Saturday, May 24, 2014

How We Heal

I see my sisters rising, I hear my brothers lift their voices.
I see a dozen, a hundred, now a thousand of us rise, the children of patriarchy.
We lived.
Like Joshua we were sent in to take the land and like the inhabitants of the land
We ran. We fled and now we lick our wounds and heal.
Bred as weapons, we're tired of fighting. Some of us write; we bleed our love and anger through the pages. We learn to crawl, relationships come stiffly and we're scared and full of hope.
Some of us ran to liturgy and we heal with every Mass. Some of us have left the faith in whose name we were condemned, and I trust my God will love His wounded children all.
We plead for justice, we argue and sweat and cry and beat our fists against the unmoving wall--and feel it shift.
And some of us are healing quietly, unobtrusive in coffee shops and dorm rooms and lovers' arms and
Sunday mornings sleeping in. We're trying to forget and make new lives for ourselves and maybe
Someday we'll speak out too. But for today, we're just trying to save our selves.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

In which I attempt to get real

   We're all familiar with the injunction to treat others the way we'd like to be treated. But what about the opposite situation? What about when we treat ourselves in ways we'd never dream of treating another person? Does our own self-criticism bleed over into our relationships and make it impossible for us to be 'harder on ourselves than on others'? I'm afraid so. 

   Researcher of vulnerability and shame BrenĂ© Brown says, "Normally during a shame attack we talk to ourselves in ways we would NEVER talk to people we love and respect." This is heartbreakingly true--I see it in myself all the time. 
"You're never good enough." 
"Why do you always screw things up so badly?"
"You'll never be able to change."
"You are a horrible person."
   I would never dream of saying those things to another person. Logically, I am a person, and I'm just as worthy of respect and care as any other human. Then why do those phrases slip so easily, indeed so inescapably, into my own self-criticism? Unfortunately I think this isn't just me: I think anybody who struggles with self-worth is familiar with those cruel messages. For some of us this manifests in physical self-injury, or in eating disorders. But it's probably just as hard to restrain ourselves from harsh thoughts: a thought darts into the brain even faster than we can take physical action. 

   I have previously tried to console myself by believing that I am just harder on myself than I am on other people--that I can simultaneously be merciful to other people, and violently cruel to myself. I don't think it works that way. As Brown says, if we judge ourselves for needing help or screwing up, we will eventually judge others for the same things. 
Will the only thing that can scare us people-pleasing perfectionists into self-care be the fear that our self-criticism will eventually hurt others? Ironic, if we can only be bothered to show forgiveness and love to ourselves so that we won't be too harsh on other people. 

   Compassionate Mind Training is a technique that has had success in helping people with high levels of shame and self-criticism. The idea is to recognize the violence we level at ourselves and acknowledge it (without condemnation) as something that we learned as a coping technique. It's sometimes helpful to envision our childhood self, in order to treat ourselves with the same compassion we're used to extending to others. Hillary McFarland writes in "Quivering Daughters" of a moment when she looked at a photo of herself as a girl, and was overwhelmed with all the negative messages she had assimilated about herself at that time in her life. The shock of realizing the self-hatred she directed at an innocent child helped her gain empathy for her adult self. 

   Brown writes of shame's power to prevent us from having deep relationships in which we can be vulnerable with another person. She defines vulnerability as the willingness to risk, love, be fully invested in what we care about, be uncertain, be open. Everybody experiences shame, which is rooted in the fear of being found unlovable: we hide our true selves because we are afraid that we will be found not good enough. Paradoxically, we also value and look for vulnerability in other people, even though we fear it in our own lives. 
   Here's another thing about shame. It loses a lot of its power in a particular situation when we tell another (trusted) person about it. 
   Shame is a big and pretty nasty part of my life. (Brown and most authorities on the subject define shame as 'I am bad' while guilt is 'I did something bad.') Strangely, it doesn't usually attend things that I did that I know were wrong. Instead, shame pops up when I feel I've let someone down, or been weak (read: showed emotion), or left the nice/quiet/modest feminine mold. And anything related to dating/sexuality/guys/modesty is automatically in the running for bringing on a full-blown shame attack. Just going to throw this out there, but I'm guessing I'm not alone in that. Particularly among those of us who grew up thinking that dating was wrong, and the only people who had boyfriends were rebellious, shallow, worldly, selfish teenagers.  (I may have just outed my biggest source of shame right there. Hi guys.) 

