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.

Was there ever equality between men and women?

“There can be no doubt that in the very earliest ages of human history the magical force and wonder of the female was no less a marvel than the universe itself; and this gave to woman a prodigious power, which it has been one of the chief concerns of the masculine part of the population to break, control and employ to its own ends. It is, in fact, most remarkable how many primitive hunting races have the legend of a still more primitive age than their own, in which the women were the sole possessors of the magical art.”

Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology

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Daniel: I want to define clearly the intrinsic role as opposed to a superficial role. In so doing, what is being created and what we’re moving towards is what we call equality and equilibrium.

Me: That was in the video on the Nature of Sex. The first one was talking about the Egyptian era and they were saying at that point in time it seemed like there was some equality between male and female (before the Romans came in).

Daniel: Yes, there was respect for the woman.

Me: So then, something happened and it all fell apart and there seemed to be a gap because there was the Egyptian era. Then, the Greek society was very male-dominated and then the Judeo Christian…

Daniel: Then it was all gone. The rise of the patriarchy.

Me: Why do you think that it shifted? If there was an equality or even a matriarchal society at some point, I wonder what it was that created that dramatic shift.

Daniel: I think that there are a few obvious reasons: 1) Cycles and 2) Rise of the male power…

Me: Exhibited as physical strength?

Daniel: Acquisition, power, conquering, religions, priesthoods, etc. When Christianity came into power, they reversed the whole thing. They made our salvation “out there.” They externalized it. The took the focus away from personal development and put it outside of oneself.

“Why is this?” Daniel continued. According to his spiritual teacher, it was necessary to bring into being other faculties like rationale (logic). The age of reasoning.

Me: The rationale? Priests were intermediaries between humans and a higher power (God) wanting to keep people mostly ignorant and dependent.

Daniel: It’s a power trip.

Me: So even though we have more people who are literate now, on the other hand people aren’t encouraged to think for themselves or outside the box of either religion or culture or family of origin.

Daniel: Religion doesn’t have such a dominant force today. (And then Daniel pauses) It still does because its bred into us. We’re hardwired. The power of reason has been developed and is crucial to our existence. Like all things again, there was the pendulum swing. In the 20th century it was all rationale as opposed to the heart.

Me: Rationale, logic which is related to the masculine energy.

Daniel: The mental, which has to be kept in balance, moderation. But it wasn’t totally rational or you can rationalize everything. Well, you can’t! I feel there’s a swing back towards the middle. It’s necessary to human evolution. The darkness eclipsed the light…

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I decided to post this conversation which was a continuation of conversations with Daniel because I continue to be curious about what prompted the shift from either a matriarchal system or an egalitarian system to a male-dominated, colonizing mentality–whether the colonizing of women, other countries or species–largely, the entire world/planet.

Vague Indulgences–Fictionalizing

Taking a subject that you know and translating it into fiction is both a challenge and doable.  You contain the research that is integrated into the story.  The narrative is not intended to be a memoir though it contains elements of your personal experience.

Following is a short story I wrote several years ago while working with my itinerant creative writing instructor.  I’ve taken some elements of being brought up in the Catholic religion and this became the thread that wove the story together.   The characters, place and circumstances are fiction.

Vague Indulgences
© by Christine O’Brien

Clara’s fingers fidgeted behind her back while her friend, Barb, scoped the café for single men.  Dressed in black from scarf to boot, Clara asked the counter person, “Which is better, the pumpkin pie or the chocolate mint bars?”

“I prefer the chocolate mint bars.”

“Alright then let’s go with one chocolate mint bar” she said as her righteous hands settled decisively on her broad hips.

Forget the damn diet she thought.  Indulge is the word of the day, the week, oh well, the month, Clara succumbed.  She recalled the partial and plenary indulgences of a Catholic grammar school upbringing.  Having once again kicked your brother in the shins, showing sincere contrition, you were given a penance.  “One Our Father and three Hail Mary’s,” the priest prescribed.  Although the sin was forgiven, time in purgatory loomed after you died.  If you did something above and beyond the ordinary, you could shorten the time you were waylaid in this half-way house.  Partial indulgences were granted for small acts of kindness like helping an old man across the street. And then there was total removal of temporal punishment through a plenary indulgence which could only be granted by the Pope.  Clara had a sudden image of those black-coated Italian women, their faded faces draped in lacy mantillas.  The black rosary beads slid rapidly through their parchment fingers. They probably stacked up heaps of indulgences for themselves and their crazy families, Clara ruminated.

The locket of Our Lady of Perpetual Help swung forward as she leaned over, staring down into the glass-topped dessert counter.  The locket contained a relic from some long-dead pope.  Clara wouldn’t call herself religious, perhaps superstitious.  “It can’t hurt to wear it,” she often told Barb who teased her about the locket.

“I’ll take that one,” she said, pointing to the smaller of the two chocolate mint bars.

Barb leaned in closer, pointing, “Get that one.  It’s bigger.  Then I can have a bite.”

Clara frowned, then said “Get your own.  I don’t feel like sharing.”

“Be that way, selfish bitch,” Barb snipped.

“Was that really necessary?  Can’t you for once just let me say ‘no’ without making me feel guilty about it?”  Her efforts at converting Barb to at least one act of daily kindness always seemed to fall short.  Clara was committed to the task though.  She shrugged her plump shoulders and said “Forget it.  Let’s sit outside.”

Clara remembered the sage advice from her mother when asked how she handled anger. “Anger is a waste of energy.  I can’t be bothered with that.”  In her slender days, Clara used to lose her temper at the drop of a hat. It seemed that there was always something to be angry about and she leapt for the bait.  Then, in an epiphany of sorts, she got it. Anger was a man’s emotion. It was neither pretty nor acceptable in a woman.  Clara learned to shrug it off…or better yet, stuff it with something gooey and sweet.

Clara’s mom was five feet tall. She weighed over 200 pounds at last weigh-in. When Clara was 15-years old, her father began to sneak into Clara’s bed at night. She wasn’t sure if she should feel proud or pestered. Her mother went into a baking frenzy in those days.

Clara turned back to the counter, “Would you please wrap that piece of pumpkin pie to go? For later.”

Writing Prompt:
In this short story, 572 words, so much is conveyed using the vehicle of something intimately known by the author–a Catholic upbringing.

Within your past experience, find something around which you can build a story.  Do you have a character or two in mind to facilitate the telling?  A setting?  A circumstance?  Give it a try.  Write it, then go back to edit, cultivate, refine, finalize.  Spend time with it.