An Independent Woman

I wrote about Claire on this blog, back in 2011, but that was more about her writing. Now I want to tell you about this woman, uniquely independent during a time when it was uncommon.

Claire

Look at those dimples, those eyebrows, those eyes. I loved her cheekbones, and even more, I loved the impishness of that smile. Even when I was young and she was elderly, I wanted to know the stories behind that smile, the secrets of a life obviously well lived. I wanted to know the joy the cheeky grin hinted at, the path she’d followed.

And yet, her joy in life was of a private sort, and shared with few.

In an age when women married young and lived subservient to their households, Claire didn’t.

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Oh, she started out traditionally enough, working as a secretary. But then those long legs of hers took her down a different path.

In the 1940s she traveled the world as a classic pianist.

In the 1950s she returned home to deal with the death of her mother in a house fire, and to take over the care of her aging grandparents. This was still somewhat traditional for the time period, as she was a ‘spinster’.

Claire, older

But things changed. She began to withdraw from the world, and to pull the shawl of privacy over her shoulders. She gathered homeless animals around her. She took in an abused horse, and built a barn for it by herself, living in the barn with the horse until she could build a house. A cat with a gangrenous leg that had to be removed. An old cow that could no longer give milk, with jutting hipbones, left on the side of the road. Dogs dumped in the woods that surrounded her home. She kept them all.

I knew her then (twelve dogs, numerous cats, an ancient horse, and a fat cow at that point). Mom would take us kids out to visit her in the woods, with all those animals and the old growth trees and an outhouse that scared my youngest sister. Or maybe it was the bear that visited regularly. Or the violent dog named Lummox, who had to be chained to a  tree when we visited. When Claire’s grandparents finally died, we thought she would move back out into the world. But instead she withdrew even more.

By the time I was in my twenties, and she was in her eighties, she no longer had a phone or a car, or any living relatives. I took over doing her grocery shopping for her, visiting once a week. It was her only contact with people. She chose the life of a hermit surrounded by her animals.

In an era where women were expected to raise a family, she lived alone. In an era where women were tentatively stepping into the work force, she stepped away.

You’d think, from what I just described, that she had maybe suffered some trauma. My mother thought Claire had been jilted at some point in the past, or possibly lost a fiancé in the war. I asked Claire that and she laughed her wonderful, free, musical laugh that I loved. No, she said, that’s just your mother trying to make me fit the stereotype. She said women weren’t allowed to be alone unless something awful happened. She said people thought a broken heart was the only reason a woman would be a hermit.

She said she just liked her own company. The woods. Her writing. Her beloved pets.

I have no photos of her from the time I knew her. But even in her eighties she was still tall and long-legged. The smile was still impish, still hinting at mischief. She wore heavy logging boots, jeans, a man’s flannel plaid shirt, and suspenders. She spent more time outside than in. She kept diaries, one of which I have. The one in which she wrote about the death of my father.

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Claire’s handwriting

She chose the life she wanted to live, and stayed true to that path. It wasn’t the expected path for women in her lifetime. But then, she always was an independent woman.

Wilderness Women…Or Not

My sister has asked me several times to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She’s become desperate enough that she now asks, hopefully, if I’ll hike portions of the trail with her. My wilderness soul inside jumps up and yells ‘hell yes!’ and then the inner voice pops up. It reminds me of the last time I hiked up a small hill and had to keep stopping to catch my breath. And that was without a backpack.

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Sister hiking – one of my favorite photos

One of my closest friends talks about hikes she’s going on. My wilderness soul raises a hand and says, ‘me, too!’. And then the inner voice reminds me of how I slow her down. How she has to wait.

A friend posts photos from some woman/sisterhood/new hippy site of young women out in the wilderness with flowers in their artfully messy hair, and long skirts and cropped eco-hemp tops that show flat tummies. Women with no bras, arms raised in freedom, with tiny breasts. None of these photos show overweight menopausal women in that circle of sisterhood.

Another friend runs an amazing organization that hosts seasonal excursions combining things like learning to track, or weaving baskets, or snowshoeing, with discovering the inner feminine energy. My wilderness soul wishes I was rich so I could sign up for one. Then my inner voice points out the requirements, and how even the easy beginner trips involve backpacking and camping in places other than campgrounds. And then my inner voice looks at the gallery and sees no fat women.

So I walk to the river alone and spend time with the trees and the water and feed my wilderness soul.

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But my sisterhood soul is hungry.

Phone calls to one sister, or an overnight visit with the other two, or quick check-ins with female friends are priceless. But there’s something inside still starving. Something deep that wants more than a chat with female friends about how life is going or how work is going or what the latest thing is that their family is up to.

I think that something is yearning for the community of women, a circle, a place of discovery and healing. Although, honestly, something like that would be terrifying as it implies letting go, lifting the lid of control. One of those wilderness trips mentioned dancing. Immediately the wall comes up. ‘Nope, can’t dance, can’t do that in front of people’.

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In other words, something inside wants more, but the reality is that I love solitude and anything else is too scary. Failure is a big word. Along with fear. And lack of self-worth. And not belonging. And not fitting in. Not being good enough.

Don’t get me wrong; I have a lot of self-confidence, I love my life, I’m proud of who I am in many ways. Just not in all ways.

And I’m not alone in this. There are many women who look at those new-hippy photos and think, where are the real women? Where are those women who can’t sit on the ground without a hand getting up? Who can’t hike an easy trail without their hips and back aching and their lungs huffing and puffing?

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One of the best hikes I went on with that sister.

Someone needs to start a wilderness soul-filling sisterhood group for those who don’t fit. It could be called ‘Fat Females in the Forest’ or ‘Old Women Who Wander’ or ‘Discover Your Inner Woman While Camping Close to Facilities’.

I’d sign up.

In the meantime, as a wise friend said, these words hold true for all who feel disconnected. She also said the circle we search for is inside and that is the most difficult circle to join, and the one we need to find first.

Guess I’ll start searching.

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Nature’s Circle