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Beautiful woman in the sunset field

“When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple

with a red hat that doesn’t suit me…And learn to spit.”

From “Warning” by Jenny Joseph

Since the first time I read those words, I have yearned to absorb them into the marrow of my soul, to make them truly my own.  I can think of no loftier ambition than becoming a courageous, independent “woman of purple.” (According to my fashion-conscious daughter, I’ve already mastered the part about wearing things that don’t suit me. No comment on the spitting issue.)

As a mid-lifer I suppose I am right on schedule for chafing against the relative conformity and compliance of my life thus far. With children raised, brownies baked and everyone pleased, it’s time to shake things up a bit, to add a little more purple to the vanilla of my existence. Now as fate would have it, purple is one of my favorite colors, so being true to the letter of the law has not been so daunting a challenge for me. For instance, I boldly mixed prints and stripes in purple jewel tones, right in my own living room…in the 80s, when “Miami Vice” pastels were practically a federal mandate. Talk about daring!

But the spirit of the law, ah, now that’s another story. “Going purple” often calls for the rules to be at least bent if not all the way broken. And there’s the rub. Despite the fact that my friends often feel they play Ethel to my Lucy, for all my mugging and giggling, I am a rule follower at heart. I find my valiant striving to embrace all things purple is sometimes uncomfortably at odds with my less colorful side, the side that does all the “right” things, submits readily to authority and gets written permission to count a six-pack of diet soda as one item before entering the express check-out lane.

Not that rules are altogether bad. Following such rules as waiting your turn, sorting your recyclables and–on a personal note–insisting the word “thong” should apply only to footwear shows respect for the safety and comfort of yourself and others.

Still, I routinely come under fire for being too much of a rule follower by my sister who fancies herself a “free spirit,” i.e., a blatant rule flouter. She argues that compliance in low-stakes areas of my life symbolically compromises my independence in other, more critical ones. (Our conflicting opinions are to be expected, coming from different universes as we do. Whereas I have carefully replaced every wad of cotton in every aspirin bottle I have ever opened for fear of violating some obscure pill-packaging regulation, she ripped the “Do Not Remove” tag off her crib mattress as soon as she mastered rolling over, the very picture of defiance even as an infant.)

“Some woman of purple you are,” she scolds when I insist that following the rules can be a good thing. But even as she dramatically rolls her eyes at me, I know that little Miss Bohemian adheres to her own set of rules, particularly with respect to color. Mainly, she avoids it at all costs. Let’s be honest—she fears it. Her wardrobe and home furnishings are a study in safe, risk-free white. Not a speck, hint or hue of purple to be found. Indeed, her idea of a bold color statement is bisque. Can you spell “metaphor”? I can.

But for all our good-natured ribbing of each other, we are in complete agreement about wanting to break the rules that really limit people, the ones that keep us all from developing purple hearts.

The rules that say a 50-year-old woman (or a 60-,70- or 80-one) can’t start a new career, go back to school, fall in love or learn to hang glide. The rules that say it’s okay to let people make offensive remarks in our presence. The rules that say it’s not “polite” to stand up for ourselves or others who may have no voice. Those are rules that were made to be broken. Those are rules begging to be blotted out with indelible purple ink. And I pray daily for the backbone to do it.

The other day my sister and I were approaching a department store. One door was propped wide open and one was shut. She nonchalantly walked through the open one. I stopped short because, even though it was propped open, posted right on the glass pane in large letters were these words: Not An Entrance, a rule if ever I saw one.

“You are ridiculous,” my sister laughed. “You really won’t go through it, will you?”

“I will if you promise to buy something in a nice violet once we get inside,” I replied.

Touché. I entered through the sanctioned door and she bought snowy white sheets, both of us secure in the knowledge that with each passing day and every new opportunity, we are committed to being purple where it really counts—in our hearts.

And who knows, we may even take up spitting.

Lee Gaitan is the author of two books, Falling Flesh Just Ahead, and My Pineapples Went to Houston—Finding the Humor in My Dashed Hopes, Broken Dreams and Plans Gone Outrageously Awry.

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