Just for a minute this morning, between the shock of waking too early and the rush of getting ready for the day, in the early bright light of a still summer day, sit with me as I poke and prod through some stories, to remember, and ponder, and look at the things that can, for good or bad, help to define who we are, the narratives that color the choices we make, and that shape the world around us.
We talk unceasingly about justice and fairness and equality, about women working their way up ladders meant for men, about achievements and gains and overcoming, about the social pressures that limit and restrain. Language has myriad ways to describe the ways we are different from one another, to discuss division, to define roles that teach us to doubt and distrust. One of these ways is embedded in the stories that have been handed down, generation to generation—the value we place on telling one narrative over another.
Here is one story. My great-great-grandfather led 13 companies of pioneers across the plains, trek after trek in the years before the railroad was finished that connected the east coast to the west, guiding companies of people searching for a better life, for adventure, for peace, for freedom. He had a family, he had children. He had, I assume, a home, with a fire burning bright in the hearth, a wife who waited night after night for his eventual return and subsequent departure. He kept a journal that detailed the trials of his journeys, the rations for each member of the companies he led, the rivers they passed, the time of day they retired and rose, the miles they managed to progress each day. The men he met with, and the conversation they had, and the letters he sent—in the thirteen years of records he was diligent about recording every minute detail of his journeys. But about his home life, we know next to nothing. Nothing in his own words at least.
“Returned home—all glad to see me,” his journal states. His detailed journaling drops off in those domestic moments, as if it is not of enough importance to record the smiles of his children, the exact color of his wife’s eyes, the meals they shared together, the quiet peace of their day to day. And I am assuming a lot here. I am assuming there was a sort of peace to be had in these moments—for don’t we all seek for peace in our lives? That there were conversations in the quiet blue of twilight, as the sun dipped beyond the mountains near their Utah homestead.
I am assuming there was laughter, and playful shrieks from children, and relaxing after the work of the day was done. But maybe I am assuming too much. Superimposing my own lens of what makes a productive and even happy life on someone who lived so long ago. What I know with certainty, is that in his own words he records the day his faithful mule Zeke died, but there is not a word about the early death of his first wife Elizabeth. And this makes me feel….sad. Because if I read between the lines of the hundreds of daily journal entries he left behind, what I find is the life of a man who focused on what he thought (or what he had been told) was important. On the big picture. On the exciting adventures, the events he thought someone would want to read about. And in the end, it is all data, but data with no meaning behind it. No depth. No emotional resonance. He lived his life, he had a family, he died. I know the facts. About the man himself, I can say little.
But here is another story. My great-great-great-aunt, on the other side of my family, was also a pioneer. She lived at the same time, and traveled the same places. Although they were not related, they existed in the same circles. Lived in the same town. Farmed nearby homesteads. She kept a journal as well, one filled with quiet moments and thoughts, unexpected delights and humor. She told of leaky roofs, and nights cuddled in bed with her children by her side for warmth, telling stories and comforting them in the drafty dark of a one-room log cabin.
She told of planting orchards of peach and pear and apple trees, and soft summer nights strolling under the branches of the trees she had planted in the earth, and that had grown up tall and strong around her. She told stories of Christmas dinners and family visits, of neighbors and friends—she recorded the small and intimate details of a long and occasionally difficult life in frank, sometimes startlingly direct prose. And I wonder if the difference between these two people and the way they detailed their lives lies not in what they really deemed important, but in what society saw as their essential roles. The dedication to the domestic, the small, lovely moment, was an acceptable topic for a woman of the time. Men, however, were supposed to be above sentiment, focused on the prosaic, the noteworthy, and the important.
Look, I am fully aware of the way society determines the possibilities we see for ourselves—I know the power of representation, and of seeing ourselves in new and powerful ways. I believe that women should have the same opportunities as men, and that those opportunities should not be limited by gender, or perceived weaknesses. But I also believe that if we expand our view of what is possible, of what is worthy, and of what is important, we may find that the path we are fighting for is not the one we want to travel. These limiting gender roles are the restrictions that feminism has been fighting since the sixties, but I can’t help thinking that we are going about it the wrong way. That by taking upon ourselves the mantle of equal space we are also taking upon ourselves the limitations of maleness and the ways they have been valued not for their innate humanness but by the worth of their profession—and far from making ourselves equal, we are instead invalidating our own unique maternal strengths.
I want my sons to be able to value the small and sacred moments in their lives, to cherish the feminine as well as the masculine, to be free to develop an ability to notice the beauty, and grace, and strength in the world around them. I want to be able to honor and praise the ordinary beauty of the simple moments that make up our lives. I want to find, in the building blocks that have been provided, a new and wondrous thing, a space for reflection and communion, where we can recognize the uniquely human traits that we have to offer to one another as we share our stories and our experiences, grounding ourselves in an exploration of what we have to give to one another, instead of what we have been deprived of—improving ourselves as we elevate one another, finding a new, rich, and unexpected creativity full of unexplored possibilities and trees that grow up tall and strong in the orchards we plant together.