I am the most important being on Earth.
Just ask Bathsheba and Kitty.
My cat and dog.
Or, as I’ve come to call them, my Entourage.
Kitty and Bathsheba have been, for both better and worse, my most constant companions during the past year, the Year of COVID-19. They are here in my one-bedroom condo when I wake up — Kitty curled up next to me, Bathsheba sleeping on top of me, her treasured fishing-rod toy by my side, a gift she brings to my bed every morning. They are here while I cook and eat, usually finding a way to share my meals. They are here when I dance, read, write, work, and clean. They are here when, inevitably, I cry. But they are also here, every day, to make me laugh out loud.
Kitty, a wizened border terrier (think Benji, but ancient), turned 16 on April 15. Bathsheba, a beautiful black cat born to a stray my colleague rescued from under the porch of The Mark Twain House, where we both work, turned a year old on March 29. Kitty’s been around for more than a quarter of my life, and Bathsheba is brand new, but they both are equally big parts of my life — and they both make me feel very important, indeed. I mean, how can you NOT feel important when your every move is noticed and tracked, when your attention and affection are constantly sought — and when, upon opening the bathroom door or returning to the condo after running errands, you see the two of them sitting side by side, staring, waiting to lay eyes on you again?
During the past year, I have spent, like most other people I know, endless hours talking. Talking on my iPhone. Talking on Zoom. Talking on MS Office Meeting, FaceTime, and Facebook Live.
And, most of all, talking to myself.
But the physical presence of these two creatures in my home has allowed me often to pretend I’m talking to them. Which has made for some absurd conversations — all of them one-sided. “We’ve got to do laundry today, okay?” “I have to get started on my taxes, you guys.” “I wish that dog across the hall would quit yapping, don’t you?”
Talking to pets can be gratifying: they pay close attention, for one thing. And your dog will never challenge or argue; your cat will never shrug and say, “So what?” But spending this intensely concentrated time with them as my main interlocutors, I’ve learned an important lesson about taliking: in conversation as on the dance floor, it takes two to tango.
Much as Kitty and Bathsheba are beloved, they are not, by definition, interlocutors. Ours are not conversations. There is no back and forth, which means no pushback, no disagreement — and especially no dismissive dismissal of my comments.
I kind of like that. In fact, I like it enough that I’m mildly concerned that I’m not going to love talking with fellow humans quite as much moving forward.
I am perhaps particularly sensitive to issues of being seen and heard. Not, of course, in the way that people of color are too often not seen, not heard in our society. But as a woman, I am accustomed to being talked down to, talked over during meetings, talked around as if my words — and the thoughts they express — are somehow less important than those of whatever man is doing the talking down, talking over, or talking around. This is of course infuriating on the face of it — even more so when, as is (I’m just being honest here) so often the case, I am smarter, more accomplished, more thoughtful, more creative, and more articulate than those who dismiss me and my words.
I am clearly not alone: the word “mansplaining” — one of the most perfect words for conveying its meaning that I know of — is not in common circulation by accident.
This routine dismissal in the workplace is not constant or universal. But it also has occurred with shameful frequency in my personal life: in both of my two major relationships, I have allowed myself to be out-talked, out-argued, and controlled by the words of men. These men were not smarter than I am. They weren’t more worldly or aware or educated. They just had louder voices and a ready willingness to use them to control.
Just before COVID kicked in, I was still picking through the dead ends of my last relationship and realizing, finally, that not only could I NOT weave them back together, I really didn’t WANT to. People tell you that the only healthy way to break free from a failed relationship (particularly one with a narcissist; more about that another time) is to go NC, for No Contact. When I finally, after many painful years and months, managed to go NC with this man, I began to find strength in the silence. When, coincidentally (though I’ve started to wonder whether ANYTHING is truly coincidental, or whether in fact the universe has everything planned out just so), the virus forced many of us into isolation, I learned to love my solitude. I learned to love being alone.
I learned, finally, to love myself.
I had made up my mind that I was not just fine but actually quite happy to live alone, to dine out alone, to travel alone, to meet the world, for the first time since I was a kid, on my own terms and explore it accordingly.
Can you guess what happened next?
A dear friend whom I’ve known for 30-odd years but haven’t seen in many moons contacted me in early January. She’d made a New Year’s resolution to be more intentional, to ACT on her good impulses rather than just experience them and let them drift away. So, she wondered, did I remember the man, another member of our circle of friends from way back then? I did, indeed; I’d had occasion, even, to interact with him through work a few times, and, a couple of years back, when my own relationship was violently imploding, I bumped into him at Whole Foods, where my first reaction was, wow, he’s CUTE. We chatted long enough for me to learn that his 30-year-marriage, like mine, had ended in divorce a few years earlier–and that he was in another relationship. I clearly remember standing in the parking lot at Whole Foods and thinking SHIT.
As it happens, my friend told me, his relationship, like my own post-divorce one, had ended. Would I be interested in meeting up with him to see if we might click? She’d have to check with him, too, but I appreciated that she’d talked to me first, and I hopped right on board.
That was four months ago. He and I did indeed click. We agreed to become a COVID pod, both exercising extraordinary caution not just for our own safety, as before, but for the other’s sake now and for the sake of spending time together, in real life, in person.
I admit I struggled for a few weeks, recognizing by now that I had grown addicted to the drama that defines a relationship with a narcissist but unsure how to make the transition from that dysfunction to this, well, this lovely function. Finally my daughter/best friend pointed out that if I didn’t get over the narcissistic dirtbag — which, to be honest, he was — I risked losing this opportunity to be with a truly wonderful, loving, caring, supportive, smart, funny, creative, sexy man.
I woke up right quick.
My boyfriend — gosh, it feels good to write that and even better to say it! — brings so much to our now-shared table. One of the most important things, to me, is that we talk. And when we talk, it’s on equal terms. He wants to hear what I say, and I want to know what’s on his mind. I say something, he listens, he replies in such a way that makes clear that he listened to and heard what I said, and if he doesn’t quite understand what I’m getting at, he’ll ask. When he says something, I do the same.
Which is not to say that we will never argue or disagree. I’m always suspicious when people say they’ve never had a fight with their partner. That suggests to me that they never talk about anything important or difficult, that they’re not interested in learning the other’s point of view and perhaps learning from it, and that their relationship is, sadly, bound to fail.
But when my guy and I do eventually disagree, I’m confident we’ll continue to speak with one another with love, respect, caring, and open-mindedness. And if, for whatever reason, that’s not happening, we’ll talk about that, too.
It’s still not easy for me to accept that things can work this way; at age 60, I’ve never really experienced such a thing, at least, not consistently. But I’m here to tell you, it feels mighty good to hear and be heard. I highly recommend it. In fact, I recommend it SO highly that I’m going to say right here and now that nobody — and particularly no woman — should settle for less. As I have learned, it’s far better to be by yourself, talking to your animals, than to be with the wrong person. It’s worth waiting for the right person.
Because when you’re with the wrong person, you’re always just talking to yourself, anyway. And, take it from me, that’s way better than being mansplained to — or worse.
If you haven’t yet found the right person to talk with — and you will, if you want to! — I hope you have, or can assemble, an entourage of your very own.
Do you have a mansplainer in your life? Are YOU a mansplainer? Share your experience with me and Corrective Shoes readers by taking my Mansplaining? poll, please!