Maisie and her friend Lily both wear the same fantastic kohl eyeliner, dramatic and sweeping, dark and bold, like twin Egyptian princesses. We, their owners, wonder if they are somehow related because not only do they wear the same eyeliner, they are also about the same size, with similar coloring and markings. Lily is a rich coppery brown and Maisie is a more caramel version but they both have the same little white streaks down their noses. But while Lily carries herself with an almost dainty little prance, standing tall with her lusciously overflowing tail on display like a decadent mane of a hair in a shampoo commercial, my Maisie is a rough and tumble little girl, her barrel chest more like a baby linebacker’s, her shaggy, unkempt ears on her slightly-too-large-head and the lightning bolt on her back giving her a decidedly less feminine appearance. Lily is gorgeous — stunning, really — and Maisie is, well, cute. Adorable-to-the-moon-and-back, they-use-her-picture-in-the-dictionary-definition kind of cute — but still cute.
When they play and run and chase each other, they are just dogs, and probably two of the fastest dogs I’ve ever seen. But when they stop for a little breather, I can’t help but notice these differences, notice Maisie’s more tomboy-like features. I also can’t help but notice that I have never heard Lily bark. Not once. Maisie, of course, more than makes up for Lily’s quiet demeanor, barking, barking, and then barking some more. Mostly, though, I can’t help but wonder what the hell is wrong with me. How in the world can I go to the place of noticing the lack of femininity in my dog — my dog — who could care less about fitting into some prescribed notion of what her gender is supposed to be? My dog, who brought light and warmth back into my life, who saved me from drowning in a drifting, leaky boat of heartache. I am grateful I don’t have a human daughter upon whom I can project these crazy notions. I am grateful that even if Maisie could climb inside my head and hear the things I think, she still wouldn’t care.
These twisted notions of mine surreptitiously surface during a little writers’ group I meet with every few weeks. We are women spanning a few decades, all in different places in our lives, and all with different perspectives. We don’t bring works we have in process and we’re not looking for critical feedback. We get together, have tea, chat, and then pull random topics written on scraps of paper from a little brown gift bag. We write for ten minutes on each one and we take turns reading them aloud. It is revealing and powerful and I love the different interpretations of the topics, I love how each time we get together, I gain new insight into these lovely women, gain new insight into myself. I love how we connect and I love how my heart opens a little more each time.
We are meeting on a night of an incredibly expansive harvest moon, voluptuous with light and brimming with possibility. Our tea is growing tepid and the topic someone has pulled is Grace. Without hesitation, I write about my mother. She is a woman full of grace and elegance and equanimity, quiet and somewhat reserved, but strong and resolute. I write about how much I love the word, how it sounds and what it looks like, and the images it conjures up in my mind. I write about my mother and Grace Kelly and think about what it would be like to move through the world full of grace.
But I also write about how I hate the word, too, because I am not a woman who moves through life gracefully. I move through life like a semi barreling out of control on a runaway truck ramp, wheels spinning, dust and gravel spitting and clouding the air. I’m too loud and too outspoken. I swear like the proverbial sailor — one of my favorite words starts with an F and ends with a K and is not frank, though I am that, too — and I have grown accustomed to the taste of shoe leather from the far too many times my foot has landed in my mouth. I have a soft heart but sometimes I keep it in a hard cage, and just bark and bark and bark so no one can find the key to that cage.
My decided lack of grace is not helped by the fact that my head often seems to be somewhere where my body isn’t, which means I am a klutz. My mother once told me she was almost afraid to take me to the pediatrician when I was a child because of all the bruises I had from running into things. I once ran into a wall so hard, it left paint on my glasses. I was 46 when I did that. Miraculously, I have never broken a bone, but I’m not sure how. And of course, every time I run into something, an expletive is sure to be the first thing out of my mouth.
I’m sure this lack of grace and femininity, this discomfort I have wearing heels and eyeliner, this tendency to sound like I belong in a longshoremen’s bar instead of a quaint tea shop, is why I am looking at dear Maisie through such a distorted lens. It is just the latest in a long list of the myriad ways I find to send myself the message that there is something fundamentally wrong with me, that my very being is a fatal flaw I will never out run.
