Writers, Rabbit Holes and Curiouser and Curiouser

My watercolor version of Sir John Tenniel’s Alice in Wonderland (in the attic)

Alice of Wonderland fame had a curious nature.  Falling down a rabbit hole probably wasn’t brilliant.  However, it lead her into a fictitious world, one that Lewis Carroll fabricated brilliantly.  Was it a political parody?  A not so subtle way to expose and mock the then current political climate in England?  Was it only a fantasy, a child’s tale?  To be taken at face value?

Regardless, writers are curious beings.  They pursue various white rabbits in their quest for a story.  They research and sniff things out.  They discover, uncover, unearth, expose and bring things to light to share with their readers.  Ha!  Curiosity, it has been said, keeps one young.  The exploration can lead you into all sorts of encounters.  However, if it’s a white rabbit that you meet, you might be careful about who you tell.

In my childhood, the oft repeated phrase was “Children are meant to be seen and not heard.”  What clever person invented that one?  Asking questions and having a questing nature is how we discover and learn about the world that we’re born into.  The autocratic family system in which I grew up disallowed individual thinking and discouraged asking questions.  You were served what you were served and it was for your own good–you best swallow it in its entirety.  Some of my siblings chafed under this rule and were given the strap.  Others went into denial… ‘everything is fine’.  And then, the belief that everyone lived like this seemed true.  There wasn’t a lot of connection with the outside world.  Isolation is important in this type of system.  

It takes awhile, after one leaves such a home, to feel safe enough to express yourself freely.  It takes awhile to even realize what your own thoughts are.  But when you begin to come out from under the veils of fear and trauma, you start to notice things around you that just aren’t right.  And  your questions rise to the surface.  If you feel safe enough, you pursue those questions with an avidness, a rising hunger, a quest for your own truth in the midst of a world in chaos.  So, your early childhood, in a sense has trained you to recognize the non-sense that much of the world is buying into.  You have insight into the fragmentation, the separation, the isolation, the not seeing what is really going on (i.e. the elephant in the living room).  When your experiences take you into situations where questions aren’t encouraged, you have a nose for something isn’t right here.  

What I’m noticing is that there are many people across the planet who don’t question the status quo.  I witness how we continue allowing atrocities, warmongering, class differences, economic stratification, ageism, sexism, racism–all those ism’s.  And then there are those who do question, thankfully.  Climate change is real…do we stick our heads in the sand and pretend otherwise or do we roll up our sleeves and head into the fray and see if we can learn from the wiser elders, the indigenous ones, those who love the earth?  

No one person can address all the inequities by themselves.  I wonder what might happen if you or I or anyone chooses one thing to be curious about, to study and learn about?  At some point, you might feel the desire to share what you’ve learned.  At times, you could feel inspired to speak with newfound authority on  your topic of choice.  You might be inclined to educate others from that place of passionate awareness

One thing!  One thing only to be curious about and to explore.  What would you choose?

What’s a Feminist?

Sorting through my many files of writing–with the intention of shredding some of it, I came across a questionnaire from my college-age granddaughter…she was writing a paper about my generation of women–the sixties and seventies.

The first question was “Do you consider yourself a feminist?” As I rewrite this question here, I wonder if the concept of feminist even exists in other cultures. I’d like to know. Or does it belong to a time and era, culture and country, localized?

Regardless, it’s food for thought. Once I answered, yes, I consider myself a feminist, her next question was… “How do you define feminism?”

One dictionary definition of feminism is: “The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities…” A second definition: ” Organized activity in support of women’s rights and interests.”

I think that it’s important to recognize that in 1787 when the US Constitution was ratified, where it says that “all men are created equal” it refers to educated white males. Though women in this country were granted the right to vote as of August 18, 1920, the mentality that classed women as property and inferior to men exists to this day. Within the mindsets of both women and men, women continue to have less status than men in this country–and throughout most of the civilized and third world countries. Is it changing?

