On the Precipice of Flight
Georgia would be my home until I finished high school. On the night of my graduation, I received two gifts: the first was a three-piece set of blue luggage, and the second was a copy of Victor Hugo’s poem, “The Bird,” which my mom had framed for me to hang in my dorm room at college. It is a brief poem, only a few quick spurts of language. In it, the speaker advises her listener to be like a bird on the precipice of flight—to feel the weight beneath her tremble, and then take off, unafraid.
Be like the bird
Who, pausing in her flight
Awhile on boughs too slight
Feels them give way
Beneath her and yet sings,
Knowing that she hath wings.
These simple words—and, truth be told, the suitcases that accompanied them—have followed me into adulthood in unexpected ways. In college, I copied Hugo’s poem into my first travel journal, a little blue book with a cloth flap and a string of burlap to tie the pages together, and it came with me to Spain. Some years later, when I moved to southern Arizona, I found it etched onto a rock at the Sonoran Desert Museum, a place more like a wild outdoor reserve for the desert’s flora and fauna than a museum. It stayed with me when the boughs of my life did feel slight, even shaky, as I trekked through my twenties in airplanes and on roads, as I got married and pursued my graduate studies in feminism and writing and turned thirty. The framed poem now hangs on the wall in my Florida home. It will stay with me for the rest of my life, or until the paper the poem is printed on rips apart or stains too much. Even when that happens, it will still be with me: I’ve memorized every syllable and every line break.
The feminist in me loves the translation, which uses the feminine pronoun for a creature representative of freedom. One question I’ve always asked myself about the poem, though, is decidedly more practical: Do our boughs always need to tremble beneath us to inspire flight?
I’ll tell you a secret: I came to feminism late. What I mean by that is, up until my late twenties, I didn’t take much time to consider the ways in which the road I’ve taken has been paved for me by women far braver and more intrepid than me. I had ignored, in a sense, the lineage of women who fought for me to be able to travel the way I do. In many ways, the luck of where I was born allowed me this freedom not to think about this fact, because I was born a white, American, English-speaking girl in the 1980s to parents who both held college degrees and who’d worked to move into the middle class. Not until I started reading important works on feminist thought and met women in many other countries whose lives looked very different from mine did I begin to understand that my path—one of travel, discovery, and freedom—is neither a given nor a right. It is a gift.
Though Gloria Steinem once wrote that she does not like to write—she likes to have written—women don’t write their stories alone. We never have. What Steinem meant by this small turn of verbal play, I think, is by turning an infinitive into an auxiliary verb and a present participle, we demand more authority over our stories. She’s right, of course: having written our own stories can give us the glory of looking back in pride, but when we ground our footing too much in the past present, I sometimes forget something very critical: that I am writing my story because women like Gloria Steinem wrote hers.
I’ll tell you another secret: I didn’t grow up studying Gloria Steinem or retreating to the pages of her journalism for a favorite passage or a delicate turn of phrase. I knew, of course, that she had been—and still was—an important feminist journalist who’d started Ms. Magazine in the 1970s, a magazine aimed at dismantling the idea of the women’s magazine as equal parts raising babies, choosing the best cosmetics, or putting a down payment on a nice suburban home. I knew she’d campaigned for women’s rights at political rallies and on college campuses, advocated for a woman’s right to choose what was best for her body, and placed domestic violence, sexual harassment, and women’s issues in the workplace at the forefront of the political agendas in local and national elections. I knew her journalism had sparked real changes in the American imagination and that her impact in second-wave feminism could not be overstated. When my English classes talked about her in school, I respected from a distance, not knowing how to reconcile the fights I was fighting in my own small world with her much grander historical ones.
Frankly, as a girl raised in the 1990s, I felt as if Gloria Steinem was before my time—that she was part of a generation that focused upon the issues my mom talked about when she shared stories of her early career life as a woman in the still-prevalently male-dominated banking industry. I felt about Gloria Steinem in perhaps the way my mother’s generation thought about women’s suffrage—like the chasm my mom might have felt between herself and Elizabeth Cady Stanton: I felt like I’d come a little too late for second-wave feminism to resonate with me. However, Steinem’s recently-published memoir, which fell in my lap at the suggestion of a friend, upended this shallow understanding of her for me, and I came away from it embarrassed by my ignorance and thinking about road trips (and by extension, our families) in very different ways.
