the chicken yard training chickens to sit on my lap, or slogging through translating Shakespeare like my other sister. So I am the one out on the porch, learning through trial and error how to make home repairs.
Still, the resentment lingers around the edges. When I was her age—No. No, that way lies madness. I am not my sisters, and my sisters are not me. I chose the things that interested me, and the things that interested me most often did leave me covered in dirt and sweat, and my brothers granting me the dubious compliments that I would “grow up to be a man yet.” They take pictures of me wielding equipment larger than I am. But they also mock my interests in fiber arts, and refer to my short and stocky build as being troll-like.
But these same hands that are wielding a hammer and a chisel–these hands also cup babies, and bake cakes, and comfort suffering people. And I hear the defense and protest in my own voice–I am a woman. I am. I have worked long and hard to understand what that means, and still I’m not really sure.
I know it’s not about gender stereotypes or cultural expectations. I know that if I were as delicate as my sister with the large eyes, I wouldn’t feel more a woman. I know that if I were able to grow my hair as long and a thick as my other sister, I wouldn’t feel more a woman. And I also know with great vehemence that I do not want to be a man, that there are fundamental differences between us that I both cannot and do not want to bridge. I used to think my brimming with emotions was one of those differences, but I’ve found that even among women I feel more things, and feel them more deeply.
When I look in the mirror now, I do see a woman–I didn’t for the longest time. That awkward girl. I’m not sure what changed, or how to describe it, because I feel like it’s mostly in the eyes. Those eyes, there’s things behind them. I’m not sure I could quite say they’ve lost their innocence, because in so many ways I think in the context of my peers, I still radiate so much innocence it makes them uncomfortable. People still apologize abashedly for swearing in front of me, embarrassed because my lack of swearing is so conspicuous to them.
I tell myself stories, trying on different roles of “woman.” Some themes emerge. Some gentle longings for my future wax stronger. Still, the concept seems like a design made of smoke; the harder I grasp to understand it, the more elusively it slips away. Why do I feel the need to define it? Why do I feel uneasy that I might not have achieved it? Societies across geography and time have defined it a million different ways, but I’m not looking to fill a tintype of idealized perfection.
I guess I just stumble over the fact that He made us Man and Woman. The distinctness and delineation of the difference, yet without explanation, makes me wonder what the point was. Why two? Why not, say, six, or nine or fifteen? What was wrong with one? And if two is better, if we aren’t meant to be alone, then why are so many of us so alone? People complain about babies not coming with instruction manuals, but I grew up with a baby on my hip. I’ve taken care of plenty of babies. You get experience. But there’s only one me; and me came without an instruction manual, too. I don’t really expect that there can be a neat little dissection of all the little ins and outs of our personalities and life trajectories. . .but it would seem that there should at least be common expectations of being human, being a woman.
I have seen enough of life to know there isn’t one “right” way. That we reflect our Maker more like a kaleidescope than a mirror. And I strongly suspect my questions are less of questions, and more of a confusion of life being so much different than I assumed of course it would be by the time I was this age. And when life fails to live up to our expectations, we invariably go looking for what we did wrong or what we could do to fix it.
But some of it is not that. Some of it is that I still feel like a stranger inside of my own body, a feeling that my time of sickness only intensified. I am me. My body is this thing I’m inside of, driving around. How do you take care of this thing? Never mind basic house maintenance, the human body is a good deal more complicated than most people would lead you to believe, and I’m in a profession of taking care of bodies.
Some of it is feeling like, since the the things that I’m doing seem to be echoing hollow, I must be missing something about basic existence. And since I feel fairly confident that I am fulfilling the basic necessities of “human,” my “missing something” must be just a little higher up the chain.
And some of it is the empty feeling of being unable to connect with my “peers.” The people I’m supposed to feel most akin to seem like such foreign entities to me. I don’t want to mimic them. And I know I’m not one of those people who will ever be “popular” or one of the “in crowd.” But part of you wonders if maybe everyone else has figured out something about life that you haven’t.
And part of it is the sacredness. I feel like I have grasped at least some of the sacredness of humanity. And I believe there is a sacredness to being created as separate entities. But it becomes harder to understand when the differences created by God get all mixed up into the differences created by social constructs and twisted influences, half of which you drink down without realizing that’s what you’re doing. When you become startled by realizing you’re mad that other people aren’t like you or wondering if you should be more like other people — and yet, recognizing inherently that the differences are important, and valuable, and that none of us can be All of The Things, and so we must all find different pieces and roles to fill.
And I hesitate to post this, because it’s such a politicized topic. People have strong opinions and ideologies, to the point it can be difficult to actually communicate what one is thinking without people jumping on to say what someone should be thinking or really are thinking but don’t realize it, or what is so wrong about their thoughts. But in some ways, I also feel like it’s all the more important to speak; because when those who are hesitant stay quiet behind those who are loud, it leads to a feeling of being alone, of no one knowing what it is they’re feeling like, of being lost. And I simply cannot imagine that there is no one else in the world who wonders what it means to be a woman, without fighting it, without chasing the world’s explanations, without having an agenda or a point of arrival, but simply in observation. We are different. All of us. Men from women, and women from women. And it’s not an accident or a problem. But what does it mean?
Maybe it is one of those things that is so simple that we are the ones that complicate it. Maybe “different” is enough of an answer. The quiet agitation inside me says the intent runs deeper than that. But the part of me that has seen at least a bit of life says that the thought is one that must be experienced to be known, not determined by logic or reasoned out. But I think it’s disingenuous to pretend the question isn’t out there, murmured in the background of our existence: what does it mean to be a woman?