We hear examples of this inequality and outright abuse around the world daily. Though it can be more subtle in this country, wherever women are objectified–popular men’s magazines (like Playboy), sitcoms and movies that portray women as “dumb,” and crimes against women that aren’t effectively addressed. The lack of educational opportunities across the economic strata that would enhance women’s opportunities and self-esteem .

There is a concurrent need for the re-educating of men to foster respect for the contributions of womankind, up close and personal and globally. What is at the very roots of resistance to this? What undermines and contributes to this inequality?

Truly, the personal is political. One thought that I would add in defining feminism is this: Women do have gender-specific abilities, responsibilities, qualities that men obviously don’t have. That said, a reframing of the intrinsic value of women’s work both to a household and its benefits to a society should not go unrecognized and under-appreciated. The tasks that are particular to her gender, specifically, childbearing, nurturing, intuiting, nourishing and any other innately feminine traits be elevated and deemed as worthy and equal to any work that a man does out in the world–this recognition boosts esteem. Different but equal was a phrase commonly used in the sixties when women were burning their bras. I don’t think that the intention of this statement is reflected in our policies yet today.

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Are you a feminist?

How do you define feminism?

A good discussion topic with your friends?

Six More Weeks of Winter?

So the groundhog predicted on February 2nd…that gives us three weeks down and three weeks to go approximately in the northern hemisphere. It’s all so unpredictable these days. Like everything else in front of us, we’re going to know how much longer we have of winter when it happens. Forecasting is a strange sport.

We’ve had a long inward time…much longer than we anticipated. Another writer, K. DuMont, said

“Time introduces a new character to our lives each season,
one with a temperature and a temperament that affects our own.”

So, what has your temperament been like lately? People here are talking about covid fatigue. Someone asked me today how that expresses itself for me. I thought about it and found myself talking about the things that I miss…like the ease of movement, sitting in a café leisurely sharing time and tea with a friend, hugs. The incentive to clean my house used to be strong if I knew I was going to have company coming over. Now, who cares. A pile here, a pile there. Visits to my family five hours away have been curtailed. Another friend asked if I take fewer showers than I typically would. And, the last time I had a professional haircut was over one year ago. I’m weary of the limitations. And, with that, I have a lot to be grateful for although sometimes it’s hard to remember. Humans are social beings.

Each of us has our own particular tale to tell around this unprecedented time as I hear it being referred to. I inquire within…if these are the rules of the game, can I safely bend them or come up with a creative solution to alleviate the loneliness (I live alone)? Without knowing how much longer that we have to do this cautious dance in the world, is there something I can offer to myself to make it a little lighter? Is there some sort of community (yes, we are grateful for ZOOM–but then there is ZOOM Fatigue?) Is there some other way that we can create community for ourselves? I’m open for suggestions. Even if you’re an introvert, you miss the company of people. Don’t you?

I was invited to do a collaborative painting with another artist. I received a panel through the mail. The first artist had etched the design–there was an original from which she created her own unique expression. As the second artist in the collaboration, my part was to embellish it. Which I did, adding color, collage and using various techniques to try to render something compatible yet unique to me. I then mailed the panel to a local art council. They gather the panels from several other participating artists to create a mural. That’s one way to connect with others. Interesting, but not totally satisfying.

I am, by nature, introspective. However, prolonged introspection–urgh. Regardless, winter is considered the season for the inward journey. According to author, Jamie Sams, in the Native American tradition, the bear is the guardian of the west and winter, the season for introspection. She says that “…bear seeks honey or the sweetness of truth in the hollow of an old oak tree.”

Over the course of this long time with your own company and thoughts, is there a sweetness of truth that you have gleaned. One thing? More than one thing? Share it under comments here if you like or at least share it with one other person.