Steinem’s memoir, aptly titled My Life on the Road, ties the eras of her life together through the central metaphor of travel—specifically, her journey down the eponymous road. She frames her life story—one that involves a childhood in the back seat of a car and an adulthood campaigning for women’s rights all over the country—around the idea that being on the road is “the most important, longest-running, yet least visible part” of her life’s journey (xx). In my opinion, this was a smart move, because she makes the argument that so many women who love to travel make: that “a traveling woman—perhaps especially a traveling feminist—becomes a kind of celestial bartender,” a listener for others’ stories, tales, and life experiences (xxiii). She writes that she learned to understand the complicated realities of American life through the wisdom she’s gained from cabdrivers; the stories from passengers seated next to her on airplanes; the life stories she’s picked up from people she’s met at truck stops, diners, and at political rallies.
Unlike Steinem, I didn’t grow up on a road trip, but I understand the importance of listening to others’ stories. If you asked either one of us how we felt about our different upbringings, I’m not sure if we would gladly trade lives or fiercely cling to the ones we had. There were benefits to both. Just as Steinem writes about the nomadism she experienced as the daughter of an impetuous traveling salesman, I grew up on a suburban street in a beautiful two-story stucco home, second house down on the right after you turned into the neighborhood, a few stoplights from the strip mall where everybody bought their groceries and went out to eat at El Portón, the Mexican restaurant rumored to serve up the best homemade guacamole in town. Kids hung out at the shopping mall on the weekends. Once we could drive, we’d take our parents’ cars and go back and forth from the movie theatre to the mall to the Applebee’s restaurant.
At times, it was a painfully ordinary existence. By sixteen, I was restless. Travel seemed exotic to me in a way few other adventures did. After the one move we made as a family in my childhood, we barely ever went on road trips. Financially, my parents were never quite sure if we could make a trip to the beach that year, or the next year, or the next. We weren’t destitute and we weren’t well-off; rather, my family found itself in that very American conundrum of being comfortably middle class but uncomfortably busy keeping that status. I dreamt, often, of what the rest of the world might look like, feel like, taste like.
Steinem, on the other hand, grew up restless for something else. Though she spent summers in a small cabin her father had built on a lake in Michigan, as soon as the first chill of autumn hit, he would pile the family into the car and drive them around to county fair, seeking antiques that he could re-sell for profit. They drove everywhere—from Michigan to Georgia, from Florida to California. She didn’t go to school. She didn’t have a bed of her own. Unlike my childhood memories of our two-story stucco house in the pretty suburbs, matching mailboxes, and strip malls full of stories we all knew, Steinem’s memories are full of checkered tablecloths in old diners, clothes stuffed into suitcases instead of closets, and motel VACANCY signs.
Where we do overlap most profoundly, most unexpectedly, is in the lives of our parents: her father, a traveling salesman unable to sit still; my father, a salesman with a restless heart who has had many offices. Our male role models who didn’t—and don’t—give up on their dreams and deals. Her mother, a self-conscious newspaper reporter who gave up her own dreams to raise children and support a whimsical husband’s needs; my mother, a journalism major, a lover of words and books, who chose to pursue the stability of a career in banking so she could raise two girls. It’s revealing to see parts of your parents revealed in the stories of others, isn’t it? Perhaps Steinem and I both wanted parts of each other’s lives: one life promising adventure, the other stability. These two lives never seem to coincide; for many travelers, they never do. My colleagues and I always talk about picking between adventure OR stability—the conjunction is always or, never and. If you’ve ever been an expat by choice who made the difficult journey back home, there is no in-between.
Steinem’s memoir takes winding turns after she tells the story of her childhood and the deaths of both of her parents. At one moment, she’s in California with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in the late 1960s, protesting the poor conditions of farmworkers. At another, she’s riding in a cab with renowned literary journalist (and blatant sexist) Gay Talese, who tells her that pretty girls like her shouldn’t pretend to be writers. At yet another, she’s at the National Women’s Conference in Houston in the 1970s; at yet another, she’s working with vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro in the 1980s. She’s in Washington campaigning for Clinton’s presidential nomination in 2008. Her travels are frenetic, impassioned, activist in spirit, meaningful and selfless in ways my travels have never been. I admit I didn’t know much of this about her. Every step has been political; every fight to ensure a better world for a woman like me.
