I got this quote in an email from a fellow MIA member yesterday morning, and I haven’t been able to pry it from my brain: “I bargained with life for a penny…only to learn dismayed, that any wage I would have asked of life, life would have paid.” The author, Jessie Belle Rittenhouse (1869-1948), was a poet, literary critic, and compiler of anthologies. She was also the only female founding member of the Poetry Society of America, and she worked on the editorial staff of the New York Times for ten years in the early 1900s, as well.
I know it sounds crazy, but I feel immense pride when I think about women who were writing, publishing, and professionally employed in journalism before my grandmother was born. I know that Jessie Rittenhouse was a pioneer. She got her degree, went to work, and became well-respected in a male-dominated, intellectual field in a time when what she was doing was the exception rather than the rule. I am impressed by her gumption and wonder what might have made her choose such a non-traditional life for herself. After all, she didn’t bother getting married until she was 55, and she never had children.
I have a feeling that perhaps she did not so much intentionally choose that path as her talent and drive chose it for her and along the way she merely continued to raise the bar for herself. I examine the excerpt from her poem and I think that she clearly understood that she was the architect of her destiny. Her successes, taken within the context of the time period in which they were accomplished, were a direct result of her asking more of her life than her contemporaries were likely asking of theirs. While her college classmates were keeping house, she was hanging out with Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot and reviewing their poetry.
I think the reason that I am so affected by Ms. Rittenhouse’s poetic words, however, is because they embody the entire reason I started this Moms Into Adventure group. I realized it was time for me to ask more from life. I started down a different path than I originally had mapped out for myself and for a while I felt lost, but then I realized that my slight shift in direction didn’t have to mean that I had necessarily sacrificed all my dreams for myself. I still had those dreams. I still wanted those things. I was just traveling a back road to reach them.
When I think about what I want out of my life before it’s all said and done, it goes beyond having family. I know. I know. Having my beautiful and precious family should be enough for me; our culture indoctrinates us early with this idea, and I feel a tad bit uncomfortable knowing that I need more. I’ve always been a bit on the greedy side, though. I have perpetually asked life for more than a penny’s worth and now can say in all honesty that I am happy with who I am. When I ask more from myself, I rise to the occasion. When I want something, I find a means to get it because I am nothing but absolutely determined to have my way. When I feel like I’ve hit rock bottom, I somehow find a way to pull myself out of the chasm. I refuse to believe that I can’t have what I want. It might take me longer than anticipated to get it, but I will get there. I know it. When it comes to my dreams and goals, I have patience and perseverance.
You can gain none of life’s prizes without being brave and perhaps ruffling some feathers along the way. You know Ms. Rittenhouse’s mother was constantly railing on her: “You’re an old maid. Why don’t you settle down? Get married and give me some grandchildren already.” But her determination to walk her own path and ask for more than a penny’s worth made her powerful. Asking life for what we want is always a worthwhile venture, even if it means we encounter some opposition. I’ve long said my greatest fear is getting to the end of my life and realizing I’ve lived someone else’s. So, I’m going to continue asking for the things I want from life. I’m betting I’ll get them, so I’m going to be bold, up the ante, and enjoy taking home the whole pot.
The other day a friend and I were discussing literature. I was recalling works I had read in college that truly impacted me, and I mentioned a short story I read at CU that I have never been able to shake. So, last night before bed I dug out The Heath Introduction to Literature I purchased in 1987, and I reread that story to see if it still would affect me the way it had when I was 19.
The Yellow Wallpaper was written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1890. It’s a first person narrative about a woman who is, under the advice of her physician husband, taking a long “rest” at a country home to cure her “temporary nervous depression” and “slight hysterical tendency.” At this estate, her husband keeps her in a room on the second floor that was once a nursery, which makes perfect sense considering the way he infantilizes her, referring to her as if she’s not even in the room and calling her “little girl.” The room has bars on the windows (also quite telling) and an obnoxious, intricately patterned, decaying yellow wallpaper. Writing is her only solace, but her husband discourages it completely. And so, kept from her writing and from conversation with other adults, to occupy her mind the woman starts obsessing over the only detailed thing in her room, the wallpaper. She follows its patterns and tries to make sense of them. With each written entry we see that her mental state is declining rather than improving. I won’t tell you any further details because I don’t want to ruin the story for you. I think every woman should read it at least once in her life.
As I recall, in college I was appalled by the way this clearly intelligent, thinking woman was forced into a treatment she didn’t want because her husband felt it was the best thing for her. I was sickened that she had no say in her own life. For heaven’s sake, we never even learn her name. She’s nearly a non-entity. The protagonist plainly needs mental stimulation, and yet she is denied the very thing that would most likely improve her state. This story stuck with me for decades because the young feminist in me railed against the injustice of this woman’s situation. It was something I swore would never happen to me. I would never allow another person to relieve me of my right to choose for myself. I would never become someone’s property.
