Harriet Martineau

Being that March is Women’s History Month, I leafed through my book The Underside of History by Elise Boulding. I did one of those exercises where you open the book to any page and whatever catches your eye first, you go with it. My finger landed on a photo of Harriet Martineau. I had never heard of her before which isn’t surprising as most of women’s history did not land in our history books.

According to Wikipedia, Harriet was born on June 12, 1802 and died on June 27, 1876. Wikipedia states that she “was an English social theorist often seen as the first female sociologist. She wrote from a sociological, holistic, religious and feminine” perspective. She earned enough money to support herself and, as you can imagine, that was rare for a woman writer (or any profession occupied by a woman) in those times.

Martineau advised “a focus on all [society’s] aspects, including key political, religious, and social institutions.” She thoroughly reviewed the status of women as being under men. The novelist, Margaret Oliphant, called her “a born lecturer and politician… less distinctively affected by her sex than perhaps any other, male or female, of her generation.” The young Princess Victoria appreciated Harriet’s work and invited her to her coronation in 1838.

In the years 1834-1836, Martineau traveled to the United States to study the political economy and the moral structure of the young nation.  She took a strong stand with the Abolitionists against slavery. While in the United States, she observed the stance on education for girls and women. She wrote about her findings in a few books, two of which are:  Society in America (1837) and Retrospect of western Travel (1838).

“The publication of Harriet Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy (in nine volumes) found public success…By 1834, the monthly sales . . . had reached 10,000 in a decade in which a sale of 2,000 or 3,000 copies of a work of fiction was considered highly successful.”

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I’ve wondered about this before and it bears repeating now–if women had grown up learning about the amazing women who preceded us, we might have developed a better esteem of ourselves. When students are taught that it was mostly men who made history worth telling, then women recede into the back pages of history, playing a subservient less distinct role as influencers of humanity unfolding. Boys grow up thinking that they have more value and girls less impact on positive evolutionary changes.

If I had known about, say Harriet Martineau, I might have understood that as a writer, there are many possibilities for me. I might have grown up knowing that I wasn’t limited, by virtue of my gender, to what I could accomplish in the world. The spirit of adventure, curiosity and daring that Harriet lived might have opened other doors for me. I might have realized that I could oppose the conventions of what a woman could do as Harriet did. Noting that Harriet is only one of many women who slipped through history unannounced, I can only wonder what other astonishing women once lived.

She didn’t seem to doubt that the world was her oyster. Standing outside the constraints of her culture, gender and times, Harriet showed great courage in spite of ridicule for being a single woman, having a contrary opinion and some physical infirmities. She affirmed her right to be and to become. There was a period of five years where she retreated from society to heal a very large and painful ovarian cyst. When she recovered, she returned to pursue her public life with vigor.

An excerpt from Harriet Martineau’s writing:

“The intellect of women is confined by an unjustifiable restriction of… education… As women have none of the objects in life for which an enlarged education is considered requisite, the education is not given… The choice is to either be ‘ill-educated, passive, and subservient, or well-educated, vigorous, and free only upon sufferance.”

What do Women Want?

My ex-boyfriend and I occasionally discussed the age-old question “What do women want?” He believed (as did my ex-husband) that women want to have power over men. Freud thought that women wanted to be men! And others have said that women want to be desired by men. For more years than I can remember, I have wanted to have sovereignty over my own life–even within the establishment of a marriage. I didn’t care to compete with men in the marketplace. Although, I would expect equal pay for equal work. My time is valuable, my job qualifications and experience have spoken for themselves when I worked in the fields of business or education. What I really want is to be able to freely choose and direct the course of my own life. That with respect towards all men, women, beings and subservient to nothing but my woman’s soul.

Within a marriage, I wanted an equal partnership. I wanted both my husband and myself to feel free to express our love for one another. I didn’t want to have to earn love and affection. My ex-husband was stifled in the way he expressed love and care. Although those were his limitations, I took it personally and tried harder for too many years. He was from a culture steeped in machismo. Therefore, he had to dominate in some way. His anger was an accessible emotion (along with his physical strength) to keep the woman (me) in her place!

This is one of those microcosm-macrocosm models. My relationship patterns are reflected in the larger world. The insecure male ego has to dominate the female. That power-over inequality is built into our cultures, religions, politics, the governing laws, etc.

