Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Nothing New Under the Sun

Talk of Blagojevich and impeachment has turned my mind toward my favorite movie, All the President's Men. This is the film I rent when I'm feeling blue and looking for something that will give me reason to hope.

Corruption is a baseline expectation, so I'm not discouraged by the film's depiction of Nixon's blatant lies, the vastness of the conspiracy and cover-up, or the recognition of how little has changed in politics. All of that muck is so cleanly stepped through by Woodward and Bernstein as portrayed by Redford and Hoffman. This film makes me believe that you can make a difference in the world by being smart and paying attention. It's also a story of courage and stubborn persistence -- and good writing.

The film emphasizes writing first with its closeup of a blank page being imprinted by a teletype -- the words pounding onto the page, revealing the truth. Then there is the scene where Bernstein steals and rewrites an article that has been turned in by the less-seasoned Woodward. Redford conveys mild annoyance tempered by an eagerness to learn. He asks Bernstein not to go around his back but bring edits directly to him, nodding at the revisions and saying, "Yours is better." In the film it's not only the truth that matters, but also how it is told.

There are convictions in these two characters -- but in the film those convictions don't translate into self-aggrandizement. Yes they want to get the big story, but they're also passionate about learning the truth and telling it right.

It's startling that these
two young journalists were perceptive enough to pick up on a small story-- buried deep within the pages of the Washington Post--mentioning a break-in at the Watergate hotel. Like all the best detective stories, something in plain sight turned out to be a clue to something much deeper. When Woodward and Bernstein saw those few paragraphs they recognized, quite literally, that there was more to the story. To see the unwritten story, and to write it. What a feat!

In a way this speaks to a broader truth about facts and what's behind them -- the way in which there is always "more to the story." To question what's behind a brief crime report is to recognize that events have underlying causes. Just as a break-in on page three has a cause, so does any other seemingly plain fact.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I'm often consumed by questions--peering under the surface of things to see if there's some underlying problem that can be solved and acted upon. The hope (or fantasy) of All the President's Men is that sometimes these perceptions and questions can make a difference.

Despite my love for the film, I also recognize it as a fantasy and piece of entertainment--the characters so likable and cool, the answers so neatly uncovered. And although Woodward and Bernstein's efforts did in reality help end a corrupt Presidency, far worse corruption has followed in the succeeding decades.

So I enjoy the film, while also always being left with the awareness that the triumph it depicts is just a moment in time. The pursuit of justice and truth are as old as human history, and each victory is tempered by the complex intersection of competing interests, human greed, and versions of the story.

A film like All the President's Men and the story it tells gives us the sense that change is possible. But once you start searching for the whole story--prying up the paving stones of "how things are" to see what's beneath, it's hard to stop questioning. I sometimes feel the way the teacher in Qohelet/Ecclesiastes describes when he laments:
What a heavy burden God has laid on men! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Ecclesiastes contains a desperate search for truth, describing a teacher's exploration of many potential sources of meaning in life--work, pleasure, wealth, knowledge, love. How can we find meaning when everyone's life ends the same way, it asks? Near the end it states:
...the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Everything is meaningless!"
Although everything is declared meaningless, there's still a paradox within the story as the Teacher repeatedly returns to his questions, holding out hope that an answer can be found. He shares a story that reminds me of Woodward and Bernstein:
I also saw under the sun this example of wisdom that greatly impressed me: There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siegeworks against it. Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom.
Despite the greed and hunger of a powerful king, a poor man was able to save a small city (a metaphor for the truth?). Unfortunately, the lessons of quiet wisdom don't last as long as the impact of a powerful fool. The Teacher concludes:
But nobody remembered that poor man. So I said, "Wisdom is better than strength." But the poor man's wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded.

The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded
than the shouts of a ruler of fools.

Wisdom is better than weapons of war,
but one sinner destroys much good.

In the end, a small act by an individual can bring down a King... but a powerful leader can do lasting damage.