   So how can we deal with shame, and embrace vulnerability? I'm not sure yet, but I'm sure as heck going to keep working on it. I used to think that all these issues stemmed from religious patriarchy, but it clearly is a bigger issue than that. Obviously I still think that Biblical Patriarchy, and systemic patriarchy in the broader culture, is inexcusable and responsible for a lot of abuse. But the issues of shame, and fear of openness, and the pressure on both men and women to fit a cultural norm, seems to be a problem with humanity in general. I sincerely welcome comments on this, and would love to talk with anyone who's interested in dialoging about all this stuff. 

Springtime after three years

   Spending the past 2.5 years in Texas has given me an acute appreciation for the parts of life in the Pacific Northwest that fell in between vacations. Spring, for instance. Texas springs were unremarkable: the manic high temps of the weather's bi-polarity inching towards unbearable, perhaps a few flowers on campus, a few more tornado warnings. (Don't even get me started on the lack of autumn.)
    I returned to the PNW braced for winter and indulged in sweaters. I also bought wooly socks, which have been a key ingredient in weathering the Polar Vortex days. Shortly after re-entry, a massive cold snap and snowstorm hit my town, dumping a foot and a half of snow on us. IT DOES NOT SNOW HERE. Or when it does, it does not stick. This was clearly a herald of the Last Days. I was unconvinced that we'd ever see summer again.
   Welp, the PNW promptly turned around and started the dramatic season-change that starts in about February here and lasts until…well...the 4th of July. In that period of time, we receive rain, sun, hail, funnel clouds, anomalous humid warmth, frogs, and again rain in varying amounts. Surprised by joy *cough* sun *cough*, I took to Twitter to express glee about the vivid green of the grass, whose brilliance I had forgotten after years spent in Texas: "Grass as bright as fresh blood!" I emoted, with unbearably pretentious poeticality. The trees burst into flower, demanding to be ogled at from the window of my passing car. The poplar trees (endlessly beloved) began to smell up the entire riverfront area of my town, which fact I eagerly pointed out to my bemused friends. The whole place conspires to distract drivers, in springtime. But really! Where else can you meander down a street lined entirely with flowering trees dripping petals into the street, while the sun pokes through smoke-cloud-style dramatic cumulus clouds to illuminate the still-falling rain?
Not my town. Just to illustrate the general atmosphere up here in the PNW.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Snow day adventures

   "Bethany, have you noticed a change in the smell of these kitchen cabinets?" Mom and Dad have been discussing, animatedly, a couple of big wooden cabinet/shelf-type affairs located in the front hall. Mom insists that they smell worse than they used to, and Dad espouses a theory that perhaps the damp is affecting the smell. "I smell a sort of sour-kitchen smell," he says.

   I trot out to the (cold) front hall to add my expert nose to the situation. The cabinets are opened up, revealing an assortment of art supplies. I stick my nose right in and take a deep sniff. There is a musty smell, with a peculiar sulfurous note. I think for a moment, trying to place it…"It's asafetida!" I proclaim at last. (Asafetida is a spice with a ghastly smell akin to rotten eggs or garlic.)
   Dad says happily, "I had some of that, and I was looking for it!" We zero in on a battered yogurt container on the second shelf. Dad peeks inside. "Yep, this is it! I'm so happy you found it!"
   I sniff the cabinet again--the smell lingers. "Yes, you do get a strong initial nose of sour-kitchen, but with a finish of asafetida."
   Dad is still holding the yogurt container. "Do you really want to fully enjoy this? It belongs in the kitchen…it is a wonderful, a treasured spice, very expensive…"
"I don't care how expensive, it's going out!" Mom says. She does not appreciate the rotten-egg savor of durian fruit in the freezer, either.
"Yes, I want to enjoy it, let me smell!" I say, eagerly.
Dad reluctantly opens the yogurt container. "Now, this is not what it smells like, which is rotten onions…"