Fast forward twenty years and now, reading this after being an indentured servant to two short bosses for nine years, I have a different reaction to this story. I can actually relate to her. I am able envision her mental breakdown. I can understand where it is coming from. She is postpartum and feeling lost. She is bored to frustration by limited interaction with other adults. She fixates on the minute details of something completely insignificant just to occupy her mind. She is trapped and powerless to change her circumstances. It sounds a lot like my life a few years ago. Honestly, it frightens me how much I can empathize with this woman’s downward spiral into madness. I too gave up writing, probably when I most needed it. I hate to admit it, but there was a time in my life when I could easily have become the woman in the room with the yellow wallpaper.
As it turns out, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, also imagined she would become the woman in the yellow wallpaper. Her short story was a response to “rest cure” time she was advised by a well-known physician to take when severe postpartum depression hit her after the birth of her daughter. After an unsuccessful rest stint in a sanitarium, Gilman realized that not writing was causing more harm than good. She left her husband, moved to across country, started writing again, and her mental health improved. When The Yellow Wallpaper was published, she sent a copy of it to her doctor. He didn’t comment, but she later found out that he stopped prescribing rest cures for other people with similar symptoms. Fine vindication, indeed.
And so like Gilman, spurred on by my unwillingness to lose my voice (or my mind), I adventure forth and I write again. Each adventure brings me strength and peace. And, with each day that I spin words onto the world wide web, I find another part of myself that was not long ago tucked away and forgotten. If I spiral out of control and you don’t hear from me for a while, please make sure I am not confined to a room with yellow wallpaper. I am absolutely certain I would get lost in it as well.
Recently, I decided that I needed to start writing again. So, using the New Year as an excuse, a little over a week ago I threw together a web site on my Macbook, gave myself a publishing schedule, and vowed to find myself again through the written word. What I’ve found in the past week, however, is so much more than I expected.
I started writing when I was around 12. While I was in junior high and high school I wrote dark, brooding poems about nuclear annihilation and social unrest, and then in college I composed pointedly cruel diatribes about disingenuous boys, prose that I am certain would have made Alanis Morissette proud. My girlfriend Kerry and I filled spiral notebook upon spiral notebook with a handwritten soap opera story, the idea for which originally came to me in a dream. After earning my MS in Professional Writing, I worked as a technical writer for State Farm and then later as a scientific writer and editor for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. But my most regular writing was done in journals, which I religiously kept from 1981 until 2001 when our son Joe was born.
I stopped writing, I suppose, when I finally felt that I had nothing to say. I hadn’t really planned to become a stay-at-home mom, and the struggle to accept who I was because of my choice was brutal for me. I was awkward in my new role and, aside from feeling rather unimportant, I was either I was too tired or too bored with myself to write. What was I going to journal about, anyway? Sleep deprivation? Dirty diapers? The latest round of “Guess What Substance Is Stuck To The Wall”? It was dizzying how dull I had become in such a short amount of time.
Then, as my boys grew, I robotically assumed the socially correct mantle of Suburban Super Mom. I hosted play dates. I cooked healthy meals. I decorated the house. I scrapbooked and crafted. I volunteered in the neighborhood and at the boys‘ school. I was doing everything “right,” but I wasn’t really happy and I wasn’t really myself. I reasoned that I no longer wrote simply because I was too busy. The truth was, however, that I could not possibly have expressed much about a life I was sleepwalking through while wearing someone else’s shoes.
And, now that I am writing again, I sadly find myself at a total loss for words to express how it is affecting me. I can only liken it to the times when, while living in other states and returning to Colorado, I would cross the state border and upon seeing the Welcome-To-Colorful-Colorado sign suddenly feel as if my heart, shrunken upon departure, had reinflated to its proper size. If I had realized ten years ago that putting aside writing would mean putting a core part of my being in cold storage, I might have found a way to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) more often.
The biggest and most pleasant surprise this past week, though, is the way I feel when someone tells me how a few words that I wrote summed up how they have been feeling too. I started writing this blog mainly for me, just as I kept a journal. And, while I hope no one ever reads my journals…EVER (seriously….no one needs to know just how incredibly immature, insane, and inane my comments were for two entire decades), I’m glad to know that something I am saying on this site now is relatable to someone else. So, thank you for reading whatever it is I’m writing as I try to sort through my scattered and yet incredibly hopeful and optimistic warehouse of thoughts. And, thank you even more for commenting, sharing my posts, and proving that I was correct in assuming that I was not alone in feeing lost and disenchanted, nor am I alone in wanting more for myself than what I chose for myself. I suddenly feel as if I am in great company.