Just as All the President's Men is bookended by a teletype, Ecclesiastes begins and ends with a narrator who is not the Teacher. After the Teacher has proclaimed everything to be meaningless, the narrator seems compelled to come up with a more tidy ending. He explains, "Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body."

Then he offers what sounds at first like a platitude: "Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil."

I see two ways to read this conclusion. At first it seems like a pat on the head: don't worry so much about meaning and why -- just follow the commandments.

But then, it's also a practical bit of advice. Yes, the struggle to do good and live wisely is unending, but still, we've got to do the best we can.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The New Symbol

The election of Barack Obama comes as a relief. It means so much for the future of our country -- speaking volumes about our capacity to take care of one another and our shared commitment to solving crises like war in the Middle East and global warming. It feels like an end to a long era of injustice that started...when? With Reagan? Segregation? Slavery? The colonization of this land?

Something hopeful seems to lie ahead.

I've been moved by the many reflections by African Americans about what this election means to them personally. I have read and heard young men of color say they hope this will change how people see them -- and that it changes how they see themselves. When I picked my son up at school yesterday, a little girl was hanging up a portrait of Barack Obama. Like our next President, she is biracial, and she had carefully colored his skin a rich shade of brown. She lifted the portrait to the wall to see how it looked before running to get some tape.

Marian Wright Edelman recently wrote:
[This] election is a reminder that the United States is still a place of bold ideas and a beacon of hope. It says to every child of color and every poor boy and girl that you belong too, and you do have a future. Throughout America’s history, race has been a noose choking our capacity to soar. At a time when we face a great litany of problems, it is moving to see the American people's common sense and faith trump fear. It is truly a triumph that yesterday Americans voted for competence and a new vision, regardless of race.
She then goes on to call us to see this not as the end that it feels like, but the beginning of the next era of justice-making. She writes:
Leaders are only as good as citizens demand them to be, and we must create a citizens' movement that will fight to provide every child in America with health coverage, that will work to end child poverty, and that will stop funneling children down a prison pipeline that threatens to re-segregate our nation.
There is much work to be done. On health care, poverty, education. Justice work. Edelman urges us not to become complacent or overly proud of ourselves for the symbolic importance of this moment in time. But I do want to linger here just a bit longer.

Although I can be only an ally in the long struggle against racism and white supremacy, I was deeply moved by the sight of Barack, Michelle, Sasha and Malia Obama taking their place as our nation's "first family." Seeing them standing on that stage in Grant Park was powerful in the way that moments of symbolic, historic, and ritual importance are.

I have never been much of a flag-waver, but seeing that beautifully multi-racial crowd so filled with unity and with joy, waving the American flag: the flag looked different to me. It looked to me so much more like America.

I felt and feel such a strong sense of "this changes everything."

The next day, that phrase came to mind again as I read the results of the anti-gay marriage ballot propositions that passed during this same election. I have heard married couples express surprise at the power they have experienced by being married. "I don't know why," they say, "but it just changes everything."

How disappointing that in an election that I believe truly changed what it means to utter the words "United States of America," voters in states as diverse as California, Arizona, Florida and Arkansas chose to cling to old definitions of marriage and family. By banning gay marriage or the adoption of children by gay couples, large groups of Obama supporters seem to have spoken the message, "Yes we can... as long as we're not gay people wanting to marry or build a family."

I have always been open to the possibility that civil unions are enough. Pragmatically, I wonder if federal Civil Union legislation might be possible in the next 8 years.... But watching the Obamas onstage in Grant Park, knowing that this moment transcended party platforms or social issues--watching the world change in a moment--I understood why it really does have to be marriage.

No church will be forced to change its doctrine or sacraments, no one will be forced to show up at gay weddings. Send a gift or don't, but the world needs gay marriage just like the world needs an African American President of the United States.

When Kevin & I first set out on our marriage boycott, we did it for our friends. We did it for solidarity and feminism and justice. It was also for ourselves, because we wanted our life to be the testament to our commitment--not the words on a legal document.