Writing My Way Through

Writing a blog, one can get stuck in a rut. Trying to hold true to an original intention for the blog, I encountered a block. While I loved what I was writing and sharing, was it making a difference for myself and others? Was their an evolutionary track to it? Perhaps, I’ve gone as far as I need to in that direction.

I paused the blog to grieve three intimate losses, to reencounter myself and rekindle a relationship with what has been a lifelong theme. That theme is the theme of woman/mother in a society that disrespects woman. As a girl with a mother who was virtually voiceless and invisible, I was impacted strongly. In her invisibility and silence, her effect upon me has been profound. How, then, did I find my voice? How did I allow myself to dare to go from invisibility to being seen?

As I write this, I ask myself “Do I want to share something this personal referencing my ongoing lifelong journey towards finding my voice, healing and wholeness?” I haven’t arrived there and I don’t necessarily feel secure or that I’m in a place of grounded strength and complete self-awareness. If I haven’t arrived, then how credible can I be? While I took a break from writing this blog to process grief, I realize that the period of healing, grieving, reclaiming and replenishing is ongoing.

In these times, each one of us has something that we are working on in the inner landscape of our individual lives. We are, each one of us, a microcosm with its own center and on our own evolutionary track. We do this, side-by-side, unaware of what our neighbor’s or our brother’s or our sister’s inner self is working on. If recognizing this helps me to access compassion, then I’ve come a long way.

We live in what has been termed “unprecedented times.” The challenges are great for us as individuals and as a society. There are a few people in my immediate circle with whom I reflect and share deeply. I admire those who can hold a positive attitude…although sometimes I wonder what channel they are tuned into as I don’t have the same consistent optimism. I do have hope, but I also am a witness to my own turmoil and the world condition. What is my small part in this great whole?

As I was walking in the late afternoon, it occurred to me that I could harvest writing from my journals, essays and non-fiction short stories to present the themes that explore a woman’s evolution from invisible and voiceless to “it is safe to be visible and to have a voice.” But there is something that I’m looking for in my own life and journey–what is the transformational piece? I don’t only want to present a problem…I want to consider “What is a possible way to transform what was or has been?”

I offer that question to you, the reader of this blog. Surveying your life, are you able to name a transformational piece? Certainly, there can be more than one.

Enjoy your day.

A Poem, Perhaps a Love Poem

Rhiannon, Epona, Chariot–GO!
Let music carry you through fear
the chickadee’s song is sweet–listen
spring is not the only season for flowering.
Decorum–what does that mean to nature
when Venus is in retrograde,
love stands on its head
while in love, everything is ultra.
The islanders tell stories
hearts are many shades of red
chant the sacred syllable
that opens yours.
Dive into love, don’t make excuses
even the aristocrats can’t buy it.
Have a love couturier design your dress
old clothes can no longer be altered to fit.
Start brand new–make it easy.

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I thought I should have a love poem of sorts to share today, Valentine’s Day. Truth is that I’m not celebrating it myself. Not like in years past. But then, love is at its best when it’s expansive and inclusive…like I love the stars at night, the new fallen snow, the crisp winter air, the smile from a stranger or a friend, the clear eyes that greet me above the mask, a funny film, the opossum or rubber tree plants, sun on my face and more. I could find thousands of things and sentient beings to be in love with today. I’m going to go outdoors between the snowflakes to see who or what wants love today.

Being the Age that You Are

…and in the times that you live.  Right now, this feels very challenging.  With a pandemic, wildfires  around the earth, worldwide protests arising from ongoing social injustices, political instability, economic crashes, and more!  Who wouldn’t want to escape into the past or a perceived as better future?

How often do I retreat into the past or project into the future in my thoughts?  Often, I’m sure.  I remember thinking that “things would be better when I conquered some aspect of my personality…in the future” or how much more pleasant it is to linger over a rare soft spot in the past.  I do think that sometimes, it is good to recall a moment when I felt powerful in the past, or exceptionally healthy or positive and to draw on that feeling to bring it forward into a challenging time today.  However, idling there isn’t helpful.  And while it’s fine to imagine a better future, now is where the action happens to begin to shift energy.

