The inspirational journey to fulfillment found in the pages of Tales of a Female Nomad, chronicled by Rita Golden Gelman, is an extraordinary account of one woman’s self-discovery and transformation from wife and mother to a female nomad. It’s a dynamic tale of an unfulfilled suburbanite becoming a liberated and an incredibly self-assured woman of the world. This glorious transformation offers an alternative to life; an alternative from the conventional constraints of womanhood and duties expected of Gelman, to an empowered state of living. In essence, Gelman dares to show us what few women have successfully illustrated before her: that a woman can dust off her dreams and rediscover the joy, the exuberance, and the hidden spirit that so many have buried under the burdens of society. This story about a woman’s rebirth makes the reader question their own surroundings, amid the encouragement she shares with all of us to seek out our own lives. “Usually it’s the women who identify with me and ask the questions. It isn’t the details of my travels that intrigue them; it’s the fact that I am living a rich, fulfilling life. And I’m doing it without a man. For many women, my story awakens buried dreams or stimulates new ones” (Gelman 112). Gelman touched sensitive nerves through her stories of independence; she sparked curiosity in every woman she met, igniting sparks of change in her wake. She proves that women can be capable, strong, and independent in their own right. Gelman’s search for her true self, her inner adventurer, and other women to connect with, has shown us the dramatic shift of what women now truly desire in this world.
In searching for her true self, Gelman realized that she no longer wanted to live the life of luxury that she had been afforded; the fancy dinner parties, awards ceremonies, and social engagements. She decided it was never what she wanted in the first place and began to pursue graduate school for anthropology. This catalyst began to put a strain on her already unstable marriage and Gelman decided she was dissatisfied with her rooted life, gravitating towards becoming anti-establishment female, “One day in 1986 when, at the age of forty eight, on the verge of a divorce, I looked around and thought, There has to be more than one way to do life” (Gelman 1). Gelman did not stay the conventional mother for her children, nor the wife to her husband, and broke out of the constrained box she was living in and began dealing with all of life’s hard blows in a “don’t dwell on the past, look to the present” type of attitude, “I wrote the book to let women know that if they dare to dig up the buried person inside, to uncover the dreams and desires of the young woman they once were, they would probably realize that they can make some of those dreams happen” (Gelman 302). Women become free in Gelman’s prose, empowered to make their own choices, with the knowledge that it’s never too late to fulfill your dreams. “I realize that I don’t like feeling privileged and I’m uncomfortable with glamour. I am living in a designer world that has been designed for someone I no longer am” (Gelman 3). Gelman cried for her lost spirit, and not only contemplated the state of her marriage, but also her thirst for discovering new worlds and uncovering the person inside her skin, “I try to look at myself from another dimension, detached and nonjudgemental. This person is not wife, mother, daughter, writer, anthropology student, L.A. sophisticate. She is, of course, all of these things; but alone, without the attachments, she is a woman in limbo, whose identity has been buried in her roles. Away from those roles and alone, she is someone she doesn’t know” (Gelman 11). Abandoning a marriage and a life that wasn’t working for her anymore, Gelman felt like an outcast among people who accepted life the way it was handed to them; people who found comfort in easy answers and predisposed functions, “I spend a week with my mother and father in Connecticut. They are careful what they say to me about my new life. I know they would prefer to have their daughter married; I also know that they don’t believe me when I say I’m very happy. They know better; women are only happy if they have a husband. It’s the way life should be” (Gelman 55). Gelman challenges the status quo and stands up to the uncomfortable and quizzical stares, even if it means going against the grain according to her friends and family.
