Monday, January 31, 2005

The Paradox of Woman's Being and Doing

The definition of "woman" cannot be comprehended either through distilling the essence of her being, or by solely outlining what she does. Like faith and works, being and doing are inextricably linked. They are paradoxical notions. Being and Doing parallel and echo Faith and Works. In the context of a work driven, achievement oriented society, doing (works)has been denigrated spiritually in favour of being (faith), as if the essence of personhood, either male or female, can be divorced from what one does. I maintain that it cannot.

I grew up thinking I knew what it was to be female. My mother looked and seemed the perfect model of feminity. She wore those slinky suits and crinolined dresses, matching hats and stilletto heels. With her large breasts and small waist she was the essence of feminine sexual desirability in that post war world. She had a low, soft voice and deferred to my father in many things. But that is not all there was. My mother visited the sick, comforted the bereaved, opened her home to the lonely, taught the teen Bible class, shared leadership in the women's prayer group. Once my brother was in school, she returned to work outside the home. She brought her skills of organization and administration to her work. She kept her personal griefs to herself, in the way she had been taught by her Victorian parents. I expected to grow up to be just like her.

Then suddenly it was the sixties and I emerged as a woman far different from my mother. I did not have large breasts and a slim waist, but small breasts and a thicker waist. This was confusing. Was my body the definition of who I was as a woman? Now more than thirty years later, past menopause and well into the invisible decades, I can assert firmly, "No." I was not like my mother in size or shape or fashion. I didn't think like her either. But I was still a woman.

I was somewhat consoled by the sixties' fetish for flat chestedness and long slim legs, but I was further confused by the buzz of burgeoning feminism all around me. Reading Germaine Greer and others shattered all the notions I had gathered from my mother about what was required of a woman. Chastity was gone. Sexual freedom was in. Homemaking was gone. Career was in. Dependence was gone. Independence was in. A woman had to be tough. Passive sexuality was out. Orgasm was in. The cover photo of The Female Eunuch haunts my mind...a headless, limbless, empty female torso, hung painfully, a sack on hooks, or was it a clothesline?

For me it is quite impossible to talk about a definition of womanhood without reference to sexuality, sex role stereotypes and history. I never demand of the past that it be other than it was. There is no point. Clearly both my mother and I were products of our generation. We wore the fashion of our time and imbibed our individual generation's norms and mores. If I were to go one generation back, I would find my mother's mother doing the same, to the best of her ability. Immigrating to Canada. Bearing and raising ten children. That is what women did in 1914, before we had birth control and the vote. Still, I believe we were not without influence. Left to his own devices, I don't think my grandfather would ever have managed to get himself and those first five children on the boat!

The essence of womanhood cannot be grasped without an understanding of her lived experience. One must be female. One must fill out that empty torso and wear it in the world. I have an acquaintance who is transgendered. She has lived as both a man and a woman, and although clearly she felt that she needed to conform her physical self to her psychological reality, I think she would be the first to say that her experience of herself as female was and is the aspect of her life which defines her as a woman. In other words, not her genitalia, but her inner sense of herself defined her. She lived this all her conscious life, long before her surgeries. She perceived herself as woman before anyone sensed this and furthermore, she perceived that this was how God made her. I don't argue with that.

I have spent a lifetime trying to conform to this or that external notion of womanhood. I was not the classic beauty that my mother had been. Nor was I fertile, like my grandmother. I spent some time at university trying to embody The Feminine Mystique, the toughness, the language, swearing a blue streak, striking an angry posture. But my lived experience as a woman was mine alone. No one can duplicate or falsify this aspect of reality. This place, this lived experience, is where our being and our doing unite.

My lived experience of womanhood was abruptly awakened when I held a dead baby in my arms, and buried it in an unmarked grave in a Haitian jungle. Part of the experience of all womanhood was now my own. There was One who in permissive will allowed me to experience this tragedy. Later, though I would adopt children, I would never bear them. But I would know, from inside, what it is like to nurture and love, and then, shockingly to bathe and dress a tiny body for burial. This experience almost more than any other in my life defines who I am, creates my essence. It may be rooted in practical doing at a point of time in a long gone summer. Yet it is vitally real today. It links me to grieving women in East Asia, in Iraq, in Toronto's hospital for sick children.

Who rushed to the grave to anoint the body of Jesus? The women. This is one thing women do. But this is not all. Women come alive where being and doing meet, where heart's longing and soul's choosing mesh. They live out their essence, as they become aware, of self and other in the unending chain of being, of pain and joy, of solace and wholeness. They make choices, creatively doing...following the call of the One who made them female in the first place. Their faith carries them into works and back again to contemplation.

