Monday, February 4, 2013

Outside the Box

I have been trying to get my head around a really strange thing that happened to me last week – an unsolicited letter out of nowhere, full of criticism, judgment, specific instructions for my immediate redemption, and threats of what would happen if I did not comply.

I thought about it, I got mad, I got sad (before this incident, the letter-writer and I had shared a certain amount of friendly close-ness that I liked), I got livid, I got vengeful, I got sad again; I got tired.
And then this morning the pieces snapped together like a toddler’s jigsaw puzzle.

I got an email from my sister about an annoying habit that people have of asking her when she will have children. It’s such a personal question, and it’s asked in such a prying, nosey way. In a way, it is similar to the letter I received – criticism, judgment, instructions, and threats.

So why does this happen? I see it suddenly like a sign in the sky: society hates an un-filed lady.

It is not a coincidence that Romney talked about “binders full of women” months ago. In many ways women are seen this way in general – as sheets of paper to be hole-punched and collated into smooth-covered vinyl binders, to be perused at leisure, or put on a shelf.

In this time and space, it seems like we have a few different file folders for women to fit into. Single girl, married woman, married woman with children, older married woman; nice grey-haired elderly lady. Unless you are rich and eccentric or famous, or all three of these, you are expected to hop fairly neatly and with perfect satisfaction from one folder to the next, in the appropriate timeframe and in the correct order. If you have the gall to get out of the file box and look around the room for a minute, to feel cramped or bored in your folder, or to linger too long in a space you enjoy, the secretary comes for you with her questions, and inevitably, with her criticism, judgment, instructions, and threats.

I am out of my file folder because I am a happy married woman with children and a good life – and yet I am not done striving yet. I still have some inconvenient artistic ambition swirling around in there, and someday I want to see Europe, and I want to walk down a street where I can’t even read the alphabet in which the signs are written. At 31, I am neither young nor old, yet I am seen as both a child and a parent. I don’t know the answers, and sometimes I don’t even know the questions. I have all the things I am supposed to want, and I still want other things besides, and I am okay with that. I am more than okay. I like it. I like being excited about life and its possibilities. I like wondering what I will do and what I will see in the next ten years. But this unfinished, raw-edge quality that my yearning gives me upsets the secretary as well, just as a healthy lady of 30 with no children causes consternation and constant comment.

The secretary sees a problem – a woman out of her binder – and she seeks to file me away. You have a problem, she tells me, and I have the solution. Get closer so I can three-hole-punch you.

A woman outside of the file-box is automatically a rebel, even if she would be rebelling against herself by jumping into it. Just by existing in an unexpected way – unexpected by whom, you might say, because at least in the case of my sister and me, our husbands love us, want us as we are, not crammed in folders – she threatens order, raises impertinent questions, and confounds the filing system.

A few weeks ago, I pulled all of the paper out of my filing cabinet at home and sorted it, getting rid of the old, obsolete documents, relabeling a few folders to fit our current filing needs, and after putting the useful things back again and watching two straight episodes of Sherlock went outside in a fit of drama and burned the useless old documents in the fire pit in our backyard. I must have looked like a bona fide lunatic, dancing around the backyard in my jeans and sweatjacket, ducking out of the way of the eye-stinging smoke as it drifted toward me again and again, white ash in my hair and on my clothes.

It was surprisingly hard to keep the old, worn out paper burning. I lit match after match, fanned the flames, and in the end fell to twisting the documents into little paper logs and stacking them in a pyramid shape all around the flames in the center. Whatever it took, though, the effort was worth it. I got to see the old obligations, bills, receipts of the past five years light, crackle, burn, and float up to the sky like so much smoke.

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