We believed then, and believe now, that love makes a family. We believed that our relationship was no more authentic or valid by virtue of the fact that we can procreate. We didn't find weddings to be particularly expressive of who we are as a couple. We knew that as an opposite-sex couple, we wouldn't actually endure much discrimination for our choice; and felt that maintaining our legal separateness was a feminist act and assertion of our individual identities. We felt that marriage is overly-romanticised and too easily entered into.

Today I realize that marriage matters, but not for the reasons that get the most press. It's not because children need two parents or need one role model of each gender to live with them. It's not because it protects you from breaking up or makes taxes easier or because little girls grow up wanting to be princesses.

It matters because marriage changes things. A co-worker told me yesterday that his daughter is getting married, and as a parent, and seeing the pride on his face, I exclaimed, "Aw! Congratulations!" I was swept up in what this means for him and for his daughter. Swept up by the way the world changes when you get married. When you have a child. When your child gets married. Marriage matters at a symbolic, ritual level. And so for the homophobe, the simple legal recognition of same-sex unions feels like a desecration.

As I experienced the power of symbolic change on election night, I was also aware that during these world-changing ritual moments, old symbols must be shattered. White supremacy has lost some of its power as the white male monopoly on our nation's highest office comes to an end.

While the archetype of marriage is becoming cracked and worn with age, it still stands. It's sad to develop a deeper appreciation for the alchemy of the marriage rite while being so clearly reminded of why my relationship won't fit inside such an inadequately-defined vessel.

I believe the marriage archetype will shatter one day and that a new symbol will replace it. The new symbol will not be defined by body parts. It will look much more like love. The new symbol will stand tall and complete as a family on a stage: smiling, waving, filling hearts with joy.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

It's been a difficult few weeks for me professionally. Being a human being within a community means that sometimes things are not fair. I won't describe the situation in detail, but it's not a new story. Just a story of individuals and systems and power, and the experience of being unable to affect the outcome.

In the challenges I faced these last several weeks, I had a strong sense of calling -- an urgent pull towards action, and clarity about what I needed to say and do. And in the end, my actions and words were helpful to some of my colleagues, but had no direct impact on the situation I was speaking out about. However in the process I gained clarity and insight into my own life's path, and developed a much stronger ability to listen to my own insights and speak with my own voice.

For a brief moment I thought maybe our prayers would be literally answered. But that's not how it works. If it worked that way, no one would suffer. (Which of course begs the question of why we suffer, a question for which there is no compassionate answer.)

Instead of faith bringing us the outcome we were working so hard for, I was reminded that faith is its own reward. You don't get to pray for things to get better and then they do. You pray or meditate on the questions, and what comes to you is not a particular outcome (miraculous cure, wrong righted). What comes to you is a sense of purpose. That's it -- clarity for your own actions.

Anyway, through this experience I've questioned once again whether insight is god-given -- something you connect with and listen for; or whether it comes from within -- psychologically explainable but still genuinely comforting, healing, and powerful.

Agnostic that I am, I feel compelled to question where insight comes from, but in the end I guess it doesn't really matter. What matters is to do your best to be open to insight it when it comes.

Reflecting on the events of the last several weeks, my boss quoted our chaplain at work, reminding me of one of my favorite passages from the Prophets, Micah 6:8 --
...what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?
I have always felt that the key to the first two - doing justice, loving kindness - is the third requirement: walking humbly with your God.

I truly don't believe it matters if you find your God is in nature, in reason, in meditation or in art or music or poetry or the Bible. Whether God is understood as a real entity or force, or understood as a metaphor for that which is greater than ourselves, God can be found in many places.

And what we are required to do -- what we must do -- is guard against becoming too proud of ourselves for how smart, pious, artsy, or wonderful we are. We must walk humbly.

