I’m sure I scared my mother-in-law when I explained what The Awakening was about and then started getting my allergic reaction to my wedding ring. I assure you, this is no Freudian symptom of an aversion to marriage, although there could be a great HuffPost article in it for me if I really wanted to take that angle. Nah.
I bought The Awakening at a plantation my friends and I visited on our way into New Orleans. This trip at the beginning of May was the first break I had since my husband’s grandmother got sick at the end of last October. In the time since, we had to provide around-the-clock care for his mom and grandpa while his grandma was shuffled to and from the hospital, her home, and a nursing home, eventually receiving personal hospice care from Kam, my sister, and I. After she passed on Christmas Eve, we moved his mom and grandpa into our house, then moved his grandpa to memory care, and finally, I agreed to become a full time caregiver to my mother-in-law. In the meantime, we have to work on selling his family’s things and home. So while I was at the end of an emotional journey, it was only one phase of it with a brief respite before we embark on a new phase. Which will be followed by another phase. And another.
My trip was important. I’d felt cut off for months but could tell that I was changing as a person. Going to New Orleans, a city I have often and long dreamt about, I was testing out this new person that I wasn’t certain could hack it in the real world. Sure, you can be the master of your home and the people who rely on you, creating schedules, checking things off lists, but can you go to a big city and feel every moment, take in every encounter, every experience and just enjoy the break, no matter how brief you know it is before you must go back to slogging? Can you be fully alive? I didn’t want to be worse off than I was before. I didn’t want to be afraid of the world and of the risks I knew I needed to take to make my fate something I could be proud of.
The Awakening is a Victorian tale of Edna Pontellier, a woman who meets a young man, Robert Lebrun, on Grand Isle and realizes she is not happy with the life she has been mechanically pursuing for everyone but herself. Their meeting taps in to her sexuality and her desire to be independent of not only her husband and children, but of societal pressures to conform. She takes her painting seriously, moves in to a smaller home around the corner from her own in New Orleans, and even takes a lover while Robert is gone in Mexico. When he returns, she is dismayed that he does not share in her awakening; he still feels a fidelity to societal expectations. Being fully conscious only makes her more miserable when she realizes she is a bird with wings but she is still trapped in a cage, unable to truly live the life she dreams of with the one she truly loves.
The Awakening doesn’t have a happy ending, but somehow I still found hope. She gets to take herself seriously and she is brave enough to question life, even when everyone around her laughs or shrugs it off out of fear. She lives her dream, even if just for a moment. Just because Robert, her inspiration, isn’t brave enough to take the world by storm with her and forge a path of love while belonging to themselves, it doesn’t mean the dream is dead. She was ahead of her time, but she obviously wasn’t the only one.
I had always been ashamed and sometimes resentful of my choice to get married when I was just 22. Our lives were ruled by family, with my sister moving in months after we were married, and then my mother-in-law’s stroke shortly after my sister moved out. We were tethered to Oklahoma more than ever and grew tired of watching over a future with an indefinite start date. It crushed us both. We spread our time between our nine-to-fives, his family, and eating fast food at 10PM before crashing late and starting the whole process over. When I dreamt of graduating college, I dreamt of all the possibilities, and this new post-grad grind seemed void of any. I felt foolish for thinking I could find love so young and not let it ruin my future. We no longer live in Victorian times, so isn’t it our duty as women to go out and live the lives that many of these women only fantasized about? We need a life outside our relationships and our children, if we choose to have any. We need to exercise the choices we have and keep pushing forward, because while things have gotten better we aren’t out of the woods yet.
For three years we kept up our grueling schedule. I worried that the only importance I had to my husband was to act as another set of hands to transfer his mother. Everyone around me, especially in the buckle of the Bible Belt, seemed to have the idea I was doing what I was supposed to do, what was expected of me. This is what marriage is and you should have thought about that before you jumped in so young. Told you so… It seemed I had a choice, so surely I am better off than Victorians, but I felt doomed to a choice I thought I could avoid. All along I was harassed about having children when all I could think about were my lost twenties. I was working clerical positions with daunting commutes and with people who found me too strange to get to know. I looked the part of a young newly married twentysomething but I wasn’t happy and no one wants to deal with that, no one wants to question institutions they firmly believe in like family, marriage, children, and religion. They want to go with the status quo because it’s easier but I never wanted to be part of the status quo.
The fault in my resentment, that I was not aware of until recently, was that while those around me may have seen nothing amiss, that was not the case with my husband. I finally realized that this is not what he wanted, for me, himself, or even his family. He just wanted to make sure everyone was taken care of, but he would have loved if his grandparents and mother had gotten all the big stuff figured out and made things easier on him. He didn’t want us to have a typical marriage. He still doesn’t. He wants to have kids, but when we have had some years of freedom together first. My success is as important to him as his own is. He didn’t want to marry a housewife, so he was my number one supporter when I realized that writing is what I truly want to do.
Over the years, a part of me died, but it was necessary if I were going to become the person I really want to be. Not the person my dad or my mom or my extended family – even what a younger me – wanted me to be. I’ve seen what I am capable of and what the love I share with my husband is capable of if I stop accusing it and taking it for granted.
Just as Edna Pontellier’s soul awakens to new possibilities, so did mine. As I walked around New Orleans I felt at peace. I felt strong and found myself unworried about what other people think. I embraced my taste and allowed myself to finally dress the way I always want to because I finally felt young enough to pull it off. I talked to all sorts of people who could see I belonged there with my smile that consumed me. I ate and drank like a queen and found that place you can get to when you meditate or do yoga, but without my prayer beads or mat on hand. That trip pulled me out of my head and allowed me to see my progress. The sculpture is in no way done, but it’s taking shape and I like what I see.
Unlike Edna, I have found the love that stays behind at the pigeon house, waiting to embark on a fresh adventure, but more importantly, I know that I am tough and talented enough to stay at the pigeon house by myself. I made the choice to get married and I made the choice to stay by my husband’s side through his worst nightmares. But I also have the privilege to choose, whether all of society is on board or not. I choose to make time for myself, my work, and the life that I want; the life I own and choose to merge with my husband’s. While I empathize with Edna’s struggle to find herself as a woman and artist, I can also take heart that I don’t have to send my naked body to sea, that I can sit on the shore awhile and enjoy my freshly awakened soul.