I end where I began, touching on huge issues and leaving them largely unsolved. There is a paradox of being and doing, of faith and works. You can't have either without the other. Women, in the context of their times, live out that paradox. Whether they be confined or free, young or old, educated or unschooled, cosmopolitan or rural. Whether they are single or married, widowed, divorced or abandoned. Whether they have children or not, wombs and breasts or not...these things, believe me do not define woman. A woman is one God makes and calls. This makes her no different from a man. It is her living, her sense of herself, her being and doing, which make her unique.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Theology of the Crocus

Crocuses have disappeared from our supermarkets. For years, come January 15, one could find small tubs of white or yellow or purple bulbs waiting to burst into bloom. A taste of spring at $1.49. I got them every week in winter. Tossed them in the garden later, where they continue to make a timely appearance once snow melts.

Not any more. The gentle crocus has suffered a marketing demise. The profit margin was too little, or the garden manager couldn't shift them as fast as they faded. A crocus has a short shelf life. But I'm feeling rather jaded about it all. This small pleasure, this tiny self indulgence has been stripped away from me. I had no say at all. Store people give me blank stares as if these little pots of hope never existed. Am I the only one who remembers them?

If a butterfly flapping its wings in Mexico can cause climate change in Alaska, then let me tell you, the lack of early crocuses in Muskoka might cause a rebellious migration. Somewhere on earth millions of these gems bloom for the express purpose of providing their tender parts for saffron. Perhaps I might go there, become a saffron picker.

I had another car accident. Silly. Small. In the parking lot of the Independent Grocer. I was so tired from sleepless nights feeding our little five pound baby. So relieved he is starting to fill out around the edges. Wanting a pot of crocus to celebrate. Distracted by the driver who signalled his impatience to have my spot. Boom. Right into a car parked in the new mother's space. When I found the owner, she turned out to be white haired and neither pregnant or a new mother. Perhaps that is why she has never phoned to say what the damage would be.

But I miss those crocuses. They were hope to me. Hope that winter would come to an end. And faith. Their tiny insignificance reminded me of faith. Mustard seeds, especially encased in glass and hung around the neck have never done anything for me. But crocuses. They are love too, since my husband often broke out the $1.49, and when we were really poor, it meant a lot. It was an unnecessary extravagance, like that box of ointment.

You will remember,if you read my last post, that a crocus bloomed at my father's feet the day he died. Hope, faith, love.

If all of this is silly and impossibly trivial, so be it. Determined not to miss this simple joy next year, I shall simply have to pot my own.


Saturday, January 22, 2005

Working Out Salvation

Obstinate weather today. Snow and more snow. Winds gusting, sculpting drifts where it seems to me no drifts have ever been. And cold.

Four years ago today it was also cold. At least -20C, but clear. Snow was past crunch to squeak. I remember it well because it was the day my father died. He disconnected himself, in a way. With that powerful strength which had never left his arms, he shoved the feeding spoon away, pulled out his IV and his catheter and died. When we arrived, his shrunken body lay in a pool of sunshine. A lone crocus bloomed at the end of this bed.

He had always been a singular man. A lifelong Christian, his faith had grown as his mind wrestled with issues in his own way. He had travelled the world, revelling in the differences and similarities amongst people in China, the middle East, Greece and the UK. Not for him the easy platitude, the heedless prayer. His one regret, "If I just had one more trip in me, I'd like to see India." There were no more trips.

"Don't put me on that prayer chain," he had exorted. "I don't want people praying for me to be healed. We all have to go sometime. You just pray for me to have the grace to face what is for me." At 83 years of age, this seemed a strong, pragmatic approach to death. He had lived successfully with cancer for 12 years. It was enough for him. He had worked out his salvation "with fear and trembling" and he didn't want to disgrace God by flinching at the end. He achieved his aim.

When St. Paul wrote to the Phillipians, his implication in 2:12-13 was that they were to carry on in his absence, without the kind of direction they had received in the past. They were to do this, respectful of the fact that God was working in them them to achieve His purpose. This implies that they were to act in accordance with what they already understood about the Christian life. And St. Paul goes on to remind them what some of these things are, just in case they had forgotten.

When I am doubtful about the will of God, or am confronted by someone inquiring about the will of God, I am thrown back on Phillipians. "God works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." It is no great mystery. There is no exclusively right way, but a path that is laid through first principles, and holy living. Personally, I am praying for grace to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

But Joy

I could have named this post "tenacity"
or "endurance."
I could have named it "patience."
I could have given this post just about any Quaker
virtue and it would fit.

But Joy.
Joy comes in the morning.

Robert Edward shot into the world weighing a mere 5 pounds and looking
rather fierce. "Would someone give me a decent meal?" he asked, waving arms and legs and bleating in indignation. "I've been hanging on in there for nine months with only half a placenta. Now that I've shown what stuff I'm made of, give me a couple of good sound names and some calories."