My ex-husband used to believe that I wanted to control him. He brought this perception from his childhood forward into our marriage without examining it. He acted as if it were true. His behaviors towards me from the start proved his belief…I don’t think he understood this until many years later–after we’d been divorced for awhile. I think he got it before he died in 2019. However, those early embedded beliefs are so difficult to release.

In the world today, the opinions and input of approximately 50% of the world’s population, women, goes unheard, unappreciated and not included in decisions that are affecting the whole. That’s astonishing to me! Fifty per-cent of the population isn’t weighing in on how we use the world, whether or not we go to war, decisions about growing and distributing food, healthcare, economics, and every other element of living in this human-made world.

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The third month of every year is Women’s History Month, celebrated in America. International Women’s Day is March 8th this year. As I retrace the scant history that we have of women heroines as compared to men, I recover part of my ancestry. Revaluing women’s contributions throughout history is a powerful exercise for women in present time. As women, it’s important that we reclaim our roots and remember that they go deeper than our immediate family. Studying these roots, we also reclaim our self-esteem and our personal power.

We can’t wait for men to elevate our status. Individually, we have to claim it daily in how we lead our lives. We have to decide what is acceptable in our relationships, in our jobs, in how we show up in the world. We have to value the work that we do, not just the jobs we hold. We have to value ourselves.

I came across this three-minute animated film and thought that it was worth sharing.


Wasteful War

Wasteful War
© by Christine O’Brien

Allow the earth to drown you in her beauty.
Then there’ll be less desire for wasteful war.
Without restraint, succumb to her bounty
Such a complete surrender, do not abhor.

Why do we march to the battlefield still
Inventing disagreements to stoke the fire
What inside of us do we try to quell
If we win, are we right and they the liar?

What, pray tell, is the point of any war?
What victory so sweet that sheds blood?
Are we being true to some ancient lore?
Can we decide midstream to change this plot?

Please drown me earth in your beautiful flood
This cause of death I’d deem worthy, I would.

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Yesterday, I took a walk in nature. I walk daily, weather permitting. I walked beside a lake, Lake Siskiyou in Mount Shasta, CA. Along this trail, they have placed one picnic table with benches. I stopped to sit and gaze at the sparkling water, a few ducks, the trees. I had a little book with me, Sanditon by Jane Austen. Apparently, this is her last work and incomplete. I’d been watching the series on PBS and wanted to see how close they stayed to her book, at least the beginning of it.

Sitting there, having this momentary leisure of time and the beauty of place, I felt fortunate. I could feel what it is to have an experience of peace in beauty. I desired this, something like this, for everyone. I guess I was imagining then a world without war. A world where we are satisfied with caring for what we have and we don’t have the need for conquest and acquiring more.

Today, I walked by the lake again, a different trail. I met a man walking his dog…a stranger. We had a casual conversation and before long, I could see he appreciated nature and longed for peace. I said something to him like “We need leaders who love the earth and value all of life,” and I added, “like you.” He laughed and said that could be his campaign slogan. And then he said that someone who favored burning coal would say “We’re not voting for you because you’re going to undermine our industry.” And I said that his response could be “Let me offer you an alternative.” Isn’t life strange?

My brother, Bob, is a musician and poet and has worked for the Oceanographic Society. For most of his adult life, Bob has protested against war, fought for nuclear disarmament and has been an animal rights advocate. All of these combine to show a man who lives his values. He was out there this past weekend joining with others to protest war.

It’s sad to witness how there are a few men at the top who hold the world hostage.


Does the Sea See Me?

from Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions, El Libro de las Preguntas.

“When I see the sea once more
will the sea have seen or not seen me?

Why do the waves ask me
the same questions I ask them?

And why do they strike the rock
with so much wasted passion?

Don’t they get tired of repeating
their declaration to the sand?”

Pablo Neruda, The Book of Questions

My daughter and her husband went to Tahiti a few weeks ago. They were celebrating their wedding anniversary. I was anxious about their trip as the Covid-19 Virus was at its peak there. They were both fully vaccinated, but even vaccinated people are contracting the virus. Thankfully, they are fine.

