Tag Archives: ponderings on womanhood

Song of My Mother

I was going to wait until Mother’s Day to write this, but May is too far off and sometimes you just feel the timing.

My mother and I are very different. I am sharp where she is soft. My tongue is quick where hers is careful. My eyes roll where hers share compassion.

Sometimes I think I will never be as good as my mother. When I tell her this, she starts to cry because she doesn’t believe in her own beauty. There are some things that you just can’t be told.

I hate it when people take my time. This is probably my Big Number One Badness. I am quick to listen over coffee, happy to write back and forth, delighted to exchange ideas and longings and go on day trips. But I am slow to do for people. My family (sort of) jokes around about the fact that I am not the most reliable when it comes to cleaning the house or doing favors. They joke because they love me anyway, but I know that it isn’t exactly funny.

My mother gets up every morning to drive my father to work. She taught us at home for twelve years; I still remember the moment she showed me Little House on the Prairie when I was in kindergarten and my life changed forever. My favorite place to learn is still the little round table with the blue and white checkered table cloth, just me and my mom while the three younger kids were taking naps. She drops what she’s doing to help any one of her children. She works in the house and she works in the garden and her loyalty is sometimes so strong I’m scared. She bakes amazing cookies for no occasion other than it’s Tuesday and I don’t think I’ve ever heard her complain.

Some people think she’s too emotional; they see her emotion as weakness. What we – my father, my brothers, my sister, and I – know is that she is the strongest woman in our lives.

We are so different in so many ways. My mother doesn’t write, but she crafts the most delicious meals and the feet of loved ones are never cold with her cozy knitted socks. She doesn’t sing, but she knows how to encourage and make you see where you can grow but also how far you’ve already grown. It’s taken me years to see that these are gifts of infinite value.

I know my mother will read this and she will say, “We are not so different,” and I will hope and pray that she is right. It might not be against the grain to say that my mother is my dearest friend and my closest mentor. There isn’t a smile more genuine or a heart more compassionate. God shines through her, and I want everyone to know what a woman lives in this little no-name town.

IMG_0737[from this summer on our rare family weekend-away. the coast and good food and a mini-hike – all six of us together in the bright sun.]

To read about other amazing mentors, check out this link!

 

The Writing Life [and its many components]

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The feeling I get standing in the wings, waiting to walk out on stage.

The scratchy grass on my back, the sun too bright in my eyes, and the smell of the earth baking.

Singing “Caput, umeri, genua, pedes” (“head, shoulders, knees, and toes”…or feet, technically) til I feel like I’ve gotten my workout for the day.

Digging in the cold, icy earth first thing in the spring. Clearing away old brush. Seeing nothing but gray-brown until one sunny morning green shoots magically appear.

The moment I scan through the mail and see in beautiful or messy or barely-there handwriting my name and address. Opening a letter that’s traveled from Pennsylvania or Maine or Switzerland. Remembering that geography isn’t strong enough to destroy good friendships.

The ocean, cold and thick with seaweeds. The feeling of rough sand on my feet, when I can barely see because the wind is whipping my hair in my face. The long stretches of days when for a moment I truly think it will never end.

When I walk around the corner at a museum and come upon a life-size sculpture. The lines of the body, the artistry in the way the cloak is draped across the torso, the way the sculpture seems to be breathing right there in front of me.

Explaining the word “etymology” to a too-young class because they’re too excited to wait. Opening their minds up to the beauty of language and the world ahead of them.

The way I feel when I’m surrounded by people I love. Maybe at my house, maybe at a dark cozy restaurant, maybe at a beach house or church or the lake.

~     ~     ~

I don’t think it’s possible to be a writer and love only writing.

Last summer, I wrote a post about my plans to write when I was at the beach for a week. I foolishly anticipated long stretches of time when I would be able to read and write to my heart’s content. What I forgot to factor in was people: the people who make everything worth it. Who can turn down a four-hand cribbage game with the Gram, a brother, and a cousin? Who can stay cozied up on a beach chair while everyone else goes for a long ambling walk along the ocean? Who asks a room-full of family to “Please stop singing along to the record player because I’m trying to write?”

Some people probably do, but this girl finds it pretty difficult.

Writing is a solitary act in so many ways. Right now, I’m sitting at my kitchen table, waiting for the water to boil so I can fill my french press. I’m alone, and that’s okay for now. In fact, it’s rather nice. In the long term, though? Not so much fun.

Maybe there is a writer out there who loathes people. Maybe he sits at his desk for ten hours a day and throws his hands up in gratitude that he never has to interact with anyone. Maybe he doesn’t like music or art or the outdoors or any of the other beautiful things of life.

