Archive for the ‘women’ Tag
Spring is here. Ribbons of yellow daffodils are growing on the side of the road. Robbins are hopping around, their red breasts puffed out in front of them. And soccer season has begun. My weekly schedule is suddenly an ink smear of places I need to be. I’m having a hard time keeping up with it all. In fact, I’m NOT keeping up with it all. Last Friday I completely forgot about a music evaluation my son, Hunter, had for piano. It was an exam of sorts, including sight reading, performance, theory, and technique. He’d been working toward it for months. And I forgot. So did he. We both felt terrible. Tears-on-our-cheeks TERRIBLE.
First thing Saturday morning I called his teacher, Rebecca, to apologize. “I don’t even have a good excuse,” I confessed. “We just forgot.”
Hunter’s piano teacher is one of the kindest, most gracious people I know. But even so, I expected her to be frustrated. Disappointed at the least. I would have been. Instead, she responded by saying, “I am so happy to know that everything is okay. I was worried that Hunter was sick.”
Before I had a chance to plunge into an even deeper state of guilt, our sweet teacher went on to say, “Now, Janessa, I’ve had this sort of thing happen to me many times. I wish I had been gentler with myself. Please. Be gentle with yourself.”
There wasn’t much I could say to that, especially not with the tears welling up in my eyes. I shared her words with my son, Hunter, and saw a wide-eyed look of gratitude and adoration appear on his face.
Be gentle with yourself. What a valuable lesson. I hope Rebecca knows she is teaching Hunter so much more than how to play the piano. And I am learning, too.
Everyone has been home for the past three days, and the skies outside are damp and gray. The perfect equation for a very messy house. Today in the midst of my spraying, scrubbing and sweeping I remembered what my friend Lisa said, which I quoted in my last post: “Dishes are no big deal.” I think hearing her say that resonated with me so much because I often allow housework to take up an unnecessary amount of my emotional energy. Not long after picking up my sponge, I find myself feeling a lot like poor, miserable Atlas, holding up the weight of the world.
Why do I allow housework to do this to me? I remember with perfect clarity the first time I suffered from housework-induced ennui. I was a newlywed wiping off the edges of a dirty toilet bowl. I felt so dissastisfied and depressed that I sat down immediately afterwards and wrote a pathetic little essay about it in which I cursed my sorry fate.
I’ve managed to come to terms with housework quite a bit since those early days. I’ve decided that cleaning my house is just something that needs to be done. Not my calling in life, my destiny, my raison de vivre. No. It’s no big deal. Like shaving my legs or going to the dentist. I don’t enjoy it, but I get it done.
And I do understand the value of work, whether tedious or not. Which is why I can’t make myself hire a cleaning service. I need work, and I know my kids need it, too. They don’t fight when they are doing their jobs. They are focused on working, and our home hums with industry and satisfaction. For five minutes. Maybe. But I’ll take what I can get, and keep reminding myself that the repetitive, mundane tasks don’t accumulate to equal the size and mass of the densest planet in our solar system. Poor Atlas, indeed.
Recently my kids’ art teacher sent them home with a research assignment. She gave them an index card that read, “Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson,” and told them to find out what it meant. I had never heard of Robert Smithson or the Spiral Jetty, so I helped them search for clues online. This is what we found:
“Robert Smithson’s monumental earthwork Spiral Jetty (1970) is located on the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Using black basalt rocks and earth from the site, the artist created a coil 1,500 feet long and 15 feet wide that stretches out counter-clockwise into the translucent red water. Spiral Jetty was acquired by Dia Art Foundation as a gift from the Estate of the artist in 1999.” (From the Dia Art Foundation website).
I was surprised to learn that such an interesting work of art existed so close to my home, and that I had never heard of it. My kids and I looked at the images of the jetty, talked about it a little, and that was it.
Until last week when I saw another work of art inspired by Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. It was a photograph by Bastienne Schmidt from her upcoming book Home Stills. The photograph features the artist standing in her backyard in the apex of a spiral of laundry. The dirty clothes circle around her in concentric rings, seeming to trap her. The sun is setting, shadows are lengthening, and a solitary tree is an autumnal red. In the distance the artist’s young son is running toward her, but she stands in place, seemingly unable to move.
Schmidt says of the photo: “The spiral repsresents the repetitive, seemingly endless tasks that come with domestic life and motherhood . . . Rethinking the household domain as an artist allows me to see these tasks in a new and almost whimsical light, so I can mentally clear away the clutter to start each day fresh.”
