Said Eleanor…

I was considering writing an essay addressed to women based on Eleanor Roosevelt’s oft-stated observation “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Then, I waivered for a few reasons. The main one being, I personally know how hard it is to rise above the belief of one’s own inferior status when you are surrounded by a culture, religion or family system that operates from a built-in gender inequality model. And, when your finances are tied in with your male counterpart this compounds the situation.

How does a woman activate within herself the powerful being that has been in dormancy for eons? How does she, despite everything that is pushing against this, rise into her own (uncomfortable) power? How does she source her power in a male-dominated world where “might makes right” and she is hostage to her fears? And as a woman, how does she safely proclaim her feminine prowess when what she brings to the table is unappreciated, minimized and even ridiculed?

At the time that I wrote the following, my mother was eighty-two years old, born in 1920. She married my father in 1941. He won the grand prize, her. She quit her secretarial job, as was expected, bore nine children and lived a life of absolute servitude to him. I heard from one of my sister’s a few days ago. She said that our mom was sitting in a chair in our parents’ house. She just keeled over, fell to the floor and laid their conscious but shocked. Somehow, she got herself up. Shortly thereafter, she went outside to tell my father. He wanted to take her to the hospital. She declined.

My mother runs a household for my father the same as she has since 1941, except that she no longer has her children to help with all of the household tasks. My father does not lift a finger. In his letter to me, he said they eat two meals a day. This preparation is hard on my mom. She doesn’t just throw a porkchop in the broiler. He requires labor-intensive meals and my mom complies. They have two refrigerators stocked with food that she has prepared and other staple ingredients. This is her job, her role–I once asked her “Mom, when do you get to retire?” She answered sheepishly, “I never thought of that.” In questioning her daily routine, I asked her “Do you ever stop, take a bath with bath salts or essential oils and just relax.” She said “I don’t have time for that.” When the facts of his physical and other abuses came to light, I asked her, “Mom, didn’t you get angry?” Her response was “I can’t be bothered with that.”

Where did her anger go? Years later, I realized that part of her anger went into guilt and shame because she didn’t protect her children or herself so well.

Contrary to an enduring belief–men are not intended to be the kings in their castles with women serfs out in the field doing the labor, birthing the children and caring for all things that revolve around home. And in this model, she is also excluded from the decision-making even with things that directly affect her.

So, while I agree in theory with Eleanor’s quote…in practice, after years of ongoing spousal abuse and mental manipulations, my mom had lost the power to make healthy choices for herself when it came to this long-endured relationship. She had been made to feel inferior, probably from birth. And this sense of inferiority carried on right through her marriage to a narcistic man.

Looking at the world at large, I do think that there are some narcistic male leaders making decisions for all of us. As a woman, how does my voice even get heard to affect change in a system that is intent with keeping her in her place? Until a woman can break the ties that bind her to a false sense of herself and comes to realize her personal power, the same games are going to play out. Men continue to dominate. Women continue to take a back seat. We’ve seen a few models of powerful women, but not enough. A surge of woman’s power has to happen en masse to affect real change for the better.

Taking a Risk

“Risk nothing and you risk everything.”

Erica Jong

I came upon this piece of writing from a Creative Writing class that I took a few years ago. It posed the question, “What are you risking?”
“What would life be like if you risked doing those things you have put off doing, but deeply desire to experience?”

With the advent of Covid 19, so much has changed. These days, we risk by going into a market to buy our groceries. This was written in 2009 when my parents were in a care home together.

The word “risk” has been at the forefront of my mind of late. I watch my parents at their present stage of life–ages 89 and 92. What’s done is done for them with little chance of autonomous change. The next risk they will take is their leap into the hereafter. I’m here now and I’ve felt overly cautious, limited and stuck for awhile. I feel a dissatisfaction which ranges from vague to imperative. I’m not sure what the risk is that I need to take. I do know that it’s time for a shift. Is it a stronger commitment to writing and getting published? Perhaps–why not devote one year to that effort and see where it goes?

I think that if I began taking risks, I might feel more self-fulfilled. Happier, less frustrated. Risk involves a certain daring. I’m a Leo, a fire sign, and this has been somewhat dormant in me. It’d be nice to allow the part of me that loves center stage, fun, playfulness to express herself. I’d travel some and try myself out in new situations. I’d speak my mind more. Be ridiculous at times. Ask the questions that I’m curious about of my diminishing parents. Not hold back affection.

