For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘Women

Necessary Lies by Diana Chamberlain, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014, 372 pp.

Necessary LiesLike recent reads What She Left Behind, Orphan Train and Orphan #8, this novel begins in the author’s discovery of a little-known aspect of history, one that focuses on the lived reality of a small subset of people often overlooked. Those books turned on the stories of orphans and mental health patients; Necessary Lies opens the story of forced sterilization among impoverished women in North Carolina in the mid-20th century. The story’s characters are fictional, but the author drew on historical research into the lives of the women impacted by sterilization decisions.

The main characters of the story are Ivy Hart and Jane Forrester. Jane is a college graduate newly married to a pediatrician, Robert, who expects her to align with the lifestyle of a doctor’s wife in 1960–Junior League, bridge club, social events with other doctor’s wives. Jane has her own ideas. She wants to use her degree and serve others, so she takes a job as a social worker for the county welfare. She drives all over fictional Grace County meeting clients, helping tend to their needs and making sure they are not duping the government. She is also charged with making the case for sterilization.

Fifteen year old Ivy Hart is one of her clients. She lives with her grandmother, her older sister, and her nephew as a sharecropper on the Gardiner family farm. She is in a loving romantic relationship with the Gardiner’s son Henry. They share the land with the Jordan family as well, an African-American woman and her five sons.

Jane’s supervisor and co-workers agree that Ivy should be sterilized, and her grandmother is eager to sign the permission form after her older sister’s pregnancy. However, Ivy dreams of a family. As Jane grows to care for Ivy and hear her story, she resists, with dire consequences.

The novel is a plot-driven page-turner. Ivy, Jane and the rest are likable enough characters, but this is not a book in which to find great depth or lasting characters or magnificent writing. It’s a great summer read, vacation read,  or escape read. The insight into a unique and painful piece of history was enough to intrigue me, and I enjoyed the story greatly.

 

 

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Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen, Random House, 2014, 252 pp.

Still Life with Bread CrumbsThis qualifies as book #2 in the “light summer reading.” As far as I know, I’ve never read an Anna Quindlen novel before. They always struck me as too sappy, with women characters who were too predictable to be interesting. This one was a basic story of a woman finding herself and finding love, in an unexpected place and in spite of obstacles. I read it in an afternoon on vacation.

Rebecca Winter is famous for a series of photographs called “Still Life with Breadcrumbs,” which have given her money and artistic respect, and made her a feminist icon. However, her work has not continued to thrive, and her divorce, care for her son and parents have left her nearly broke. She moves outside New York City to a small-town cabin, where she breaks with her Manhattan snobbery habits for the first time in her life. She meets Jim Bates, who fixes her roof and becomes her friend. Rebecca takes long walks in the woods, and joins Jim in looking for wildlife. Along the path, she discovers mysterious memorial crosses and begins to photograph them.

You can predict the outcome from here, can’t you? Rebecca and Jim find love in one another. Her photographs in the woods bring her back to artistic promise and financial security. Of course, there are interesting twists and turns along the way, some star-crossed lover moments with the two of them, and some interesting secondary plots with Rebecca’s parents. Don’t be mad and accuse me of spoilers. You will know from the first chapter, just like I did, that Rebecca and Jim are destined for each other. In the end, though, it’s a story we read not to find out what will happen, but exactly how and when it will happen. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it made for a fun vacation afternoon.

Still Life with Breadcrumbs is a simple story of a woman finding herself, getting her groove back, and finding love. Rebecca Winter is not an especially well-developed character with a rich internal life, but consequently we can read ourselves into her story. She gives us the opportunity to become her for an afternoon, and perhaps discover that we too can find ourselves, get our groove back, and even find love old or new. Enjoy your summer reading!

Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything by Geneen Roth, Scribner, 2010, 211 pp.

women food and godI don’t even know how to start talking about this book. Geneen Roth is the non-diet expert, who speaks to women of their food issues by telling us it is about issues first and food second. This book is the summary of all of her other works, the one that puts her philosophy and worldview together in one place. As always, it just makes sense to me, even if I am not ready or able to change my life to conform to it entirely.

The basic premise of the book is that women who struggle with their relationship with food are using food to deal with their emotions, either by exercising control through denial or indulgence through regular binges. I find this to be true to my experience–I eat to celebrate, eat to grieve, eat to decompress, eat to be happy, eat to be sad. My relationship with food has far more to do with my emotional life than my body or my belly.

