Posts Tagged ‘women’

3 October, 2009

I Do Not Hate Men

img_1505On the road with the book, there’s a question people keep coming back to that I find a little odd, and it concerns women and the strength of the female characters in my novel. I think Eric Forbes’ interview with me is the best example of this, and my response to him is the answer I usually give:

How did you go about creating two strong female protagonists?
I love women. I am drawn to them, I trust them, I think highly of them and I appreciate their gifts. Which, I think, makes me consider their strengths, the source of their resilience, and the difficulties they face with a particular empathy. It has to do with my gladness that they exist and that I am one of them, more than anything I could set out to do in terms of “creating” characters. There’s the famous quote “there are no ugly women, only women who do not know how to make themselves beautiful,” something like that. In my world, I don’t believe that there are weak-willed women, only women who have not realised their strengths. Strength is, for me, the default setting for women. They can improve upon it or disregard it, but it is always there.

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So there it is. That is what I think. But apparently it is not possible to express a love of women without generating the accompanying suspicion, “she hates men.” Just the other day, after what I thought had been a very enlightened discussion about the novel, a woman turned to the assembled and explained me to them as doing just that. So for the record, I want to say, categorically, I do not hate men. img_9979I am comfortable around them, having grown up with them – older brothers and male cousins and my mother’s male students made up my domestic landscape as a child – in a way that made boys a fact of life, not some mythical beasts to go chasing after or summon to my side with some beguiling charm. I was a tree-climbing, roof-scaling, wall-leaping, skinny, androgynous being who could, most of the time, outrun and outdo the boys. My mother has been known to haul me off to the barber along with her sons and I have emerged, at the age of nine with sideburns. I kid you not.

Perhaps being free not to have to define myself as being “other than a boy,” since I was quite clearly happy as a clam all but being one myself, img_1678made me look toward women with a particularly interested eye; and what I saw, growing up, were beautiful and intelligent and, often, burdened girls and women who displayed courage in spades. No woman in my life taught me to be afraid of anything. (I learned fear all by myself in America – and it has to do with psychopaths in parking garages and Hannibal Lecter types complete with night-vision goggles; men who want to hide women or eat women!!) What I grew up wanting to be was a woman like those women of my childhood: women with inner poise and resources of the spirit that nobody could touch or mangle or take from them.

What one wants to be or admires, usually informs the way in which a person approaches the world. I expect the women I meet to have a depth to the conduct of their lives that comes from inhabiting a world still tipping in favor of men, that their stories offer the kind of complexity I enjoy imagining, that their laughter has no bitter spring. I love women: I love the beauty of their physical selves, the abundance of their inner lives, their ability to see the threads in a tapestry, not just the picture it depicts.

I also love men. The men in my adult life have been and are a combination of the following: img_1825witty, smart, decent, funny, athletic, artsy, well-read human beings. Most of them can dance and are comfortable saying so. They are men who are confident enough in their masculinity that they can confess to a lack, define themselves by their thoughts and commitments, not their jobs and salaries, and who can be just as androgynous as grown men as I was as a girl. I approach the world as a woman who is at ease among them, who likes their company and can play all their games, and who is comfortable becoming any of the relatively harmless variations of female that men enjoy having around them. I never change who I am when I am around women and I have never been around a woman who has required that of me. And that is the simple difference in how I think about men and women. There is only a way of visiting with the world that finds me less on guard and more deeply engaged around women than around men. There is no hating involved.

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5 August, 2009

The End

butterfly2The words, “The End” apparently only exist for the purposes of lulling very small and, presumably, unimaginative children, into believing that stories should only be entertained so long as an author has control over the words. There is no other place that I have found which can lay claim to those words.

We may die, but, as pointed out so eloquently by James Ellroy in an article that appears in this week’s issue of Newsweek about the death of a girl, Lily Burk, he barely knew, we live in our words, our work, and the thoughts and memories and commitments and photographs and circumstances of the people who have known us. There is, in death, often more life than the dead could have dreamed possible.

We may come to the end of a story and know, as writers, that the unknown sometimes leads us to pause at that particular moment, allowing the characters to carry on and leave us voyeurs behind. Readers reach the last page and look away, taking fragments and associations with them, using them as advice or warning, handing bits and pieces away in reference, praise or blame.

