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An Unbosoming.

At a Women's Month celebration the other day, I was seated with the Little Boss on my lap and her Papa, my Outrigger, stood behind us, ready to take her if needed. A woman I hold much respect for, a senior in academic circles, came up to me and commented on how the Little Boss has grown and I introduced her to the Outrigger.

She smiled at him and said in a tone that I heard to be partly scolding, partly teasing, "You're the one who's keeping her from being an anthropologist!"

He and I responded in unison, "Noooo."

But she had turned and walked away. I suppose she had said what she wanted to say and didn't need or want to hear an answer. The Outrigger shrugged and said, "Some people just feel they have to say something." And with that shrug, I knew that the Outrigger had already brushed aside that brief encounter and was just minutes away from forgetting the whole incident -- a gift I wish I had too. But I was bothered, and her words rang in my ears all day. (I can still hear her now, as I write this.) I can only guess what she was thinking when she said that, but what I can do with certainty is dissect how those words made me feel. And because I wasn't able to make any satisfying retort, I am going to have my say here.

Her words stung. I felt angry, insulted and dismissed. Most of all, I felt it was an incredibly unfair thing to say to the Outrigger, who had come with me to a Women's Month event in U.P. to take care of the Little Boss while I wore my bookseller hat for half a day and sold copies of our dear friend Luchie Maranan's latest children's book, A Voice in a Time of Darkness, about Susan Fernandez-Magno. Those who know us better know how supportive the Outrigger is of the things I choose to do -- so yes, I want to talk about choices.

In particular, I want to talk about the post-doctoral choices I made, which coincide with about the time the Outrigger and I got together. My Big Little Sister and I decided to open a bookstore -- not just any bookshop, but Mt. Cloud Bookshop. We envisioned a bookshop that would bring together people who shared a love of literature and reading, a bookshop that would go beyond the mere selling of books and that would actively contribute to the cultural life of Baguio, a bookshop that would serve a community.

After over a decade in the academe as a student, a researcher and teacher, I wanted to explore what else might be out there for me. I wanted to find out what else I could do besides research and teaching. So I decided I would put my "academic career" on the back-burner, albeit temporarily, knowing teaching and research are passions I will return to again and again.

Also, I wanted a baby. More precisely, I wanted to have the experience of a baby that would be a clear-minded decision made by two individuals, not an accident or a surprise. I wasn't actively looking for a partner though. I had decided at the time that there was no one who could possibly be of any interest to me in Baguio. So having a baby was part of some vague plan to get out of here at some point. To make a long story short, the Mt Cloud Bookshop and the Outrigger changed my mind about the latter. We shared the decision to have a baby and when the Little Boss was born and as she grew, I was reminded of another big decision I had made a few years back: I had decided I needed to slow down.

This desire to slow down -- to do one thing at a time, to devote myself to small things rather than go chasing after a dozen big things, to find meaningful work that would not push me to drum up my accomplishments or draw attention to myself -- began to grow in me after I had a miscarriage in 2009, after ten years of repeatedly uprooting my eldest, the Artist-in-Residence, and carting her around to different places I had work, or by turns leaving her in my Nanay's care. Every departure and parting hurt. This wanting to live quietly and be still came to me after about a decade of always having too many exciting things piled up on my plate, of biting off more than I could chew, of spreading myself too thinly -- you get the picture! Certainly it was fulfilling, but there was too much noise in my head. My mind was a monkey running amok. I wanted a change of pace. And I wanted to be fully present for my family.

All of this has translated to my being here in this small city trying to make Mt. Cloud Bookshop a business that works, here with the Artist-in-Residence, the Little Boss, and the Outrigger, here within hugging distance of the rest of my family and my friends. It has also opened up some surprising spaces for me: a return to my first love, which is writing, and wonder of wonders -- a door leading me back to anthropology.

I haven't perfected the art of being still or living simply, though I feel I am slowly approaching the quiet that I seek. I've found that a large part of creating a simplified life involves learning how to say no, how to become unavailable or how to recede into the background and hope that the work will speak for itself. I've also found that I am terrible at these things. So the Outrigger is also my sounding board, helping me streamline my options, listening to me think through the same woes over and over again, and laughing with me or letting me cry when I realize I've made the same mistake for the umpteenth time.

As I immerse myself in a year of full-time writing supported by a grant from an anthropological(!) foundation abroad, the Outrigger devotes his time to taking care of the Little Boss -- without my asking. He spends almost all her waking hours with her, and his presence is so important now that she is at the age of exploration and discovery. She calls out "Papa!" when she needs something, when she hesitates at the top of a slide, or when she has something new to show. "Papa" and not "Nanay." This hurts me because it means that the long hours I spend working have taken their toll on my place in our toddler's life. But I am also grateful because the Outrigger is the best co-parent I could ever have hoped for. When I told him this he corrected me with a proud grin: "Co-mother, actually." And I take this to heart because this comes from a man who makes no pretensions to being a male feminist.

Some day, the Outrigger will need me to step up and be for him the supportive partner that he is to me now. I hope that I will have as much patience and generosity of spirit as he has shown me. Goddess knows it won't be easy.

I'm not writing this to paint a pretty picture of myself or to boast about my ideal partnership and family life. No family is without its flaws. I'm writing this for those who think they can declare their uninformed opinions about a woman, a man and his role in her life. This may seem a small matter, but hear what I have to say: Allow me to own my decisions. Do not belittle the importance I have given to family. Do not judge my wish to live beneath the radar, to be alone to write and to ripen in the writing. Do not summarily dismiss the choices I have made and my devotions by glibly laying the blame on a man who is my partner in so many enabling ways. In fact, do not do this injustice to any Woman. Isn't that a disempowering form of thinking we've fought to dispel for generations now? Doesn't that just reproduce the kind of prejudice we've been trying to eradicate among ourselves as women and in our communities?

My decisions, my life, my family, my work, my failures, our womanhood, our world, our options. Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of anthropology biggies Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, calls this Composing a Life. I am thankful the Universe has given me the privilege of composing my own life and following paths other than the obvious ones.

This Women's Month, I am owning my choices and paying tribute to the connections and relationships that make them possible.

Comments

Unknown said…
I embrace you and your wise choices, Padma. You are a woman of substance and depth, and nobody ever tell you otherwise!
padma said…
Thank you, Marj! I learn from wise women around me. Thank you too for being one of the witch-models of my life!

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