I wanted to laugh and cry at the time when I read those words. I looked at the woman in the photograph and saw myself, trapped by the mundane but necessary tasks of a homemaker. I felt the frustration of spending my time cleaning or cooking instead of enjoying my children and their fast-fleeing childhood, so poignantly captured by the setting sun and crimson leaves. Those were the tears. The laughter came from the change of perspective the photograph allowed, and the artist, when she spoke about purposefully seeing household tasks in a new light in order to clear away mental clutter. Looking at the laundry spiraling around her, I was able to see it for what it was. Just colorful pieces of cloth carefully laid out on the lawn. Not chains. Not shackles. Just dirty clothes that need to be washed. Dirty clothes that maybe I take a little too seriously.
But even after laughing, the photograph still unsettled me. That feeling of being trapped was too profound. I went back to the image of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and saw something that was missing from Schmidt’s picture. The jetty. The tail flaring out from the spiral that connected it to shore. I got out my dictionary and looked up the definition for jetty: “a structure extended into a sea, lake, or river to influence the current or tide.” Smithson’s art work is more than something pretty to look at. His jetty is disruptive, in a way. It reaches out into the lake and impacts the current, changes it’s direction, leading it on a new path through the spiral.
It is a reminder to me that I am not trapped by the circumstances of my day-to-day life. I get to choose how I think, how I feel, what I do. I am in control of the currents. That is all too clear when I see how my words and feelings influence every person in my home, big or small. I am a jetty. And how I decide to shape my current is up to me.
I missed posting yesterday because I fell asleep as soon as my kids were in bed. Derek and I took a quick trip to New York over the weekend and had to get up at 4:30 in the morning yesterday (2:30 a.m. here in Utah) to fly back home. The reason for our weekend get-away was the marriage of one of Derek’s college friends, an old fraternity brother of his.
The wedding was held in Bridgeport, Connecticut, at the Rodeph Sholom synagogue and was a conservative Jewish ceremony. It began with the Tish and the Bedeken. For the Tish, or “Groom’s Table”, male friends and family of the groom, or Hatan, gathered in a room to rejoice before the ceremony.
Many of Derek’s fraternity brothers and their spouses attended the wedding, but the groom is the only one of the group who is Jewish. When we were instructed to separate – men in one room and women in the other, there were a few stiff smiles from the women in the group – incredibly talented and successful doctors, surgeons, attorneys and businesswomen. I realized that it is unusual in our society to segregate ourselves in this way. But once the men had left for the Tish, and the women remained in the Bedeken to await the arrival of the bride, there was a change in the room. To me it felt like a lightness. A pause. Women turning to each other as women. When the bride arrived, glowing in her beautiful gown, it was like being in a room full of light.
Once the bride, or Kallah, had greeted her friends and family, she sat at one end of the room and waited for the groom to arrive, like a queen on her throne. When he entered the room, he was led by the men from the Tish, singing, dancing, and waving their fists in the air. It was such an entrance, full of celebration and rejoicing. Not just for the bride and groom, but for the families, the community, the people.
The groom was led to the bride’s seat, where he carefully pulled her veil over her face. The rabbi spoke to the wedding guests, explaining that the bride is veiled to signify that in spite of her beauty, what is valued most is her spiritual qualities, which will never fade. The veil also physically separates the bride and groom, reminding them that they remain distinct individuals even as they unite in marriage. I loved pondering on the significance of the veil, and the way it honored the bride in so many ways on her wedding day.
Following the veiling of the bride, we all went upstairs to the sanctuary, where the bride and groom entered the Huppah – a canopy with four open sides representing their first home. Once under the canopy, the bride circled the groom seven times, symbolizing the way her love will surround her home and protect it from outside harm. The blessings that followed, both spoken by the rabbi and sung in Hebrew by the cantor were beautiful. The songs, sung in their deep, reedy way, resonated throughout the synagogue and recalled other times, other people, who had made the same ancient promises the bride and groom were making to each other that day.
As Derek and I left the synagogue, walking out into the cooling October air of a Connecticut afternoon, I told him how much I had appreciated the traditions we had seen that day. “I feel anchored,” I told him. It didn’t matter that the religious beliefs behind the traditions differed from my own. It was the honoring of traditions that anchored me.
I thought more about it on our drive to the reception: the way an anchor falls through water, sending waves and ripples in a concentric path. On one side the ripples move outward, touching the past, on the other side they reach into the future. That is what tradition does for us. It connects us to the people who came before us, and to those who will come after. It centers us in time and space, resonating through us like ripples on the surface of the water, or the words of a cantor during the recitation of blessings to a new bride and groom.