Roth urges us to be present–to  listen to our bodies when they ask for food, but to listen to our feelings when they are doing the talking. Food should not be a substitute for our feelings or a suppressant for them. Food should not be a tool to keep the feelings at bay. She writes, “With awareness (the ability to know what you are feeling) and presence (the ability to inhabit a feeling while sensing that which is bigger than the feeling), it is possible to be with what you believe will destroy you without being destroyed.” (92) Further, she instructs her readers to “eat what they want when they’re hungry and feel what they feel when they’re not.” (101)

The central part of Roth’s philosophy is summarized in her guidelines for eating. Simple, whole, and reasonable–yet still a challenge for those who struggle against emotional eating. The guidelines include eating when you are hungry, stopping when you are full, sitting in a calm environment, being free from distractions, eating what your body wants, and eating with “enjoyment, gusto and pleasure.” Finally, eat (with the intention of being) in full view of others. Even if change is slow, I try to be mindful of these guidelines and take small steps as I am able.

Roth’s books have been a help to me, and this one has too.

President Obama delivers his second inaugural address. (Photo from slate.com)

President Obama delivers his second inaugural address. (Photo from slate.com)

In the days since President Obama’s second inaugural, the critics have reached consensus that his speech was a forthright defense of a liberal, progressive agenda. He spoke up for the values of inclusion and equality, government programs to help the poor, and the movement of justice as drawing wider the circle of democracy. He named climate change, marriage equality, health care, equal pay and the end of “perpetual war” as among his second term priorities. It was a laundry list of passionate causes for progressives like me .

For the first time in more than a decade we heard a national politician apart from Ted Kennedy make a public case for these values. My heart soared at the trinitarian invocation of “Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall,” three benchmarks in the struggle for equality for women, African-Americans and GLBT people. I am grateful to the president for making the case for a progressive agenda in the face of a reactionary right-wing party, and I pray that his work giving voice to these concerns will translate into action, legislation and real impact in our nation.

This critical analysis of the president’s words is not intended to denigrate his progressiveness as “not good enough,” as measured by some ideal standard. It is not a plea for political correctness. Instead, it is an argument that language matters in the struggle for justice and equality, and an attempt to use the president’s speech to demonstrate how language can include and exclude in the most subtle ways.

Just as there were moments in his speech that made me feel like at last my worldview had a voice in the political arena, there were also moments that left me feeling marginalized and set apart as “other.” Ironically, these were often the moments designed to be inclusive. In these phrases, the president’s words exemplified a common pattern I call “unconscious Othering.” Unconscious Othering happens when attempts to promote equality for historically oppressed groups actually reinscribe their marginality.

Here is the example that set me on edge in the speech:

For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.  Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.

The president demonstrated his support for equal pay for women and equal marriage for GLBT people–two issues very close to my heart. However, the way he phrased his commitment made me feel sidelined instead of included. Why?

First, the phrase “wives, mothers and daughters.” This rhetoric appeals to men, inviting them to support women’s equality based on their love for the women closest to them, their wives, mothers and daughters. However, in making that appeal to men, women get reduced to their roles as wives, mothers and daughters–shutting off the fullness of our lives as a professionals, creators, agents and full persons outside our place in the family.  Men are people first; husbands, fathers and sons secondarily. Women are wives, mothers and daughters first; maybe after that women can also be something else. Women who are not wives and mothers cease to matter outside of a perpetually juvenile status as daughters.

Second, the use of pronouns. The president says “our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts,” and “our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.” The pronouns “our” and “their” create a dynamic of “us” and “them.” “Our wives, our mothers and daughters”  and “their efforts” imply that the “our” is male, and women are “they.” Women may deserve equal pay, but do not simply belong to the “us” that delivers it. GLBT people may deserve equal marriage, they may even be elevated to treasured status as sisters and brothers, but they are still not part of “us.”

Quite unconsciously, the president’s words on equality have reinforced the idea that women and GLBT people are Other, different, outside the norm of “us.”

A look at "we the people." (Photo from the Union Leader)

A look at “we the people.” (Photo from the Union Leader)

Here is another example:

We must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice – not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes:  tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.

If “we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice,” then the poor, the sick, the marginalized and the victims of prejudice are not a part of “us.” They are Others, for whom we must care and provide, but they do not belong to “we, the people.” It is subtle, but this unconscious Othering, even in the name of promoting equality and justice, serves to reinforce existing distinctions and their accompanying discrimination.