This was their first time in Tahiti. My daughter was good about keeping me in the loop by sending a daily photo or two of the tropical waters, so clear and warm. They stayed in a little hut at the end of a short pier. They walked down a few steps and they were in the water. One day, my daughter, Annette, sat on a chair with her feet in the water. For two hours, she watched two fish build their nest. They swam below, scooped up sand and gravel and swam upwards to deposit it in the nest. Two hours, it took them and my daughter sat there, mesmerized, watching them.

She said, “Afterwards, I didn’t want to wade in the water. I didn’t want to tread on anyone’s nest.”

She did go snorkeling with her husband, once. There are sharks in these waters and although there have been no recent attacks, Annette was a bit nervous. What might swim out from behind a reef? Regardless, she got into the spirit of what it was to be on this island. After her return to the States, we talked on the phone. In describing the impact of her trip…

“Mom,
I was the island
I was the water
I was the fish
I was the sky
I was the earth”

She said that she felt sensory overwhelm…that there were fish the colors of which she had no name. The whole energy of the island touched her in a way that she hadn’t expected and couldn’t explain. She cried a lot, she felt elated, she was in awe.
She said “There is a whole civilization under the sea. We have no idea.”

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I told her “Now, you are an advocate for the ocean, one of its protectors.”

I sent her a copy of Rachel Carson’s book, The Sea Around Us. Here’s a quote from Carson’s book:

“Eventually man, too, found his way back to the sea. Standing on its shores, he must have looked out upon it with wonder and curiosity, compounded with an unconscious recognition of his lineage. He could not physically re-enter the ocean as the seals and whales had done. But over the centuries, with all the skill and ingenuity and reasoning powers of his mind, he has sought to explore and investigate even its most remote parts, so that he might re-enter it mentally and imaginatively.”

― Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us

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We do have a romance with the ocean. As Neruda queries whether or not the sea sees him, generally, humans seem to be ignorant as to what the ocean provides besides fish. We have neither fully realized nor protected the ocean’s necessary ecology for our planet earth. Humans continue to use the ocean as a dumpsite for our waste. And as we know, plastics and other non-biodegradable wastes are harming life under the sea. We are a very egocentric breed who considers that everything is here for our use or misuse. We lack gratitude and a sense of reciprocity. Perhaps, there is more environmental awareness being taught in our education system, but we’re slow to evolve our ways of using the earth.

“…The ocean produces over half of the world’s oxygen and absorbs 50 times more carbon dioxide than our atmosphere. Climate regulation: Covering 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, the ocean transports heat from the equator to the poles, regulating our climate and weather patterns…”

from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Pablo Neruda had his questions, you probably have yours and I certainly have my own. Why is it so difficult for humans to connect the dots of our existence on earth. This interdependency?

The Inferior Sex

Women are often portrayed as the weaker sex, the dependents, the victims. Generally, women unconsciously, and consciously, assent to these designated classifications. While I have come to realize that the ascribed descriptives are false, it is the framework within which we live our lives. We thereby, allow our partners, the presumed-to-be stronger or wiser ones, to get away with things they should be called on. We allow them to remain immature and therefore irresponsible or not responsible for their actions. Women have a huge part to play in the maturation of human life on this planet. One way that we can do this is by holding men accountable for their behaviors. We must stop being the sweepers and fixers–sweeping it under the carpet and trying to make it all better. I want this to be a better world for our daughters and our sons than it was for me or my mother.

As women who are the awakeners of men, we need to begin to conduct ourselves as the goddesses that we are. I use this word to elevate us to our own authentic stature. Within this awareness is total equality. What does a goddess look like? How does she behave? How does she walk in the world when she has been disrespected for eons? This woman has unerring values and speaks her non-negotiable truth. She serves no man–she serves wisdom’s truth acquired through her lived experience. Within a relationship, she can choose to make a compromise without compromising her truth or values. For example, if you are with a partner who does not value monogamy and you do, and he isn’t ready to re-evaluate his position, you don’t belong together. What you value is not negotiable.

