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Women and the Global Imagination: Balancing a Book on My Head

by Karen Ackland

This post is part of an ongoing series of blog posts on the theme of Women and the Global Imagination. In our Winter 2014 issue Alicia Ostriker curated a poetry portfolio on this theme, and we were so struck by its contents that we wanted to keep the dialog surronding this theme going on our blog. Here, Karen Ackland's essay details her own changing understanding of the role of poise in defining womanhood. We hope you enjoy reading. To read more on this theme, visit our store and buy or Winter 2014 issue (print or ebook), or become a subscriber to Prairie Schooner today. To take part in the dialog, follow and interact with us on Twitter.

Balancing a Book on My Head

Last year at the AWP conference in Seattle, I listened to Gish Jen in conversation with Tobias Wolff and something broke open for me. Jen told Wolff that although she enjoyed the passage from Old School that he read, she didn’t see ambition in the same way. She referred to gender. She spoke about feminism and poise.


Poise calls up images of debutantes walking around with a book balanced on their heads. It smacks of tea parties and etiquette. It sounds lovely, but how is anything going to get done?

Walking back to our hotel later that night I asked a friend, a woman with a successful career in advertising, if she’d been impressed by Jen’s talk. She said that when she was younger and tried to imagine herself as an adult, she could only picture a gray-haired, male professor.

I never imagined myself as male, but male-like was definitely the standard I sought. For most of my professional life, I worked in high-tech marketing. I internalized that to be taken seriously, I shouldn’t call attention to myself as female. It meant demanding to be heard, while not being seen. I never denied my more traditional roles as daughter and wife, but my real ambitions were elsewhere.

I flew home from AWP determined to update my familiarity with feminist writing—a topic I hadn’t explored since I was in my twenties.

Of course things got in the way.

In April, my parents moved from the house where I’d grown up to a retirement community. It wasn’t a move any of us wanted, but we all accepted it as inevitable. It required downsizing to a cottage almost half the size of the house they were leaving, disposing of roomfuls of possessions, and saying goodbye to a community where they’d lived for over sixty years. I, who had been eager to leave for college over forty years earlier, felt suddenly thrown from the nest.

Then one morning in September my husband woke with blurred vision and two days later had surgery to repair a detached retina. A chair that held his head face down was installed in the living room and he spent weeks staring at the carpet. Our schedule was organized around doctor appointments and eye drops.

I knew without question that these activities were worth doing, and I was glad to help the people I loved. For my parents, I made checklists and timelines. I conferred with my sisters. I asked questions and repeated my answers frequently. With my husband, I rubbed his back, ordered audio books, and bought straws so that he could drink coffee without looking up. When he needed to go someplace, I drove.

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t perfect. But the months I was involved with these tasks required patience and compassion. I was intensely involved, and it wasn’t about me.

What does this have to do with Women and the Global Imagination?


It’s a lesson akin to balancing a book on my head: a lesson in equanimity and balance. Am I more willing to accept poise now that my own possibilities have narrowed with age? Perhaps. I can only acknowledge that the roles of daughter and wife are part of my story. Good posture is nothing to scoff at.

Karen Ackland has been published in Quarterly West, Story Quarterly, Literal LatteSalon, and elsewhere. She has also had an essay included in the Writing Lessons series on the Ploughshares  blog. She earned an MFA from Pacific University low resdency MFA program, and reviews fiction for Foreword Reviews.