The president’s own place as a member of a historically oppressed group added an intriguing dynamic to these remarks. When the president says “we,” he includes himself and all other African-American men in the “us” instead of the “them.” That is a huge step forward, and not to be taken lightly. I was moved to consider the great strides and sacrifices that made it possible for an African-American man to lay claim to the power of that “we.” Yet I also recognize that he could also have claimed the “we” for more of us.

How could the president’s words have done that? Here’s are some sample rewrites.

For our journey is not complete until men and women both earn a living equal to their efforts.

For our journey is not complete until our daughters have the same opportunity as our sons to earn a living equal to their efforts.

Our journey is not complete until the love between a man and a woman, between two women or two men is treated equally under the law…

Our journey is not complete until, gay or straight, our relationships are recognized equally under the law…

We must be a source of hope to one another, when we are poor, or sick, or marginalized, or the victims of prejudice – not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes:  tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.

In the above rewrites, the “we” includes those groups awaiting justice, rather than demanding equality while still drawing the “we” in such a way that they are not a part of it.

This unconscious Othering happens all the time. Its subtle ways of reinforcing privilege can easily go unnoticed. The president’s speech offered such a clear example that I wanted to use it as a chance to illustrate the problem, especially since it came in the context of attempts to be inclusive, not tokenism or attempts to exclude.

Can you think of further examples of unconscious Othering? How can we think more critically about our use of pronouns, and the lines of “us” and “them” we subtly draw in our speech?

By the time we finished Hana Bendcowsky’s tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we were on information overload and sensory overstimulation. Thankfully, it was time to go to lunch. We didn’t realize, however, that our lunch was going to be an even more worshipful, insightful, emotional time—and would last well into the afternoon.

Our lunch was hosted by Wujoud, an organization dedicated to remembering and honoring Palestinian culture and especially empowering Palestinian women. Turning off one of the crowded stone paths of the Old City, we entered a building that you wouldn’t know existed from the street. Inside was a small museum, but we went upstairs where we could smell lunch cooking. It wasn’t a restaurant, simply a small kitchen and a few tables set up for us in one room. The women in the kitchen were preparing a Palestinian dish called “upside down,” which was made of cauliflower and carrots and onions on the bottom, rice on top, cooked all together in one pot. The trick is then to flip the dish over and keep the rice standing in the shape of the pot—hence the name “upside down.” Our cook was a master, and it was both beautiful and delicious. Although all the meals we have had have been delicious (especially lunch, which is at a local restaurant, as opposed to breakfast and dinner at the hotel), this one was one of the best. Not just because of the good, homemade food, but because it was prepared with love and served with warm hospitality. The environment felt more like a church supper than a restaurant in a foreign country. We all treasured the space they had created for us and the meal they had prepared.

After lunch, they invited us to tour the museum, but not before we met Noora Qertt, the director of the organization. Noora is a Palestinian Christian, and she has dedicated her life to preserving the culture of her people, empowering Palestinian women, fighting for justice every day, and living her Christian faith as a daily witness to peace. Her witness, her energy and her courage were awe-inspiring. Her organization has a collective of 550 women doing embroidery at home to sell in her shops and in collaboration with churches around the world. They have women learning to be professional chefs and jewelry-makers, and playing in sports leagues, along with many other programs.

Noora Qertt sharing her inspiring stories.

Noora told us about the building we sat in, which was a gift from the Orthodox church to her organization in recognition for all her good work. However, the building was falling apart when she received it, so she had to raise half a million dollars to restore it. Once she had the building, she went to people’s homes and looked through the old things and furniture they had representing life among the Palestinian people, then she talked them into donating it to the museum. The walls were covered with old photographs of Palestinian life before 1948. Downstairs, there was a room divided in two halves, like two Palestinian homes, one wealthier and one poorer, with a hearth and furniture and food and the things of home. They had amazingly beautiful hand-embroidered clothing, baptismal gowns and hats, along with furniture and woodwork from Palestine’s past.

One of the sample hearths in the small museum

The name of the organization, Wujoud, means “existence” in Arabic. Noora’s work, first and foremost, is to help the world hear from the Palestinians: “we exist.” They are a real people, with a real heritage and culture and faith—some Muslim, some Christian. Noora had worshipped alongside us just a little while earlier in the Arabic Orthodox Chapel at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where she has worshipped her whole life. Regardless of your opinion on the State of Israel, its current actions and history, or the way forward, Noora made powerful claims about the history of her community in this place. Just as an example, she said that when she gave a lecture once, someone asked her, “How long have you been a Christian?” She answered curtly, “Since Pentecost.” The Christians in this area claim their roots worshipping Christ here since the first century.