I'm not a sports fan, but what inspired this post was watching a video of a small women's softball game that was witnessed by fewer than 100 people, but still gives me every reason to hope that doing what's required is possible. This video on YouTube, linked by a deeply spiritual acquaintance of mine, reminds me of a story my Buddhist studies professor, Charles Hallisey, once relayed.

He described two Buddhist monks reaching a river and finding a woman who was struggling to cross, clinging to a branch, and calling to them that she couldn't swim. Because they were prohibited from touching women, the first monk did nothing. The second monk walked into the river and helped the woman across.

As the monks continued on their journey they were silent for a bit. Then the first monk broke the silence. "How could you carry her across the river? We're forbidden from touching women," he said. The second monk replied, "My friend, I left her at the river's edge. It appears you are still carrying her."

It's very difficult to find rules for living that work in every situation. Doing justice and loving kindness can feel nearly impossible when we become caught up in conflict and competing values. Yet with openness and by walking humbly, sometimes it's possible to understand what to do right now, at this moment.

The video I linked above has an obvious connection to the story of the monks in the image of carrying. But it is also about having a set of rules that limit your choices, and finding that you are called to do the right thing -- to answer the law that transcends the rules you have been given.

What does the Lord require of us?

To do justice

To love kindness

To walk humbly with our God.

May I answer this requirement with humility, compassion, and courage. May I find I am not alone in this walk--that this walk takes place alongside that which is greater.

And, I wish the same for you.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

I want to share two things.

First, an article from Harvard Divinity Bulletin by Chris Hedges, "A Hollow Agnosticism," which is a review of Bart Ehrman's God's Problem. I have not read Ehrman, or Hedges' new book, I Don't Believe in Athiests.

The essay's title drew me in, and despite the kids running around socking each other with plastic swords and begging for my intervention, I had to read it all the way through. It helped me answer some questions I have recently had about what's next in my life. Well, not answer them exactly, but reinforced my sense that the answer is not, "treat yourself to something nice" or "just don't worry about it."

Anyway, read it if you're wondering why we suffer. Not that he answers that question. It's more like, "so glad you asked."

Then my dear friend Parisa sent me a link to a sermon she gave on doubt. Again, focusing on the importance of questioning, doubting, even of heresy. And yet rather than despair at the un-knowable-ness of questions like "where do we come from?" "why are we here?" and "what happens after we die?" she finds wonder and miracle in the very fact of being alive.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Michelle Obama

I ended my last post bracing myself for the treatment of Michelle Obama in the media, and soon after saw this piece in Racialicious discussing how both conservative and liberal media and bloggers have begun to dissect Michelle's appearance, strength, career, and etc. Where Hillary's supposed dowdiness was used against her when Bill was President, now it appears that Michelle's attractiveness will be used against her. (See the photo from a "progressive" blog depicting her in a revealing evening gown, hanging from her wrists and about to be branded by the KKK supposedly illustrating the racist and sexist attacks of right wingers. As if composing that image were not itself a threatening act against her.)

Laura Bush is the ideal "first lady" as that concept is constructed. She is white, Christian, demure, and attractive, but in a conservative way. She is deferential towards her husband even when she disagrees with him, is patient and kind, forgiving him for his youthful excesses. A librarian and a mother, capable of keeping the household harmonious and preventing any distractions from impinging upon her husband's important work.

That the Obamas, like the Clintons and Roosevelts before them, have a marriage based at least in theory on equality and respect is deeply disruptive to the conventions of politics and running for office. (I say in equal in theory because obviously, Bill has shown deep disrespect through his behavior--although he worked like a dog to help get Hillary elected, and supported her attempt to transform the role of "first lady" during his presidency into a job description his wife would want.) I guess it should be no wonder that politics is still such a male dominated profession, when there are such rigid roles prescribed for our nation's highest office and its "first lady."

Here's an idea: I would like to retire whole "first lady" concept. The fact that there were questions about what you would call the husband of the president begs the question of why one's spouse should have anything to do with the office of President in the first place. Spouses/partners show up at the office holiday party--they are not part of the job interview.

