Last month, the Vatican named its first American saint — a woman, Elizabeth Ann Seton. It’s appropriate that this honor was bestowed upon a woman, for in America, it seems, one needs to be a saint to be a woman, to maintain a flow with God and a harmony with men.
I have strived to balance these relationships. My prayers for inner peace accompany me often; my inner eye has much to seek. Yet, my other eyes gaze on a world with (seemingly) different values — a place where goodness is often equated with beauty; where people compete for love instead of sharing it; where the simplicity of existence is made complex by desires.
In this place, I ask, what is a woman, the role I am now so deeply playing? I know that beneath this worldly struggle, my essence is beyond a sexual role — but in my days as a female, I long to understand the lessons it is teaching me.
It is said all spirits must undergo the three primary incarnational experiences: mother, father and child. There is justice in all these expressions, and in each there are varying strengths and weaknesses. The male and female experiences are indeed different, and equal in their wisdom. How joyous this adventure should be.
Yet, built into this system is a struggle for sexual identity, as well as sexual union. It is difficult to remain singular and strive to be bonded. There is much romantic bliss, and much emotional pain. Through our attachments grow our insecurities, and males and females often struggle with each other in an attempt to feel sexually whole.
So long I have struggled with this issue, longing to feel good about myself as a female, and also to feel I was fulfilling my man. It has taken years to see through the illusions.
To be an honorable woman today is a challenge. I was raised in a society whose highest goals were those of physical success. The quiet virtues were seldom taught. The silent expectation for women was for them to be beautiful — all other qualities added to this basic presumption. From the time you’re a “beautiful baby” to a “blushing bride,” all the labels include a grade on the physical material.
Beauty has always enchanted me, though not always in a positive way. I am often as mystified about women as men say they are. I wasn’t one of the physically perfect females, whose charming graces put them beyond my world of insecurity. I was as amazed by Playboy centerfolds as men were; it seemed unreal to me that people could look that way. In comparison, I felt extraordinarily inferior, and deeply depressed that I could never offer such a gift to my man.
Why I felt obliged to do this was a mystery. Love grew naturally within, but my body did not reflect its majesty as I wished. I became haunted by jealousies (real or imaginary), tormented by comparisons. Men claim to love their women, but hang up pictures of strangers on their walls. How could I compete in this game, when I didn’t have the basic equipment from the outset?
For many years, my growing womanhood became engrossed in this futile battle. Diets, exercise, erotic clothing . . . changing the package to satisfy a choosy marketplace. My feelings towards men became mistrustful; but what bothered me more was my feelings towards women. The pretty chicks on the street became my competition, not my sisters. Models promising every earthly delight on the screen held nothing out to me but frustration. My mind became narrow in its fears. It seemed that femininity was a game I had lost.
But we cannot for long look with limited vision. My friends help me see, the country opens my mind, the breath of cosmic love flows through me. Beyond all the patterns of socializing there is an underlying truth. Beyond the spectrum of physical existence glow other worlds. Part of the feminine glory is having the sensitivity and dedication to this path; and bringing to it a trust and grace that perhaps many men cannot.
Love is beyond limitations, definitions or comparisons. At best, it is a constant, joyous flow; outwardly towards everyone, and inwardly toward the true self. The body can express it, but perhaps can never truly understand it.
Women are learning to discipline themselves in a new way; I see many far-out ladies leading the way in many frontiers. I find a strength in them that supports, rather than separates me from them. In so many ways, the torment of my insecurities grows dim in the light of seeing women as pilgrims instead of pictures.
It is autumn. A rich harvest time, when the earth is swollen with its yield. Mother Nature transforms each tree into a miracle of color, each field to a prayer of fulfillment.
I, too, am like Mother earth; as my bounty is my energy, my yield is love. My body is preparing for the privilege to give life. My heart rejoices that I can be a garden to a new incarnation; and this is so much more than being a bouquet to a man’s senses.
To my sisters I offer a prayer of continuous fulfillment and peace. Be aware of the mysteries within and be not thwarted by the obstacles without. Create your beauty from the love within you, and judge no one, especially yourself, by a standard that is stuck in time, and therefore doomed to decay.
Many times in my life I have felt like a new person. My cells are subtly dying, rebirthing, regrouping all the time, so that I can never pinpoint one moment of metamorphosis. I am everchanging yet constant, like a river. I now live with a little girl with a big belly who laughs and cries often and with abandon; and I know I was once a little girl nearly the same. I watch wrinkles grow around my eyes and know that I am getting younger, circling around my center to my beginning. As I think of womanness, I meditate on my own changes.
My sister and I played in many fantasies. There were fairies, and kingdoms in the clouds that warred with each other during violent thunderstorms. The sky would rain huge drops; the streets would flood; then we would wade in the water, forgetting kingdoms and fairies, finding washtubs and innertubes for floating down our newly-created river.