An anxious start to life, but we have grateful hearts. Barb, Dylan, and Robbie are doing well but sister Rachael insists her brother's name is Clifford.

Bless God

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Sandwiching it all in

This will not be my most inspirational blog. You're warned.
Not so smiling this week, not so whimsical, not so firm in my resolution to make sense out of disaster. Not much positive to say. Caught between that door and that clock. Anxiety creates immobility. I'm stuck.
If you've been there, you will know.
Just waiting, waiting, waiting for something to budge. For the next thing. In this moment there is little I can do to move things forward. Just be.
The family waits impatiently for its January addition, a dear little baby of one sex or the other. There is room in my heart for this new little child. But I am terrified, fearful that I won't have the energy and time to do my bits.
Don't tell me that grandparents don't have any responsibility. They do. My inlaws raised three grandchildren, providing emotional support, babysitting, weekend respite, spiritual guidance, endless shopping outings, vacations and hands on nurturing, after the tragic death of the children's mother. They did this for seven years. And supported all of the rest of us in whatever way they could, financially, spiritually and emotionally.
I don't anticipate another tragedy. I do anticipate work.
And then there's my mother. Medications out of wack again. Self-care dropping. Embarrassing loss of control in public spaces. Needing more than I can give. I feel guilty. Expectations of self and other I can't meet.
This member of the sandwich generation feels a little squashed. I wish I could find something really profound to say about it, some enlightened little word to make it feel better. I feel I am hopelessly narcissistic. Can't help it. Just need to let time pass. To remember to breathe in this tight spot, and to believe there is meaning in it all somewhere.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Where I am in place and time

Between a door and a clock Posted by Hello

I stand between a clock and a door. Fittingly, I think.
The clock is the last of the many my father made. Solid cherry and a thing of beauty. I recognize that I have become a woman of a certain age and am surprisingly happy about this. My father attained his most valued personal achievements after fifty. So, the clock is hopeful. While it reads twenty past eleven, for all we know, this could be twenty past eleven in the morning! There is still time for me to live. And I have a strong sense that I get to choose whether it is morning or evening, whether my life is at its prime or its end.
And then there is the door, the painting I bought because I loved it. There it hangs, like an invitation. To open doors. To push on doors. To walk through and explore behind doors. To command doors to open. To bang on doors. I am here. To shout with Jacob, "I will not let you go until you bless me."
How fortunate I have been already in life, and yet, I dare to ask for more. I do not stand between a rock and a hard place, but between a clock and a door. Opportunities knocking, tick tocking.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

In the light of the Tsunami

On the last day of the old year I burnt my hand and had a flat tire. It seemed a fitting end to a year in which sickness had touched every single member of my immediate and much of my extended family. In my New Year's prayer it seemed unbelievable, a disease for each member: mono, skin cancer, ulcerative colitis and pericarditis, difficult pregnancy, depression, arthritis, alzheimer's, benign tumour, rectal bleeding. I could go on. Suffice it to say, the family, grouped in solemnity over this list of woes, collapsed into laughter. Mash humour. The release of pent up anxiety after the worst is presumed over.
In the light of the Tsunami, everything else seems absolutely trivial. Now, nearly two weeks after that tragedy, the world still reels and rocks itself, mourning the innocent loss of life, the enormity of death, dislocation and destruction. It seems this event will not leave the front pages soon. It puts suicide bombers in their place. It stops us in our trail of consumption and causes us to open our wallets and hearts.
In the aftermath of the Tsunami, we examine our beliefs. The problem of pain as a serious theological issue raises its head yet again. We ponder the notion of a good God in the light of catastrophe...not manmade, this time, but arising from the depths of the sea, part of God's creation.
In the lesson of the Tsunami, we are caused to consider the God who became flesh and dwelt among us, who suffered and was tempted in all ways as we are, who spent his life amongst the sick, the poor and the dying, and who died a painful, seemingly unnecessary death by torture. That Christmas word, Immanuel, God with us, gains significance. And the name Jesus, God is salvation, adds a layer of meaning. God saves by participating in our humanness and pain.
The burns on my hand are beginning to crust over, a sign of health and survival. I can type this without pain. These are wounds not worth mentioning in the light of the Tsunami. Then again, they are like a token to remind me to pray for wounded ones everywhere...for those caught up in earthly forces beyond their control, for those deluded by dogma into sacrificing life for ironclad prinicples, for those whose wealth pretends to cloak them from trauma, for those whose poverty exposes them to more than their fair share, for those who sensitive hearts leave them open to wounding by word as well as deed.
My fleshly wound reminds me I am not invincible. I share the human condition. I am wounded and I wound. In particular, I can wound by ill considered and hasty remarks, lack of sensitivity to my family, ill temper. For these pains, I repent and ask pardon and go on, praying to do better in the New Year. In the light of the Tsunami, this is the very least which I can do.