Good Girls Don't
It’s July 31 and this was the first day of what truly felt like summer. Real summer isn’t about the heat, it’s about the slow, and I hadn’t felt that yet. It had taken me three days of lying around to fully sink into the slow, because sometimes even when you are lying around doing nothing, your head is so busy you might as well be behind a desk, but finally today I’d given up all pretense or hope of feeling accomplished and lay down outside and watched the leaves move.
Earlier in the day a snake had hissed at me. I was walking a trail I’ve walked for years, and I’d never encountered a snake, never mind one that balled up into itself and showed me its fangs. It was so exciting. It was a small snake and didn’t have a rattle, so while my heart pounded it was more out of obligation than real fear. I’d been hissed at by a snake. Shouldn’t I be afraid?
A woman with a dog came up behind me. “That snake just hissed,” I said. The woman looked at the snake, chirped at it like you might to a baby bird, said, “Cool,” and walked on. I scurried along behind her and snapped a picture of the snake. It was so small on the screen it looked like a kid’s drawing of a pile of poop.
The day before I’d decided my life was never going to get any better than it was. I decided I was never going to get any better. This was as good as it was going to get. The question was, what now? If I can’t get any better, what do I do with the rest of my life? What is the purpose of living if not to improve?
My kidneys had been bothering me, and I’d been thinking about them. In Chinese medicine, the emotion related to kidneys is fear. So I started thinking about fear, and I realized fear pretty much steers the ship of me. Fear and its shadow, worry.
If I got paid for what I do most, I’d get paid for worrying. I love to worry. I think I control the world by worrying about it. If I have a good day, I worry the next day won’t be as good. I worry that maybe it wasn’t so good, that I did bad things I forgot to remember. I worry someone will call me and tell me how actually I messed up this really good day. I worry I won’t have enough food to eat. I worry I will have too much.
If the ability to feel fear and to worry fell out of my brain, I would be a walking party. I’d be a ray of sunlight. A laugh riot. I’d be wild.
And wild is, well, scary. I feel fear when I think of being wild because I am afraid of what I might do. I am afraid of being unpredictable, of running with knives, of hurting people with the things I might say or do. I am afraid of being fully me because she is so…dangerous. I don’t even know her because I keep her held in check. I tell her she is fat, ugly, stupid, worthless. I disempower her because then at least I am in control and am loved.
The last time I remember truly being wild is a time I often revisit because it’s part of an exercise I have people do in my Write or Die classes. I have them describe a photograph, actual or imagined, of a time they were most themselves. I write about a time in Martha’s Vineyard when I was a child standing on a fence watching the hippies come out of their house that was once a chicken coop. I was wearing an old yellow nightgown and my hair was tangled. I was an observer; I was the only one in my family awake; I was exploring the world, both alone and not alone. I was free, and I was part of something dark: I’d seen hippies at the movie theater when we went as a family to Edgartown to see Alice’s Restaurant, but they weren’t part of my life. They weren’t at the dinner table. They weren’t babysitting me. They were lean and dirty and had hair even more tangled than mine. They were the future, either a warning or an invitation, and I was invisible to them. And in that invisibility, I was like a walking secret. I was pure potential. I was wild.
I chose the path of following the rules. I brushed my hair. I strove to be good. I labeled wild bad and tried to fight it. So when I skipped school, when I ate cookie dough for lunch, when I ran the streets of Westwood late at night while everyone else slept, while I stole gum from the Convenient Food Mart, when I read novels instead of doing my homework, when I drank and kissed boys, I tried to dissociate. That wasn’t me doing those things. That was just good me blowing off steam, acting out, losing control.
Good girls don’t lie, cheat, steal, drink, do drugs, drive drunk, have sex. Good girls don’t go to sleep with their makeup still on. They don’t get up from the table without clearing their place. Good girls think of others first. Good girls don’t swear. Good girls come to a full stop at a stop sign. They shave their legs so they are smooth. Good girls listen to their parents and try to please them.
Fibromyalgia is an interesting disease. Basically, if you hurt everywhere, if you are moody, tired and can’t remember things, you may have it. Eighty to ninety percent of the people given this diagnosis are women. When I did massage at a pain clinic, I worked with a few women with fibromyalgia. The doctor never hoped for a cure, only for a few minutes, perhaps, of relief if I massaged lightly enough. One woman was a nun, and she didn’t want me to touch her. I’d stand in the corner and send Reiki energy her way. We did this for weeks. She said touch was like thorns in her flesh.
Being a good girl is like wearing a girdle over your body and soul. Trying to figure out what the world wants from you instead of trying to figure out what you want from you is a killing thing. Your body and mind suffocate. Maybe you wait until five to start drinking. Maybe you exercise excessively. Maybe you diet. Maybe you try to get your house just perfect. Maybe you go to work and try to remember to stand up and walk around every twenty minutes. There are so many ways to slowly kill yourself, and not listening to your heart and guts is a really good one.
I was thinking about all of this today after I threw a glass bottle into the trash. It was a thick bottle and clearly belonged in the recycle bin, but there wasn’t one in sight, so I just chucked it into the trash like it was someone else’s problem that this bottle was now going to be around cluttering up the planet for a very long time. I knew it was the wrong thing to do and yet I did it. I love this planet. I freak out when people throw trash out the windows of their cars. I get upset when I see someone open a candy bar on the street and let the wrapper fall on the sidewalk. But what I was doing wasn’t really that different. I was littering the world—I just put my litter in a container.
If I looked really closely at my actions, I see that I threw the bottle in the trash because I don’t think I have any control over what happens to the earth, so what’s another bottle in the monumental pile of garbage I’ve contributed to the world? It’s the same thing if I spend time with a person who takes far more energy from me than she gives. What does it really matter? I tell myself. It’s not like you’re more special than she is. Just do it. Just give her what she needs and repair yourself later. You can go have an ice cream or a drink. Whatever.
But if I let myself love the planet, let myself love my body and mind, I’m going to be really careful with its and my resources. I was talking with an exceptionally accomplished woman the other day, accomplished in the way the world loves accomplished: very wealthy, successful in both business and in athletic events. She was explaining to me that she’d won a national race years ago because she was willing to push her body harder than anyone else around her. She showed with her hands where her body was willing to go and then she raised her hands three inches and said, “And that’s where I get it to go.” She was at an odd angle on the couch for she has ALS and her abdominal muscles are failing her and her butt muscles had disappeared weeks earlier.
What if we stop trying so hard? What if we just, as Mary Oliver says, let the soft animal of your body love what it loves? What would you do then? What would your body feel? What would you dream about? What would you touch?
And then what?