In self-discovery lies a sort of spirituality and meditation, one in which Gelman strives to find meaning and understanding in. By breaking free of the labels that confined her, she was forced to find new meaning and a new self underneath the old. At one point while in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Gelman develops a severe skin disorder which leaves her bedridden for weeks, “Then, as I lie in bed one night, burning up and in pain, I get the first spiritual message of my life: shedding my skin, I am being reborn. I am symbolically peeling away the person I have become and releasing the woman who has been trapped inside all these years. Soon this new me will be going out into the world on a journey of self-discovery” (Gelman 15). This comparative shedding of the old into the new gave Gelman a reassurance that her personal mission was meant to be fulfilled, “I shed my skin in Mexico; now I am shedding the material trappings of my life” (Gelman 38). No matter the questions, dangers, or difficult times ahead, she felt a sense of worldly peace and a significant symbolism in the revelations her illness gave her, “It [the illness] suggests that I have let go of the old and given myself permission to move on” (Gelman 16). The joy she felt at being guilt-free in all responsibilities and role-playing, was a sign for Gelman to leap forward into the unknown with unbridled enthusiasm.
In searching for her inner adventurer, Gelman took full reigns of the new direction she was headed in, “Lost meant adventure, and I loved it. It’s been years since I’ve been lost, and I can’t remember the last time I stepped into the unknown” (Gelman 7). As a woman who explored her new life (husband-free, object-free) with an inspiring and fearless gusto, Gelman’s journey illustrated the major character transformation that she underwent to arrive at her newly confident and independent self, “It’s exciting to be exploring a world I know nothing about… Then it hits me for the first time… I do not need anyone’s permission to do what I want to do. I am free to make my own decisions, follow my whims, take whatever risks I choose” (Gelman 9). Gelman had initial fears of traveling alone and initial fears about her marriage, but as she listened to her heart and fulfilled her own desires, she found the way to a much more enriched life. In order to become a self-assured woman, one must first leave their known world for a bit of the unknown, “I am afraid to stop moving, afraid to be alone, afraid that these next two months are the beginning of a lifetime of loneliness” (Gelman 32). Her fears of leaving a world behind, where she found stability in her constructed roles, evolved into a spontaneity that Gelman no longer controlled, “During the last two months I have discovered parts of me I didn’t know were there: the part that can embrace strangers and enrich my life through knowing them, the part that enjoys making independent decisions, and the part that adores living spontaneously. I had hoped to bring this new me into a marriage that could benefit from rejuvenation. But now I fear that my personal development is going to be guiding me instead through a different stage in life, that of a divorced woman” (Gelman 32). Embarking on solo adventures prompted Gelman to reevaluate her life as a married woman; the unfulfilling life she felt she had been leading with false hopes. “My parents are a continent away in Connecticut, my husband is no longer my husband, and my kids are busy building independent lives. It’s a heady place to be for a woman who has always lived her roles appropriately and played the game by the rules” (Gelman 43). Having been able to find the strength to journey as a woman alone, she found the inner risk-taker that she had hoped would be inside of her.
In searching for other women to connect with in each place that she traveled to, Gelman focused on joining the locals and submersing herself into their culture, traditions, and expectations, even sharing their female responsibilities with them, “I have cooked with women on fires all over the world” (Gelman 1). She found that through music, smiles, and children’s books, she was able to find friends, understanding, and a new appreciation for the world and her role in it, “Wherever I am and whatever the length of our relationship, connection is what I seek. Whether we share a language or simply a shape, I reach out to each individual woman with love and trust, with a smile, and 100 percent of my attention. Communication is not difficult because we all share the sensations of human emotions, the need to affirm our sameness, and the universal capacity to laugh” (Gelman 301). As Gelman wrote of the marvelous account of women, their warmth, and their similarities everywhere, she also noted that differences were much less significant than we all would have believed, “The women I have met have been overwhelming and wonderful. We are from opposite ends of the spectrum of human life on earth, but we share a core that makes us human. I have known kindness, generosity, gentleness, and warmth from every one of them I have met” (Gelman 201). In order to truly reflect on the lives of other women, Gelman immersed herself in their civilizations; forged bridges and connections between women of different worlds, linking the roles of her former life to those with less familiarity.
