What growing can a grown woman do?

“There are a lot of things that I have come to terms with leaving behind, but my Monday nights are not one of them.” My yoga instructor’s voice began to break as she lie supine on her mat. Through the mic she revealed to us, her Monday night class, that “You don’t know how much you have helped me. I began teaching during a dark time in my life and now I’m moving on to work on my Phd, and I couldn’t have done it without you all.”

As I lie on my mat, I thought about my own journey. At the moment of her litany, I stood at the beginning of a journey out of the town I grew up in, away from my family, from a teaching job, and on to try and make it in New York. I had two more weeks to go as a teacher and Kelly’s emotions were someone closed off to me. She was moving off to grow and expand. I felt that my move was something much different, something that didn’t fit with the growth vocabulary and metaphors we like to use for change. All I felt was guilty.

In the middle of the school year, I had become discontent. The pressures and stakes of teaching were too much. How could anyone expect me to be responsible for the education of 100 freshman? How could anyone expect me to do this without completely giving my life to the task? I began spending more time writing and less time thinking about teaching. I thought of it as investing in myself, and it was. I felt like teaching was taking more that I was willing to give. I felt like I had to find a way to reanimate my creative life, and the only way I knew how to do that was to disengage my emotional energies from teaching and reorient them to myself.

But there was an inherent problem I had with this. I had been told to “grow where you’re planted.” To many, this is a virtue. One should combat the dissolution with daily life by growing to love their daily life. It is an essential mind-fuck that women across generations know well. Women have always been less mobile. Their roles were in the home, with the babies, in the castle. To grow where one is planted often appears in the form of literal growth: Rapunzel’s hair, pregnancy, a garden. These were the avenues of achievement and fulfillment.

I felt this pressure. I stood in front of my students on the days that I felt I would rather be anywhere else and did the dance. I mimicked what I had done in the past when my heart was there. I would go home and try stave off the guilt of what I had just done. I knew as well as anyone that every day, every minute of class time is immeasurably valuable. My dad (who is also a teacher) tells his students that he never has a day off, that every day in his class he will show up, he will be giving his best, and he expects the same. But I couldn’t conjure the kind of energy it takes to do this. In the framework of growth, I felt my roots searching for water, becoming ingrown and tangled in themselves. I felt my senses dulling and my thoughts becoming recursive. I had to uproot. To imagine it this way was not only traumatic but also not exactly correct.

The idea of growth often pairs with taking up space. The older the tree the bigger it gets. I could imagine a life where I could achieve this. I could stay in front of the class and stretch my arms in care everyday until, out of sheer will, I grew the muscles to sustain this kind of care. I could become a large presence in my community, serving on boards, making a name for myself, etc. I have seen people do this. I have witness the beginnings of this in my peers. But these were not my goals.To grow in this way didn’t strike me as progress. I thought: I am a grown-ass woman. What growing could a grown woman do? 

My goal was more like alchemy. I moved because I want to change some of the dull and malleable elements of what I am to something more precious, refined, tested and enduring. It isn’t an attempt to leave behind any of the life I experienced in my hometown.  I didn’t want to leave my family, my students, my progress behind, but it is not the soil that is precious, it is the thing it grows. I didn’t uproot, I excavated, taking the raw materials needed to create a better self. 

I believe in the idea that things can change without shifting form. They can achieve progress without expanding. The most precious things are often made that way by melting, distilling, shaping. My success in this city will not be based on the amount of space I take up (in an apartment, in the minds of people, in the records of history). My success in this city will be based on the success of transformation.


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