More importantly, our country needs to be cured of its first lady fetish--the demand that the wife of the President reflect some idealized notion of feminine domestic perfection: Donna Reed without the sass.

Barbara Bush couldn't live up because she had gray hair and was overweight, even though her personality perfectly fit the bill. Nancy Reagan was too strong and shrill, even though she looked exactly the part.

These are real women, not rarified "ladies." And in the case of Michelle Obama, the "first lady" narrative is going to be an oppressive prison for a woman with her own career aspirations and political convictions--for a woman of color who is bold enough to have spoken out against racism.

Based on a mythological creation of the Christian, white, wealthy, and powerful, it is no wonder that the attacks on Michelle Obama as unfit for the role of "first lady" have so quickly begun.
The fact that she doesn't fit the mold may be all the more reason to elect her husband President.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Mamas for Obama

Barack Obama's speech Tuesday night was a wonderful speech, and he is a wonderful candidate.

He is also so, so smart to be doing what he's doing to reach out to Clinton supporters--to recognize what she has accomplished and not dismiss her as so many have done. He not only needs to do this on a practical level, but he is right to do this.

It's also subtle and smart that he has made it known that he is taking the weekend off to have a date with his wife and go on a bike ride with his daughters. The image that came into my mind as I heard that this morning was so human, and such an image of a man who values and respects the women in his life. Good husband, good father... good way to woo women voters.

When I was a little Rosalie, I listened to Marlo Thomas's Free to Be, You And Me -- an album filled with a multicultural group of actors, musicians and athletes talking about the ways in which gender and race don't need to define or limit us. Songs like "Mommies are people, Daddies are people," "Sisters and Brothers," and "It's Alright to Cry" (aimed at boys) taught me that, in the words of one poem, "A person should wear what he likes to, and not just what other folks say. A person should be who she wants to. A person's a person that way."

As I got older, I experienced and witnessed the same gender indoctrination that everyone does. There were plenty of painful examples, but I still believed I could do anything I wanted to do as I went off to college. Daily, I saw and see messages in the media and heard words on the radio that indicated that women's primary value is as a sexual object or as a passive, dutiful wife and mother. But still, I did not feel defined or limited by my gender until I became pregnant and had children.

I'm so grateful for my beautiful, hilarious, clever little boys. But still, having children has meant making choices for the good of my family that mean compromising some of my own wishes and dreams. If I did not have children, I would be in a much different place in my career because I would be willing to travel, to work different hours, to live someplace where school quality is not something to be concerned about.

The limitations on my personal ambitions have been self-imposed, but still, it's hard to convey just how powerful it has been for me to witness Hillary Clinton's words and actions as a woman who is also a mother -- a woman who works so hard and has inspired so many people and who seems to have a healthy relationship with her brilliant and self-actualized daughter, Chelsea.

Being a mother and a professional is incredibly hard--it's no coincidence that the highest-level women in the executive branch to date--Condoleeza Rice and Janet Reno--do not have children. And that most of the women you see in legislatures and governor's mansions have grown children--whereas you see many fresh-faced young men with delightful young children bounding exuberantly down the aisles of state and federal legislatures.

Investing in children is critical to the work of building a strong community and strong nation, but the daily work of raising them takes so much effort that it's best to have a wife, or if you are a woman, to remain childless and leave that work to others as you pursue your career. And, you don't see many single parents -- moms or dads -- in politics. It's just too hard.

To be clear: I bear no negative feelings toward women who don't have children, and in fact applaud them for the courage it takes not to become a mother--a radical choice in a world that doesn't know what to do with women who are neither sexually available nor devoted to the domestic sphere.

It's just that growing up, I always assumed that we would have a woman president in my lifetime, and it would have surprised me that that's not going to happen before I'm at least in my 40's. I hope that we will some day.