View from the roof of the Wujoud building, looking down at the street.

That story was one among many Noora told that showed her courage and refusal to be diminished, in spite of occupation. She told the story of a building project that her organization was doing in the West Bank, building a gym or school or other community building. The engineer was stopped at a checkpoint and asked to strip down. He refused the command in order to maintain his dignity, choosing instead to return to Noora with his resignation from the project. Instead of letting him go or telling him, “this is just how it is,” she asked him to accompany her back to the same checkpoint. When he pointed out the officer who had made the demand, Noora got out of the car and began walking up to him. Every gun was trained on her, but she showed that she was carrying nothing and kept moving slowly forward. She approached the officer, and told him about what had happened. She did not beg him, she did not plead with him. She explained that her organization and what they were doing in the West Bank would help eliminate violence by giving productive work and community, and she needed her engineer to be able to pass with his dignity intact. The officer was unmoved. She appealed to his humanity, “I can see you are not this man with a gun. You are a faithful man with a family back home that you want to return to. Tell you what I’m going to do for you. I’m going to pray for you. I’m going to pray that you get to go home from here safely, back to your family, that you never again have to pick up this gun and work at this checkpoint anymore, and you get to return to your life again.” With that, the officer relented, “Go, go,” he said, and let her and the engineer pass through smoothly.

Noora told many other stories like that one, and what I heard in all of them was how dehumanizing the Palestinian occupation is, not just for Palestinians, but for the Israeli Defense Forces guarding the checkpoints. Noora’s story was an account of the everyday work of making justice and peace. It was not about solving the thorny mess of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it was about restoring the dignity and humanity of her engineer by restoring the dignity and humanity of the soldier, using her body and her prayer as a path to one moment of peace and justice.

I have long preached that peace and justice begin with each one of us acting in the world with love and compassion, but Noora’s stories gave me a whole new appreciation for what that might look like. In my daily life, how do I restore dignity and humanity to those around me, so that we can approach one another in a just relationship? In situations where I am powerless, do I work to reclaim my own humanity by speaking to the humanity of my antagonist? In situations when I am powerful, how do I restore dignity to those who are powerless? Would I have that kind of courage and imagination to act outside of the rules, and thereby change the situation altogether?

Sitting and listening to Noora was like being in church, and I felt the Spirit in our midst.

Noora’s work and her example made a profound impact on me. The hour at lunch and hour listening to her stories felt more like church than anything else we had experienced so far that day, on what was supposedly the most holy site in all of Christianity. Her faith inspired her to act with love even for her enemies, to be courageous in the face of great danger, and to refuse to let anyone but God tell her who she is and what she is worth. I am grateful for her witness.

Sometimes, I need to take time early in the week to express my disagreements and resentments toward a passage of scripture. It is my hope that, by Sunday, these frustrations can be transformed into a helpful, insightful struggle to share with others, or at least be set aside to make way for the Gospel. This is definitely one of those venting kind of reflections.

The Visitation, Juan Correa De Vivar

I am trying to be loving toward Matthew and Joseph this year, but I have always felt resentful about this passage. We get so little in the Bible about women and their faithful leadership in answering God’s call. Luke gives us the very best in his story of Mary—her friendship with Elizabeth, the image of babes leaping in their wombs, the revolutionary Magnificat that turns social order on its head, the humble birth in a stable in the company of shepherds. (I read a great post this week about women shepherds that you should not miss—and make sure to read the first comment too.) In spite of the problems with equating women’s faithfulness with eschewing sexuality, Luke’s Mary is a powerful woman who negotiates her own faith and her own relationship with God.

Matthew’s Mary, on the other hand, is a nobody. She doesn’t act or speak at all, nor does God speak to her. Her betrothal to Joseph sounds like a traditional arranged marriage in which she did not exercise choice. Matthew’s “his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph” sounds like someone else did the engaging. Even her pregnancy happens in passive voice: “she was found to be with child,” as though someone else even did the finding for her. Ugh.

This year, the first line really irritated me: “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” The passage then goes on to tell about a discovered pregnancy, a plan for quiet dismissal, angel-filled dreams and a sexless marriage. No matter what you may say about the uniqueness of Jesus or virginity of Mary, no baby comes into this world solely through dreaming and angels and quiet calm. Babies come with sweat and blood and agony and mess, with crying and cringing and backaches and pain. No, St. Matthew, the birth of Jesus most certainly did NOT take place in that way. No matter how idyllic it was, Mary still carried that child, she labored and pushed and held that messy infant to her breast.

