VIOLA - Recently, while hiking with 14 women and four dogs, I noticed that only the dogs and I stopped to pee. Twice for me, every tree for the dogs. Normally, I’d never give peeing outside a second thought, but since I was the only one, I worried that maybe my fellow hikers considered it unladylike.
On the drive home and all that evening, my mind stuck on the word ‘feminine.’
In the morning, still sleepy and in my PJs, I stepped into my oversized Sorrel boots, slipped on my Carhartt knock-off barn jacket, and shoved my filthy Kinco gloves into my pocket. I mixed a container of warm water, bananas, plain yogurt and olive oil for Louisa, my pig, and headed out the door.
My valley was so thick with fog that my headlamp was useless. I walked with my head down, trying to avoid the slick patches of ice. Cold rain seeped down my neck, making me shiver. I wondered if, when dawn came, we’d have any more light. I also wondered if maybe I’d lost my feminine side from living like this, alone in a rural area with my critters, where I couldn’t care less how I look or act.
I wedged the toe of my boot under the goat pen gate and pushed up while wiggling the latch. I dumped Louisa’s mash into her bowl and slip-slided over to the Goat Palace to let Louisa and my two goats out. The latch was frozen and I wasn’t able to get it open, even after removing my heavy gloves.
Working my tongue around the inside of my mouth, I brought up saliva from deep in my throat and, with perfect aim, gobbed on the latch—instantly effective at thawing the mechanism, but not very ladylike.
An old tape started playing in my head:
“Sit up straight, Jane Ann. Don’t slouch. Ladies don’t slouch.”
“Lower your voice, Janie. Act like a girl.”
“She’s a tomboy.”
When I was younger, my siblings and I belonged to the Good Medicine Dancers, led by Ben Hunt, an outdoor educator who wrote books on Native American arts. For years, I took the part of a boy in Ben’s group because I wanted to. When I asked my dad if I could be a boy, he said, “Fine by me. Go ask your mother.” I was a boy for our club meetings, outings, and performances. I wore boy’s clothes—red breechcloth, a breastplate, and soft, beaded deerskin moccasins—all made as authentically as possible under Ben’s guidance.
Even though my mother approved of me being a boy in the dance troupe, I suspect she had concerns about unladylike behaviors. When I was barely a teen, she enrolled me in Rosemary Bischoff’s Modeling School. I loved going to the ‘finishing’ school in downtown Milwaukee, where I flourished. My posture improved. I learned how to walk down a runway. I discovered where the fork went on a table and how to stick my pinky out when drinking tea.
But clearly, Mrs. Bischoff’s lessons didn’t stick. Last winter when Raime, my faithful border collie, was still alive, Dane and I hiked to an ice cave with my three pups. The hike was treacherous, with steep snow-covered gullies and ridges. Every breath added more frost to the scarf wrapped around my mouth and nose. Raime kept stopping to try to pick out the ice balls that were forming between his paw pads. After his third meticulous attempt to nibble the ice out from his paw, I handed Dane my gloves and knelt down by his side, my knees sinking into the new snow. I picked up his front paw, whispered to him to trust me, pulled apart his pad and took a huge bite of the ice that was causing him grief. Snap! It came off clean in my mouth. I leaned over and spit it out and we continued on our way.
I’m also proud to say I’ve perfected my farmer’s blow, after 18 years of living in the country. Well, perfect 85 percent of the time. Fifteen percent of the time you wouldn’t want to be downwind of me.
Am I still a lady?
My dress-up days, except for special occasions, are long gone. A touch of mascara means a veryspecial occasion. And although I’m currently trying to grow my hair long, short hair is more practical for my lifestyle.
I enjoy being self-sufficient and not overtaxing my bladder trying to hold it. I love all kinds of weather and being surrounded by nature—and knowing that when nature calls, there is no need to wait.
I’ve been known to say that the art of being a woman is knowing when not to be a lady. It’s not about short hair versus long, makeup or natural, fancy clothes or barn boots. It’s about how we feel about ourselves. And I feel like a lady: Lady Jane!