Selfish Bitch. To my mind, those are about the cruelest words that can be uttered to a woman.
It isn’t that I haven’t encountered (or employed) more extreme vulgarities. But the venom in that accusation contains the most poison. It tells a woman who has stood up for herself or seen to her own needs that she doesn’t have the right to do that.
I’m sitting alone beside the fire with Dusky, a cup of tea, and a plate of chocolates. I bought the box of chocolates with Bob when we were in Montreal in October. I told him they were for us. He was gentleman enough not to question the proclamation. And I’ve waited two weeks to crack into them, until the kids and Bob were out of the house. I’m supposed to be working in the cafe right now. But this unaccompanied moment is so rare, the chocolates take priority. I’m not sharing, and I’m not ruining my experience by having my children stare at me and ask me how they taste. “Chocolate’s bad for dogs,” I tell Dusky when she queries with her little eyebrows. I go to the kitchen and find her a frozen cross cut lamb shank and throw it on the floor as a distraction. She leaps up onto the couch and stares at it from a distance, whimpering.
I push my beloved chocolates aside and find her a plate, put the lamb shank on it, then set it next to her on the couch. “Don’t say I never do anything for you.” It’s still too cold to eat, but she recognizes she’s gotten all she’s getting.
And I settle back into my rocking chair to taste my chocolate and think about how angry I am with Argentina.
In 1992, Argentina sent me Sonia, the best friend I could ever hope for. Sap Bush Hollow became her American home. In 1996 Argentina called her home; but Sonia, Mom, Dad, Bob and I used every spare penny we could find to keep bringing her back up to the farm every Christmas.
Until she got married. And had kids. And got a job.
And I had to let her go. We still emailed and called. We still made occassional trips to see each other, but the time and distance stretched. Still, Sonia kept coming whenever she could find a professional excuse. Sap Bush and North America are as much a part of her as asado and mate. And each time we parted, we would both be reduced to sobs. And we’d remind each other of how important it was to be with family and community. This wasn’t about us. It was about being part of something bigger than ourselves. And that made us feel good and right. So we settled for being neighbors on opposite sides of the planet.
Then, a few years back, Sonia made a major choice. She left a failing marriage and became a single mom. And she learned the social costs of being a divorced mother in Argentina. She is still surrounded by family and friends, but at the same time, she is utterly alone, seemingly untouchable in a culture where a divorced man does not seem to pay the same price. Because now, I think, she’s a selfish bitch in the eyes of her culture. A woman doesn’t have that right. Or does she?
Sonia dreams of finding her way back to this culture, at least for part of the year. And when she does, she suffers panic attacks. Because how could she be so selfish?
I have cried twice in the past two days for her suffering. I can bear to be away from her when I know she is happy and fulfilled. But to think of her feeling like she can’t be quite part of her own culture is painful. I want her here. With me.
“That’s selfish,” I admonish myself. I arrange my four chocolates according to what I think I’ll like least to what I think I’ll like best. I ponder the order. Then I re-arrange them according to flavor: lightest flavor to strongest, so that my palate can taste each one more clearly. I look down at my watch. Bob and the girls will be back soon. I can’t draw this out forever. I put them back in the order of least to most delicious. And as I do, I consider that word, selfish. As women, we are taught to abhor it —to fear embodying it.
But here I am, alone with the chocolates I’m not sharing. And I consider my life lessons over the past few years, shepherding my parents in and out of hospitals, providing care for them in my home when they needed it, putting my name on the farm papers and accepting the financial burdens that came with it, working with my family to grow the business, continuing to homeschool my children in the face of visual impairments and learning disabilities, putting home cooked meals on the table every day for my loved ones, putting them out for my neighbors every week at the cafe.
Lately, these are the ways that I give to my world. I think I’m pretty generous. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t had the words selfish bitch hurled in my face. With some frequency, in fact.
Because I am selfish. I spend the dark hours of morning at my writing desk, and no one is permitted to disturb me until the sun has risen.. I take my days off and leave the phone and email untouched. I refuse any meeting after five o’clock at night, or any meeting that conflicts with my afternoon nap. I drive my daughters to activities no more than twice per week, and then tell them they have to find rides for anything else they want to do. Some days, when I’m too exhausted, I walk away from the homschool table and lie in the guest room with a novel, ordering the kids to discover educational fulfillment on their own. When I want to lie in bed with my husband, I send the children away with no apologies. And when I sit down to pay the farm bills, these days I write myself a check first. And when I get good chocolate, I don’t share it.
Selflessness, I’ve learned, can be dangerous. It looks nice on the outside, but inside it brings on illness. It makes me manipulative, vindictive, and defensive. It makes me lose my temper. It makes me feel self-righteous while inflicting guilt and suffering on people I love.
Conversely, being selfish lets me give more to the world. Being selfish makes me kinder to my family. It makes me a more patient teacher. It ignites my fire to be creative with the farm. It restores my energy, keeps my marriage alive, and fuels my passion for life. It keeps me healthy.
If Sonia cannot find a way to be a selfish bitch, I realize, her life is only going to get harder.
The last chocolate is a hazelnut figaro. I ponder whether to bite across the grain, taking in both the dark chocolate and hazelnut layers at the same time, or whether I should eat it parallel to the grain, savoring each flavor distinctly. I try it both ways and conclude both are equally delicious.
I finish the last bite, and up into the air, out into the world, down across the hemisphere, I direct these whispered words to my beloved Sonia:
Selfish Bitch isn’t an insult. Its an imperative.