   We shuffle the first cabinet along the hallway, which runs the length of the house, to the garage stairs. We pause. I sniff the shelf thoughtfully. "It still smells funny...sort of like cat urine."
   Mom says, "Now we're not going to just set them up along the walls and start using them again."
   Dad replies, "Well we're not going to set them out in the snow…"
   Mom considers. "We'll put them here, and use them for a couple days while we get the new ones."
   Dad, quietly: "They'll be there for many days, til we get the new ones…"
   Mom, concerned: "Many days? Why does it have to be many days? That can be the project…"

   We finally get the shelf down the stairs: "One more step..and one more. And just for fun--one more."
   Mom says, "Tomorrow we should take them to Habitat for Humanity." Dad, regretfully: "These are such nice cabinets. We even painted them, inside and out."
   "Yes, how many layers of paint?"
   "Maybe the asafetida smell was layered on to the cat pee or whatever else it was," I theorize. Dad agrees. "Yes, we don't have any idea of the history of these shelves. They may have been in a college rental, and at the end they left the door unlocked, and the cat got in. And the cat stayed, because there were foodstuffs."                                                                                                  

   An electric drill whirs from the front of the house, mingled with tappings and a sound as of a dropped plank. All of this has been going on, ostensibly, because it's a snow day. Of course I don't have classes today in any case, and Dad's retired from teaching in any case, and Mom had nowhere pressing to go today in any case either. But we are baking cookies, doing handicrafts, and planning next week's Valentines party, whipped to a domestic fever by the falling snow. The party necessitates a tidy front entry.
   The entry currently looks like we are moving house. The front door is completely blocked by pots of geraniums.

   Dad comes in as I announce that my college has preemptively cancelled classes for tomorrow.
"I should have stayed one more year," he says, "and then I would have had extreme vacation! Except I'd have to go longer in summer. And robotics is just flailing away at the air right now. I mean as a generic thing. Which robot should they use?" This is a reference to the fact that our old robotics team is currently deciding which of their two and a half robot chassises they should use. He walks away, then comes back.
   "Bethany, I need to ask your advice--I've got this idea, it is like something you'd see in an English castle owned by an eccentric Scotsman who's into occult numbers." He is kitting out the tiny landing at the base of the main stairwell with green laminate tile. The variably-sized tiles have a fleur-de-lis pattern. Dad indicates one small tile, which he has painted with the Golden Ratio spiral in the same color of the rest of the pattern. (He is very keen on the unique features of this spiral: however long it is, it balances at the same position relative to the rest...or something like that.) The top half of the spiral is cut off by the baseboard, however. "I wasn't anticipating that it would be covered by the baseboard. Should I just shave off a small curve of the board, to reveal the tile?"
   Mom, understandably, protests the proposed modification.
   Dad thinks for a moment. "You know in that painting of the Annunciation, there is a place carved out, like a window…"
   I reluctantly discourage the shaving-down of the baseboard, on the grounds that it would be permanent. "Okay, I won't carve it out," he says, sadly.
   Half an hour later, I go back and ask what, exactly, was carved out in the Annunciation painting. He describes Mary, sitting, looking up to a tiny window through which comes a ray of light. He looks upward, reenacting the scene. He says he will repaint the design on the tile. "The paint here is just straight out of the bottle, so it won't be hard to match." I thus discover that the entire patch of "tile" is actually painted--it has been copied from a church floor in England. I am flummoxed. Dad declares to Mom, "Bethany's oeil has been tromped!"
                                                              *  *   *
   Later, Dad investigates a ceramic butter mold, which has been found in some being-tidied corner of the house. There are two figures, one with a large circular item and the other with wings and an avian aspect. I find this latter figure worrisome. It is like a griffin, but it probably dates from several hundred years ago, when a griffin might have been considerably more serious and alarming.
   Dad, meanwhile, ponders the top figure, with the circular object scored with a cross shape--like an Irish soda bread. "Is this the bishop with the communion wafer, or the lady with the spinning wheel? And this guy, what's he doing?" he asks Mom.
She sighs."I don't know; he's getting ready to fly…"

