I was one of those young people full of piss and vinegar, wanting to find my most authentic identity, make a name for myself, and change the world. And God knows I tried. I abandoned potential careers in scientific research or on Wall Street to travel the world, I settled into a beautiful militarily occupied land, and I wrote and reported what I saw and felt as honestly as I could. I moved to Washington, DC, to try to “change things from the inside,” which basically went nowhere, so instead decided to write a book. I moved to New York to find a publisher and spent years touring with the book all over the US and the world trying to reach people directly, to change a handful of hearts and minds at a time.
Meanwhile I met a wonderful man and got married. In my younger days I thought settling down as a wife and having kids sounded boring and banal, and anti-feminist cliche that didn’t change anything, just perpetuated a lame and unjust status quo. I knew I wanted kids but figured I’d find some jet set way to do it. (Not necessarily “jet set” as in wealthy, but as in dynamic and on the go.)
And yet when I met the man who felt like home to me — possibly the first time I ever truly felt at home — suddenly shooting myself across the world trying to meddle in every damn thing didn’t appeal as much. Instead I found myself ready to feel grounded and satisfied, cultivating my own pocket of the world where I could deepen into myself instead of endlessly broadening, and eventually — when I figure out where I want to stake out some ground and join a community — welcome travelers and visitors as I was welcomed so warmly all over the world.
If there’s one thing I learned on my world travels, it’s that it’s such a common human dream to just have a space to feel peaceful and satisfied, to feel at home and raise a family, to find and cultivate beauty and love and nourishment. So many people all over the world lack that luxury, which makes it all the more precious.
I’m all for feminism when it means respecting and honoring us all equally, giving us equal opportunities and equal rights regardless of sex or gender. But there’s an ugly strain, built on a foundation of internalized misogyny (which I continue to struggle against), that can dishonor traditionally feminine roles and shame women for not behaving in “man-like” ways and chasing “man-like” pursuits. Men and women both have what are traditionally considered feminine and masculine traits, and until they are all honored, we’re still stuck in a deeply unbalanced world.
Truly, cooking, cleaning, gardening, sewing, decorating… These are not only essential to general well-being, they can also be art. They can be meditation. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found more and more joy in “the simple things,” and I find I can be just as happy in the moment cooking dinner as writing a novel or reading about developmental neuropsychology or learning about Hawking radiation, the mechanism by which black holes can theoretically disintegrate. (RIP, good sir.)
I have no doubt I can find tremendous joy and satisfaction in parenting, even as popular culture frames it as this miserable, harried, undignified Groundhog Day of attempting to wrangle half-wild, ungrateful brats (with an unconvincing grin and assurance that “It’s all worth it” thrown in there somewhere). And even as the “Mommy Wars” portray women as assembling into petty, mutually judgmental camps and insisting everyone else is doing it wrong. (I know these camps form around things like home birth, routine circumcision, breastfeeding, vaccinations, and so on. But I also know there are moms out there who really do support each other and recognize we’re mostly doing our best.)
I have my own opinions, but I try to do my best not to judge, and it’ll be fascinating to see which opinions hold up in the face of the actual reality of parenting an actual child (or two). It truly seems to me like a grand and incredibly consequential adventure. A chance to work hard at work worth doing. A family to love and support and watch as we all grow together.
Yes, world travel was mind- and heart-expanding, writing and publishing a book was a thrill, and learning about the cosmos, exercising the capacities of my left brain, is satisfying and empowering. Educating the public on important issues (or just raising money for a family who needs it) makes me feel like I’m not just a taker of all this bounty, I’m also giving back in some small ways. I don’t think I’ll ever stop traveling, writing, learning, or attempting to contribute.
But contributing to the upbringing of a precious child, nourishing the bodies of your family, making the space we all live in beautiful — these are not small things. They keep the world turning, and they should be honored and dignified as much as any other work and art on the planet. Whether done by a man or a woman.
I think of how Buddhist monasteries treat the work of cooking, tending gardens, sweeping, and cultivating internal space. They treat all of them as pieces of the nirvana of existence, opportunities to open at any moment to the divine unity of reality, our interdependence and interexistence. Nothing is disregarded, nothing is denigrated. The Buddha is at the bottom of the hedgerow.
Why shouldn’t the Buddha be at the kitchen sink, too?
All of this would have sounded like utter nonsense to my younger self, and perhaps that is as it should be. I will never fault kids for being passionate or even for looking down on me and what may look to some like my relative complacency. I will not call them naive or discourage them from pursuing the path that feels most authentic to them at a given time. I believe they truly can help change the world, that their pushing of boundaries gives us all space to change and grow. I love young people for their passion, just as I wouldn’t change a thing about my younth once I wrested (a healthy amount of) control from parents, professors, and expectations.
I will also not fault people for settling down and having families if that is what their heart desires. There is a season for everything. I’ve always tried to follow what makes my heart feel most peaceful, and though there was some mental resistance to settling down with a good man and “popping out babies” (leaving aside, for the moment, the fact that “popping out babies” turned out to be anything but easy for us), I feel more peace now than I have ever felt in my life.
A part of me still wonders if this is complacency. What about all the injustice? What about the people voting like idiots, what about the environment, what about American (corporate- and lobby-sponsored) foreign and domestic policy stomping all over the world?
Well, what about them? They are happening. They are causing untold unnecessary suffering. I tried my best to inject myself into a particular injustice, spent years exhausting myself trying to exert some influence over it, and finally got an inkling of how truly rare it is for one person to change the world. Even when it does seem like one person is making a huge difference, she or he is always standing upon the backs of millions working humbly, locally, in a thousand invisible ways. My ego no longer has any particular desire to be (or appear to be) a hinge upon which the world turns. I’m content to make a difference in unsung, unglamorous ways.
Including (among other things) cooking, cleaning, and raising a child (or two) with a wonderful man by my side. For as long as this bountiful season shall last.
P.S. Heh, March must be mellowing season for me. This just popped up on my Facebook feed from March 17, 2016:
“There’s this notion that growing older means growing dull and complacent. That ceasing the endless aimless searching and striving and dreams of youth means ceasing to be adventurous. That choosing something that fits you and putting your whole self into it—whether it’s a job or a community or art or raising children and helping create a wonderful home—means you’ve given up on miracles, given in and become ordinary.
What I’m learning in my middle age is that it’s not a clean binary like that. You can be a dull and plodding world traveler or a fabulous homemaker whose walks in the evening contain more miracles than the Taj Mahal.”