****
As life goes, I didn’t publish a book or devote a year to writing. My parents continued to decline over the next two years and they required a lot of attention from the family. They died six months apart. Their departure was followed by a period of grief. I documented their final years. I rarely ever stop writing. Most of the time, writing is within my comfort zone. Except that I did initiate writing this blog about three years ago and that has felt risky at times. I took a big risk when I interviewed a man, over a period of three months, about the male perspective in relation to women. Formerly, he had been an abusive male. I also signed up for a theater group and wrote several scripts which they performed. That was definitely outside of my comfort zone. In 2014, I started drawing and painting. This was something I never believed I could do! So I guess I could call that a risk. Since then, I’ve had two art exhibits and yes, I risked and leapt on both occasions. With the first one, I was so nervous that I got laryngitis and couldn’t speak to the visitors to the exhibit (yet, I showed up!).

Today, I have redefined what risk means to me personally and how it applies to what I desire. If my desire is to be a whole person and live from that wholeness, then what is the risk involved to live this way? I think it involves confronting fears and stuck places as they arise. I also think it’s about recognizing that I have taken many risks over the course of my life and I only recognize them as such in retrospect. Should I chart them on a piece of paper to remind myself, to honor that I don’t always hide under a rock? Covid time hasn’t supported some of the things I’d like to explore.

Recently, I was listening to an interview on Sounds True with author, James Hollis. He was ninety years old at the time of this interview and he passed away shortly thereafter. The thing he said that struck me was that each stage of life has its task. That’s up to you and me to figure out–what is the task for me at this stage and within the circumstances of my life? And once you have named it, take the risk and pursue it. I think that’s good advice.

In Covid time and at the stage of life you are in, what does taking a risk look like to you?

I genuflect

I came across this poem I wrote back in 2009…my dad was resisting allowing in-home-help for my mom.  When we were finally able to get someone in to help my parents, when my father finally acquiesced, I wrote a poem of gratitude for this corps of helpers.  Caregivers are underpaid and unsung heroines and heroes.  They do women’s work which, as we realize, is undervalued across the globe.

****
I genuflect
before all life
and the caregiver who
washes a sink full of dirty dishes
and changes diapers
or empties bedpans
bathes my parents
–to those who wash urine-soaked mattress pads
with grace.

I revere the life
which enters in a bloody burst
catching its first breath in a cry
and releasing its final breath in a shudder
and everything in between
–especially women’s work
which great corporations
like hotels, restaurants,
the hospitality industry
model themselves after.
Women have always
prepared our food,
cared for the sick,
done the laundry,
and not been paid for
their necessary labor.
i.e., my mom
–now my dad has to pay wages
for her care after sixty-six years
of her unpaid service to him.

To pay for women’s work
is a tough pill for him to swallow
wash it down
wash it down
and cough up the money
for these worthy and necessary chores
from worthy givers of care
to my more than deserving mom.

****
Ultimately, my parents moved to a care home.  Their needs were met by caregivers making minimum wage. There is a real humility in accepting help as we age.  And caregiving is a humble profession that deserves to be elevated.  Where does any one society place its value?  This becomes obvious in what they put their money towards.
My father passed away in 2010 and my mom died six months later.

Is She a Victim?

(from a journal dated 04.26.2018)

Mother
comes with a built-in judgment
a plan for struggle
to fall and fail
Her platform, built by men
an ‘ideal’ that doesn’t allow her
to be whole.

While Mother has the most amazing qualities,
potential
–she is placed in a hotbed of
masculine insecurity and his misuse of power,
his idea that power means to overpower–
to oppress, suppress and make her subject to…
his unhealed places.

Her qualities, natural instincts of care, nurture
compassion
and feminine power
are contorted to fit into his world,
to meet his needs.


Mother is stolen from herself
and her children.
She is lost, she is sad.

*****
Today…03.11.2021
I have written about woman, wife, mother for most of my life. I am or have been all of these. Some humans would like to believe that we’ve evolved so much that there is no longer oppression and abuse of women. We hear world news rendering this belief as false. Yet, we hold onto the idea that it’s not happening here. Sadly, it is present today in our own country, our own community and our own families. Domestic Violence is real. It is mostly the abuse of women and children.

