Cambridge, 1837. Ralph Emerson gave a lecture called “The American Scholar.” To a bunch of honor society kids. Naples, Florida, 2019. Glennon Doyle, to millions of moms and wives, gave a memoir, “Untamed.” They are both, in very different ways, calling loud and proud for a radical return to trusting our instincts. Our instincts, they claim–from scholarship and experience– are the surest compass for living an authentic life of love.
“…if the single person plant themselves indomitably on their instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to them… We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds… A nation of men and women will for the first time exist, because each believes himself and herself to be inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all.”
“We weren’t born distrusting and fearing ourselves. That was part of our taming. We were taught to believe that who we are in our natural state is bad and dangerous. They convinced us to be afraid of ourselves. So we do not honor our own bodies, curiosity, hunger, judgment, experience, or ambition. Instead, we lock away our true selves. Women who are best at this disappearing act earn the highest praise: She is so selfless. Can you imagine? The epitome of womanhood is to lose one’s self completely. That is the end goal of every patriarchal culture. Because a very effective way to control women is to convince women to control themselves.”
A man, a woman. 19th century, 21st. Academic speech, instagram feed. Same note, different octaves.
I hear that F#, and not just because it’s a trailblazer’s anthem. I think it’s a human note fit for every ear. Lately I’ve struggled to hear my wordless instincts amidst the stress, change, confusion of voices, projects, unmet needs. Instincts for what? For who to marry, what city to live in, which writing project to privilege? Those feel technical, not elemental. I want to know what my instincts pulse towards, letting them solve those technical choices like a river solves going under, over or around a mountain.
It’s Sunday. My one day I don’t have Noah. Today’s for letting the swirlings unswirl. With my third mug of English Breakfast tea, I sat down with Emerson and Glennon and closed my eyes. I feel them as friends, the best kind–they sit with me in silence and allow me to find myself secure and free. Into that space I breathe the tiny question to myself, “Instinct, what do you want?”
In my path today is my page. I love you, page, and I fill you with ink.
In my path today is my cat. I love you, Zoey, and I fill your bowl with food.
In my path today is my sticky floor. I love you, floor, and I’ll sweep you clean.
Tomorrow I will love other things in other ways. The who and the what and the when and the where and the how don’t matter. They can’t even be known today.
I’ve never wanted to love in particular ways. Not through a career, a place, a cause. Did that make me noncommittal? Not useful?
I’ve never understood how to love people who didn’t belong to me. To people way over there, even when brought close through a screen or newsletter. I could give them money, but I had never heard the timbre of their voice when scared or seen their approach to a drinking fountain. How could I really love anyone without knowing them? And how could I know them without putting my hand on their hand and feeling the warmth exchanged? Love is particular. Love is interactive. Love is nowhere but where we are in the now.
I want to be free to love all and everything as it comes to me, as I come to it, each moment. It’s looking back that we see the trail love cuts. Over the shoulder love’s lightning bolt illumines the rocks, birds, son and friend I am trusted to love.
But to imagine I chose them, that I charted my path, is absurd. I am not a self-made woman. I do not leave my mark on the world. I am shaped soft and strong in the caverns and on the crust, by love. And it is love that leaves a mark, I hope, on me. In my finger’s prints, brow’s furrows, cheek’s pop of pink.
I am essential to the work of love. But I am not in control of it. I am empowered to love to the extent that I welcome being gushed through– but the power is love’s alone.
Glennon and Emerson are still here thinking their own thoughts breathing through their own noses in a black tank top and ratty blazer. Glennon’s petting Zoey, Emerson’s holding the broom.