I have been preoccupied with endings afresh, or the lack of them, as I came to the end of my treatment. I realized that this new “free” time was defined, for me, not by the ceasing of treatments, but rather the loss of a series of rituals I had come to enjoy:

My morning bike rides where I have to decide whether to take the low or the high road, the way I braced for – and twice misjudged – the approaching pavement, the preparation for the last stretches of uphill paved roads in both directions as well a the anticipation of the downhill runs, the way I had to think up some new way to announce my arrival to people who shared the sidewalk with me (to whistle? to talk over their iPods? to yell? to creep along near their ankles? to hope for psychic awareness on their part?), the exhilaration of making it each day and the inward thank god when I come across the bar blocking the escape of cars in the parking garage which was perpetually untended in those early morning hours.

img_9657The way I glanced at the clock by the empty reception desk to see how I had done in terms of speed and the daily contemplation and religious avoidance of the stack of new cookies in the waiting room (yes, they are out by 6.15 am!) and the way I experienced network news on TV, something I have never done at home.

Most of all, my curiosity about the nurse who looked after me as well as tended to the application of treatments. She works two jobs, coming in to this one early, by 6 am, and leaving by 3 to sometimes do a shift at the second. She has a home she just bought, a family of parents and siblings that gather together on occasion, a father to help her with installing a window in her garage, a dog who can no longer see her working in the garden over the raised fence she had installed, a couple of weeks back, to keep him in. She has flown in a plane just once, to go to a beach with friends after school. She doesn’t quite like NYC, but she likes the Jersey Shore. She is good at what she does, but she is terrified of my physician, Dr. Weiss, and of not having me set up to her perfect specifications before she comes in to check on me. She clips up her blond hair in a sort of casual up-do, and walks with a slight side to side step, like a skater might do out of habit, which makes her seem tentative and child-like. She bought a bike for $20 at a garage sale and they told her she only had to get the tires some air, but she hasn’t done it yet though she hopes to. She “has someone” but she never said more than that.

I wonder what her relationships are like, what she does when she goes home, whether she feels the same antipathy I did toward the resident who came in to help during the last ten days of my treatment. She seemed genuinely sorry to see me go when she said she would miss seeing me early morning. She always had a question for me, and she never sounded like it was just standard OP. She moved my hair away like it belonged to a person she knew, she averted her eyes when I drew back the covers, she smiled and in ways I cannot quite describe, made it something we were experiencing together. I miss her.

Which is how and why, I suppose, the end is not quite here. A specific time period during which I had to undergo a certain form of death, of a part of me if not my whole, came and went. And yet I remain, she remains, and we go on in each others’ lives. That period came and went and because of it I am a little less quick to own the road as it were. A little quicker to remember what blessings still exist. And even more than before, interested in ordinary stories, the ones that tell of people going about ordinary days, where nationality and culture and personal history simply illuminate interactions and imbue them with a truth that points to the ultimate insignificance of those broad-brushed colors in the scheme of human life and death whose own hues are both feather light and brilliant.

10 May, 2009

For a Mother I Once Knew

In my purse, I carry a note which describes the clinical condition of a woman I knew. Tracy was not a good friend of mine in any real sense of the word; I did not share my life with her, not ask her for any help. For one, we moved in different circles, for another, Tracy was in not in a position to help me except by example. She was the mother of a little girl named Tessa, whom it had taken her seven years to conceive. She was diagnosed with cancer when Tess was very young, and by the time her daughter turned five, Tracy’s cancer was terminal, and all of her will was bent toward staying alive for one more day.

I assumed that I could help by getting Tracy more information because I have always found that knowledge is my best defense. Furious at the fact that her treatment had been delayed, and certain medications not administered to her because she did not have health insurance, I sat down with her and wrote those symptoms down. But instead of calling him, I waited two weeks until that Thanksgiving when I ran into my brother-in-law at the time, an oncologist, to ask him what he thought about Tracy’s situation. He looked at the drugs she was on, explained to me that they were usually given when there was nothing else that could be done, but that in some very rare cases, patients responded positively to them.

I didn’t tell Tracy that. I told her instead about the experimental drugs that she might be able to access were she willing to try them, by driving from Fairfield, Maine, where she lived, to Dartmouth, New Hampshire. She wanted to give it a go but, by then, her body was too far gone. Not long after, I stopped to talk to her as she sat in her car, waiting for her husband to pick up their daughter from school. She was so weak she could hardly speak. Thinner than it seemed humanly possible to be, and the fragrance of medicinal marijuana clinging to her, she had shown up, as she always did, to pick up Tessa, even if she could not herself get down from the car and walk to the door.

I saw Tracy one last time just before she passed away. She was lying in a bed that had been set up in her living room, with her husband and mother there to help. By this time she was simply receiving morphine so she could be comfortable while she waited to die. As someone who believes in the power of books, I brought one for Tessa that day, The Next Place, by Warren Hansen. I asked if Tessa would like to go home with me for a play date and it was incredibly poignant to me to watch Tessa climb up onto her mother’s bed to ask if she could go. It didn’t seem to strike her that her movements might be painful to her mother who was so wracked with frailty. Perhaps she knew that nothing she did could hurt the mother who had fought so hard to stay with her.