Oftentimes, the deepest feelings would stir while engaging in women’s work, “I am thrilled to be working with the women. I love the bonding that takes place in the kitchen, even when the kitchen is in the yard. It is no different here than it is in a Thanksgiving kitchen in New England. Women working together, talking, laughing, telling secrets. Some of the most meaningful and touching moments of my years as a nomad will happen over cookfires” (Gelman 27). This overall connectedness to women as a whole allowed Gelman to continue exploration of the nomadic life and witness the lives of women all over the world. “As an observer, I am particularly interested in watching women, married, divorced, single. So many of them are trapped in lives they think they must live, in roles they have come to resent, with little joy and no laughter. They’ve “settled.” They’ve compromised. They’ve learned to adjust” (Gelman 39). From an anthropological perspective of being a participant-observer, Gelman became one with the other women in the various cultures she visited, and learned that she was not to project her own values onto them and that she was to remain nonjudgemental. In this way, she was able to experience an abundance of colorful experiences where she became integrated and personally included in the realm of other female roles, “The men are standing in line to dance with me. But when it becomes clear that they are all drunk and that they can’t stop touching me, I am nervous. The women see what is happening, and they move in. Soon I am surrounded by four women, then five, holding hands, dancing around me in a circle. I dance in the middle. From time to time one of the women joins me in the middle, taking my hands and swinging to the music. All night I dance protected by women. The men can’t get through” (Gelman 28). Gelman succeeding in breaking barriers between herself, an outsider, and between women around the world. They included her in their lives and customs, and allowed her to observe that women everywhere share the same bonds and the same root desires and passion for life, “The most touching and meaningful lesson of all was the intensity of sisterhood. Even now, sixteen years later, I can feel the warmth and strength of those women as they danced around me and with me, the affinity I felt, the bonding that occurred, the strength they projected as they held hands to protect me from their men” (Gelman 31). She received passwords to acceptance in foreign worlds where she was a stranger. Gelman discovered that connection required participation in order for the other women to accept her. She realizes, “There were many instances of the universal bonds that tie women together. We give birth, we nurture, we love. We are creators and not destroyers” (Gelman 125). Beyond every rich experience, her oneness with womanhood as a whole became deeply rooted in her psyche and illustrates to us that no matter what, there is an invisible union between us all.
This travelogue of a woman who broke free from societal standards of life and became a nomad went far beyond normalcy. Gelman’s sense of adventure took her far and wide, communicating with women and integrating into their culture, learning about their lives and roles as women in their own societies. Women do not need to succumb to the stereotypes that they feel bound to; they can lead vivacious, animated lives without the rules of patriarchy. “I have buried my fears, abandoned self-consciousness, and allowed myself to slide into sensation. I like the person I have become. I am even feeling positive and optimistic. Surely these new experiences will enable me to bring something different and exciting back into my life” (Gelman 36). By being brave and open-minded herself, Gelman announce that there doesn’t need to be a set plan or a constructed path that women need to follow. They can find happiness in spontaneity; security in unconventionalism. “In the last months I have been a woman who has felt joy, shared laughter, explored other worlds, and rediscovered a hidden me. I will not, cannot, bury her again” (Gelman 37). She proved that, beyond a doubt, any woman can cast away the burdens of traditional life at any age and continue — or begin — to thrive. “The new me is feeling rebellious, looking for excitement, bursting with energy to explore. There is no way that I am going to sit around feeling sorry for myself, thinking that they only way I can enjoy life is with a man. With no possessions, no home, and no precedent, I am free to design a life that fits me” (Gelman 39). Gelman felt no longer connected to the world she used to live in. Her strings had been severed and she floated away; she ended up looking on from the outside as an observer instead of a participant. For her, it was a much needed rebirth for herself and for womanhood. “I resolve to continue exploring the world, ignoring the they who define how people should live” (Gelman 39). The hidden spirit of Gelman, and of women all over the world, will not be bound to silence any longer.