Maisie, my tiny barking terror, my 17 pound overlord, my rough and tumble longshoreman — who is also my little ray of light and sweetness in a sometimes less than sunny world — does not struggle with a distorted lens. Yes, the first time she meets another dog, she just won’t shut up. She barks and barks and barks and she doesn’t back down, at least not for the first five minutes. The more she barks, the more I apologize, falling all over myself trying to reassure the dog’s owner (and myself) that she will, eventually, calm down, and reassuring the dog owner (and myself) that once she meets a dog, she generally is fine the next time she sees that dog. I apologize as much as she barks and the two of us create a beautiful collage of chaos.
But Maisie does not lie awake at night, tossing and turning in a sea of self-recrimination at the things she says and her less-than-lady-like behaviors. I’m sure she doesn’t worry about what she communicated when she barked at a fellow canine who, really, just wanted to play with her. And I’m most definitely positive that she doesn’t wonder why she isn’t a little more feminine, why her ears are so darn disheveled, why her front legs are a bit bowlegged, her chest so brawny, her back legs so meaty and strong and tough. Because when she is free, when she is able to just be who she is, it is nothing short of wondrous to witness. To watch that dog run, to see her use all that muscle and piss and vinegar and channel it into the most joyful expression of Who She Is makes my heart smile wide, every time.
So why am I unable to embrace that same spirit, why is it that Who I Am translates to Never Quite Right? These are some of the things that often run through my head: “Don’t cut your hair short, you’re already kind of a tomboy and people might think you’re a lesbian.” (So?) “You should wear a little more eye make-up when you pull your hair back like that so you look a little less severe.” (I guess you didn’t notice how big my smile was.) “Why do you wear such clunky shoes?” (I have clunky feet.) “You could pass for 28 if your hair wasn’t grey.” (I’m not 28. Thank goodness.) “Are you really going to wear that?” (Yes.) These are not things I say to myself, these are things that have been said to me, that have left an imprint in an already insecure mind.
I know, though, that without my own inner voices offering an endless litany of critique, the judgments that are sometimes carelessly thrown my way would not stick, or would stick less, and that the compliments thrown my way would stick far more. But I have a long history of looking at myself through that same distorted lens and so this really is no surprise. There is also no shortage of messages in our culture letting women know that no matter how smart or strong or independent or, yes, even pretty they are, they still will fall short of the “ideal”, the standard, the model we are all supposed to emulate. And like Maisie, I seem to surround myself with beautiful, lovely, feminine friends, which just reminds me that much more of what I am not.
Maisie, of course, just surrounds herself with friends who want to play and doesn’t worry about comparing herself to them. Little Maisie, full of grace. She is such a perfect example of Just Being. It never occurs to her to be anything but who she is, and if that means being a rough and tumble, feisty little thing, well, that’s just who she is. When I went to volunteer at the animal shelter that fateful day, I had no intention of getting a dog, never mind a dog who seemed to be such a mirror into my soul. But the more I watch Maisie interact with the world, and the more I find myself apologizing for her, the more I realize that she and I are not so very different. The more I apologize for her, the more I realize how much I apologize for myself, sometimes, it seems, for just the act of breathing and taking up space on this planet.
I have been married for over ten years now, to a man who seems to think I am the most beautiful woman on the planet. I am just starting to accept the fact that the out-spoken, soft-hearted, swears-like-a-sailor, cries-because-a-daisy-is-blooming-in-November, lives-life-out-loud pistol is exactly who my husband fell in love with. The grey hair. The no make-up. The spitfire personality. The whole damn package. Since he reluctantly agreed to bringing Maisie home, he has told me that, yes, he loves her, but mostly he loves how she makes me smile. He also tells me that he has only two wishes for me, two things he would change if he could. The first is that I learn proper mic technique. And the second is that I stop apologizing.
The apologizing thing is a big one. Apologizing for myself is a habit that I’ve developed over the better part of several decades and I’m not really quite sure how to let go of it, how to embrace who I am, or how to go beyond that and let who I am shine through without apology. But as I observe the little wild woman I’ve adopted, this ever-so-slightly crazy mutt I’ve brought into my life, I’m seeing that it is possible to go through life just being who you are. It is something we all should strive for, no matter where we lie on that spectrum of personality, no matter how shy or demure or outspoken or boisterous, even if we are a girly man or manly girl.
And Maisie, Maisie, Full of Grace? Well, in the words of a friend of mine, she’s just as cute as a fucking button.
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Lovely readers, do you ever find yourself struggling to fit into a prescribed notion of what society expects from you, for whatever reason? How do your animal companions reflect your own inner beauty, who you really are? I love to hear from you, so please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.