On my last birthday…I rediscovered magic.  I woke on my birthday feeling unsettled and grumpy.  I felt like cancelling the gathering with three friends.  I had a flexible plan for them to come over around 5:00 p.m., depending on the heat.  We would sit outside, bring our own food and drink, sit socially distant and share carrot cake.  Contemplating cancelling, I thought about the last birthday, a big one, when I was sick.  I thought about how I deserved a party, a celebration of me.  I remembered when I was a girl and had given myself a few birthday parties…because no one else would.  Suddenly, I had the energy to create a special setting for myself and my friends in the backyard.  And the day unfolded from there into a lovely shared experience.

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“Let me stand in my age with all its waters flowing round me.
If they sometimes subdue, they must finally upbear me,  for I
seek the universal and that must be the best.”
Margaret Fuller

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I didn’t know who Margaret Fuller was.  Do you?  It’s amazing to me how many women of some notoriety in their times have slipped through the cracks of “his…story.”

Margaret Fuller was an American journalist, editor, critic, translator, and women’s rights activist (1810 to 1850).  In a brief forty years, she accomplished quite a bit!  She left behind a lot of her writings including a book entitled Woman in the Nineteenth Century.  I encourage you to google her and read a brief bio of her life.  She was a deep thinker of her times.  Anyone who has gone before (our ancestors) sets the stage for the next ones to enter.

The Frustrated Communicator

I’m tackling it…the two file cabinets, the plastic bins in the closet, the cluttered shelves in the dining room. I started with the least cumbersome–the wicker shelf unit in the living room–cluttered with art supplies, recycled papers to be used for my innumerable lists, roles of decorative art papers, art journals, writing journals. As I rearranged or tried to organize, I realized that the frustration I feel isn’t perhaps that I have all of these journals and loose-leaf writing. I realize that I am a frustrated communicator!

Over the course of my life, I wrote and explored my questions on any and everything in these journals! There were times when I had a special person in my life with whom I could discuss the deeper things of life. And these rare people were dearly valued. When they moved on or died, that avenue, that special connection was gone. Then my questions lay like kindling in a mishmash pile, unanswered. It seems as if the questions, thoughts and poetry hover in another universe, waiting to be met, hoping to meet other inquirers. In the meanwhile, they sit in space (or in my journals) struggling for air and witnessing.

Does that make any sense? It is obvious that when I look at these stacks of journals, there is a seeker inside of me. A frustrated one. Because a monologue is a lonely place…I at least crave a dialogue or a circle of seekers like me. It would be nice. It would be great!

I have a few questions for you…do you welcome your own questions? Do you judge them? Do you find ways to share them with someone who won’t judge you in any way, with whom you feel safe?

The Need for Change

“The need for change
bulldozed a road down
the center of my mind. ”
Maya Angelou

This quote from Maya Angelou is likely something we can relate to at different times in our lives.  I know that it has been true for me over the course of my life.

Personally, I recognize the too tight box I’m living in.  Or the habit that persists that really wants to be let go of.  Sometimes it’s a closet of clothes that I no longer wear.  Other times, it’s a deep desire for something different than the same old, same old.  Shifting a perspective can be, as one of my sister’s said, like bending steel.

Whatever it is, how do I allow change in?  How do you invite or choose necessary change?

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At this time, change is thrust upon us externally.  Any external change is going to cause whatever complacency we might have to be disrupted.  We have become aware of that in these uncertain days.  What is within that hasn’t really been working is called to the forefront and we have to DEAL WITH IT.  Whatever it is.

