Once upon a time, or so I imagine, a woman learned things from other women. Had I been born in an earlier age it was something on which I could have counted. I would know that I was embarking on a new stage because there would be an initiation ritual of some sort. At 15 you have a party, at 16 is when you start wearing your hair up, at 17 you are allowed to have gentleman callers. Having passed this milestone would tell me to behave differently, do different things. Without ever needing to ask for advice, I would know something about how to do it because I would have seen others do it before me. Vestiges of these things still exist, I guess—for example, the bridal shower game where the women write advice for the new bride on index cards that will be added to a photo album or scrapbook.
But I live in a new century, I am not a bride, and the older I get the harder it is to find anyone who has already been in whatever transition is occurring to me at the time. Life phases come and go without warning. For three years, I lived in a tiny 1940s cottage that I loved, a time that somehow corresponded to a growing sense of personhood. I would explain this to younger women if I could. It has to do with finally having the resources to arrange everything the way you want it. Certain foods never have to appear in your refrigerator; certain music never has to be played. How nice and settling and vindicating this is. This can go on for a long time. Then, one day, you walk into your lovely house and it has turned into, instead, a kind of a dumpy place cramped by personal arrogance. You cannot be in it without wondering what you did wrong, at what point it changed.
I know that no one’s life goes as expected, but every time there is some disruption that pushes me into a new direction I am conscious of how I keep looking for wisdom that is not there. I want a grandmother, or an elderly aunt, or somebody, to tell me about these things, whether they are normal, whether they will pass. I want to be able to see this 90-degree turn as connected to something else, to screen through emotional confusion and see the truth of what is happening.
Most of all, I want my mother to explain this to me, to be the purveyor of collective wisdom filtered through partiality: she has my best interests at heart. But she can’t, because she has never had a time like this, a life like this. She met my father at 18, got married at 21, taught for a few years, had children, raised them in the suburbs, and now visits grandchildren and works in her garden. I am a textbook failure at functional adult relationships, I move about every two years, and if I’m not married to my career, I am at least significantly attached. I am the age she was when she started to think about how to pay for college for me. We are strangely kind in certain ways, in light of how little we actually understand. It’s not just You have never been where I am, but You have never been anywhere remotely close to anything that might help you analogize what it’s like where I am.
It is different with my sister, who, the day after Christmas, climbs into a Toyota Tundra with her husband and children and boxes of toys, and heads for home. She seems to be able to ask for advice on whatever is consummately frustrating to her at the moment; almost everything she brings up my mother has already experienced. I stand on the driveway and watch my sister’s family drive away, keenly aware of how fragile this all is: kids excited for Christmas, everyone healthy, whole, safe. The gulf between me and them seems infinite, and I feel how pathetic it is to go back to my CDs and my cookbooks and my apartment that reflects my personal style. This is what I would tell the younger me about the selfish phase ending. Somehow you are in an endless circle where there is nothing but yourself, nothing changes, and you can’t get out. My mother didn’t tell me this. Nobody told me this.
One can find mentors, these days, but it is not the same thing. A mentor may give advice, but she is not passing on acquired wisdom via an organic process. It would have been nice if someone could have explained how to handle awkward moments that seem to be caused only by me, the awkward person, being there. The problem is, you never know when one of these moments is going to occur. At a family gathering, in my own extended family, to which I presumably belong, painful efforts are made to include me. Whatever the subject, wedding plans, cruise travel, back-to-school night, I can’t find a hook that will put me on the same plane. When asked, all I can come up with that might interest them is something like “I just got back from Egypt,” which produces blank stares. A mentor might give you etiquette-style tips on being graceful in such conversations. But a mother could tell you how to live with the shame that comes over you at these times. At least I think she could, if she had ever known it.
If I think about it, I wasn’t prepared for much in particular at any age. It wasn’t assumed that I would get married and have children, so I wasn’t prepared for that. It wasn’t assumed that I would rise to an elite level, so I wasn’t prepared for that. At home, at school, at church, what I was encouraged to do was to “choose my own path.” Suggestions were withheld, lest they be too pushy. You can be anything you want. Be grateful for this. Those women from the past that I’m thinking of, the ones I always want to consult, never had any choice at all. This is all they can tell me, I don’t know anything about that, and that in its own way seems like advice.
