37. Query Letters and Cowboy Boots

As I write my book, I’m putting together the necessary query letter for potential agents and publishers– the first level of approach and sales-pitch to get published. I scribble bits of ideas that come to me at odd times. Today sitting in my little neighborhood church in Oakland, I was not thinking about the book and certainly not the query letter, when a new segment of “my readership” suggested itself: gay men. And everyone else who has a sensibility that’s gentle and vulnerable, who probably has had to be on guard for most of their lives, even ashamed, lest that gentleness at their center might be found out, rejected, shamed, or abused.

Though this will likely be catalogued as a “women’s” book,  the fact of the matter is, all of us struggle to fit Who We Are  into What The World Expects and usually demands from us. That’s one of the themes of the book, and truth be told, we all spend most of our lives trying to understand who we are, and then find the courage to dare to be that. The hardest obstacles are the deeply-embedded untruths we were taught about ourselves when we were children, either by people who should have loved us but didn’t, or more often by people who did, but lied because they loved us, and thought they were protecting us from life.

My book is about a skinny little girl who runs through the neighborhoods and climbs trees and loves horses and fire engines. She gets repeatedly told by the big people “You can’t do that, you can’t have that, you can’t BE that” (almost all of the things she loves) because you’re a girl. And what’s worse, there is the powerful unspoken mandate: “You shouldn’t want those things.” 

“Who says?!” She demands, to no avail. Again and again she asks, “Why not?” and gets no reasonable answer. “Those things are for boys,” they say. What she hears clearly is: What you want and who you are is not okay.

It’s a big fat lie, and somewhere in every child’s heart we know this, but what can we do? We’re just a kid. Some of the same lies are passed along for generations.

When we’re young and vulnerable and trusting, just-learning about what life’s supposed to be, most of us get informed, either by words or actions, “You shouldn’t be who you are, you should be something else.” Or something better, smarter, prettier stronger, whatever. If you’re a boy, you’ve got to like guns and baseball, not art or music or poetry. If you’re a girl, you must like dolls and dresses and tea-sets, not mud and horses and fire engines.

I remember with crystal clarity the day my brother got cowboy boots. Daddy brought them home for him one day. I was crazy about horses, boots and spurs, and cowboy stuff, so I got all excited and asked, “Ooooh! Do I get some cowboy boots too?” My parents laughed and said, “Oh no honey, cowboy boots are for boys. You can have some pretty ballet slippers…”

I think I was three years old. “Ballet slippers?! WHO wants THAT?!” I begged for cowboy boots too. It didn’t do any good. Even now I can still feel the ache and sting of being so terribly wronged and cheated. I pleaded in my own defense, “I couldn’t help it I was born a girl! I didn’t get to choose.!”

I became a closet-tomboy, sneaking out to climb trees and roofs and fire-escapes and run around the city imagining myself as a fast beautiful racehorse. Eventually I grew up and turned out straight, which made things easier in Texas in the 1950’s. Had I been born gay, everything would have been much harder. I learned to “act like a lady” and obey the rules. I grew up and got married and worked two jobs, the telephone company and a department store, to put my young husband through graduate school. I was a good wife. He never noticed. I spent the 4 1/2 loneliest years of my life like that, until finally I realized that I had no Life, and I had no Self. I was living in his shadow, and whoever I was before had gotten sacrificed, lost somewhere. It was not his fault. We both played the roles we were brought up to play. That works sometimes for some people. Not this time, and not for me.

Leaving was hard, shattering. It was not just a failure, it was a death. The end of a life that failed. The end of the lie.

But I knew it had to happen. I left. I stepped off the precipice into a blind freefall into the unknown. I got a divorce. I took my life back. I bought myself a pair of cowboy boots.

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