So my complaint here is clearly with Matthew, not with Joseph. Joseph behaves with complete decorum in the first half of the story. He discovers his fiancée is carrying someone else’s baby. He could have let pride and pain get the best of him, and sought revenge against her. His revelation of her pregnancy could have ruined her life and the life of her child, condemning them to a life of public disgrace and chronic poverty. Joseph is not so cruel or selfish, and makes plans to quietly release Mary and himself from the previous marriage contract. He wishes her no ill-will, and demonstrates nothing but kindness.

The Dream of St. Joseph, Rembrandt

In the dream from God, however, Joseph is asked to do better than kindness and an absence of ill will. Joseph is asked to love Mary and love her baby as though they were his own. God challenges Joseph to move beyond being a kind and decent person, and asks him to become an obedient servant to God’s will. Joseph rises to the challenge. He proceeds with the wedding, and raises the child as his own, participating in naming the child Jesus.

Kindness, niceness and decency are good things, but they are not all God asks of us. God asked Joseph to move beyond decency and into love, faithfulness and obedience. The kind of love God demands from Joseph is not rooted in feelings (which can be fickle) or sentimentality (which can be shallow). God is asking Joseph to care for this woman and her child, to share his money and his life with them, to make sacrifices for their security, to be there for them in good times and bad ones, to be unrelenting in his care and concern for their well-being. That is the kind of love God demands from Joseph.

When that child Jesus grows up, he repeatedly challenges his followers to love in the same way. Jesus is always telling us that the kind and decent thing is not enough—God wants us to love one another. To go the extra mile, to hand over our cloak as well as our coat, to tend to the poor and sick, to love even our enemies. We often look at those challenges from Jesus as though they were impossible, as though that kind of love is beyond our human reach. But Jesus knew better. He knew we humans had the capacity to live out that kind of faithful, obedient love—he had seen his father Joseph give that kind of love to him for his whole life. (Put Matthew’s Joseph together with Luke’s strong portrayal of Mary, and you get two amazingly faithful and courageous parents.)

No wonder Jesus called God “Abba, Father.” The love of that Heavenly Father and the love of his earthly father must have been forever linked in his mind and heart. May we also hear God’s challenge to love—and respond with faithfulness, courage and obedience in loving one another.

Today is the opening of a new movie called For Colored Girls, directed by Tyler Perry. The script is an adaptation of a 1975 choreopoem-style play entitled For colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange.

I first encountered Shange’s magnificent poetry when I was in college, when I was diving deep into both African-American poetry and feminist literature. Her words and images penetrated deep into my mind and heart, and they still grab me at my core. After hearing about the movie, I spent most of the evening yesterday combing through books looking for excerpts and watching clips from the stage play on YouTube.

The women of Shange’s creation radiate a kind of honesty, strength and vulnerability, a truth-telling and emotional exposure that is absolutely compelling. She creates compassion without pity. One of my favorite lines is: “i’m finally being real/no longer symmetrical/or impervious to pain.” The women Shange writes are real, almost more than real, rich and deep and profound and broken-bending-to-whole.

The poems speak of a deep need to be seen and known and loved, of heartbreak and hope. And, in the end of the play, they find that love—with God, with each other, within themselves. One of the most famous lines in the whole show comes at the end, when the women gather and repeat: “i found god in myself/and i loved her/i loved her fiercely.” That line has echoed through my theology ever since, imagining God dwelling inside me and inside every other person I meet, God embodied in female form, imagining God using my own self, a God whom I love absolutely fiercely. Ntozake Shange and her words have been a shaping influence and powerful point of spiritual connection for me for many years.

Here’s the problem: I don’t think I trust Tyler Perry with Ntozake Shange. As much as I want to see the movie, as much as I want to see any production of these amazing words, I can’t trust the creator of Medea to handle real women with depth and power and passion and compassion. The actors in the movie are phenomenal, and I would trust any of them to honor the depth and beauty of Ntozake Shange’s poetry. But Tyler Perry has made his name dealing in stereotypes, flat characters, slapstick, and witty repartee. I want to see the film, but I am nervous that he will not do justice to the writing, to the characters and the poetry that have come to mean so much to me. Perry has many talents, but can he do this?

I want the world to know about this play, these women, Ntozake Shange. I hope Tyler Perry can introduce them in a way that is as powerful and compelling as the original.

In Shange’s words: “this is for colored girls who have considered suicide/but are moving to the end of their own rainbows.”

What about you? Do you have a connection to Shange’s work? Have you seen the movie? Do you have an opinion?


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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