“Let the beauty of what you love be what you do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” — Rumi
When I entered Pitzer College at 17, I hadn’t been to a formal school since the 2nd grade. I had no idea who I was apart from my upbringing, didn’t know what I cared about, what I wanted to study, who I admired, what kind of career to look for, where I should live, or who I wanted to become.
I felt lost, frightened, existentially alone, and I was acutely intimidated by an academic world that held (for me) no precedent or projected future. I consulted my academic advisor and went to classes religiously, sought counsel from every authority figure I could, and in time, began to mold a career trajectory that made sense to me. But I agree with Anna Quindlen that it’s easier to write a resume than to craft a spirit.
During my freshman year, I met Professor Gayle Greene in a course called Contemporary Women Writers, a class that legitimately changed my perspective on women and writing and defined what I would later choose as my life’s work. Gayle’s passion for her subject matter influenced me in ways that would, eventually, help me become a tenured professor, and I am deeply grateful for that. But more importantly, Gayle helped me craft a life I am proud of, and for that, there is no gratitude deep enough.
Toni Morrison came to Scripps College that fall, and she sat with us around the square table in our Humanities classroom, answering our questions about her newest novel Beloved. That evening held life-altering dialogue that would change the way I think about literature and art and women’s voices. This culminated in the peak honor of being invited to have lunch with Ms. Morrison, along with a very small group who had the opportunity to speak with her one on one–about writing and editing, children and priorities, and juggling personal and professional obligations. These topics felt foreign to me at the time, but remain persistently passionate areas of discourse with my girlfriends today.
I don’t think it would be possible to overstate the effect Gayle has had on my career or the influence her work has had on the quality of my life. In her classes I read authors like Margaret Atwood, Margaret Drabble and Toni Morrison for the first time, women who taught me that love is never any better than the lover, that wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, and stupid people love stupidly. Remembering this over the years has saved me from despair during pinnacles of heartbreak.
Margaret Drabble came to our class the next year. And for the very first time in my young life, I thought of what it might mean to some day become a middle-aged woman. That’s a frightening prospect for any girl, but Ms. Drabble made it seem approachable, necessary, inevitable, a passage to navigate with grace and humor.
Gayle gave me these gifts in my youth, intangible offerings that continue to make my life richer in immeasurable ways. Her dedication to her profession, and to making art come alive for scads of naive young women, opened up a world I couldn’t have accessed any other way. In fact, it is now my top priority as an educator to bring writers to campus to celebrate and showcase talents and accomplishments my students have never had the opportunity to see up close.
In one of Gayle’s courses, we read Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, books that explore the idea that women who choose less conventional paths are not inherently crazy. The most significant thing I gleaned from these explorations is a respect for female friendships and a greater trust in my women friends as my deepest allies. This hadn’t occurred to me before Gayle’s classes. My mother had no women friends; neither did my mother-in-law. In Sula, Toni Morrison suggests, “She had been looking all along for a friend, and it took her a while to discover that a lover was not a comrade and could never be, for a woman. And that no man would ever be that version of herself which she sought to reach out to and touch with an ungloved hand.”
I have three daughters, the oldest of whom just graduated from college. When they were small, I emphasized the strength of the sisterhood, and I encouraged them to value not only their biological sisters, but also their female friends, to understand that men are not our only or even our primary vehicle to comfort, self-respect or social status. I am proud to say that in addition to strong bonds with their respective boyfriends. each one of them has cultivated lasting connections to women who have served as powerful anchors in their young lives.
In Surfacing, Margaret Atwood emphasizes, “This above all, to refuse to be a victim. Unless I can do that I can do nothing. I have to recant, give up the old belief that I am powerless…” From Gayle I learned that to be a woman is to be strong, to be capable, to make hard choices, over and over and over. I learned to respect, rather than be ashamed of my body, and to admire my resiliency as a woman. I learned what consciousness raising means, and why the personal is political. Our job as women is to fight for each other, for ourselves, and to record our journeys, truthfully and unapologetically. To hold a pen is to be at war, and that’s not a responsibility we should take lightly.
Gayle changed my life. The personal choices I make now are a vehicle through which I unite with other women– toward community, empowerment, and change.
We are subjects of our lives, not merely objects of someone else’s desire. As Morrison reminds us, “There is no gift for the beloved. The lover alone possesses his gift of love. The loved one is shorn, neutralized, frozen in the glance of the lover’s inward eyes.” We don’t have to see ourselves through the male gaze. We get to choose what and whom we love.
We may choose to domesticate with men as romantic life partners, but it is our love for ourselves as women that sustains us. I try to hold true to that in all that I give to women in and outside of my profession. From the grace and strength through which she has conducted her life, Gayle has exemplified to me over and over:
“Wherever you are, and whatever you do, be in love.”