So although my heart did melt just a little bit to hear Barack had plans for a date with Michelle and bike ride with the kids, it's also a little sad, because although Barack Obama is a man I will be proud to vote for, I'm bracing myself for the fashion stories on what Michelle Obama will wear to the inauguration and the plans she has for redecorating the White House.

Because although she is herself a professional and a brilliant woman in her own right, like Hillary, next January (I hope and pray) she will be our nation's next "First Lady."

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Of Bonnets and Belly Fat

I loved I Heart Huckabees the first time I saw it. Existentialism, feminism, global politics, quantum physics-inspired spirituality, compassion, anger, comedy. Each time I see it, I see something new.

But every time I've watched it, when Naomi Watts decides to stop dressing in skimpy clothes and performing the sexy-girl act as the face of Huckabees, I've turned to Kevin and asked, "what is up with that bonnet?"

Watts' character, "Dawn," is having an identity crisis in which she realizes that she has based her life on appearances--her own beauty, the appearance of success and the appearance of a good relationship. Recognizing that appearances can mask what lies beneath the surface--including a crappy relationship, an unsatisfying career, and a human being of true depth; she gives that all up and demands that she should still be able to do her job--be a spokesmodel for Huckabees--wearing bib overalls and a bonnet.

It's funny, of course, that she insists on being a model but refuses to dress like one. But the bonnet troubled me -- it went beyond funny to just confusing. I mean, baggy clothes I get... but, a bonnet?

Today as I was reading this piece, I thought again of the bonnet. In it, Fatemeh Fakhraie writes about a handful of articles she is seeing recently that focus on the idea that Muslim women aren't necessarily dowdy and can in fact be quite interested in fashion. Even those who choose conservative dress, head scarf, etc., may in fact choose quite flashy - even racy - clothes to wear underneath. One article goes so far as to speculate about hot pants and bikinis.

She writes:
All this “beneath the veil” crap is tired. Women who wear more conservative clothes in line with their interpretations of Islamic requirements just wear clothes under those things! But these articles can’t be satisfied with that. What kind of clothes?

She later goes on to say:

So, according to these articles, Muslim women walking around in austere black robes are practically naked underneath. Ironic, isn’t it? The majority of these women wear conservative clothes to take focus away from their bodies (in line with cultural practices or certain Islamic schools of thought), and these articles bring it right back to them.

I went through a period in my life when I was suspicious of Muslim women who chose to cover their hair or bodies. This was during my college-age feminist awakening, and I mistakenly bought into the idea that this wasn't a truly feminist choice--that this choice was driven by a patriarchal culture and religion.

Then I started reading what Muslim feminists had to say about that, and, needless to say, I hadn't been getting it. As a statement against the sexualization of women in the west and as a personal choice that frees women from an intense focus on their physical attractiveness, the choice to cover oneself is powerful. And of course I had missed the religious dimension--the possibility that one might choose to take the focus away from one's body in order to emphasize one's spirit.

Which brings me back to the rather Amish-looking bonnet. It's not just a hat or a scarf, but a bonnet worn by religious women who consciously choose to turn away from physical beauty in order to focus on spiritual/religious matters. In a movie that also rails against US dependence on oil and raises the specter of September 11, 2001 -- the violence done in the name of American progress and the violence done in reaction to our imperialism -- I now realize that the bonnet in the film is like a western version of the Muslim woman's head scarf.

And what was my reaction the first five times I saw the film? To laugh and dismiss the bonnet. I could not fully appreciate Watts' wonderful acting as she portrays Dawn's awakening and rejection of the insistent and exhausting compulsion of our culture to value women primarily on the basis of their sexual attractiveness. I missed it, because I was focused on her clothes.

It gets exhausting to constantly go on about the objectification of women, the male gaze and all that, but heck, until things change I guess it bears repeating -- and recognizing the moments when I have bought into it.

As a younger feminist, I became acutely aware of the connection between rape and the notion that women's bodies are not their own, but exist as an object of sexual satisfaction.