I’m not sure when Maya Angelou said the above quote…and what was exactly going on in her life.  Years ago, I read one of her biographies, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  I remember it being about her early years, childhood and young womanhood.  It entailed her reaction to a childhood where she experienced some of the cruelties of life.  A period where she didn’t speak for five years after a horrific event occurred. She was pregnant at 17 with her one and only child, a son.  She lead a chaotic life for awhile–was a prostitute, owned a brothel, ran wild.  At some point, she pursued higher education and eventually became a scholar, a professor, writer and poet and rubbed elbows with some of the amazing people of our times including Nelson Mandela.

If you don’t know Maya Angelou, if you don’t know of the rich tapestry of her life, I encourage you to read one of her several chronological autobiographies.  And, you would discover how she made pivotal choices that changed the course of her life.  I also encourage you to read some of her poetry which is typically about a woman’s self-discovery and identity.  Her poetry is something that I connect with–it reaches beyond any differences of race, creed or color.

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All of that to ask “What in your life needs to be changed?”  When faced with this question, I sometimes begin by clearing some clutter, cleaning out a drawer or a closet, journaling about a mindset, writing a poem that releases something old (or several) and writing poetry that invites in something new.  Painting can also foster the change you want to make in the outer world.  There are other supports for the changes you want to make.  A circle of friends, sharing and talking about something new that you and they want to bring about helps.  Prayers for guidance helps.  Consider the supports and resources that are available as you choose to change something.  You’re not alone, truly.

Always, be gentle with yourself during the process.  It’s often about recognition.  And then we go from there.

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I had to post this poem written and read by Maya Angelou because all I see is a woman of power.  She was forty years old when she spoke this poem.  Her voice, wow!  Her presence, wow!  The way that she occupies the poem as she recites it, wow!

The Dowry–Part Two

Pap comes home after a day’s work, after a visit to Flanagan’s Pub.  He trips over two wooden chairs, staggering through the small, crowded parlor to get to the bedroom that he and Mum and Willy share.

He mutters as my mum says, “Senior, couldn’t you come home sober one night a week!  If there was any of me dowry left, I’d divorce you!”

My younger sister, Patticake cries “We’ll be orphans.”

Willy harmonizes with Patticake, “I don’t want to be no orphan.”

“Wipe  your noses and pipe down.  I ain’t got no more dowry since  your pap drank it up.  So I ain’t going nowhere now am I?”

A grunt comes from the bedroom as Pap falls onto the squeaky bed.

“Colleen, go help your pap take his boots off so’s he doesn’t get me own Mum’s rose quilt dirty,” Mum yells at me.

“I hear you, Mum,” I snap back as I run to the bedroom.

Pap is already snoring.  His breathing is deep and the stench of whiskey makes me want to be sick.  Pap doesn’t budge an inch when I tug mightily to get first his left boot and then his right boot off.  I’m thinking I could jump full hard on his belly and he wouldn’t wake up.

I look at his grizzled face.  The deep scar on his upper left cheek looks like a cleared ditch bordered with stubble.  He was handsome once.  From the tintype on the dresser he stares, a dark-eyed man with wavy black hair parted in the middle and slicked down.  Now he looks worn from work, hard living, hard drinking.  He doesn’t know what to do with us kids, especially the girls.  He roughhouses with Willy some, but he leaves us girls to Mum.  I feel sorry for my pap and pat his arm tenderly.

“Colleen,” Mum calls.  “Get out here and snap the green beans for supper.”

“Coming, Mum.”

***
I sit at the knotty wood table, hands washed, sleeves rolled, opposite Kathleen and Louise.  Kathleen peels potatoes with expertise.  Her face is satisfied.  She is going to be James Flynn’s wife.  Louise is slicing the carrots intently.  She doesn’t have a beau yet.  But she’s pretty enough and Mrs. Donovan, the matchmaker, is always looking for the right fella.  The little ones are napping after their hard play today.