In the fourth chapter, “One Big Campus,” Steinem admits that “the single largest slice of [her] traveling pie” have been campuses. Since she began her work as a women’s rights activist in the 1960s, she has gone to speak and protest at hundreds of university and college campuses, some twice, others many more than once. In the forty years she has been driving around to campuses, she has noticed real change—change that has happened directly because of feminism: from gay and lesbian groups forbidden to meet on campus to more visibility and acceptance of transgender and transsexual students; from young females protesting sexual discrimination and getting arrested for vandalism to women exercising their Title IX rights and demanding an end to sexual discrimination; from in-person classes and blue book exams to an availability of courses for all kinds of learners at night, online, and in blended environments. She is optimistic about these changes, writing that although the system still has a long way to go, campuses now look to her more like the makeup of our country.
At one point in Steinem’s career, it would have been literally impossible for me to have the job I do, to teach writing at a liberal arts college. I think of the story she tells about the time she went to Harvard to speak in 1971 and was met with male hostility and scoffed at while she spoke about the inequities in the institution. I think of the story she tells about a visit to a state women’s university in Texas in 1972 (where you could major in either domestic science or nursing) and where she was greeted passionately by hungry black power and La Raza Unida and angrily by those who wanted to keep women in their place. After that visit, it would be thirty-five years before she would return there, and when she did return, she found a campus that looked decidedly different: most notably, that they now offer a master’s degree in women’s studies and require all students to take courses in multicultural women’s studies.
It would be remiss to claim that the tension is gone and that college campuses are utopias. Yet, I can’t help but see Gloria Steinem’s work rippling through the steps I take every day as I walk to and from class, to and from meetings, office hours, and appointments with my students. She resonates with me as I jet off in the summer to destinations my heart loves, and she’s with me—even if I never knew it—whenever I stop to think about the privilege I so often take for granted.
In the afterword to her book, which she titles “Coming Home,” Steinem admits to us that once she turned fifty, she realized that she was struggling with her own form of imbalance, an imbalance caused by years of nomadism and wanderlust, and that she desperately needed a home of her own. Like so many travelers who live—even if for a short while—a nomadic life, she began to understand that she needed to make a home for herself or that she couldn’t go on. If she continued to live the rest of her life without a home, as her father did, travel would, as she writes, “do [her] in, too.” She needed to come home—if for the very first time.
In a quiet, confessional mode, she tells us that this nesting—of surrounding herself with objects and memories that give her pleasure whenever she opens the door—has become, like travel, its own kind of splendor. She compares her turn toward nesting to the building of real nests, to the fact that “even migrating birds know that nature doesn’t demand a choice between nesting and flight” (250). That shopping for such trivial things as sheets and candles and pillowcases doesn’t mean we’ve ceased to recognize our nomadic histories as human beings or that we’ve retreated to delineating the lines between a woman’s place and a man’s world. That we can—and perhaps even should—have both if we wish to live a happy and fulfilled existence. She wishes, with a tone that can be nothing if not wistful, even regretful, that she’d been able to show her father that there could have been an and, a space between the either/or, a time for nestling into twigs selected with care and a time for wings aloft in flight. Now, because she has a room to call her own—something I imagine Virginia Woolf would have loved to hear—she finds that there is even more out there to do, and say, and listen to, and that she is satisfied in what she will leave behind.
Steinem pauses as she writes the last words to her book. It is a quiet ending. She glances down at her 82-year-old hands, “long-fingered like [her] father’s,” resting on the desk where she does the work she loves more than anything in the world, and tells her readers, very simply, that her father did not have to trade dying alone for the joys of the road, her mother did not have to give up her journey to have a home, and neither does she.
Neither, she writes, do we.
I’m unbelievably grateful to Gloria Steinem, for everything she did to make my own passion for travel—and my desire for home—that much more possible. Lately, I find myself dreaming about two lives: the life where I throw clothes into a suitcase and go, and the life where I nest, plan a family, decorate a house. By serendipitous chance, I passed by the wall where my bird poem hangs this morning, sipping my iced coffee and thinking about where life might next take me. Standing there in my socks, the birds singing on this first sunny day in a while, I can almost hear my mom’s voice: Feels them give way / Beneath her and yet sings, / Knowing that she hath wings.
Steinem, Gloria. My Life on the Road. Random House, 2016.
Kristin Winet is a Contributing Writer for Panorama.
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