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On girlhood, on sisterhood, on womanhood

I'm three years old and my mother fills the biggest part of my world. She has created for my sister and I a colourful child-sized kingdom of wonder and imagination, and we spend endless hours in it. I only have a few memories from this age, and it gets harder all the time to distinguish the things I remember from the stories I have heard or photographs I have seen.  But these things I know; we are always allowed to jump in puddles, we are loved, we feel infinite. The days are a blur of breakfast cereal and parks, of books in bed, bundled up car rides in the dark, my little hands in little gloves and it's Her face in the review mirror. My mother answers my endless questions and never makes me feel bad for asking them. Even at three I believe I can be whatever I wish only because she has told us so. 

I'm five years old and my sister and I are starting school in a foreign country, worlds away from everything we have ever known. Japanese adults smile and motion at us, their words a jumble of sounds we can't yet decipher and, not for the first time, am I glad that she is here with me. Born only eighteen months apart we almost look like twins, two little blonde heads in a sea of black. We are chalk and cheese she and I, even then, and yet we are best friends, greatest allies. We smile back at these strange new faces, tumble into childhood friendships with Japanese children using the common ground that fills the sandpit. Laughter surpasses language, but I'm ever glad that I have her. We share an unbreakable blood bond and years later name it 'the undercurrent' after she describes me as the undercurrent to her existence. At the time, we are messing with metaphors we don't fully understand but the word sticks. I come to imagine it as a cord that connects us, strengthened over the years by our shared and particular human experiences. She tugs on the undercurrent sometimes and I can feel it across oceans. I tug back to reassure her that I have always been and will ever be on the other side. 



I'm eleven years old and it's summer. The kind of summer that seems to stretch on and on. 
It's sticky and hot, and there's the smell of dry grass and the sound of bees is both comforting and threatening. We are away from home at summer camp for the first time. My cousin Jess is two years older than I and already a seasoned pro; bold in her pre-teen self, she is a mop of curly hair and both my bunk-mate and my best accomplice. We have an elaborately coded secret language, glittery notebooks with tiny keys and letters written in gel pen pictographs. She is the brave leader of our band of two and I remember being in a unique kind of awe of her. Where she goes I go, arm in arm, inseparable in the summer heat, screaming down swampy hillside slides and nervously horseback riding along dry dirt tracks. Jess climbs to the very top of the climbing wall and it's only because she waves at me from the top that I do the same. We are scraped knees and butterfly clips and we cheer the loudest for each other when we win. 
The same summer, after camp is over and Christmas has been spent with our separate families, we reconvene at the farm by the beach with the blackest sand. It's New Year's Eve and we hatch a plan from our backyard tent fortress to sneak up the giant hill for sunrise. It feels dangerous and brave and we talk our younger sisters into coming too. It's dark when we wake up, having barely slept thanks to the heady combination of sugar and ghost stories. We dodge cow pats all the way up the hill in the pale light of our plastic torches and we wait, whispering in darkness, shoes wet from the dewy earth for what feels like forever. The sun rises and I swear I can still remember how the navy night gave way to a pale pink sky before the egg yolk orange sun rose. 
It's a kind of sacred sisterhood. These bonds made by little girls growing up.


It's my sixteenth birthday and my mother quietly presents me with a book of letters from every woman we know. I can tell that she's nervous to give it to me, maybe because its' not something I could have asked for, but I instantly understand its value. The notebook has a red leather cover and it's filled with handwritten notes penned on various pieces of stationery and cards, carefully glued into the pages. At the request of my mother, these women have written heartfelt words of advice and encouragement, words of love. They affirm me, most of them recognising in me far more than I can see when I look in the mirror at sixteen. These are women who are respected widely and who, in turn, love generously. I read these letters and many of them have a way of cutting through the state of wrestling I constantly feel like I am in; the painful tug and pull of growing up and growing into myself. I doubt it was an act of coincidence that we were surrounded by such a wide range of women. My mother has lovingly gathered these ladies around us and no two letters read the same - some are younger women, the same age as I am as I write this now. There are letters from academics and stay-at-home mothers, widows, wise older ladies, women who have travelled, women who have lived and learned and taken the time to write something for me. 
These letters feel so important and personal to me, and yet years later they are key to my understanding of womanhood. There's a common thread in these letters; a expressed idea that women need each other and can make each other feel loved and supported and valued and encouraged. As one so beautifully writes, "You will need your sisters far more than you realise. Keep them close."