There is a sacredness in the womanly arts. Women’s work, while portrayed as mundane, is an art. I know about the womanly arts. Throughout history, women who were oppressed found ways to express through craft, cooking, gardening, quilting, embroidery, weaving textiles, dressing their family and more. Some things were done out of necessity, others were done from a deeper place–the need to express her own experience in some unique-to-her way. There was never a problem with women’s work aside from the fact that it is constant. That very constancy allows a woman to deepen her innate wisdom. The problem is that a dysfunctional patriarchal paradigm minimizes and devalues her work. Yet, it is the very backbone that consistently supports all of life. I don’t want to be a woman doing a man’s job. I don’t want to compete with men in a male-constructed market place. I want what I do to be properly respected, valued, elevated…and compensated. HA!

I believe that women should be included at any political bargaining table where war is being discussed. Women who are mothers and grandmothers should be adequately represented. Traditionally, there is and has been an imbalance in their representation. In some indigenous cultures, it is the women who determine whether or not their tribe is to go to battle.

Last evening, I viewed a film celebrating Women’s History Month. It’s called Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power. Congresswoman Barbara Lee is a model of a woman staying true to her values even under duress.

Paying Attention

How come we elect leaders who don’t know how to effectively lead? How come we don’t elect leaders who embody the higher values of humanity? Why do these men (as they are mostly men making these big decisions for the whole planet) have the idea that to over-power is real power? Where did the notion that conquest equals power originate? What has lead them to believe that war, a show of physical bravado and military invasion, somehow lends them an air of superiority? As they force the submission of others with less defenses, they assume that they gain respect.

Why we vote for leaders who don’t value human life, planetary health and who disrespect the rights of all is beyond my way of thinking.

I wrote this poem on September 7, 2020 when the world was facing into the unknown of the Covid virus. So much has happened since then. Sometimes, poetry is a way to manage the confusion and emotions that we experience.

Paying Attention
by Christine O’Brien

One daughter thinks that the world
might be coming to an end
The other daughter focuses on
getting her daughter to her 8th grade Zoom classes
I paint a painting of a clouded leopard
indigenous to Southeast Asia
He was believed to be extinct
not yet, not quite, but they’re rapidly
taking away his hardwood forests
Before that, I painted the Spirit Bear
who lives in sector five of the
coastal rainforests on the islands of
British Columbia
His forests were designated to be decimated
by lumber companies
It was proven that this bear is a unique species
neither albino nor mutation
For now the forests are saved
What havoc humans have wrought
who can forgive this?
How are we communicating with one another,
as human beings?
When one says one thing
and the other hears something else
what hope is there?
And then, there’s the debate about wearing a mask
Meeting friends, one wears a mask that slips
below her nose frequently
the other doesn’t wear a mask at all
I wear a mask, pulling it away from my face
occasionally
so my words aren’t muffled
What are we doing?
In 1918, there was no vaccine research
People either died of the virus then or
they developed an immunity
The man who came to sand and stain the deck
has a crush on who he thinks I am
He says that he doesn’t want another woman friend
he wants a girlfriend and his blue eyes pierce my own
Slow down, way down
The lizard I photographed
the one that posed on the boulder beside the lake
I read that their pushups are meant to show
prowess
or to claim territory
the little studs
Native Americans perspective is that life goes
in circles
not linear
I like to think as my sister-in-law suggested
that we are in the continuum
Forget numbering your years
Be in it, this life, this continuum, this unknown
risky place

My Next House

I found my next house and have moved! it’s not far from where I lived before, but in a more forested area. This little house used to be an art studio. It is distant enough from the main house on the property to be private. In fact, it’s on two acres! The house is a sweet space, two stories and truly in the trees…that’s all I see when I look out the windows–pines and cedars and manzanita. Yet, there is plenty of opportunity for a successful garden. I dug up the herbs from the planter that Philip built and transported the wood sculpture and the herbs here. That’s a good place to begin the new garden.

I’m going to take gardening seriously regardless of how long I stay. Yes, the garden supersedes everything else for now! It is my shaman, my teacher, my mentor. A rock garden, an herb garden, flowers along the pathway to the front door, flowers in a barrel. Perhaps build a shrine to the losses I’ve experienced over the course of my life. What else? Vegetables? Hmmm, maybe not. We do have a good farmer’s market nearly year around.

