The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne RichIts cold and gray, where I am this morning, and it also happens to be the anniversary of my fathers death.
My dad passed away on this day, four years ago, and, in the moment that I received the news in a phone call, I felt a piece of my heart shatter off from the whole, and I am wise enough now to know that it will never heal.
We dont know, until it actually happens to us, that we dont ever truly heal from that level of heartbreak. We also dont ever stop missing someone who was that beloved to us. We eventually get on with the daily business of living, even thrive again, but we never stop wanting the conversation, the cleverness, or the counsel of the person missing from the room.
So are we broken? Yes, of course we are. We all are.
My father was as broken as the next guy, but he was also the man who taught me to read and taught me to sit out on the porch with a hot cup of tea, waiting for the UFOs to arrive. Through him, I learned to love Doctor Who, Rod Serling and Ray Bradbury, and while he dreamed of alien abduction, I studied him, and read and wrote fantasy instead.
Dad was a pensive man, with a lovely baritone voice, and he was playful, often crooning in his affection toward me, but he made one mistake with me, over and over again. He didnt take me seriously. . . because I was a girl.
I would come to him, beginning at age 7, with my writing journal, filled with my short stories and poems, and the neighborhood newspaper Id started and he wouldnt read any of my work. Hed just chuckle, give a gentle shake to my shoulder and laugh and say how cute I was.
When I told him I wanted to write, more than anything else, hed say, “But all you need to be is pretty.”
When I got older and I informed him I was going to college, he answered, “Honey, a girl as pretty as you are doesnt need to go to college.” He not only didnt acknowledge my academic pursuits, he didnt pay for them, either.
Even knee-deep into my marriage, when I spoke to my father of my professional ambitions, the conversations always turned into, “But youre so pretty, and youre all taken care of, just like I always knew you would be.”
In my 40th year, my father finally read a blog post of mine and called me that day, crying, and said, “Honey, youre a writer. Im sorry I didnt know.”
From that day on, he started every morning with his signature cup of tea and some material that Id written. He read through my essays, my short stories, he even read my poetry (which was shocking and uncomfortable for both of us, at first).
He validated my artistic pursuits in the final years before he died, and it was cathartic for us both.
Unfortunately, like Adrienne Rich, I still spent the first half of my life feeling invalidated and overly private about what I truly wanted. To this day, I still “look at my face in the glass, and see a halfborn woman.”
Its so hard to be a woman, especially when the old messages still resonate with us. . . we need to be a good girl, a pretty girl, then a wife (and a desirable wife, no less) and a mother, and a good mother, a devoted mother. . . and what else? That part seems to get left off the sentence.
What about our artistry? Our dreams? Our desired professions? What if we dont want to become a wife or a mother?
Were still stumbling over both big pieces of identity: wife/mother, and/or artist/professional? Very few of us will have both, and rarely at the same time. And whats okay, and whats not okay to do?
Ms. Rich wrote once in an essay, “We need to understand the power and the powerlessness embodied in motherhood in patriarchal culture.”
The power and the powerlessness.
Theres an ebb and flow to womanhood that can help us surge up toward greatness or drown us, in an undertow. And, as Ms. Rich writes in this collection, “a lifetime is too narrow to understand it.”
I can not sum up my experience in one simple reading response to this poetry (and I will be reading a lot more of Adrienne Rich, especially her essays), but, please, whether youre a man or a woman, do my father and me one favor: dont invalidate your daughters. Whether theyre physically pretty or not, could you focus instead on their courage, their passion, their intelligence, their creativity?
Theyre going to need all of the support they can get.
No one ever told us we had to study our lives,
make of our lives a study, as if learning natural history
or music, that we should begin
with the simple exercises first
and slowly go on trying
the hard ones, practicing till strength
and accuracy became one with the daring
to leap into transcendence, take the chance
of breaking down in the wild arpeggio
or faulting the full sentence of the fugue.
Florinda Donner Grau - Being in Dreaming: An Initiation into the Sorcerers' World- Audiobook
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