When she was told that I was going to leave, Tracy asked her mother to lift her up. She wanted to give me a hug, she said. I don’t know where she found the strength, nor what might have motivated her to try to do this for a woman she barely knew. Except that there was Tessa. I remember that I stood there saying, don’t worry, we will look after Tessa. I remember that whatever I said had the weight of a promise and though it wasn’t a request that Tracy had the capacity to make out loud, it was still one she articulated. That grateful farewell was all she could do for her daughter.

I meant well. But I moved from Maine. Tracy’s note stayed in my purse when I bought a new one. And Tessa stayed on my mind. One mother’s day came and went in the throes of selling and buying and moving and settling and bemoaning the mundane difficulties of a life lived with the blessing of good health. But this mother’s day, as I went through a series of medical tests of my own, I recalled once more my promise to Tracy. I called up the school she still attends, its tuition paid by her grandmother, to see if she was still there. I remembered that more than anything else, Tracy wanted her daughter to stay at the Kennebec Montessori School, within the inclusive, familial embrace of a high quality education transmitted by teachers gifted in the art of recognizing the unique nature of each child. Apparently, despite the loss of an elderly care-giver who had taken care of Tessa before and after school, her father is committed to her staying there for one more year. I am not sure what she will do this summer, but I hope I can find a way to help.

As a start, today, on mother’s day, I thought I’d honor both a mother of incredible courage and love, and keep a promise. I went out and bought a few of my favorite books, and a couple I had never heard of, for Tessa: The Great Nursery Rhyme Disaster (David Conway), A Child’s Garden of Verses (Robert Louis Stevenson), When Papa Comes Home Tonight (Eileen Spinelli), Incredible You: 10 Ways to let your Greatness Shine Through (Dr. Wayne W. Dyer), It’s Okay to be Different (Todd Parr), You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You (Mary Ann Hoberman) and You are my I love You (Maryanna K. Cusimano & Satomi Ichikawa). They are the kinds of books I imagine Tracy might have liked her daughter to have.

Tomorrow I will put them in the mail along with a note to Tessa. What I will say to her, I do not know. I know that she had read the first book I gave her many times, and I hope that these new books will help her navigate the parts of the world that are navigable. I cannot be like a mother to her, but it is not too late for me to be her mother’s friend.

22 March, 2009

Girls, Books, Conversations

The Rihanna & Chris Brown story has been dominating the media for some time now, and for good reason. Violence against women, particularly women within intimate relationships, still remains shrouded in contextualization and skepticism on the part of the greater society as well as legal authorities. But as I read the post on Salon’s Broadsheet regarding the PSA produced by dosomething.org, which depicts a female teenager being battered by her date (the video is shown below), I began to think about the fact that so many girls and women appear not to have the self-respect or skills or even desire to remove themselves from violent relationships.

Rihanna herself is reportedly back with the guy who, according to police reports, attempted to beat her head against the doors and strangle her. While PSAs such as this can highlight the ways in which violence is done to young women, although it also feeds into the macabre voyeurism which prompts us to click on links to everything from models-gone-wild to be-headings of captured human beings (I refuse to add the urls for those), I wonder how much good they can do in a pop culture – once American but now global – that does its best to discourage women from being strong, self-confident and self-respecting. Lyn Mikel Brown and Sharon Lamb wrote a book, Packaging Girlhood (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007) about the pervasive nature of social-marketing for girls and their website gives a great overview on how to counter it. Better still, their new book on packaging boyhood will be out soon and I’ll be sure to blog about it when it does. The combination of stereotypes (submissive and psychologically self-immolating for girls and dominant and physically aggressive for boys) is a Molotov cocktail of doom for society as a whole.

There is evidence to show that what truly matters are the ways in which girls are raised combined with coming-of-age ceremonies – astonishingly rare for American girls – both of which are enormous influences on the degree of self-respect they come to have as women, for their bodies and minds. I came across an interesting discussion on the issue here, in a blog post about Julia Alvarez’ book Once Upon A Quinceanera (Viking Adult, 2007). With mothers having a particularly important role in ushering their daughters from girlhood to womanhood, I thought I should also mention Deborah Tannen’s book, You’re Wearing That? (Random House, 2006) which I found to be quite useful in describing the pitfalls of American mothers and daughters in conversation as well as upbeat with regard to creating meaningful coming of age traditions. Janet Lucy’s book Moon Mother, Moon Daughter (Libri, 2003), is another user-friendly guide to creating positive space between younger and older women.

So here’s my suggestion for the day for us women: turn off the cell phones and computers and strike up inter-generational, cross-cultural, multi-religious conversations. Hold the young girls in your life close. There is more to be said and gained from growing strong women from within than can be achieved by simply showing them how strong men can knock them down with their fists.

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


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