Recently I read Jennifer Finney Boylan’s She’s Not There, a memoir of a life, as she puts it, in two genders. It was a good book, but I didn’t really come away understanding the transgender experience, any more than I come away understanding race when I read a memoir written by someone who is a member of a different race than mine. I don’t understand gender at all very well—how gender differentiates from gender role. I’m not sure it actually does.
I personally didn’t happen to get what it meant to be a woman until I got pregnant, which even I admit is problematical for defining women who don’t.
But that’s another story. I’m not skeptical; I just don’t understand, and maybe that’s just about the fact that you never really do get what it’s like to be someone else, not even when you’re a writer and that’s your whole job.
I’m bringing this up because Jenny Boylan and others grappling with the issue of coming out from various guises often speak or write about living a lie and the deep, soul-level pain this causes. Hiding your gender or your sexual orientation involve daily acts of self-censoring. From what I suppose are lesser efforts, I can only imagine how exhausting it must be for them.
Another book that struck me as being in similar vein, from a whole different angle, was Hayden Carruth’s Reluctantly. For years, Carruth lived the life of a poet and hardscrabble Vermont farmer, finding that the hard labor fed the work he did with words late into the night in the converted cowshed behind his house. Later, a divorce and the need to put his children through college forced him to take a teaching job at Syracuse. He was okay at it, but he felt that others could teach just as well, whereas only he could write his poems. His masterpiece remained unfinished when he died—he never really had the time to work on it while his mind was sharpest, and when he retired and did have more time, he no longer had the mental acuity. Talk about my worst nightmare.
What if the life to which you devote most of your outward energy is not the one you’re suited for, not really the one you want for yourself. Isn’t that a terrible lie?
But how do we find the courage to live the lives we want to live? And what if making that choice hurts the people we love most in the world…and what if other choices we made led those people into our lives as they are? You can say that we are not responsible for their happiness, but—ducking—I kind of think that POV is a guy thing.
It can be really hard to unravel a woven web once you get some clarity on what you “really” should be doing with your life. Or maybe you knew all along, and someone else agreed to a certain set of steps and then reneged. One of you would go to school and get to x point in a career and then it would be the other’s turn, say. And when you got there the other person wasn’t on board anymore, but now there are children in the picture and it’s not that easy to just say, well tough, it’s my turn.
Or maybe it wasn’t even a betrayal. Maybe you planned that one of you would quit your job to, say, write, but the other lost his job just when that time rolled around. We have this whole mythology in our culture that it’s all up to you—you can just choose to be happy, to follow your dream, etc., etc. All simple as pie in the sky.
This seems like it’s really hard to unpack. I’m not comparing it to restructuring a life from one gender to another, just using Boylan’s work as a point of departure for my own musings. It’s not simple to say to your kid, sorry, I’m not paying for your college because I’m a poet. I chose to conceive you, and now I’m not going to carry through on the rest of what that entails.
Or what if the best way to carry though on having chosen to conceive a child is to remain married to his or her father, even if you no longer love the man? That would be living a lie. But maybe that’s the best way to give the kid some emotional and financial stability. And what if leaving the guy would mean you would have to go to work at a job you hated, which would also be living a lie?
HMMM. What if the best you can do is choose among lies? What if true authenticity is not really on the table, or just isn’t the best choice, or the Buddhist choice…i.e., the one most likely to minimize suffering?
One of my favorite bloggers, David Forbes, writes about how being unhappy can be a good thing if it drives people to seek positive change. For Carruth, unhappiness might have been too strong a word for his condition, but it sounded like he never again found the balance he’d managed to strike for himself when he lived with his family in Vermont. And all he could really do about that was say so.