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Cardinal Directions

Once upon a time, at a staff meeting, a colleague boasted (was it a boast?) that she didn’t know her directions. She rolled her eyes as if she was too busy to know such a thing, as if it was below her.

I was struck by her pride in not knowing, and struck even harder when two other women in the group chimed in. “Me either,” they both said, also with smiles. And these were all very smart, educated women whose job it was to share their knowledge and resources. Two strikes.

Then the final strike. As I sat there admonishing them in my head, I had to admit to myself, that I, too, had once proudly noted this stupidity. Three strikes.

You’re out.

Not only did I claim not to know my directions, but that I didn’t know my left from right. I was much younger when I made such proclamations, and I distinctly, and sadly now, remember thinking it was somehow cute or funny. I was smart, I knew that, but there was this funny little missing piece to my intelligence. Instead of learning it, I laughed. Ha ha.

I recovered from the like in my 20’s, so I can at least give myself credit for that. These women are in their 60’s. But most tragic, yes, tragic (I’m not being dramatic, I promise), is that not only do we live, and have we lived, in a world where women are assumed to be less smart than men, but women wear this assignment with pride, like a sparkly broach. Look at me, adorned with stupidity. I may have learned my directions, but do I not claim stupidity in other arenas? Yes, and this is not as surprising as I’d think.

My mother thought of herself stupid, and my father agreed, and often broadcasted it publicly. I don’t know that she used the words “I am stupid,” but I am certain she said things like, “I was never very good in school.” Or “Aren’t you the smarty pants, smarter than your mother.” Or “I’m not the smart one in the family.”

My mom made the grocery list, but did not do the shopping. She could not (would not?) drive, and could not (nor would dad let her) keep a check book. But she did do the majority of the cooking, cleaning and housekeeping, and she organized and managed the entire family’s wardrobes, menu, hygiene, school needs, and more. Yet, there was a big to-do about the fact that my father could not read her handwriting on the bi-weekly list. He made no small affair of having to re-write numerous items on the list, noting how they were misspelled, and spelling them correctly.

My mother rode this ritual with an odd, dutiful acknowledgement. His job was to be the smart corrector. Sarcastic, and flirtatious perhaps, loving “in his way,” his ridicule was customary. Her job was to be the stupid mistake maker. Apologetic with a repeated “I’m trying,” or “I try,” as if talking to the headmaster, and not her husband, her lover, the father of her nine children. As if she didn’t manage the daily lives of eleven people.

This dance went on in many other situations besides the grocery list. The fact that she couldn’t drive, and she couldn’t because it scared the shit out of her. Left hand turns were confounding. The fact that she never did well in school. “But the teachers loved me,” she would brag. That she smoked (my Dad had smoked and quit in his 30s). And he chided her about how the thing she did best was shop and “spend his money.” Finally, how she hadn’t had a job since before their wedding.

And it is notable that she had worked for the Detroit Edison Company, but they fired her upon her getting married.

My mother was not stupid, and I don’t believe my father truly thought she was either. Beyond the facts—poor grades, etc.— she was brilliant. In fact, while at her funeral, I was impressed and warmed by the many cousins and friends who approached and told me how important my mother had been to them. Her counsel, wisdom, and trustworthiness led many a young person to a more firm place of confidence in their lives. Not only could they rely upon her to not tell their secrets, they could rely upon her for sage advice when it came to boyfriends, relationships, parenting, etc.

My mother was the 11th of 13 children. Her role as one of the youngest in the family gave her a particular in, and an understanding, to the evolving women’s movement and some of the changes in the Catholic church. She was, in fact, quite hip, and dare I say, she would sometimes sleep through Sunday service and let my dad take the line up of children to mass alone. Smart woman!

My mother was an avid reader with at least two novels going at any given time, and she read both the daily newspapers: The Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News. We also subscribed to numerous magazines which she read including Life, Look, and Time. Yes, she loved her soap operas, and to nap, but she was neither lazy nor unmotivated.

I do not know if she knew her cardinal directions, her right from her left, but I would not be surprised either way. She was not deserving of the ridicule, but she did not fight it. Could she? Can we?

Being stupid for women was, and unfortunately still is, understood as ‘cute.’ Acceptable. Funny. Expected. Sometimes proclaimed with an arrogance that is numbing. Yet, I know well the disdain and animosity that is generated when a woman proclaims the opposite. To be a smart woman, and to say so, is as unacceptable by many, if not more so. A woman can be quickly deemed arrogant, haughty, vain, and somehow a threat if she is smart, knows she is smart, and does not hide it behind a facade of stupid. It is an odd dance we’ve performed. We can’t seem to win, ultimately. Smart or stupid.

As this announcement was made at a staff meeting, I looked around at the group of  women to see their reaction. No one looked nonplussed except for the youngest and  newest employee: a millennial. And me. As we reacted others were quieted, perhaps embarrassed.

Our insisting that cardinal directions be added to the document we were discussing seemed a greater infraction than the women who boasted that they did not know their cardinal directions. And that the document should use some other terminology to explain the southeast corner. A term that was left TBD.

We have a long way to go I am afraid.

So I propose that we stop this silliness. End this madness. Let’s rally and take a stand that it is neither cute or funny or acceptable or expected for anyone to be stupid, and more importantly to not be willing to learn what they do not know, and even more importantly, to never be proud of ignorance, forgetfulness, or stupidity. And let us remember that most of what we can’t or won’t memorize, we can look up. And, there is a mnemonic device for everything. Even the cardinal directions.

I am ashamed of my own role in the like, and I urge all women and men to stop reveling in what you don’t know. Learn it. Don’t dismiss what you do know, share it. Do not judge the intelligence level you perceive, but be willing to teach others what they don’t know.

Future post? My bucket list of the things I need to learn and have been proud not to know. A list far too long including things like changing a flat tire and all the state capitals.

And on that note, a poem.

Cardinal Directions

North is cold blue
Michigan snow sneaking
into untied boots in the morning
when the wind hates you
there are icicles on your nose
the sun forgets your name

Name the opposite – deep green
sticky hot, dank hides
like a crocodile or mint julep
in the veranda’s shadows
the saucy fans of pink ladies
hugging the equator
like and old friend who lingers
too too long.

Linger in the yellow
winding river of sun
the day breaks you in
beckons yellow eggs
pronounces morning
like a fire alarm
not an inkling of past
the eastern shore birds
can not be quiet.

Quiet as a western Washington
rain, I come to you thirsty
like a desert cactus
missing the memories
of reliable raindrops
and succulent roots
all that sunset beauty
the day ends only
for now.

Photo by John Ruddock on Unsplash

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