I don’t think I’d really connect with whatever he wrote.

~     ~     ~

I had a long talk with a friend from college. He was asking what I was up to, what life looked like lately. I told him about teaching Latin (“You wouldn’t believe it! When I teach them derivatives it’s like they cannot believe ‘manipulate’ comes from manus and they freak out.” Granted, this is only my younger grades. My high schoolers are a little less enthused.), directing Alice in Wonderland (“Do you know what it’s like to have those songs stuck in your head ALL THE TIME?”), and applying to MFA programs (Um, scared.). It was in talking with him that I remembered one of the best parts of being a writer: Everything I do will add to it.

I came across this woman from Colorado. We’d actually met briefly four or five years ago, but I found her because of Twitter (that all-too-kind-suggester thought we should be friends). We’ve been writing back and forth, and she was telling me about applying to grad school – but in history, not writing. What is history if not stories? What is music if not stories in sound? And what is good conversation if not a sharing of our personal plot lines?

Being a writer is like having the biggest job description ever.

Do I make my money from writing?

Not yet.

But writing makes you look at the world and your life in a different way. It makes you more attuned to the little things, and it reminds you that sharing those experiences and being able to reproduce a moment of truth for someone else is your job.

[Over-nighted my last MFA application. Any nervousness I would’ve felt was nervoused-away in the days leading up to it. I popped it in the mail between Latin classes, and I’m currently attempting to pretend to forget.]

Writing (and reading) connect us to each other. Just as I met Anne who’s going to study history, I can write about any of those things and someone in the middle of South Dakota or Canada or the United Kingdom probably loves them too. It’s all part of living the Full Life, like I tried weakly to express in an earlier post. It’s one of those constant discoveries I keep discovering.

Do I regret going for walks at the beach? Playing cribbage and screaming during games of Taboo? Do I wish I’d really committed and sat down and written line after line of poetry or what-have-you? No way.

Reading and Trains and the Beauty of Timing

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I bought another book I didn’t need today. It called to me from the stack at the used bookstore. I popped in (against my better judgement and against the wisdom of my wallet), thinking I could poke around and leave without buying anything. I should’ve known better.

It was a paperback copy of Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood.

I reasoned for a moment: You’ve already read this. You do not need to buy this.

But I knew even as I held its soft covers in my hands that I would buy it. That I should have my own copy. You really shouldn’t keep recommending a book that you don’t own. At least, that’s what I told myself as I went up to the cash register.

When I think of this book, I see myself on the train. I’m holding a hardcopy from the library, and I’m reading as the brakes squeak and smash me against the side of the train (this happened only a few times, I’m sure, but in my mind it was a constant interruption). I consumed this book with a fervor that surprised me; I’d tried reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek the year before and I’m pretty sure that I will never get further than three pages into it.

There is something to be said for timing.

Dillard’s book spoke to me from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where a little blonde girl discovered the world and her place in it. I was a barely-bigger blonde girl, interning at a large publishing house for the summer before heading back to college. I rode the train every day, and every day I thought Is this what will happen to me? as I watched middle-aged men and women silently board the train, silently ride the train, and silently get off. Was this what life had in store?

“I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again”
― Annie DillardAn American Childhood

[a poem wrote itself hurriedly on the back of a receipt from lunch. it was about being little and memories and contradictions. it was born out of Annie Dillard and the receipt is still in a book somewhere.]

The train moving forward, the hardcover book in my hands, my feet propped up on the runner. My stomach growling because I hadn’t packed a big enough lunch (again!), and my mind wandering to my senior year of college and what the heck am I doing and what the heck am I gonna do? The city slowly slipping away behind me and Annie’s world opening up.

“In short, I always vowed, one way or another, not to change. Not me. I needed the fierceness of vowing because I could scarcely help but notice…that it was mighty unlikely.”
― Annie DillardAn American Childhood

There was too much of me in her and it scared me. How important is it to be unique? I started hoping it wasn’t too important, because my uniqueness was being written away.

Every day I went into the city and every day I worked in a little gray cubicle. The words began to blur on the screen, blur on the page, blur in my mind. I longed for my lunch hour when I could take my little peanut butter and jelly sandwich (yay for cheap meals!) and eat in the gardens and watch poor unsuspecting people and yell at audacious squirrels. I loved words. I loved learning about publishing. But not talking for eight hours a day WAS KILLING ME.

So I escaped to Annie.

“As a child I read hoping to learn everything, so I could be like my father. I hoped to combine my father’s grasp of information and reasoning with my mother’s will and vitality. But the books were leading me away. They would propel me right out of Pittsburgh altogether, so I could fashion a life among books somewhere else.” ― Annie DillardAn American Childhood

Annie Dillard was to my 21-year-old self what Joan Didion was to my 23-year-old self. It’s all about timing. Who knows? Maybe I wouldn’t love either of them if they’d switched places.