The woman victim often denies that she is a battered wife. There is a complex of qualities that create a circumstance for domestic violence. For the woman being abused, it can involve low self-esteem, trauma, shame, confusion, the desire to be loved and cared for, fear and more. There can be an economic component as to why a woman stays in an abusive relationship. There are always hidden reasons and causes, below the level of her awareness–often, she grew up in a household where this was modeled. The male abuser has likely been a victim himself–of trauma and having grown up in such a household. He has not learned to value a woman nor has he learned how to manage his own triggers, anger, past trauma.

When I moved to the mountains, twenty-plus years ago, I determined to write about the battered wife…her battle for sovereignty. When she recognizes that she has stayed too long in an abusive and demeaning relationship, how does she finally leave? My mother never left. She stayed true to the model of battered wife to the end. She stood by her husband despite the ongoing abuse. In the care home, I witnessed how my father finally had only to give my mother an icy stare for her to comply with his demands. The patterns were so well-established and neither of them knew how to extricate themselves from such a merciless cycle.

This is one of many tough topics. One that many people in my circles avoid. I understand why. It’s an ugly topic, isn’t it? It has ancestral roots. How does one change something that is so embedded? And, of course, how does the prevailing and entrenched attitude towards women as inferior to men begin to change? How does a woman change that diminished model within herself?

Sometimes, when a woman has experienced domestic violence over a long period of time, it is hard for her to talk about it. If she has left the situation, there is a part of her that wants to shrink away from it and ‘have a happy life now.’ However, the effects are lingering and the body has set up patterns of re-traumatization with the intention of protection. Reading about something along the lines of domestic violence, a woman can get triggered back into an event in her life. Fight, flight and freeze strategies are engaged. Conducting a normal life is unrealistic given this response to triggers.

This topic of Domestic Violence is up for me now as currently some of my family members are living through this nightmare. For one of them, it has been carried to the extreme and she is in the hospital fighting for her life. When and how does this change? First by shining a light of recognition on it. Bringing awareness to that which we would rather avoid. The world has been under the spell of man’s dominion over woman and nature long enough. We’re missing everything until we are inclusive of the wisdom that is innate when we embrace our interdependence on one another and the wholeness of life.




My Mother’s Hands

mom1

This mixed media piece was to be my entry in an upcoming art show.

It was also a challenge to myself to integrate poetry with paint.  In some way, it was a homage to my mother’s life.  The photo is of her at age seventeen.  She was a beauty.  My mother died in 2011 at age 91.  From my perspective, her life had been a long, hard road. I’ve written so much about her, about our relationship, about her relationship with my father.

****
One of the layers of this painting is a poem, My Mother’s Hands.   After writing the poem  on the canvas, I remember feeling vulnerable.  I was revealing her story to an audience who might not understand the battered wife syndrome.

The poem begins:

I wonder if a palm reader back then would have foretold
–a long life
–an unloving marriage
–an abusive spouse…

…and then I smudged some of the words with gesso and paint.

In the last three years of their lives, my parents were in a care home, a house in a neighborhood with eight elderly residents.  Another sister and I alternated visiting them during the week.  Two other sisters orchestrated their care from afar.  The brothers remained aloof until the very end as they didn’t feel at ease with our father.

In her later years, my mother’s hands were contorted with arthritis.   Her fingers had trouble gripping a spoon and then navigating it to her mouth.  But she had lost so many of her abilities that I didn’t want to help her too much.  I watched as the spoon wobbled towards her mouth.  Her mouth like a quivering bird anticipating food.

My father in the background would say “These are not the golden years.”  I could see that.

One sunny day, we were sitting outdoors under fruit-laden orange trees.  My mother said “I wonder where we go from here.”

“What do you mean, Mom?” I asked.

“After we die.” she said.

“I thought you believed in heaven,” I said, trying to offer comforting words.

My father said “There’s nothing.”

“Dad,” I said, “I thought you had a dream of heaven.  You said it was beautiful.”

My father said, “It was lonely.  I was the only one there.”

In slow motion, my mother reached for my hand and held it–an unfamiliar gesture.

Yesterday was Mother’s Day.  I’m sure thoughts of my mother weave through my mind on any given day.  For one reason or another.

