Friday, November 27, 2009

Taking the Road Less Traveled

I need books in my life. I really do. I need to be reading a book for fun in order to live a truly rounded, whole existence.

I know this about myself and yet I don't always cooperate with my needs. When I get busy at work, my reading slips quietly off my agenda for the day (or week or month!). It's sad.

But I'm on vacation! And I am reconnecting with my dear friend, Books. I'm reading Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. (Yes, I know I am behind all the other readers in America...) It's a memoir about living an inauthentic life (in her case, it was in an unhealthy marriage) and then reclaiming that life.

I am touched by this passage:

"Getting out of a marriage is rough, though, and not just for the legal/financial complications or the massive lifestyle upheaval...It's the emotional recoil that kills you, the shock of stepping off the track of a conventional lifestyle and losing all the embracing comforts that keep so many people on that track forever. 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 destiny is and you know where to sit at the reunion. You sit with the other children, or teenagers, or young parents, or retirees. Until at last you are sitting with the ninety-year-olds in the shade, watching over your progeny with satisfaction. Who are you? No problem--you're the person who created all this. The satisfaction of this knowledge is immediate, and moreover, it's universally recognized. How many people have I heard claim their children as the greatest accomplishment and comfort of their lives? It's the thing they can always lean on during a metaphysical crisis, or a moment of doubt about their relevancy--If I have done nothing else in this life, then at least I have raised my children well.

But what if, either by choice or by reluctant necessity, you end up not participating in this comforting cycle of family and continuity? What if you step out? Where do you sit at the reunion? How do you mark time's passage without the fear that you've just frittered away your time on earth without being relevant? You'll need to find another purpose, another measure by which to judge whether or not you have been a successful human being. I love children, but what if I don't want any? What kind of person does that make me?

Virginia Woolf wrote, 'Across the broad continent of a woman's life falls the shadow of a sword.' On one side of that sword, she said, there lies convention and tradition and order, where 'all is correct.' But on the other side of that sword, if you're crazy enough to cross it and choose a life that does not follow convention, 'all is confusion. Nothing follows a regular course.' Her argument was that the crossing of the shadow of that sword may bring a far more interesting existence to a woman, but you can bet it will also be more perilous."
Hear! Hear! I'm raising my glass (of water) to the notion of finding our authentic paths. For some, that authentic path will look like a house full of children without feeling feminist guilt about succumbing to the "shackles of domesticity." For others, it looks like a life of traveling solo.

In many ways, I tread along a conventional path. I chose marriage for myself because I like the security that comes from a close, certain circle. I have a partner in awesomeness, day in and day out. He rubs my hair when I am in a pouty mood. He listens to me complain about challenges at work and then asks, "So what are you going to do about it?" I take him to the emergency room when he is completely dehydrated from the flu. I leave him little love notes to brighten his day. One of us says, "See you in the morning" and then other one says, "See you in my dreams" each night before bed.

I also choose to become a mother. I am drawn to the opportunity to care for another human being so completely.

But there are other ways in which I deviate from convention. I do not want my child (or children) to be my measure of success or my one big contribution to the world. I want to impact the way we educate children in our country, particularly children from low-income neighborhoods. I want to inspire people to speak the truth and be authentic to themselves and each other.

I also deviated from the conventional path by reclaiming the real purpose of a wedding and resisting the lure of the Wedding Industrial Complex, despite gasps and doubts from my friends and family.

And then there was the act of becoming a vegetarian in a family of carnivores.

And then there was the act of pursuing careers in non-profit, despite my grandparents' notion that I should go into corporate advertising.

It can be uncomfortable and uncertain to step off the path that is so clearly laid out for us by others. And yet the choice is ours. We can choose the conventional path for ourselves, we can choose an entirely different path, or we can spend some time on both paths. Although it is not always clear what choice we should make, it is very clear that the choice is ultimately ours and should choose wisely.

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fresh365 said...

Yes, this book is on my to-read list as well (no matter how far behind I may be!). I agree with so many of your views and have found that some of my views that may be considered unconventional are the ones that have opened my eyes to reality the most.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sara! I am super pumped I found your blog and can't wait to catch up on it. I'm trying to conceive now too and while I have found plenty of blogs from current mothers or mothers-to-be, yours is the first of someone who is on this same journey of conception as I am! :)

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