On our recent trip to Pennsylvania and Washington D.C., we stayed five nights in Pittsburgh with my dear friend Nicolle, her husband Drew and their West Highland Terrier, Oban. One night during our stay, after settling my boys in their beds, I came downstairs to find my seven year old daughter, Hattie, curled up on her pillow with a happy little smile on her face. Nicolle was lying next to her and they were talking – sharing silly stories about Oban licking a toad, and the whispered words that come straight from a little girl’s heart. I could tell that Hattie loved her girl-talk with Nicolle, and that it made her feel important.
I knew just what she meant. I felt exactly the same way.
Nicolle made me feel just as important as Hattie during our time together. I admire her so much – her successes in her professional life, her laughter, her loyalty to those she loves. I hope she felt it. I felt her appreciation for me, or at least for my loud, crazy, happy bunch of kids – though that is perhaps more a testament to her patience than to my children! But her acceptance and admiration made me better appreciate my life – my family and my kids. Made me sure of and happy for the choices I’ve made, and I thank her so much for that.
Recently I heard a piece on public radio about the prevalence of bullying among girls. About ”mean girls”, and how they keep getting younger. I worry about Hattie, and how she will navigate the rocky waters of female relationships throughout her school years, and even beyond. So many factors can undermine our friendships: jealousy, competition, insecurity. Learning generosity and kindness can be such a challenge. But Hattie has something invaluable in help her figure all of that out. She has Nicolle. And the example of just how precious and good a friend can be.
Tonight I attended a quilter’s guild meeting in my little town. The topic of the meeting was the Jane Stickle quilt of 1863. Several of the women in the group recently returned from a trip to the Bennington Museum in Vermont where they went to view Jane Stickle’s masterpiece, and were exhilirated and inspired by their pilgrimage. Some of them had even undertaken, over the past year, to make their own reproductions of the intricate quilt, which contains a total of 5,602 pieces, and displayed them at the meeting.
As I sat and listened to them recount their experiences reproducing and visiting the Jane Stickle quilt, I wondered at their homage, and at my own feelings of reverence for this woman and what she created.
Census reports tell us that Jane Stickle was born Jane Blakely on April 8, 1817 in Shaftsbury, Vermont. Married to Walter Stickle sometime before 1850, they did not have a family of their own. They did, however, take responsibility for at least three other children. In an 1860’s census, Jane Stickle was listed as a 43 year-old farmer living alone. She eventually reunited with her husband, but during that time alone she lovingly created what is now known as the Jane Stickle Quilt. As a reminder of the turbulent times the country was going through, she carefully embroidered “In War Time 1863” into the quilt.
There is so much left out of that brief history, but also so much revealed. The bare facts and the story they outline put me in mind of master historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and the course I took from her while I was in college. In her book, Good Wives, she is able to glean rich details from the lives of simple women through historical records as sparse as a county probate inventory.
Even more importantly, Ulrich directs students of women’s history to the ways women of all ages have found expressions for their intellect and art, even if it is in the quiet, historically transparent realms of house and home. While I was taking her course, she introduced us to the writings of Alice Walker. Specifically her essay entitled, “In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens.” Walker writes about the legacy of slave women and their descendents. Working women with no time or outlet for their creative, artistic voices. “When, you will ask,” she writes, “did my overworked mother have time to know or care about feeding the creative spirit? The answer is so simple that many of us have spent years discovering it. We have constantly looked high, when we should have looked high — and low.”
Walker then points us to another quilt. One that hangs in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. A priceless quilt “made of bits and pieces of worthless rags,” but “obviously the work of a person of powerful imagination and deep spiritual feeling.”
Walker goes on to describe her own mother’s flower garden — a place “so magnificent with life and creativity, that to this day people drive by our house in Georgia — and ask to stand or walk among my mother’s art.”
And here is the part of Walker’s essay that touches on the feeling – the appreciation and awe – that was present at the quilt guild meeting tonight:
“I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible — except as Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in work her soul must have. Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty.
Her face, as she prepares the Art that is her gift, is a legacy of respect she leaves to me, for all that illuminates and cherishes life. She has handed down respect for the possibilities — and the will to grasp them.”
It is this legacy that we cherished tonight at my quilting meeting. We were profoundly moved that a simple woman, through ingenuity, art, and persistence, could create something so astonishing. And we found validation in the work of our souls.
The other day my six year old daughter approached me dressed in her pink fairy wings, a tiara, black kid gloves, and carrying her toy doctor kit. “Well, hello,” I said.