   Yesterday as I prepared to leave the college ballroom dance club's weekly shindig (wrapped in several jackets, so that I could not lower my arms to my sides, but had to waddle, penguin-like), a buddy said he'd heard a rumor that the prediction of 1-2 inches of snow had been expanded to 5-8 inches. I will admit I was skeptical--but I woke up (after 10 AM) to about 7 inches.
   In the evening, Dad and I ventured out onto the roads (after seeing the successful passage of the mailman--neither snow nor rain nor dark of night kept THIS civil servant from his 'pointed rounds). This was an exciting journey. We were glad to see that the natural grocery was open, its new coat of sunflower-gold paint cheery amidst the snow. When I first saw that paint job, on holiday this summer, I knew instantly that it was a good choice: the Co-op gleams like a beacon on a grey day. It was a little shocking just the same, to see that sprawling multi-part off-white building painted bright yellow with dark red trim. Even the water tanks are painted. I like to think of the board meeting deciding on that paint color. Were they apprehensive? Did they worry that it would be too loud?
   We avoided sliding into the renters' car, at my grandmother's house, where we delivered groceries in anticipation of ice tomorrow.
   Dinner was a lentil dal (flavors of cardamon and coconut milk), with chicken and potatoes in a lemongrass-basil sauce from World Market. A little cross-cultural incongruous food combination never hurt anyone.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Feminists despise motherhood, and other myths

Two articles have stirred some controversy in the last few months. One (Amy Glass' unfortunate article "I Look Down On Young Women With Husbands And Kids And I'm Not Sorry") represents what could almost be called a straw-man version of feminism: the author declares motherhood and marriage all but worthless. 
The other, professor Louis Markos' essay "Why Homeschooled Girls Are Feminism's Worst Nightmare", depicts an equally straw-man-filled image of feminism, and makes some other glaring logical fallacies as well. The author sings the praises of 'homeschool girls' (really college-aged women) who, he says, are the antidote for a 'masculine', abrasive feminism. 

Both articles have been convincingly refuted elsewhere (Samantha Field gives an excellent critique of Markos' article, focusing on the false dichotomy in particular, and some of the top-rated comments both on the original article and here at Jezebel provide thoughtful feminist take-downs of Glass' essay). I think they've covered all the bases, but I'd like to address the two articles together. 

   Glass says that feminism is not about validating every choice a woman makes--that a stay-at-home mom is not "really on equal footing with a woman who works and takes care of herself". 

First, I don't think feminism should celebrate selfish choices or "choices" that a woman is coerced into by her family or social group. *

 Glass presents a snobbish, materialistic dismissal of women who are only wives or mothers. She makes a laudable point about how nice it would be if we gave baby-shower-type parties for women who backpack through Asia or get a job promotion. I can definitely get behind this: social media, I think, has spotlighted the tendency of our culture to glamorize engagements, weddings and births. I suspect some people would say that women are selfish for wanting to be celebrated for personal accomplishments, but I think it would be a nice adaptation to a changing society to recognize accomplishments besides marriage or motherhood. 

   She makes the valid point that the mere act of getting married or pregnant is not really that difficult. Yet, she ignores that the fact that motherhood, or having a successful marriage or long-term relationship, is both very difficult and very important. If people didn't raise children well, or provide a stable healthy family environment for them, where would these fabulous high-achieving women come from? 
   Glass makes it abundantly clear that "doing laundry will never be as important as being a doctor or an engineer or building a business."--I agree that the simple act of doing a load of laundry is not important. Yet, the act of holding a house together and nourishing a family is immensely important. I also argue that homemaking is not just woman's work either: I have the utmost respect for men who willingly make the choice (often sacrificial) to be the stay-at-home parent. 
   Some critiques of Glass' article have come from angered housewives who, it seems to me, merely lash out against Glass because of their own insecurity--dismissing the very valid contributions of female scientists, authors, and businesspeople. Can't we just accept both childcare and external careers as valid and praiseworthy, if done with appropriate motives and worthwhile results? 
   In short, Glass claims that feminism should not treat a woman's choice to be a stay-at-home mother with as much respect as the decision to have a career. I think this is a rare, though problematic and damaging, take on feminism. The feminist response to this article, almost entirely negative, assures me that most feminists do in fact value motherhood and homemaking--they fight instead against the social pressures that declare motherhood the highest and only valid career path for a woman. 