~     ~     ~

So I bought another book I didn’t need. I think I bought it for the memories as much as anything; they’re all wrapped up inside. The book’s sitting beside me without a line or mark in it. Who reads their own paperback without marking it up? I don’t understand it. I can’t wait to get my hands on a pen.

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What to do with joy

This morning I woke up to a little snow on the ground and birds everywhere.

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I also woke up to roughly the fifth engagement announcement on facebook. Two good friends from college got engaged right before Christmas (not to each other!), and the rest of us had secretly been wondering: Okay, what’s the hold-up, guys?

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I didn’t realize Christmas was the time to get engaged. I also didn’t realize how horribly some people deal with their own disappointment.

A status popped up recently, and it went something like this: “Stop posting your engagements on facebook. It just reminds me of how alone I am. Thanks.”

I blinked.

What? Was this person seriously asking others to contain their joy because they themselves didn’t share it?

What about the part in the Bible that says: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn,” (Romans 12:15)?

I admit wholeheartedly that I have no problem mourning with those who mourn; this comes naturally, sadness, sympathy, and confusion being things I can understand and empathize with.

But rejoicing with those who rejoice? Isn’t that just as important?

The past two years, I’ve realized what it means to allow yourself to experience life fully. And that means allowing both deep pain and deep joy to be expressed.

I would never say to a friend, “Please, don’t cry anymore. I love you, but I don’t want to hear it.” (This despite my previous post about learning how to deal with other people’s pain.)

So how can we think that asking others to stifle joy is an appropriate response? Does the fact that others have found love and are looking forward to a life of marriage make you any more alone? Lonely? Sad?

Would them being single make you happier?

We are called to love one another. And one way that love is shown is through the sharing of joy.

I know that I won’t be able to keep myself from singing it from the rooftops, when I find someone to walk through life with. I don’t expect anyone else to, either.

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A First

All week, I think about the weekend. Even on days that go well, during lessons that rock, I think in the back of my mind, I can’t wait til the weekend. I can’t wait to hang out with friends. I can’t wait to do my thing. 

I think this every week, and then, on Friday night, all I can think about is sleep. And movies. And reading. and not seeing anyone.

What is wrong with me? It’s been over two months, now, and each weekend that comes up, I find myself at home again, doing quiet, contemplative things.

But every Monday morning, I think, shoot, I didn’t go out again. I stayed home AGAIN.

This weekend was different.

I went out with my sister and her friend, met them late after watching Argo with a boy I grew up with (it was so fun, chatting, nearly getting lost driving streets I’ve driven since I was sixteen, having him lean over and say, “We didn’t get nearly as much talking time as usual, watching this movie. We need to go out again soon.” Old friends are great.)

Later, when I met up with my sister, the place was crowded, the music was way too loud (as soon as I thought this, I cringed at my oldness), and the girls had already finished their drinks when I got there. I was wearing a sweatshirt and jeans, since I hadn’t planned to go out at all. I was not looking my best, but I was feeling particularly happy.

The woman working at the bar came over, slid three cinnamon whiskeys towards us, and said, “These are from the three guys over there,” with a nod.

It was totally flattering, and after we drank the delicious cinnamony-delight, we let them sidle up to us and chat for about half an hour. It was fun, learning their names, talking about where we went to college (“Isn’t that super Christian?” they asked. “Yeah, it’s a Christian college.”). I was a little separate from the other girls, so most of the time I watched them interact, watched them laugh and flirt. It was almost more fun than doing it myself – no pressure, no assumptions.

Then my sister and her friend got up to go to the bathroom, leaving me alone. The boys were further away, but the dark haired one came up, smiling, saying, “Don’t want to leave you all alone.”

He told me he was going to college – for the first time at age twenty-four – to study Mechanical Engineering. He saw my VW key and made fun of me for having a “chick car.” I pointed out that I was, in fact, a chick.

The girls were only gone a moment, but it was long enough to feel good chatting with a stranger.

And then, as he was about to leave, he said something that normally would’ve shocked me.

“You’re really pretty,” he said. But then he went on: “I hope you get laid tonight.”

I couldn’t even react. It was like I didn’t really hear the words.

He wasn’t even being crass. He wasn’t trying to be insulting or embarrass me. His voice was low and kind, and his eyes were soft. He could’ve been my mother, saying “Honey, you look so beautiful!” Or my friend K telling me, “You deserve an amazing man, Cath.”

I couldn’t slap him or chastise him or say anything that would’ve told him I was a prude.

