The trouble with being a first child is that every day, in a thousand ways both insidious and glaringly obvious, I am overwhelmed by a gnawing sense of Should. What is it about us oldest children that compels us not only to do the right thing, but to endlessly obsess over what that even means?
I feel it in every facet of my life. I should be a better parent, partner, child, grandchild, sibling, friend. I should be a better writer, gardener, beekeeper. I should move through my days with intention, purpose, order, Zen. I should be kinder, wiser, stronger, braver. I should constantly strive to discover and perfect myself.
As a result, I’m constantly embarking on projects of self-improvement. Last month, I got rid of stuff. On October 1, I got rid of one thing, on October 2, two things, and so on, until on Halloween I ditched thirty-one objects. It made me feel good. Lighter. Wiser. More purposeful and less materialistic.
But the buzz never lasts. Perhaps it’s a kind of oldest-child addiction, this compulsive need to be better all the time. So this month, I’ve given up dessert. In order to understand the full significance of this, you need to understand that when it comes to sugar, I am a raving maniac with absolutely zero self-control. So it seemed like a good little project. Something to make me stronger, healthier, more resolved.
The thing is, it’s never enough. I’m not sure where this sense of “never quite good enough” comes from. Maybe it’s not such a negative thing. Maybe it’s my own little way of striving toward the divine. I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s kind of annoying and uncomfortable.
Hovering near the top of my list of “not good enoughs” lately is my mental library. I wonder if it’s a bad thing that, with some notable exceptions, it’s pretty much full of literature by men. I wonder if this makes me a bad feminist. I wonder if I’m limiting myself.
It’s not that I don’t read literature by women, and it’s not that I go searching for literature by men. It’s just that, for some reason, most of the words that burn themselves into my memory like fire happen to be words by men. It bothers me that so often men get to write about being human, while women get to write about being women. I know that this needs to happen, that women’s experiences as women need to come to the forefront, to be given a place in the conversation–and not just a supporting role. But when I read, perhaps because I’m an escapist fantasy-type, often I don’t want to read about my own experience. I don’t want to read about what I am. I want to read about what I could be.
Like Dylan Thomas, I want my life to fork lightning. Like Yeats, I want to map the spiraling gyres of human history. Like Melville, I want to plumb the depths and heights of the human spirit. Like Milton, I want the inspiration of a heavenly muse to tell the story of everything. Where are the epics by women? Why are books by women books about women, while books by men are books about people? Is it because for hundreds of years our world has been circumscribed by the marriage bed, the cradle, and the cooking fire? Is it because we’re told to “write what you know,” and what we have known for much of human history is the small tediousnesses of daily existence? Why are women always the muses and not the blind poets groping in the dark?
I wish that Eavan Boland didn’t have to tackle this. I wish that Virginia Woolf hadn’t felt she needed to slip beneath the surface of the river. I wish that Emily Dickinson could have known in her lifetime that her words would fly out the window, out of Massachusetts and across a planet, striking the spark that kindles the imagination to fire and speaking truth across more than a century. What would we create, if we did not have to spend our life’s words justifying a gendered act of creation? Are we destined to always be the nightingales, so rudely forced, pressing ourselves against thorns and bleeding words to tell the small tragedies of our existences with our dying breaths?
I don’t know what to do about this. I write mainly fantasy, which in canonical terms means that I’m not even A Serious Writer. What I do know is that I don’t want to write about being a woman. I want to write about the unnameable impulse in my soul, the feeling that overwhelmed me when I stood on the edge of Bryce Canyon and watched the moon rise. The feeling that overwhelmed me when I sat in Westminster Cathedral among the bones of dead poets and listened to the music of heaven in the voices of children who themselves will grow old and come to dust. The feeling that overwhelms me when I stand at the edge of the Atlantic, gazing across the leviathan-harboring depths and communing with the soul of a great-great-grandmother I never knew, who, like Woolf, walked into the water one day and did not return.
And so it comes back to being a woman. They walked into the water, Woolf and my great-great-grandmother and Edna Pontellier, because they were women in an age when it was not advisable to be a woman. But is it now, in our enlightened age, when teenage rape victims are held responsible for the actions of their rapists? When a woman can’t ride a bus in India without the knowledge that the price of an evening out may be her life? When we put tiaras on little girls and tell them to shake it for the camera?
It is about being a woman, but it’s easy to forget, in the immediacy of that, that we are human first. Isn’t that at the root of all our suffering and laboring for equality? I know that my great-great-grandmother walked into the ocean because she was a woman in hostile territory, but on another level, it was because she was a human being in a tragically flawed universe. Women shouldn’t be exploited, raped, abused–not because they are women, but because they are people. It’s important that Woolf was a woman, but I want to talk about what her death means not just for women, but for everyone. For writers, female and male. I want to talk about how the divine impulse within us burns, how it consumes us from the inside. I want to talk about how we struggle to birth the words that will create the world anew, and how genius and madness hold hands and walk side by side. I want to talk about the lure of water, how it pulls us, calls to us, until some of us go willingly into its embrace. I want to talk about immortality and love and death and faith and loss and hope. I want to explode the boundaries, until the term “women’s literature” has become archaic, and “chick lit” describes only the memoir I will someday write about my hens.
To borrow from C. S. Lewis, I am a daughter of Eve. But I am also a child of Adam, the original oldest child, the giver of names. The first writer, in a way, with his need to order the world with words. It is, as Wallace Stevens said, a blessed rage for order–the maker’s rage, even. And male and female were both created in God’s image.
I never know if I’ve said what I meant to. Like a bad but irresistible boyfriend, words fail me but I keep coming back to them anyway. I lie back down where all the ladders start, unsure if I’ve made sense, if I’ve articulated what I wanted to, if I’ve spiraled upward or merely made a circle, ending up exactly where I began.
But this much I know–that there are things that are unknowable, unsolvable mysteries, emotions beyond language. It is these things that I want to try to talk about, knowing that I will fail, because it is divinely, arrogantly, heartbreakingly human to attempt this. It is neither feminine nor masculine. It simply is.
I am. We are. We exist, all of us, in places beyond language and gender, in realms and realities so vast that our minds can only touch their edges. To me, this is both the paradox of and the reason for writing, and the words that strike my soul to fire are the ones that grapple with these things.
And I know one more thing. I know, with unshakeable certainty, that I have in no way answered my own questions.