The Woman She Was

Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, Self Portrait With Her Daughter.

She was a woman caught in the cultural contradictions of her time. Born in December 1913, less than a year before the start of what became known as the First World War, she was only eight years old when it ended, too young for it to have mattered much to her. She grew up in unusually happy times as her father achieved success as a building contractor in a big city. As a young teenager, she received an allowance of $1 a week, the equivalent of $15 in 2021 value.

She was only seventeen when the Great Depression began to hit her family. She graduated high school and went on to college on a plan that permitted her to begin working early as a schoolteacher. Her family needed the income.

Soon she met and fell in love with a young man who was soon to be ordained as a minister—an honorable profession, though not a lucrative one. She was slightly horrified to find that his parents still lived on a farm. On her first visit, she couldn’t bring herself to use the outhouse and nearly burst her bladder on the trip back home. She married him anyway. In 1940, it was what young women did. Working as a teacher was only something you did until you married. Until you had a man to look after you.

But… in college, this woman had adored her art history courses, and through all the changes in her life, she held onto the art prints and teaching instructions she accumulated in those classes. She also loved poetry and memorized many lovely verses, although her extreme near-sightedness discouraged her from reading for pleasure.

As the Second World War loomed, her husband tried to volunteer as a chaplain, but was refused because of his poor vision. (In his case, it was a genetic condition that could not be corrected with lenses.) They struggled through together, birthing a daughter a few weeks after D-Day in 1944. A second daughter came along in 1948, three years after the war’s end.

In the small towns where her husband served as pastor, this woman found her teaching credentials in high demand and, as soon as her own two daughters were old enough for school, she went back to work. She always projected an apologetic attitude about working outside the home. She felt that she ought to have preferred focusing exclusively on home and husband and family. But she had a secret: She loved teaching. She couldn’t claim it as a career, because women of her era weren’t supposed to have careers. Just husbands and homes and families.

It’s difficult for a woman to be a good mother when she’s made to feel guilty for wanting more. And she can’t help but be slightly resentful about that. She also can’t help feeling like life has cheated her when she’s raised to have a taste for class and little luxuries and ends up trying to figure out what to do with the sack of onions her dear husband accepted as payment for a wedding ceremony. She was fortunate that the man she married was devoted and adoring, making her feel like a beautiful princess, even though he couldn’t afford the lifestyle.

I know you did your best, Mother. I wish we could have talked about it.

“Motherhood” by Picasso.
Pieter de Hooch, A woman with a child in a basement room,
ca 1656-1660.

The Burning House

I woke up a couple of days ago dreaming of a burning house. I was inside the house, but I wasn’t trying to get out. I wasn’t even particularly disturbed. I had closed the door to my room, trying to ignore the growing conflagration in the rest of the structure, apparently worried only about the collection of books on my shelves.

My first waking thought was: “My house is burning down with me in it.”

And I knew the dream wasn’t really about a house. It was about me, my aging body, and the fact that there truly is no way to escape. It’s burning down with me in it, and I just ignore it. I close the door and try not to think about it.

The dream may also be about the state of our world. Now that there’s no Donald Trump shenanigans to fixate on and now that COVID-19 is becoming something that is no longer an immediate threat to my life (Yay, vaccine!), I’m seeing more clearly the generally disastrous state of things—the racism and the misogyny and the poverty and the precarious climate and the probability of further pandemics and the belligerent ignorance and all the myriad manifestations of inequality and injustice that cluster on our borders and fester in our cities and towns. Our house is burning down with us in it. And we close the doors and try to pretend it isn’t happening. When some of us shout “fire,” others just look around inside their own rooms and shrug, ignoring the rising heat and all the closed doors.

What to do?

As for my aging body, I intend to pay more attention to exercise and other forms of self-care.

As for the world, I intend to emerge from my COVID isolation and keep saying what I see and what I know and writing stories about it. I may even occasionally shout, “Fire!”

Breakthrough/ Brokenness

For all of us who feel as if a four-year log jam has been broken, releasing the waters of American democracy to flow free once again, there are also those who are experiencing their world closing in on them, as its edges collapse and a sense of betrayal gnaws at their hearts. I find myself wanting to reach out to those people, to tell them that it’s not us, but rather the rigid boundaries they’ve set up around themselves that are the true source of their misery—boundaries of gender roles and racialism and religious absolutism. Over the past four or more years during which they’ve learned to deny anything written by professional journalists or attested to by career civil servants, to believe only what one man on Twitter tells them to believe, their world has shrunk smaller and smaller and now…well, what happens next for them?

The deepest misery of my own life has come in moments of betrayal, when a friend accused me of something that only told me how little they knew my true character or when I finally had to acknowledge that a minister I had admired had indeed done something unthinkable. But each time I have rebuilt my life from the brokenness. And this is what I want to tell my Republican friends: Take a minute. Experience the truth of brokenness. Grieve. And then pick yourselves up, look around and begin to believe that those you have demonized and hated stand ready to help you put the world back together again, to build it back into a world we can all live in together. We will never agree on everything, but can’t we at least stop shouting at one another and begin to listen?

