Symbol of Woman’s Emancipation

I learned to ride a bicycle when I was about twelve years old. I rode my bike around the neighborhood in the Sunset District in San Francisco where I grew up. I didn’t travel very far or wide. I had six younger siblings and a lot of household responsibilities. In her late forties, my mother got a bike as a birthday present. It was maroon-colored and called Indian Princess. It seemed somehow exotic to me. My father put training wheels on it; my mother never took them off. It never left the garage.

When I married at age 19 and moved to southern California, I wanted a bike but my young husband didn’t agree. After I had my first daughter, I pictured myself riding through the flat neighborhood of Lemon Grove Estates with her in a bike seat behind me. Again, my husband thought I was being frivolous.

For a long time after that, I thought that I had outgrown bicycles…that I was now too mature to ride a bike. The notions that we have. At 36-years old, I bought myself a Schwinn mountain bike for women…blue, shiny, sturdy, I took up bike-riding. I rode around San Francisco. I never did get a helmet although I would advise my younger self to wear one now. I rode from Daly City, partway around Lake Merced, down Sloat Boulevard to Great Highway beside Ocean Beach. Along the Great Highway past the Sunset and Richmond Districts, then up into Golden Gate Park. Past Queen Wilhelmina’s Windmill and tulip gardens. Up through the park to ninth avenue and the Big Wreck Baseball Field…and then back again. This became a regular route for me.

I brought my bike with me when I moved to Mt. Shasta. I thought I’d ride it often. I rode it sometimes, but rarely. Mostly, it’s been in storage. When polled recently to see what their most valuable possession was women responded…their car keys. I would agree with that. However at one time, the bicycle was a symbol of freedom for women. It changed fashion and gave them mobility at a time when they were definitely constrained.

“One hundred years ago, Alice Hawkins, a suffragette, cycled around Leicester promoting the women’s rights movement, causing outrage by being one of the first ladies to wear pantaloons in the city. During the fight to win the vote the bicycle became not only a tool but also a symbol for the emancipation of women.”

The American civil rights leader, Susan B Anthony, wrote in 1896:

“I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammeled womanhood.”

This little collage turned into a woman riding a bicycle.

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.




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.

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.

****

 

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.

****
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)

 

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.

More on Repetition as a Deepening Tool

The Observer  by CGO

I watched my mother
from the kitchen doorway,
Her aproned, pocketed self,
strip of white hair
fell forward
as she eternally stirred
a big pot of soup.
A single drop of liquid mucus
slid the length of her
curved Italian nose
and hung at the tip
for an indeterminate moment.
Just when it seemed
it would fall into the soup,
she snatched a well-used tissue
from her pocket,
swiped at it,
repocketed the tissue
and continued stirring.
I didn’t speak
and she never turned.

I watched my mother
from the kitchen doorway
to find out who she was
to get answers by silent osmosis
to find out who I was to become
to get a sign that she was
more than an aproned role,
robotic, dutiful
to see if she would sense me there
turn, smile and perhaps say she loved me
or invite me into the kitchen
to teach me what she knew of
making soup and being a woman.

I watched my mother
from the kitchen doorway
because I wanted to tell her
things would be alright
that I loved her
that the length of kitchen
between us
separating us
wasn’t necessary
that we were safe.

I watched my mother
from the kitchen doorway
a distance of ten feet
because she needed space
her boundaries with him were nil
and she always felt threatened
she couldn’t tell by whom
…and she held me all those embraces away
because love always hurt.

****
Read this poem a second time.

Notice how I’ve used the line “I watched my mother from the kitchen doorway” to lead myself, as the writer, deeper into my subject?  As the reader, do you feel the rhythmic quality of this poem as this repeated line invites you into “the story”?

WRITING PROMPT:
Is there a theme that you’d like to deepen into?  Write one line that could be the initiator of this process and let your writing be guided by this repeated line.  By the way, the repeated line doesn’t have to begin the stanza; it could be within the body of the poem. That’s another type of challenge.

Good luck.