Mum stands at the wood-fed stove, stirring the broth, sweat beading on her forehead.  I snap off the tough ends of the green beans and pull out the string as I was taught to do.  In this rare moment of suspended silence, my mind wanders to my 18th birthday.  I don’t talk back anymore when Mum says that I’m going to have to go into the convent.  I’ve read about some girls who ran away from their families.  They bought their passage and emigrated to Australia.  A girl doesn’t need a dowry there and there’s plenty of men who want a good wife.  The day after I turn eighteen, I’m packing my few belongings, taking the money Mum has stashed in the cookie jar with my name on it and getting on a boat to Australia.

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The Dowry–Part One

Have you done it?  Have you had your DNA tested to see the percentages of your ancestry?  If so, were there any surprises?

My biggest percentage was Italian on my mother’s side.  Followed by Irish on my father’s side.  Then there are the lesser percentages of surprising origins.  And the curiosity around how did that get in there.

All of this to say that a few years ago, I wrote a short story for an assignment in a Creative Writing class.  One can’t always know where their inspiration comes from or how it is going to express through words or art.  Perhaps it is rooted in the DNA and that cellular memory.  Perhaps I channeled one of my Irish ancestors.    There is some historical significance.  It is presented here in two parts.  I hope you enjoy it.

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The Dowry
©by Christine O’Brien

“Cursed we is,” Mum says, “to have so many survivin’ daughters…seven girls and one blessed boy.  If not for young William, we’d have no one to leave the farm to.”

Mum’s voice scratches like grainy sand across a washboard.

My older sister, Kathleen, is getting married in a month.  Mum has saved and put together a dowry for her and one for my second sister, Louise.  The chances of a girl getting a match are next to zero unless she has a dowry.  Kathleen says she loves James Flynn, but love isn’t what’s important.

“A girl has to have something to offer besides what’s under her petticoat,” Mum says often enough.

With a good dowry, she’s more likely to get a decent home.  She should be strong of leg too, not sickly, like my youngest sister, Patticake.  She’s got to be able to get out in the field and work beside her mate when times are tough, which times normally are.

Mum just started putting away for my dowry.  I’m three years from being 18–the marrying age around here.  Mum says she doesn’t see how she’s going to save enough to attract a mate for me.

“Chances are,” she says, “you’re going to have to go into the convent.  Father Cullen says he’ll kindly take you and your younger sisters if I can save ten pounds for the lot of you.  You’ll be provided for then and you can pray for all of us.”

“I don’t want to go to no convent!  I don’t want my head shaved!  I won’t wear those ugly black dresses and stupid veils!” I blubbered.

When I first stood up and said this to Mum, she slapped me hard.

“Be grateful you’re going to have a home and God’s own priests to look after you.  You get to do good works.”

“It’s nothin’ but slavin’,” I said, my nose red and running, a fresh welt on my cheek.

“Who’d want a red-faced girl like you anyway?”  Mum yelled.

Yelling is Mum’s forte.  Forte is my new word this week.  I’ve taught myself to read.  Mum knows I read but it’s a secret from my pap.

“A girl readin’ can make a man feel small,” says Mum.

Mum sticks the bible under my nose and points to the tiny print,
“What’s it say?” she crows.

“And why be anxious about a garment?  Consider the lilies of the field how they grow; they toil not nor spin, but I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these,” I read.

“Ah,” she says, “the lilies.  Ah well they do not have ten mouths to feed, now do they?  Get back to your work,” she says slamming the book closed and dropping it heavily on the splintered wooden bible stand.

I gather my mending from the willow basket.  I’m the third eldest girl with my share of chores.  The five younger children leave me with a pile of well-worn skirts and knickers.  My brother, Willy, is the worst on socks.  Every day I stitch up the holes in a pair of his socks and every day, there’s two more socks to mend!

“Willy,” I say sounding a bit like Mum, “Willy, can’t you for once keep your shoes on and stay out of the brambles?”

Willy looks at me with a crooked grin and long-lashed blue eyes.  He slowly shakes his towhead “no.”

(To be continued)