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Thank Goddess for the garden. I can be a heady person, thinking and pondering life. And politics! I wonder how we can finally learn to cooperate? What can we agree upon? What are our similarities? Where do we connect? Perhaps we have to ask ourselves new questions to get different, hopefully better answers. How do we define peace? Does it need to be redefined? Can we celebrate our differences rather than let them divide us? I read the mission statement of the United Nations:

United Nations mission statement is “the maintenance of international peace and security.” Eradicating conflicts across the globe is the pivotal duty of this organization. Its focus on this area is because it seeks to: 1. Improve Lives and 2. Transform Communities

While the mission of the United States Department of Defense is “… to provide the military forces needed to deter war and ensure our nation’s security.” A contradiction within itself it would seem–deter war by engaging in war. My sister and I were talking last night. She said that she would have thought that by this century, leaders around the world would have found a better way to deal with conflict. Me too!

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The tulip is a different religion than the carnation. The daffodil is a whole different race than the forget-me-not. The rose does not reign as queen over the daisy. The yellow goldenrod is companionable to its neighbor, the purple aster. They all appreciate a soft spring rain, playful warm breezes and are lulled by the songs of nature. They all welcome the bumble bee. They each want to be the most that they can be. They each have something wonderful to offer. They’d hope the same for us–freedom to be and share our gifts.

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Competition has been “the word” for a long time. The world grows smaller and it seems right that cooperation becomes the word of now.

The Roots of Story

A garden cannot be hurried. It needs watering–daily, in hot, wilting weather like we’re having. Again, the desire to move is surfacing. There aren’t any likely places available at this time. So, I worked in the garden most of the day, planting herbs in the redwood planter that Philip built for me. It is full and beautiful! It is three square tiers angled one above the other giving me thirteen little plots for herbs. It’s a lovely sculpture for the garden. Now that it’s planted, it’s immoveable.

When I work in the garden, my mind meanders. Today I thought about stories. Have you noticed how stories have a way of sticking with us even after they have outworn their usefulness? Stories upon stories, layered, so sticky thick and that we’ve made seamless through the retelling. We think they are necessary, even the ones that are redundant, like the necessity of war in order to keep peace. Such a multitude of stories all woven in upon the other. Throughout time, we’ve created a whole logjam of stories. Was it because we couldn’t stand the wondrous, bare bones truth of a mysterious existence? Is story intended to protect our vulnerable selves? We do seem to crave complexity. We’ve taken a perfectly fine planet earth and twisted and contorted it into a Disneyland of another sort showing how very difficult we can make things given little or no incentive!

Roger Housden, author of Ten Poems to Change Your Life and many other books, tells a story about visiting Iran to gather information for a book he was writing. As he was about to board a plane at the airport in Iran, he was detained by security. Up until that time, Roger had believed a story that as an Englishman in these times, he had an inherent superiority of sorts…that he lead a charmed life and was exempt from harm. Upon being detained by security, that belief was shed as they took his passport, tossed it in the garbage and told him that it was worthless there. He could die and no one would ever know what happened to him. They offered him two choices–he could work with them or spend the next five years in prison. His long-held story fell away and was replaced by the awareness of his own real vulnerability, creating in him a humility and compassion that has remained with him.

In my own life, there has been an ongoing quest. I try to figure life out or, when I can’t, I might latch onto a story that satisfies me momentarily. Someone once called earth “the planet of story.” Stories in flesh and bone, is that what we are? Drop the stories and then, are we flattened like a steam-rolled cartoon character?

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I’m alone tonight, although I called Timothy at the last minute to invite him to watch a movie–a story to escape from thinking about my story. I was about to say that I’m glad he’s not coming over when he called to say, “Yeah, I’d like to watch a movie with you.” No longer lovers, we both state clearly (with a little longing and then definitely not on my part). I guess, I wish he was a platonic friend, a playmate. Can we transform our relationship into a mild flirtation short of temptation?

While outside, the garden stands, persisting through my naivete or ignorance. The garden. Tomorrow I’ll plant some flowers along a fence.

Goddess of the earth, help me to let go of the stories that aren’t helpful so that I can see the path forward clearly.

88 Degrees in the Shade

It’s nearly 2:00 p.m. It’s hot–almost 88 degrees in the shade! I turned the hose upward to rain down upon me a few times. Now, I’m eating a piece of my famous chocolate cake as I write this. I planted two tomato plants and an Anaheim Chile Pepper. I watered everything. I won’t plant the herbs until my friend, Philip, is finished building the three-tiered redwood herb bed for my garden.