Books and Stories

A persistent trope among readers and writers on social media is the debate between those who prefer digital reading devices and those who prefer “real” books. In the last few years, devotees of audio books have also waded into the fray. It amuses me how partisans of each type seem convinced that their preferred format really is the best as they seek to convert or disparage the rest.

The question came up in my novel, Shadow of the Hare. The main character, Malia, is a dissident in the Recall movement and adamant in her devotion to the physically printed word. Her preference emerged in childhood:

“I spent hours not only reading but arranging and rearranging my books on the shelves in my bedroom, finding sensual pleas­ure in the feel and smell and weight of them, the hard squaredness of their corners, the colors and images on their covers, the textures of their papers. The occasional, inevitable paper cut was a blood bond.”

She and other partisans of Recall became fearful of how digital media could be too easily revised and manipulated to suit the politics of the moment. In her world, printed books had become a resource hoarded by dissidents.

They may be onto something there.

Nevertheless, I understand that digital books are much more convenient for travelers and may also have some appeal to those advocating for the trees. You don’t have to cut down any trees to produce and access books on Kindle or Apple. People of a certain age also point out the convenience of being able to create their own LARGE PRINT VERSION of whatever book they like.

My latest book, Song of All Songs, features a main character who can’t read. She belongs to a future version of humanity, people who process the world in such a way that strings of figures printed on pages resist translation into anything meaningful. (They have other remarkable capabilities that far outweigh this seeming disability.) There are people in our own time and place who share this characteristic to some extent, of course. Books read aloud definitely appeal to such individuals. Audio books also appeal to people who want to read on the fly, on the run, on the commute, or while they’re doing other things like cooking dinner or cleaning the house.

All three formats have their place. The question of what constitutes a “real” book disappears when we focus on the stories themselves. Real stories can be written down and printed on paper. They can be composed digitally and accessed through cyberspace. They can be told aloud and listened to. Stories can also be acted out in plays and movies. The stories are what matter. However you choose to produce them and consume them is up to you. Just keep enjoying the stories!

 

NOTE: Song of All Songs is currently available as either a paperback or digital book. The process of producing the audio version begins next week!

A Moment of Magic

Once in a great while, life offers up moments of unforgettable magic. Facebook gave me this image today and in doing so gave me back a moment of magic from 2010.

The photo looks down from the slopes of Gangri Thökar, on a path leading up to Shugseb Ani Gompa in central Tibet. I was on a pilgrimage with Dechen Yeshe Wangmo and we’d arrived later than we planned at the base of the mountain. A number of our group opted to engage in brief prayers and then head back into Lhasa for a hot supper and welcome rest. The rest of us headed up the mountainside.

This was one of the pilgrimage sites that had strong personal significance for me. My teacher in Nepal, Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche, had been a student of an important abbess at Shugseb, the yogini Jetsunma Chönyi Zangmo (1852–1953).

It was late in the day as I made my way up the mountainside, and I soon lagged behind the younger and fitter members of our group, whose destination was a cave near the mountain’s summit associated with one of Tibet’s most revered scholars, Longchen Rabjam. We’d been told that the cave was currently occupied by Dudjom Yangsi, recognized as the reincarnation of another important figure in my teacher’s lineage.

Breathless as the mountain air thinned, I eventually gave up trying to keep my group in view. I stopped to rest and when I looked over my shoulder, the luminous valley took my breath away. I snapped a photo.

I finally reached the nunnery and began wandering among its buildings, unsure what to do next. The rest of my group were long gone, and I knew that this was as far up the mountain as I would go. I found a small structure that housed a huge prayer wheel and I went inside, circling the wheel as I turned it, chanting the guru mantra.

Soon I realized I was not alone. An elderly nun had entered. I greeted her in Tibetan and she smiled warmly and gestured for me to sit with her on one of the benches alongside the prayer wheel. Communicating in a patchwork of simple Tibetan and simple English augmented by a lot of gestures, I think I finally succeeded in telling her that my teacher had once studied here under the Shugseb Jetsunma (whose full name I didn’t even know at the time). She told me that she was called Ani Dawa. “Dawa” is Tibetan for “moon.” She offered me tea and tsampa, which I gladly accepted. We sat together for a while longer.

I had no idea when my friends from the mountaintop would be coming down, nor where I might encounter them. Maybe they’d already passed back through! I decided to take my leave and go back down the mountain alone.

It was dark by this time and I had no flashlight. But there was a full moon. So I was accompanied down the mountain by my friend dawa as I continued chanting the guru mantra.

When Facebook offered me this memory today, I felt the need to experience the magic again, to let myself remember this special moment in my life’s journey. As a scientist, I often shy away from magic, unwilling let it just be what it is without asking all the hard questions. I’m trying to tell myself to stop being that way. Sometimes it’s okay to let the circumstantial confluence of symbols and circumstance move me. Sometimes it’s okay to call it magic.