I'm eighteen and my friends are my whole world. High School is kind to me in a way that I'm not sure it is to every girl. I have crazy friends. They are noisy and ambitious and unapologetically intelligent. They try and persevere and succeed and there's an unspoken expectation that I will do the same. I rise in these friendships, flourishing in the company I keep. We are never not talking; about everything, about nothing. We make things and write things. At times we drink a little too much but we always dance a lot, even without the liquor. I can still remember so clearly the cold winter afternoons, the scratch of my school uniform and my best friend Steffy's car. She drives so fast and confidently and I swear we think we will live forever feeling this young and hopeful. We drive to the top of the tallest hills in our tiny town and talk about the places we will go, about how art makes us feel and why we need to keep creating. In summer we lie in the back yard and read. We bake each other cakes, for there always seems to be too many birthdays to celebrate. Eighteen feels like both the sum of everything that has been and the brink of everything that's about to be. It's the tipping point but we're standing on it together and when I look back I'm glad I took so many silly pictures. 

I'm twenty three the first time I realise that I might be beginning to understand what it is to be a woman. More than mere biology and physiology, it's a feeling hard to describe. In some ways, it feels like the end of that wrestle and uncertainty that was girlhood. Not to say I don't wrestle or feel uncertain from time to time, but it's different now. Can you outgrow your growing pains? 
There's a sense of settling somewhere in the middle of me that I don't recall being present in my youth. I am no longer my biggest enemy, my desires no longer eclipsed by cycles of self doubt. I still feel things just as intensely and as loudly as I always have, but there's another part of me that has learned to sit with those feelings, wait with them, ask them questions, make them mean things. I am learning about myself, and in doing so, learning to love myself. This feels clich├ęd, but sometimes I wish it were more so; I wish more women had the pleasure of knowing themselves better, of loving themselves more fully. At twenty-three I fight with my self-image less and I wear lipstick more. I decide the themes and the characters I want in the story I am telling with this life.
I set my internal compass to point true north. I run. 

I'm twenty-five as I write this and I still find it surprising when the words come together; even more surprising that you read them. The world told me that I should celebrate International Women's Day this month and I find myself celebrating the only way that feels right to me, which is to recognise and to write. Politics surrounding this day aside, I owe so many parts of me to the women I have known and whom I'm blessed enough to call mothers and mentors, sisters and friends. Volumes could be written on their wisdom, their strength of character, their spirits, their smallest souls.
My mother is still the wisest woman I know and the most profound influence on my concept of a woman and how beautiful and multi-faceted they can be, the things they can do.
My sister continues to be my undercurrent and has grown to be one of the most unwavering and quietly brave women that I know. I don't know how I got an ally so fearless but I'm glad she's on my team.
My cousin Jess is still my favourite cousin. We lived through the tumultuous teenage years that made summer camp feel small and I watch in awe now as she navigates the months on the cusp of motherhood. Should she ever fear for the daughter she is having, I will remind her that we were once little girls who swung high on swings and we survived, we made magic.
I still have the notebooks filled with words from women wiser than I. I hope to write whatever wisdom I might earn in another young woman's book one day.
My high school friends are still some of my favourite people. They still try and persevere and win and it's my joy to see them do so; to watch them create beautiful, interesting lives with people they love. We seem to talk less these days but it's always a pleasure when we do. The distance will never be greater than the years we spent growing into ourselves.

And I, I am still learning.

I still feel connected in some measure to the pain and struggle of girlhood, but I'm glad that for the most part that chapter is over. There are not enough words for how grateful I am to have friends that feel like family, to have inherited sisters and mothers. The beauty of sisterhood is one that must be lived and cultivated to be fully appreciated. I wouldn't be without mine, nor do I ever hope to be.
For now, I'll be here, recognising and writing as I try and embrace womanhood and all of its complexities. I still have a lot to learn, but I'm up for the challenge. I think I'll be okay - I do know some pretty great women after all.

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Can't believe you made it down this far! Its nice to have you here, thanks so much for reading. 
There are so many women who are important to me and encourage my writing and whom I wish I could also include in this - you know who you are, thank you!
Happy International Women's Day for the 8th of March xx


2 comments

  1. Thank you for once again sharing your beautiful words with the word Han. You are so lovely and these memories are so precious and I am so happy to have relived them through your eyes. Love you x

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  2. This is an incredible read. Just like you are an incredible woman. X

    ReplyDelete