There were infinite adventures to be imagined, and we enacted them as we played, making all we did exciting and romantic. We formed secret clubs and became blood sisters, pricking our fingers with a needle, squeezing out a drop of blood, and then touching fingertips to become bonded forever. We created our rituals and religions, and felt no compunction about abandoning them for others as we flowed along.
I committed myself to Christianity when I was about ten. It was a time of exaltation and confusion for me. I made glorious resolutions in my diary, such as not lying anymore, followed by an entry praying for another chance, making another promise when I slipped. That was the year I first learned what the word “fuck” meant, and this secret knowledge troubled me very much. I felt, since my parents hadn’t told me about it, I shouldn’t know. I was filled with God often, and just as often with guilt. That year began the questions which I would ask myself, in varying degrees of intensity, for a long time. Why are we so concerned with clothes when it so clearly tells us in the Bible not to be? Why do we wear lipstick? Should I date boys? How should I live? The way I saw it, if I were to follow Christ truly, I would wear robes and bare feet and give up money and be humble and help people. And be a social outcast. My world pulled me in another direction — towards a concern for my looks (I was very vain), a desire to have boyfriends, competitiveness in all I did, achievement. It’s only now that I’m beginning to feel answers to some of those dilemmas.
As I live with teenage girls now and look back to my own experiences, I realize that a girl’s inner confidence that she is really a woman is tenuous, so she bolsters it with externals. The inner pressure for me to fill the feminine mold was strong. All the firsts were important — first bra, first bra with cups, shaving of underarms and legs, stockings and high heels, menstruating, wearing lipstick, being kissed. I was so conscious of these things. I would round my back and lean over my desk so that the boy behind me would be sure to notice I was wearing a bra. On a Girl Scout camping trip a friend told me, “You aren’t a real woman til you have your period.” Upset, I denied her worlds; I had not yet “started,” but asserted that even so, I was still a woman. Secretly I had my doubts. On the day I first menstruated I was proud, and happy. Surprised, too. I felt I was very lucky; I was initiated. The secrets of a woman were mine now.
Shaving was never as much of a joy for me — I just had too much hair, and it kept spreading. I didn’t like wearing bathing suits, but what could I do? I shaved it all off. Sometimes my hair follicles would get red and infected, which was a disastrous effect in a bikini. We had so many tribulations about our flaws. My first act of liberation (an internal movement) was cutting my long, all-boys-prefer-it-that-way hair. I was free! The next act, some years later, was letting all the rest of my hair grow. I felt even freer. As the hair on my legs grew longer, I would idly play with it for hours, knowing that to the world’s eyes, and still even to my own, it was ‘disgusting.’ I loved it like an ugly child. Thick and abundant, it rippled in the wind and felt nice and soft after years of unmanageable stubble. People on the streets stared. I was in the thick of adventure again after the repressing years of trying to be beautiful. The trappings of femininity were dropping away and what was left was pure woman, and also some little girl.
Growing older means growing older and growing younger. If I live, I will be an old lady. My cheeks will be soft as silk. My breasts will wrinkle; my voice will tremble. I hope there’ll be a light in my eye. I used to believe I’d have perspective at the age of eighty, but as I get nearer, I think I’ll just have a different perspective and more experiences. I begin to let go of past identities, and take on new adventures, with the creativity and sense of play of my young girlhood. Having passed the serious business of proving I’m a woman, I’m free again to be anything I choose.
How can a man know what a woman’s life is? A woman’s life is quite different from a man’s. God has ordered it so. A man is the same from the time of his circumcision to the time of his withering. He is the same before he has sought out a woman for the first time, and afterwards. But the day when a woman enjoys her first love cuts her in two. She becomes another woman on that day. The man is the same after his first love as he was before. The woman is from the day of her first love another. That continues so all through life. The man spends a night by a woman and goes away. His life and body are always the same. The woman conceives. As a mother she is another person than the woman without child. She carries the fruit of the night for nine months in her body. Something grows. Something grows into her life that never again departs from it. She is a mother. She is and remains a mother even though her child die, though all her children die. For at one time she carried the child under her heart. And it does not go out of her heart ever again. Not even when it is dead. All this the man does not know; he knows nothing. He does not know the difference before love and after love, before motherhood and after motherhood. He can know nothing. Only a woman can know that and speak of that. That is why we won’t be told what to do by our husbands. A woman can only do one thing. She can respect herself. She can keep herself decent. She must always be as her nature is. She must always be maiden and always be mother. Before every love she is a maiden, after evey love she is a mother. In this you can see whether she is a good woman or not.
— The words of an Abyssinian woman, quoted by Leo Frobenius in Der Kopf als Schicksal.