My very favorite series of coloring books was called “The Ginghams” featuring four beautiful sisters who always dressed in (you guessed it!) GINGHAM dresses. For anyone who has led a life way too interesting to know what this means, “gingham” is a fabric featuring tiny checks of white and some other color. Tiny, tiny checks on all of those dresses that needed to be filled in, one by one, in a white/pastel pattern over and over and over again.
Look, I know “OCD” is a real diagnosis with serious consequences, but for the sake of "painting" the most accurate picture of the anal child that I was, let’s call my obsession with coloring these books an OCD-like fixation. In keeping with the template provided by the technicolor covers, one sister always dressed in green, one in pink, one in blue and one in red; I was fastidious in maintaining this suggestion and reveled in my perfect “creations”. Not one stroke of color outside the line, of course; everything was in its place.
Now, let’s flashforward: I am a teenager, past the coloring years, but my sister, who is ten years older than I, has married and started a family. Of course it was a top priority for me to introduce her first child to the joys of coloring! I remember vividly sitting on the floor with him at my sister’s house when he was just a toddler, demonstrating my perfect coloring form.
He would watch with polite interest; then, grabbing some bold primary color in his fist, he would scribble all over his half of the page. Oh, the HORROR! But I was determined to be a patient mentor, so I demonstrated, with my hand over his fist, how to choose an “appropriate” color and then yes, how to “color inside the lines”.
Again, he politely complied. But when left to his own devices, he once more joyfully scribbled all over the picture with abandon. My teenage self lost patience very quickly and said sneeringly, in a catchphrase of my own youth, “How would you like a nice Hawaiian Punch??”
My little nephew did not bat an eyelash. He looked me dead in the face and responded, “How would YOU like a nice Karate Chop?” (Kids DO say the darndest things!)
Of course I laughed and that was the end of my career as a coloring tutor. Whereas my joy had been derived by meticulously staying within the lines, his was enhanced by the bold ignoring of such perimeters. In retrospect, a normal, healthy toddler exploring his boundaries.
“Boundaries”! This is something we talk about a lot these days; but I recently had a conversation with my son explaining to him why so many adults totally stink at holding them. My generation, and those that came before me, were taught that children were not allowed such a thing. Children did as they were told, went where they were asked and had NO RIGHT whatsoever to state preferences.
We were expected to eat what was put in front of us, even if it made us gag; we were subjected to bullying experiences within our own family and extended family interactions that were normalized; we were to be seen and not heard. Consequences for attempts to enforce a boundary ranged from ridicule (do you think you’re special?) to punishment. When it came to family culture, you had to toe the party line or be branded an outcast or a black sheep.
This was the entirely “normal” experience of most of my peers and virtually every single person I know who is older than me; children were expressly forbidden to “draw a line”.
Perhaps this is why staying within those lines felt so comforting to me. I could not exert this control in my day-to-day life; but on those pages, I was in total control. I was choosing my experience and it felt absolutely amazing to tiny me.
So now that I am a not-so-tiny me, I have come to realize the wisdom of that child; “drawing a line” is one of the most critical components to personal happiness. We all, but women in particular, were taught that having preferences was somehow “selfish”; our every interaction was supposed to conform to the path that was least likely to “rock the boat” in any way. Most of us were raised to believe that having “boundaries” was strictly a prima donna move.
Back when I was still in my 20’s, I developed a coping strategy that I referred to at the time as “the screen door”. It was something I implemented when a person who entered my life for any reason—whether through work or socially or family marriage, etc—did not feel entirely “safe” to me. I could still interact with this person, obviously, but I maintained the equivalent of a screen door between us—a latched screen door at that.
Some people you just throw the door open and welcome them inside almost immediately, but for the most part, the screen door is a decent bridge that gives you some breathing room. It’s not fool-proof, of course; sociopaths and narcissists can entangle even the most self-aware of us; but it’s a good starting point. And the older I get, the more able I am not only to hold healthy boundaries but also to pretty quickly recognize those who won’t respect them under any circumstances.
And really? Who can blame the many generations who were taught it was not okay to say “I don’t like that” or “I don’t want that” or “That makes me uncomfortable” for NOT KNOWING how to draw a line? It’s kind of a miracle any of us figured it out! And oh, BTW?
MOST of us who are capable and willing to draw a line (especially women, sorry) will to some degree or the other be vilified for it. Because it is not yet “the norm”. We have not yet reached “the tipping point”.
So here is my manifesto for 2019, and I welcome all of you to share it with me: I AM DRAWING A LINE. Call it a line in the sand, call it a “limit”, call it “life is too short for B.S.”, but above all call it HEALTHY. It is healthy to have preferences and act on them; it is healthy to make a decision not to tolerate abuse or disrespect.
Yes, I am drawing a line and going forward, like the little girl with the coloring book, I will decide which hues and nuances and boundaries animate my world; I will express my sovereignty and joy in technicolor. “Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere,” suggested G. K. Chesterton nearly 100 years ago. Let us go forth and express ourselves artfully and with common morality by drawing a line.