He was merely giving me a 21st-century compliment.

It’s not his fault, I guess. That’s what our culture tells us is the highest prize: laid-worthiness.

When I came home and told my mother, she looked at me, shocked. And then she laughed. She kept laughing all day, whispering the phrase under her breath.

He didn’t know who he was talking to. But still, I think there’s a soft spot in my heart for him. His dark hair, his Greekness, his easy way of talking. The compliment that flattered me and shocked me at the same time.

We are looking for such different things.

[Valentine’s Day]

I danced and spun and twirled

and you watched, laughing. Balanced

a glass of pale pink wine 
in my hand –

not spilling a drop – while I danced

alone in the living room.

 

But I stopped and looked at you,

shocked suddenly. This is it, I said,

we are women. And I couldn’t believe

that I was dancing with wine, still

waiting to grow up.

Candlelight, Beekeeping, and a Little Old-Fashioned Feminism

I sit on my bed, legs crossed, with three delicious-smelling candles burning. I haven’t pulled the shades down yet because I like the way the night looks against the candlelight. I had an unexpected revelation today, and I think it has made all the difference.

For awhile now, I’ve been fighting a lot of things. One of the more upsetting of late is the idea of womanhood and what it means to be a “wife.” (I put the term in quotation marks because it scares me, and putting words in quotation marks dilutes their power!) But more to the point, I have been scared of what it means to be a person – and a woman, specifically – in marriage. I’ve been watching a lot of friends and acquaintances get engaged, married, pregnant, and I am overwhelmed. I feel like I can’t even catch my breath from the almost-daily Facebook notifications. All this activity in the matrimonial department has me thinking: what kind of wife will I be? what kind of wife do I want to be? and why am I so scared?

The answer to that last one is, I’m pretty sure at least, that I am scared of losing myself. Scared that binding myself to another for life will, instead of making me a more complete Self, blur the lines of me until I am unrecognizable. It is this fear that drives me to some of the ideas of feminism, of maintaining autonomy, of being equals within a marriage, and of feeling the desire and need to create something outside of that marriage. Some of these ideas sound selfish to me even now; how can you be autonomous and truly engage in life-changing communion with another human? I wrote communion instead of union because I am STILL scared of the fullness of that concept.

Then a little voice in my head says Cath, you’re not even in a relationship. Marriage isn’t on the horizon. This is way premature thinking on your part. But then I look around me and see so many young people throwing themselves into a life-long commitment, and I wonder if they have any idea what they’re embarking on. It isn’t too early to be thinking about how I hope to function within one of the most beautiful relationships God has given us, and it certainly isn’t too early to think about living with excitement for the future instead of fear.

And here is where the revelation comes in: I picked up one of my Dad’s bee journals (yes, they actually publish magazines on beekeeping, and yes, we have multiple). It was sitting on the coffee table and I saw an article on the cover that intrigued me: “Beeconomy – Women and Bees.” The revelation didn’t come from bees, or women keeping bees, or anything really to do with bees. It came in these brief sentences:

“A shift from a rural economy to more urban capitalism saw a decline in the value of the ‘good wife,’ an equal partner with her husband who would serve the community and barter with neighbors. Instead, women were expected to be at home, providing the primary care for children” (McNeil, M. E. A., “American Bee Journal” Vol. 152 N. 1).

Suddenly it came together for the first time: I wasn’t bucking the eternal, time-honored tradition of women in the home cleaning, laundering, feeding, and raising. I was bucking the 20th century version of that tradition. I HATE cleaning and “keeping house” (there I go again), but when it is in the context of partnership – in the context of running a business, running a farm – the idea is not nearly as scary. A few weeks ago I met up with an old friend who has four children and another on the way. She and her husband recently built their own home in the woods, complete with a wood stove, long windows overlooking the backyard, and a table big enough to entertain twenty guests. I asked her how she did it, how she resigned herself to washing the dishes, doing the laundry, making three meals a day for four children, keeping everything running smoothly.

“I don’t think I can do it,” I said, as I watched her baste a homegrown chicken. “I just can’t do those things every day FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE.”

She didn’t stop what she was doing. She just talked while she finished basting and put the chicken back in the oven.

“You know what, I had the same problem. And then I realized: you have to view it, not as ‘doing the dishes,’ but as creating a home. You do the dishes, you do the laundry, not because you absolutely love doing it, but because by doing so, you create a home for your family.”

And so, together with a little nugget of knowledge from a bee journal, my friend created for me a new outlook. I don’t know entirely what my life will look like as a wife, or even if I’ll be one. But at least now I know how I want to be one: the wife who works alongside her husband to create a home.