Today, it seems, I’m aware of choices–choosing for myself. I chose not to go to improv at Rochelle’s. I chose to go to Mary’s with Polly and friends to write poetry tonight. I chose to walk a wooded path up and down Stellar Way for over an hour. I then came home, grabbed a bite to eat, made phone calls and yes, gardening. Maybe I’ll paint the fence for half-an-hour and then take a bath. I have chosen to dismiss Timothy as my lover. I think that it’s right; however, there’s a big blank space where he once was. I have longings to create home and family. How would that look at this time of my life, I wonder. The garden is my teacher (and life is my teacher).

A deer thundered through the brush when I got too close on my hike. A big, tawny, beautiful, strong, watchful deer. Gentle is the word attributed to deer. I would say they are a powerful form of gentle.

What is the garden teaching me? The soil is volcanic, red, softened slightly with watering and soil enhancers. Weeds grow easiest when the soil has been watered over several days. Is the soil clay or is it only very dry? Why do humans crave family and solitude simultaneously? Who do we live our lives for in solitude? Is it enough to keep a garden and live for oneself? And yes, we need to know how to be alone, yet… I received an invitation to Jana’s, my niece’s, graduation. These special times. These special, dissolving times. Is my life over before I realize why I’m here? What is the secret to this every-dayness? How do we carry on despite the wars that are being waged around the world?

The garden is so lovely in this season, in Spring, lavishing its beauty on me, on Sara the cat and any friendly birds and insects. The garden is welcoming. I’ll continue to plant here until I move somewhere else. It’s not only Timothy I miss, it’s the loneliness of not having a daily someone with whom to interact. Why not Timothy? He’s not partner material. I wanted him to be as I don’t enjoy the search for a mate. However, he’s not the one.

The garden is patient and it trusts that it’ll flower and fruit at the right time. It doesn’t have a mental process. It takes in nurturance and preens in the sun and waits for what’s next.

The Garden

Is it too soon to be thinking about the garden? This year, I hope to hire an experienced gardener to get me closer to what I desire. With my amateurish knowledge, I have created many less-than-satisfactory gardens over the years. I did learn to navigate seaside gardens with the help of my brother, a master gardener. However, moving to the mountains, it’s been a struggle. Is it the soil, the fertilizer, the light loving vs. shade loving plants, companion planting yay or nay, not enough or too much watering? There’s a lot to know.

When I first moved here, I also struggled with to have or not to have a garden as I was living in a rental.

This is my third spring in this rental house. It seems I have trouble claiming a rental as my home. I don’t fully set the house up for myself. No sooner did I arrive than I thought about moving. I’ve made friends, created a community, yet feel unsettled, ungrounded and barely beginning to cultivate a garden. The refrain is “Well, it’s not my house.” or “I’m going to move, so what’s the point?”
I haven’t moved. I’m here now, so today I begin the garden in earnest. The dirt beneath my fingernails tattles on me. The pebbles and soil tracked into the house…is a giveaway. My newly tanned nose and shoulders, messy play clothes reveal that I’ve been digging in the dirt.
In the mountains, a long winter turns into a slip of spring and then plunges rapidly into summer. She who dawdles loses gardening moments. I’m not much for lawns. but this property has a front and back lawn. It’s my responsibility to water them and keep them mowed. I’ve hired a gardener for mowing twice a month. If it were my house, the lawns would be flower beds, vegetable and herb gardens. Yet, there are enough other areas to cultivate some of my favorites and a few surprises.
Last summer I bought two maples in pots and placed them outside the kitchen and bedroom windows that face out on a fence. I also bought a wisteria trailing leaves…where to put it? I’m painting that section of the fence a terracotta color and dressing it up with a ceramic decorative sun and other ornaments. I want to love where I live. The neighbor’s old oak tree has leafed out overnight. The parasitic mistletoe doesn’t seem to meddle with the new leafy display. I want to travel some this summer, but I also want to keep this garden. I want to learn its language, meet the elemental beings if they want to be known, the birds and butterflies and to be grateful for all of it.

{This is the first in a series about some of my experiences in the garden.}

Swallowtail on Delphinium