I believe I will ask Joni Mitchell to sing this best-known line for me on Wednesday.
International Women's Day has never felt more necessary, more mired in the personal and political, than it does this year. I have long considered myself a feminist, but the events of my past few years sent me careering back to feminism in ways I never anticipated. First, my marriage of 35 years came to a painful end. Abrupt separation led to slow gruelling divorce, all of it taking place without a single honest or caring conversation between us. We were both to blame for such a radical loss of communication, but certainly for me, it made our parting far sadder. And it made healing an unfinished project.
Elizabeth Bishop wrote that "the art of losing isn't hard to master." But of course hers was an unflinching encounter with the fear, loneliness, and anger too, that come with loss. "Lose something every day," she counselled obliquely, in the same poem. For a while, I felt I was humbly testing her slanted guidance. Newly single and shoulder-deep in the fallout of late divorce with all its emotional, financial and practical challenges, I suffered another blow when my adored father died suddenly.
It was an odd loss to follow a divorce. Two men. But not just any two men. A husband and a father. If there is pressure on women to please, I can think of no two life-relationships more central to that particular formative battle of girl/womanhood. These two changes, coming so close together and relatively late in life, brought me face to face with that battle again - the lifelong pressure on women to please, make ourselves smaller than men, defer to their decisions, draw them out, suffer their opinions when our own are so frequently ignored or stolen, earn less, never age, accept invisibility when you do age. The list goes on and on. Finding myself more alone than at any time in my life, I gazed upon the battle with new clarity. And despite my long feminism, I found I had not won as often as I liked to think.
There is nothing like a period alone. Forced back upon the self, we see our lives with fresh eyes. We see the daily opportunity to make ourselves. And this, in turn, brings changes to our relations with family, friends, lovers, and strangers. For me, the effects have been tangible. First, I like being single. I wish I had realized sooner in life how much I like it. This is not to say I like it all the time. It is not to say that I feel no loneliness, no regret, no fear of what the future will bring. But it is to say that I enjoy moving about the world as a free agent, untethered by the emotional expectations of one "significant" other.
I've been lucky in finding love and support from friends, women and men. But it is also true that being single has heightened my feminist impulses. You could say that the art of losing is not terribly compatible with the art of pleasing. And here and there, my growing reluctance to please resulted in the loss of friendship. This was especially true with men. First, I noticed yet again that with some men, unless I continued to privilege their views and keep relatively quiet about my own, or to paraphrase Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own, serve as a mirror to reflect the figure of man back at twice its size, well, I risked ending up not only half their size, but totally unheard and unseen. This now bores me. And I won't do it.
There were also particular moments of acute friendship failure. Typically, it began with my voicing a criticism or difference of opinion that escalated into an argument. I was struck anew by the noisy confidence of male opinion and the ease with which it could be injured by my not backing down. I was struck too by how little progress many men have made, by how quickly they resorted to very old tactics. I was told I was oversensitive, that I lacked a sense of humour. Once or twice, I was told that I needed therapy. Yes, the figure of the questioning woman recast as mad is still out there, and it did not take me long to confront it.
Beyond personal encounters with men, there is political engagement. Nearly two years ago, I wrote my first post here, declaring myself a Corbynista. Now I am not so sure. This is not because I disagree with Corbyn. It is because I am increasingly reluctant to have my political views and engagement mediated by party politics that have, by and large, been handed down to us by men. Or course these are not new questions for feminism. They are very old ones. But perhaps more to the point, they are questions that return again and again. For me, they made participation in the Women's March the most important political act of this turbulent year, a melding of self and collective. A massive refusal of the art of pleasing.
Now, this Women's Day, at the age of 62, perhaps a late developer, I have never felt less certain of my future, our future, of what comes next or what I should do. But this is a pleasurable kind of uncertainty and for me, one aided by yet another return to feminism, different each time throughout life, and I like it.
Maybe it is not only about the art of losing, not only about how to unlearn the art of pleasing. I think now I am beginning to understand the art of not knowing. To borrow again from Elizabeth, unknow something every day. It is not hard to do. Or if you need a song, turn to Joni. We really don't know life at all. And that's okay.