When I became pregnant with my first child, I experienced anew the ways in which women's bodies are viewed as public domain. People would touch my belly of course, but what truly troubled me was the political claim people seemed to feel they had to my uterus. How I behaved during my pregnancy, what I ate, how I would give birth and what I did to prepare for that--somehow, my body was everyone else's business.

And now, as an overweight woman, I have lately begun to feel that many people take the shape of my body personally. They see my being overweight as a sign that I am lazy or not very bright. Or more charitably, they assume I am unhealthy and pity me for not caring enough about myself to make being thin a priority.

The reality of course is that my body size has nothing to do with my intelligence, my happiness, or my self esteem. It doesn't even tell the story of my health--because when I was thin I smoked and drank to the point of vomiting on an at least weekly basis.

These days I sleep well, drink lots of water and not much else, eat my fruits and veggies, stay active -- mowing the lawn, gardening, walking and chasing kids. Could I eat better? Sure. Could I exercise more? Well... it's not as important to me as quality time with my kids, partner, or writing, but sure, in theory, I could. So, I'm fat. And emotionally and physically healthier than I was when I was thin.

I don't even like to write all of that explanation, except that it feels like what's really heavy is not my weight, but the weight of the expectations that are placed on my body. My skin looks patchy, I've got belly fat, my dark hair grows in "unfeminine" places like my upper lip. I've got stretch marks from two pregnancies, a twice-opened C-section scar, flat feet and stubby fingers. I sometimes worry about whether my hair cut flatters my face or whether my ears are so crooked that no pair of glasses will every sit straight. And none of these things tell you much about who I am, do they?

In graduate school, I read an essay that discussed the idea that men hate women because women's bodies contain the one form of power that men can never have--the power to create life. I'm not a gender essentialist -- not all women are mothers. But, all women and all men have mothers. We are not self-creating, no matter how much the misogynist might wish to pretend it were so.

I don't know if misogyny has its roots in the symbolic power of childbirth, or whether its roots can be better understood in studying primate behavior. Whether evolved or psychological, misogyny is alive and well despite our best efforts. Thankfully, not all men hate women, and there are even a large number of men who don't view women as objects.

This I also know: our bodies are just vessels for this life.

The most beautiful man or woman eventually will recognize this truth as their body becomes frail in old age. The skin hangs off no matter how thin you are, the veins show through the make-up. What's inside this skin can grow richer with each life experience--but only if what's inside is cultivated and nurtured.

My belly fat hides a belly that has contained three human beings, two of whom were born into beautiful little boys. My splotchy face masks a mind that jumps between associations and delights in bringing ideas to life through words.

This skin contains a life that calls out for love and connection, that grows deeper with age, that wants to understand.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Half Magic

When I was a little girl, I read Edward Eager's Half Magic, at my mother's insistence. She had read it as a little girl. We just finished reading it to my five-year-old tonight.

The story involves a family of four children who find a magic charm on the sidewalk. Mistaking it for a coin, it takes them a little time to figure out that it is magic -- but only half magic. If they make a wish, it will come half true. For instance they wish their cat could talk, and he does talk... but not very well, sputtering unintelligible nonsense words. They figure out that they need to double each wish--wishing that an attacking knight would grow two puddings on his nose, or wishing themselves twice as far as home.

Part of the background of the story is that their mother is a widow, and Jane, the oldest, is the only one who really remembers their father. As the plot unfolds, their mother meets a wonderful man named Mr. Smith, who believes in believing in six impossible things before breakfast. Mr. Smith helps them through their adventures, finally marrying their mother and bringing new support and security into their struggling family.