I also did a little more research online and discovered a new biography of Jetsunma Chönyi Zangmo, whose early associations with Nepal surprised me. I learned that her birth name was Chonga Lhamo (co lnga lha mo), which translates as “Goddess of the Fifteenth.” The biographer speculated that her name had something to do with the fifteenth day of the Tibetan calendar. It’s a lunar calendar, and the fifteenth is the full moon day.

A Little Truth

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“A truism that often forestalls a quest for truth: the moment you’ve been waiting for always finds you totally unprepared for it.” — Fiona Maazel, A Little More Human

Truth is all around me. Everywhere. The “moment” Fiona speaks of is the moment of recognition, of seeing the truth that was there all along. So, really, how could I possibly prepare for that? It would be like waking up ten minutes early in order to be able to observe and find out what it’s like to wake up. The moment is already past! And there I am–awake and unprepared.

So does that mean I shouldn’t look for truth? That I should forestall my quest?

Absolutely!

Let truth find me, in all my requisite unpreparedness. Let it trip me up in the hallway, pounce on me in the street, drop on my head as I scurry through my day.

Honor the surprising truth.

What To Do

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What would I do if the world were ending, which of course it is, as it has been ever since its beginning, just as you and I and all of us have been dying ever since the moment of our conception and maybe even before that?

So the question does not hinge on “if” but rather on “what would I do?” which must necessarily become “what will I do?”

What will I do, given that the world is ending and I with it?

It seems the only rational thing is to give myself over to being exactly what I am – a curious and passionate participant-observer in this whole doomed project. In fact, the finiteness of the project and the minuteness of my role in it is exactly what makes life so very, very precious. No time for pretense, for visions of eternity (which is also a thing although not my thing nor yours). No time for quarreling with the neighbors over transitory possessions or evanescent ideas (mine are ultimately as silly as yours). No time for anything but walking together, hand in hand, and laughing at the joyous unexpectedness of this opportunity to be exactly who we are.

 

Remembering Mothers

 

 

 

The memories that matter are not at your grave site. There I find only tears, sad faces, loss. No, the memories I seek are in the houses where life happened.

In the kitchen where we sat together shelling peas or on the porch where we ate grapes with ice while waiting for the postman or at the table where we listened to the radio and played endless games and you let me keep score or under the trees where we gathered pecans in autumn. Today I remember life. Happy Mothers’ Day!

Broken Things

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I broke a teacup today. Well, I didn’t exactly break it; it was broken when I unpacked it from the move. You can tell by the clean lines of the break that divided it into exactly four pieces that it was a pressure fracture rather than an impact. That would have shattered it and produced messy shards.
The cup was part of a delicate little tea set hand painted for my mother by my best friend’s grandmother in the late 1950s. Well, she was my best friend back then. After my family moved away in the summer of 1962, my best friend and I wrote letters back and forth for a while. We were in high school and by the time we both went off to college, we only saw each other a few more times. Now I don’t even know where she is or what her name is. These things happen to women. We change our names and move on.
One of my Facebook friends suggested I have the cup repaired by the Japanese technique that fuses the pieces back together using gold or silver, making the piece more beautiful for its accident, making the break a part of its history instead of the end of it. That didn’t seem right for this piece.
My friend Debra Broz said she could put it back together and make it look good as new. I’ve seen her work; no one would ever have known it had been broken. Except me. I’d always know. And I’d always know it was Debra’s art as much as my school friend’s grandmother’s art that created my teacup. That didn’t seem right either.
Another friend suggested I have one of the fragments made into a piece of jewelry. Maybe I’ll do that.
Or maybe I’ll just try to track down my school friend and we can talk about her grandmother and drink tea from the cups that didn’t break.

Same and Different

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As I continue to read all the words flowing forth from both the wise and the foolish in the aftermath of Orlando, I keep pondering, “What can we do to prevent such a thing happening again?” Yes, we definitely need to do something about the ready availability of such powerful tools of death as were used in this instance. I applaud the efforts of the Senators (not mine – I’m from Texas) filibustering to compel their colleagues at long last into action. But we also need to do something about the hate that fueled this particular outrage – the hate directed against, as it’s often put, people who are “different”.

What does that word even mean these days? Different? Different from what? Just as humans don’t inhabit skins of a limited number of colors – black, brown, white, yellow – but instead come in a marvelous gradation of every color and combination, we also don’t come in only two genders. This realization shouldn’t come as a surprise; human cultures around the world have made room for these non-binary gradations in gender and sexuality for centuries.

In order to combat the hate coming from the stubborn gender dualists out there, we need a new and empowering alliance of all people who want to challenge such stifling gender definitions. We need to come together as LGBTQ folks and cis-gender feminists and men who are weary of the old macho mentality. We need to embrace one another as members of one incredibly diverse and beautiful array of human possibilities.

In a sense we’re all different. And all the same, all beautiful manifestations of exactly what it means to be human. We need each other in order to know, experience, and understand the full reach of our humanity.

Be the rainbow, y’all!