I wonder what she’d be thinking about the state of the world today.  She once asked me to write her story…I’m not sure which one…the one of the devoted wife who stood by her husband no matter what abuse.  Or the possible woman who hid herself away and didn’t have an opportunity to blossom.

The Gold in Your Journals

You witness your daily life experiences on the pages of your journal.  You share your reflections, fears, hopes and dreams.  Your feelings of the moment.  Your encounters, reactions and more.  This journal is not only a confidante, it is the keeper of your records.  As a journalist, you follow yourself around with pen and pad writing down the details of your experience(s) firsthand!  You describe place, person, thing, incident, occasion, a vista, your own feelings, reactions, goofiness.  You write down dialogue and phrases caught on the wind in a cafe.  You really don’t skimp on writing down these details.  They could be useful in your blog, a book, an essay, a poem, whatever.

Your powers of recall are amazing.  But what you recall is typically a feeling or an image, sometimes a smell.  You don’t remember the specific details, the exact feeling, the precise colors, your immediate reaction or the words of a conversation or your thought process.  As was noted in an earlier blog, it is through the image details that your writing rises out of the ordinary into the authentic and believable.  Writers paint word pictures.  Therein lies the gold in your well-kept journals.

Excerpt from an earlier journal…

“Once you lose the ability to speak, you really appreciate it,” my father slurred following a stroke.     (Having been a girl and woman without a voice for most of my life, I thought but didn’t say–tell me about it)

He tried to recite a poem Elegy in a Country Churchyard.  I couldn’t understand a single word of it!

My mother wore his yellow bathrobe, his watch on her wrist.  His wallet was in the bathrobe pocket with two medications that he was taking.  Like a high-schooler wearing her boyfriend’s lettered sweater.

When the doctor mentioned the question of life supports, her face screwed up as she tried not to cry.

****
I wouldn’t have remembered these details had I not written them in my journal.  As a writer, have you mined the gold in your journals?

 

 

Truthbound

Sometimes a quote stays with you.  This one is from the 1956 film, Anastasia, starring Ingrid Bergman:

“Truth serves only a world who lives by it.”

****
In their later years, when things were so difficult with my aging parents, I was taking a creative writing class.  The instructor, a wise woman, witnessed my turmoil.  One day at the end of class, she took me aside.  She knew some of the challenges I was facing with my parents and family.  She challenged me to write a type of sonnet called a Sestina.  I didn’t know what a Sestina was.  I asked her for a timeline.  She said I should write it that evening.  I went home, studied the form and this poem virtually flowed out of me.  It was the perfect vehicle for what was happening in my life.  As art, poetry and writing can do, it shifted the energy for me.

Truthbound
© by Christine O’Brien

Truth lies in a shallow grave

while perspectives hang out everywhere.

Semantics argue with the unwary

as he admonishes “feelings aren’t facts.”

She remonstrates that mine is not the only opinion!

I inquire “How does one unearth truth?”

 

A sly animal is truth;

in its lair as silent as the grave.

Taunted by every brand of opinion,

each certain that his truth binds everyone, everywhere.

Scientists are burdened with facts.

Buying facts carte blanche is for the unwary.

 

My mother has been unwary,

living my father’s lies, denying truth.

Out in the cold, the stranded facts;

a story of lies they take to the grave.

Wounded healers, their children lay everywhere.

On unalterable facts I do base this sad opinion.

 

Really, what is there to opinion?

What warning can I give to the unwary?

The pain from his misdeeds is everywhere;

his forked tongue can’t speak the truth.

“Oh Dad, set yourself free before the grave

takes you and the unspoken, faltering facts.”

 

Weakening into old age, do they matter less, the facts?

That my mother be separated from him was my opinion.

Yet, there they are growing fragile together, headlong to the grave.

His rage bursts her peaceful ending, she the constant unwary.

In this sad scenario, can one find the concealed truth?

Fragments of perspectives and hurt feelings lay everywhere.

 

When division and broken hearts are everywhere,

are they less important now, the historical facts?

Is forgiveness the elixir of truth?

It seems opposition only supports an opinion

as egos argue in the territory of the unwary.

Let’s bury our perspectives in a grave.

 

Though facts, feelings and opinions are strewn everywhere

is it only the unwary who bind them to truth?

The grave is the end for all; is it wiser to pave the path with love?