In our family of girls in the early ‘60s, my two sisters’ and my primary jobs appeared to be staying clean and staying safe, not necessarily in that order. In my mother’s defense, these two principles – cleanliness and safety – were deeply embedded in the culture of that time. The edge of that generation of women raised to be housewives and mothers barely grazed my sisters and me, but as adults, we’ve still had to bust through the prohibitions against independence, risk, dirt, and everything else that comprises real life.
My friend, Wendy and I went kayaking this past week. Wendy bought two kayaks recently and wanted to test them out. Lake Mary seemed like a pretty tame option, and the weather looked fair.
By the time we arrived, it was windy, but still seemed easily manageable. We paddled out, ate lunch near the far end of the lake, and then got back into the boats to paddle back to the car. By then, the wind had turned against us. Whitecaps formed, and a few swells washed water into our boats. A couple of times we had to paddle like hell to avoid getting blown backwards. Eventually we got back, loaded the boats and crawled into the car to drive back to town, bone-tired, but also exhilarated at what we’d just accomplished.
We felt big, having just done a hard thing and succeeded at it.
All kinds of experiences have the potential to make our lives more expansive. Sometimes the impetus for those life-stretching events comes from deep inside our selves. But more often those shifts come as a result of some outside event or influence. Whether someone or something boots you out of your comfort zone or you experience some larger, cataclysmic event, catastrophe can be a gift that forces you to change, and usually for the better.
It used to be that only boys got to take risks. At least they got to play sports, which is a lot like risk-taking, only in controlled environments, with rules and safety equipment.
The effects of Title IX, which gradually changed the way women’s sports were structured and funded, didn’t fully kick in until after I graduated from high school in 1976. The largely ceremonial “powder-puff” football game (the junior girls versus the senior girls) was as close as I ever got to organized sports during high school. That hateful adjective suggests that we wore pink boas over our shoulder pads, and the game was about as competitive and serious as that image implies.
By the grace of Title IX, though, my younger sisters got to play volleyball and basketball as teenagers. At five-foot ten inches tall, I’m the short sister, so their coaches were glad to have these tall, lean, graceful girls.
I’ve recently come across some great home movie footage of my sister, Dana: she’s about seven, dressed in a pink princess dress with puffy sleeves, a petticoated skirt, and a giant bow in the back. On her head is a navy-blue straw hat with a ribbon that floats down her back. But instead of being self-conscious about preserving her dress-up outfit, she’s leaping around our backyard like a gazelle, totally absorbed in the Easter egg hunt my parents had set up. It’s utterly compelling to watch and reminds me of what it feels like to be that focused, engaged to the point of losing yourself in something physical.
Lately I’ve been lucky enough to hang out with several young women who spend a lot of their time outdoors. They are the post-Title Nine generation. I call them the “gnarly sisters.” They’ve been doing difficult physical things, taking risks, living in ways that stretch their boundaries since they were very young. They don’t see themselves as extraordinary, but I do.
Those experiences are especially powerful if you’ve been denied them most of your adult life, either by the culture or by your own attitudes. Dirt and risk can make you big, not in an egotistic way, but rather in the knowledge that greater possibilities are available to you; big in a way that expands your universe. Writer and teacher Natalie Goldberg advises “going for the jugular,” and I’m finally learning what that entails: do the hardest, most terrifying thing. Get dirty, get scared, and watch what happens.