   The next article, "Why Homeschooled Girls Are Feminism's Worst Nightmare," takes this branch of "feminist" thought and sets it up as a straw man. Markos, a professor at Houston Baptist University, claims that he can pick out homeschooled women though a variety of excellent (to his eyes) traits. He paints a flattering picture of these young women, who have a sharp wit, but do not spar verbally unless "sorely provoked"; who, "like the aristocratic ladies of the Old South", are gifted in the arts and can almost universally sing; who challenge his "masculine view of the world", though they are certainly not feministic! 

   Markos assumes a false dichotomy: women are either nice, thoughtful "homeschooled girls", or they are feminists. While he only identifies three-fourths of the homeschooled women he teaches as following the mold he describes, it's clear that he thinks this is the normative, descriptive path for a homeschooled female. 
   Most of the writers who've provided critical responses to Markos' article emphasize the point that they are, in his eyes, a contradiction: homeschool graduates who identify as feminists. He says that, while he's "been challenged by feminist students and colleagues," it's "never in a deep or lasting way. Their challenge is political or ideological and, as such, is ultimately superficial." But "homeschooling girls…[take] to task my masculine view of the world." Feminists, he says, "snidely degrade the very things [homeschooled women] hold sacred," and say that there are no "essential differences" between men and women. 
   Feminism also, according to Markos, "systematically privileges masculine initiative, reason, logic, analysis, compartmentalization, and competition over feminine response, emotion, intuition, synthesis, holism, and nurture." This is grossly false on two counts. 
   First, in my experience feminism absolutely rejects the idea that women must become "masculine" in order to succeed or be valued. Certain radical branches of feminism are actually all about reordering society in ways that respect and value "feminine" characteristics. The two experiences I've had with the sort of mainstream feminism that may be common at universities (secular feminist textbooks for psychology of gender and global women courses) detail the frustration and unfairness that women experience through being forced to "be a man" to succeed in work environments. Just today I was reading an article that offers a feminist critique of a work culture that penalizes women for motherhood. 

   Second, does Markos really think that nurture is feminine, and that reason is a solely masculine virtue? His lists absolutely represent societal norms, and may represent general biological or psychological trends--but I adamantly disagree with his attempts to file human traits away along a rigid gender binary. I personally know women who are far less emotional and intuitive, and more logical and reasonable, than some men. Some complementarians go so far as to admit that, yes, "some men want to be nurturers and some women want to fight, because of the Fall" (can't find the quote! I looked and looked--pretty sure it was someone on the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood site). I think there's a problem when we are saying that men wanting to nurture is an indication of a sinful world. How about Jesus longing to gather the children of Jerusalem together "as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings"? What about Jesus' telling Peter to "feed My sheep", a metaphor for the people of the church? 

   Markos admits that feminism may have had some success in addressing the workplace pay equality issue--he mentions none of feminism's other efforts, save for a vague reference to "the politics of identity and victimization," while homeschooled women "don the robes of the lawyer…not to win a debate or to air their bitterness in public or to settle old scores," but "to defend those they love." 
I rarely see in feminists the desire to settle old scores; bitterness is the standby accusation against those who speak up against abuse and inequity. Instead, I see a host of rather selfless reasons that men and women call themselves feminists. I'm not going to call myself selfless, but let me state the reasons besides my own concerns that I am a feminist….

   I am a feminist because I want to defend those I love against the abuses of patriarchal religion. I am a feminist because so many people consider half the world systematically subordinate to the other half. I am a feminist because women are mutilated as children to ensure their chastity, forced into child marriage that threatens their health and education, and blamed for their own rape. I am a feminist because in my own country homeschool "leaders" denigrate women who go to college

And I'm a feminist because I don't think Jesus would stand for any of that, and I think feminism offers tools to help us battle injustice. 

*The issue of women's choice, particularly as it relates to "choices" that seem to be the result of restrictive, anti-human-rights cultures, is a topic for another day.