I remember the first time I learned how strong I was. I was sixteen and I’d flown to California for the summer to learn my own strength. I rose early enough to learn to love coffee and the moments before dawn. I swung heavy tools into solid earth, and slept under the stars enough to know that mountain air makes you calmer. I spent my evenings running along muddy mountain paths with a girl who was even stronger than me. When our bones felt tired we made homemade face masks out of nutmeg, egg whites and oatmeal, happier than we’d ever been in our rough skin.
On the weekends, we packed food and tarps and fresh pairs of socks and we hiked. When we finally set our packs down we felt weightless and free. I hiked faster than anyone like my legs and lungs forgot their own weaknesses for a while and I just breathed in all the air I possibly could instead of slowing or dying.
Then in 2016, a full year after her remains were found, Geraldine Largay showed up as a subject in one of the most emailed articles in the New York Times. I saw myself in her. Which was scary because this is how they remembered her: a helpless old woman who did not know her own weakness. As told by the NY Times, her story begins perhaps worse than it ends: She was afraid…anxious…poor sense of direction…wandered, waited.
This story haunted me for days. I had known for years how strong I was, and women like Cheryl Strayed and Emma Gatewood had nourished my own joyful wildness since. But I’d also been told my whole life in thousands of small but pervasive ways that I need saving. That because I am a woman, I have something to fear — that always there are men and other unknown threats to my body and my safety, and worst of all, there are men I will need one day to save me from myself.
As this familiar dread sat in the pit of my stomach, I thought about how this article was published in the most well-regarded newspaper in this country, on the eve of the ascent of the first female president in one of the most powerful countries in the world. This is how ideology works, I knew from college courses — it seeps into everything we read and speak so we don’t even know we’re doing it or how to stop.
But I’ve been reading Jenny Lawson’s book “Furiously Happy” which is about cutting through the bullshit. Often hysterical and sometimes heartbreaking, it’s about everything irreverent under the sun but also about surviving depression. She explains in the opening chapter that when you’re depressed, you know extremely high highs and extremely low lows — you see the whole range of human feeling in a way that not everyone experiences. Her advice:
[Life] is about taking those moments when things are fine and making them amazing, because those moments are what make us who we are, and they’re the same moments we take into battle with us.
Geraldine died doing the thing that made her feel most alive. To stay home; that would have been worse than death I think. This article should have begun by talking about her bravery, her courage, her strength — not her fear, her incompetence or her weakness. In the last photo taken of her, she is smiling so big a stranger asked to take it. That is the last photo I want taken of me, too. Geraldine is an inspiration I think, not a cautionary tale.
Remembering her this way will prove challenging. The stories that get told and the ones that don’t is always a tough narrative to disrupt. A well-off white mother’s death: this gets told and shared because her body matters in this country in a way that Black and Brown bodies do not. And yet, there is something paradoxical about this privilege: her story sticks because she is a dead white woman. Her weakness fits the trope. Our country is founded on the principle of her very weakness, standing in opposition to white men’s human strength and Black women’s inhuman strength. Her weakness is her both humanness and her respectable femininity. She can’t win, it seems.
I think America is still afraid of indomitable women. So we anxiously pull out of the archives stories of helplessness and fear on the eve of a woman’s rise to the very top.
Rest in peace, Geraldine. I honor your bravery and your strength. And Hillary, I’m not afraid of you or for you. Women are strong as hell.