If my mother could have instructed me in how to act in an office, that could have eaten up years of wandering and missteps. How can you thwart attempts by others to claim credit for your work, be assertive yet gracious? How do you flirt with somebody you work with really closely and get away with it? How do you sit at a desk staring at a screen every day and not become a hunchback with swollen wrists and strained eyesight? What does it mean when someone congratulates you on “rising to the occasion?” These are the questions I would ask:
How do I throw a party where people have a good time? What is the proper temperature for gravy? Which is better, Bactine or Neosporin? Which is more polite, to accept tentatively or back out later? How do I make the sheets so soft? How do I make friends at 50, 60, 70? Is this miniskirt too short on me? What do I do if no one falls in love with me? Tell me how to do this.
There is never anyone who has already been there. It’s like the front seat in a roller coaster—and the person sitting in the front always describes the experience differently than the person sitting in the middle.
The underbelly of such freedom is a complete blank. Improvisation is a skill useful for solutions to temporary situations. It was never designed to be stretched out over a whole life.
A friend taught me, using an annoyingly superior tone, how to wind the yarn around the metal hook, how to pull it through the loops and join them together. I should have remembered that I was never particularly good at making things. Hers would be smooth and even, mine lumpy. I was making myself a scarf, to work out all the beginners’ mistakes before taking on the real project.
Once I had figured it out sufficiently to crochet without supervision, I tried to keep going on the scarf, at least do a few rows every night. It was a boring, quiet task, but sometimes, deeply satisfying once I started.
Just the posture seemed to connect me to something ancient: sitting with yarn. Some woman figured this out, how to make this series of loops, pull a hook through, and produce things functional or beautiful, or both. She taught these movements to someone, who taught someone else, and on and on for how many years, through how many women until they reached me?
I would count the stitches; I thought maybe I was ending the row too early, so I took it out and did it again. It didn’t work. I was not even entirely sure which pieces of the loop counted as a stitch. I didn’t want to have to ask—again. I went on, trying to figure it out on my own.
Back in the old days, the imagined days I am thinking of, it wouldn’t have mattered whether I were good at or enjoyed sewing. It would have been just something I needed to know how to do, and I would have mastered it. If I had, then by now I would be free of the struggles with uneven edges, and would be able to give my friends a beautifully soft, white baby blanket with a minimum of aggravation to myself or anybody.
But then, there is something addicting about the front row of the roller coaster: hurtling forward with no precedent, only seeing the drop below you once you’re right on top of it.
Maybe it’s oversimplified, but my mother’s life seems to me a very easy and satisfactory trajectory. Be young, go to dances, go to college, get married, buy a house, have a baby, have another baby, buy a bigger house, put kids through school, have an empty nest, develop new interests, have grandchildren, buy a motorhome. This being a trajectory that is shared by many people, I imagine it is much easier to tell if you are doing it right.
Instead, I have a trajectory that would be very difficult to draw out. It’s difficult to even tell what the major points are. Something like: Leave home, get a job, move, get another job, move, get another job, move, go back to school, live hand to mouth, move, almost get engaged but then don’t, be too broke to move, get another job, learn martial arts, find another job, move. Perhaps I even try to choose things that will give the trajectory a shape.
Those are just circumstances, though. Who was I, and who did I become? How did I adapt over and over? What is the meaning of those moments of lone euphoria, standing on top of a rock in the wind somewhere, even during the worst times? It’s the sense of being very personally buffeted about by the universe, yet I feel, at those moments, possibly … stronger? As Obi-Wan Kenobi said to Darth Vader: If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.
No one prepared me for this, either. Imagine my mother saying to teenage me: You will, one day, be highly respected for your abilities. You will travel to other continents via business class, be the first person off the plane, arrive at a hotel and have someone carry your luggage, and somehow this will not seem strange. There will be a time when someone at the table will ask you what you think, and everyone will pause to hear the answer.
None of the women in my family could have possibly told me about walking down the hall to a hotel conference room, knowing they cannot hold the meeting without you, understanding the phrase “the corridors of power.” I never received any advice about sitting at the desk in a room on the 57th floor of a hotel, your laptop positioned at some odd angle because they never have the outlet or the Ethernet cable in the right place, knowing you will be up until dawn working on a document, thanking the person who brings room service, and what to do with the question that burns next to your ear all night. Am I lucky to be here?
I wish I could explain driving on the freeway at night. It floors me that this is something my mother has never done in her entire life. She is uncomfortable on the freeways; my father has always been the one driving. She might manage it during the daytime if she has to, but never at night.
Perhaps I inherited this knowledge imperceptibly. While I drive home at night, immigrants are cleaning in silent offices, gangs are out roaming, strip clubs are opening. Amid all of this, I am steering, one car on one freeway in one city. When I come over the rise at 80 miles an hour and see the lights on the skyline, sprinkled out across the hills, I feel too young and not quite qualified for this. It is right, perhaps, to be uneasy at the extent of your own power.