After they go through some harrowing and hilarious adventures, the children discover that the magic of the charm has been used up, at least for them. I'd forgotten the part at the end that I read to Raimi tonight. My voice wavered as I read these paragraphs to him:
The last wish was Jane's alone, and she never really knew she made it.
That night, as she was getting undressed, she found the charm in her pocket, and sat on the bed looking for a long time, and pondering the mystery of how it had come into their hands, and why.
And from that she went on to thinking about their mother's being married, and the changes it would bring into their lives.
She was quite contented about everything. But because she was the only one of the four children who remembered their father, she would have been more contented still if she could have felt sure that he knew about what was going to happen, and approved of it.
It had been a full day, and she was ready for sleep. Already her eyes had begun to close of their own accord. But as she put out the light and tucked the charm absentmindedly under her pillow, her last waking thought was that she wished her father were with her now, so she'd know how he felt about things.
She wasn't worrying about the charm, or working out the right fractions, as she wished it. But because there was still this one small corner in Jane that wasn't completely happy, the charm relented, and thawed out of its icy used-upness, and granted the wish, according to its well-known fashion. Immediately her father was half there.
He was there like a thought in her mind, ensuring her that everything was all right, and exactly as he would want it, and that he was happy in their happiness.
And a wonderful feeling of peace filled the heart of Jane, and she went to sleep with a smile on her face.

For some reason my son has recently had a lot of questions about death and spirits -- about burial rituals and what happens when we die. He's interested in Egyptian tombs and has asked about graveyards. He questions whether God exists and whether God created the Universe, because we've spent a lot more time talking about evolution and cosmology than about our spiritual roots.

I want to help him find his own spiritual answers, and connecting to my own helps with this.

As I write, I'm watching a documentary on the Mormons. It's really very beautiful, the absolute certainty that Mormons feel about the afterlife -- that they will rejoin their families and go to be with God after death. The film interviews a young woman in her twenties with a condition that will take her life within years. It's not a happy thought -- there are tears in her eyes as she describes not being able to see her youngest brothers and sisters grow up. But then she seems so peaceful, saying she will be with them again -- her family will be ultimately, and eternally, reunited.

The Mormons are unusually devout and certain in this conviction, but of course they aren't the only ones to believe in an eternal afterlife. I recently attended a memorial service conducted by the United Methodist chaplain at the agency where I work. The memorial was for one of our former kids, who was killed in a car crash, leaving a five year old son, an eight year old who called him daddy, and an infant he was planning to raise as his own. Their mother was also killed. The chaplain acknowledged the tragedy and sadness, but quickly - too quickly for me - began offering words of comfort. "Today we are united by our grief, and yet we know that he is with God, and he is in a better place. He is at peace."

I don't think I do know that.

My father was too much of a scientist and my mother too much a free thinker for me to grow up with many certainties about the spiritual realm. The best memorial service I've ever been to was for the Orthodox Jewish grandmother of my partner. The Rabbi asked, "Why would God take Helen from us?" And then he paused. "I don't know," he said. "But, we believe that there is an order and a meaning to the Universe." I can't remember his exact words, but the message stayed with me. We don't know why we live and die. But we believe there is a reason, and so we must go on.

So as I read Half Magic to my son, I remembered my father describing the exact sensation Jane experienced--that his mother, long passed away, was with him during some of the most important decisions he'd ever made. He was agnostic as to whether this was a psychological or spiritual experience. Himself influenced by Spiritualists, Theosophists and Unitarians, my father's scientific training and humility about what he did not know allowed him to find comfort in the experience without needing to explain it.

Since he's been gone, I've felt my father's presence with me at times. Never when I expected it, yet at times when I needed it. I know my four sisters have described feeling him with them, too, as they fished or taught or puzzled through a problem.

What I'm thinking, and so grateful to Edward Eager for describing, is that although the children in the story are confused by the half-ness of the magic they find -- they ultimately learn that half magic is enough. Maybe this is what we can hope for, enjoy, and celebrate. The semi-conscious feeling as if in a dream that those we love are with us at moments when we need them. The revelation in our hearts when we witness something transcendent, like a spectacular sunset or the birth of a child.

These experiences both are and are not magic. They're half magic, and fully human.