Tucked under my other arm are the other members of my family—husband, kids, grandkids. They cheerfully urge me on and while I appreciate their encouragement, they’re also a heavy bunch.
On my head sits a wobbling stack of the half-stories and incomplete books I’ve written through the years. I can’t see them; I can only feel their guilt-inducing weight. I try to keep the literary pile upright, but its mass threatens to tumble with each step I take.
I wear a red velvet cape, its long train edged in white fur, the kind of cloak an emperor would throw over his shoulders. It’s hot and scratchy and constantly slows me down as it catches on the rocks and sticks littering the path, but I never consider taking it off. Worse, another “me” following behind stomps on it every so often, cackling as she anchors her foot on the fabric, pinning me down as I try to move forward. After a while she releases me, but she continues to follow close behind, waiting to pounce.
It’s a lot. Society, based solely on my gender, demanded that I accept the load from the moment I was born. As a woman, I’ve been encouraged, enticed, prodded, tricked, guilted, and even forced into striving for that highest of all female achievements: to be “self-less.” I’ve acquiesced to this silent and stated demand by losing “my self.” To be honest, at times I’ve even invited it, proudly lugging around the burdensome weight. Shouldn’t I know better by now? Do I continue shouldering this load because I believe the people I carry need me, can’t function on their own? Do I want to show the world how strong I am? Have I become a human pack mule to ensure that I’m too distracted and preoccupied to do anything else? Is what’s weighing me down nothing more than convenient excuses, preventing me from living the life I once imagined?
Up ahead, on the other side of a rose-covered fence, stands a beautiful stone cottage, a covered porch wrapping around three sides of the house. I gaze at the rocking chairs on either side of the front door, imagine myself resting on one, if only for a moment. Someone stands just inside the opened door. I can’t see her face, but somehow I know she’s smiling, inviting me to join her. I’m tired and not sure I can make it, but I summon the strength to try.
I struggle to the fence. The path beyond the gate is smooth and free of the rocks that have bloodied my naked feet for so long. At the path’s end are three steps I’ll need to climb to reach the porch. The weight of all that I carry suddenly feels as if it may crush me.
The woman at the door calls out, “I’m here.”
Encouraged, I pass through the gate. But after only a few steps, my shadow-self stomps hard on my cape. Squaring my shoulders, I continue moving forward, dragging her along. Finally, I reach the stairs to the porch. As I place one foot solidly on the first step, my shadow-self jumps onto my train with both feet. Squatting, she gathers the velvet in her tight fists. I tighten my own grasp on the people I carry, put my head down and, being careful not to dislodge the books and stories perched there, I forge ahead.
Sweat pours off my forehead, my arms and back are on fire, my head’s pounding. When I finally make it onto the porch, my shadow me disappears. Doubled over, gulping and gasping, I concentrate on taking deep slow breaths, filling my lungs with ambrosial air. Celestial music drifts from the house. I inhale a combination of delightful scents—lavender and lilacs, freshly baked bread, and sweet summer basil—the fragrance so strong it makes me dizzy. As I steady myself, I hear the woman softly call my name. She is so dazzling in the sunlight that surrounds her and pours through the open door that it remains difficult to truly see her, except for her hand, stretched out, inviting me in. I move toward it, but all that I carry—my family, my advice-giving friends, the teetering pile on my head—can’t fit through the door. I hesitate, knowing what I must do. Fear claws at my throat, but I raise my arms to the sky and I. LET. GO.
There is no thunderous impact, just a silent shattering of expectations as the people I’ve packed under my arms float slowly and quietly through the air, the love I’ve always had for them enveloping and cushioning them. One by one, they drift near the surface of the porch, landing softly under their own power. The few who are too weak to stand are supported by others who are strong enough.
I begin to cross the threshold, forgetting the books on my head. They bang the top of the door, but instead of tumbling to the porch, they float through the air like the people I carried. Except for one book, which stops its slow descent in mid-air, shimmying in front of me like a hummingbird. When it finally lands, it falls open, revealing blank pages that fill me with joyous anticipation.
I tug on the cape’s strings, still tied tightly across my throat, and I’m surprised at how easily and quickly they come undone. The heavy fabric falls to my feet, landing with a loud thump. It makes me smile.
I step over the threshold toward the woman’s outstretched hand. When I finally see her face, it’s like looking into a mirror. Except that, for the first time in my life, the reflection staring back holds nothing but unconditional love and acceptance.
From the series Ancestral Landscapes, photographs by Cindy Waszak Geary