Forced Reproduction and the Attack on Women’s Subjectivity


My uncle Lars (not his real name) was troubled for much of his life.   He had three daughters by two mothers.  Well after all of them had children of their own, he took up with a much younger woman, “Elena”,  and got her pregnant with a fetus that turned out to be male.  He would have a son and was determined to name him after himself.  Now, I do not know whether or not Elena used drugs, but he claimed that she did and managed to have her locked up in a State prison for the duration of her pregnancy.  Whether a blood test was administered or not I cannot say.  But I do believe that my uncle and the State violated her rights.
Why was he wrong?  Because taking a woman’s autonomy away from her on the grounds that she is endangering her fetus treats her as though she herself is nothing more than a vessel, an incubator, a thing, an object to be used and abused.  Such action pretends to protect the “unborn child,” the fetus, but actually serves the interests of those who take control of the expectant mother.   In this case, my uncle’s interests overwhelmed Elena’s, and the State sanctioned this takeover.  The fact that Elena was Mexican and poor, in addition to being female, made it harder for her to resist their assault.
In a well-known essay entitled, “Are Mother’s Persons?” (in Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, Berkeley, UC Press, 1993) Susan Bordo examines legal precedents and gendered attitudes toward the idea of a person as an embodied subject.  She argues that men are allotted constitutional rights to bodily integrity that women are denied in our country.
For example, in the case of McFall v. Shimp (1979), the court protected the bodily integrity of a man who refused to donate his bone marrow to his cousin, who would certainly die of aplastic anemia without it).  In fact, his cousin did die.  In a similar case, a Seattle woman who pressed the court to force the father of her leukemic child donate his bone marrow was denied.  The law sanctions these refusals on the grounds that a person is an embodied subject.  Thus, as Bordo explains, the law of the land insists that,
the body can never be regarded merely as a site of quantifiable processes that can be assessed objectively, but must be treated as invested with personal meaning, history, and value that are ultimately determinable only by the subject who lives ‘within’ it.  According to the doctrine of informed consent, even when it is ‘for the good’ of the patient, no one else–neither relative nor expert–may determine for the embodied subject what medical risks are worth taking, what procedures are minimally or excessively invasive, what pain is minor.

That is the theory of the embodied subject and informed consent.  In practice, this doctrine has not been applied equally.  Women, especially non-white, poor, or non-English-speaking women (women like Maribel), have been treated differently.  As Bordo puts it, “the pregnant poor woman (especially is she is of non-European descent) comes as close as a human being can get to being regarded, medially and legally, as “mere body.”

Again and again the court has forced women to give birth against their will, or have forced women to have Caesareans  in spite of their clearly stated, religious objections to the procedure.  Women, particularly women of color,  have been sterilized without their knowledge or consent.  Consider these cases:
1985:  Pamela Rae Stewart was charged with criminal neglect for failing to follow medical advice during her pregnancy.
1989: Jennifer Johnson, 23 years old, is sentenced to 15 years probation upon her conviction of delivering illegal drugs via the umbilical cord to her two babies.
1990  A Wyoming woman was charged by the police with the crime of drinking while pregnancy and prosecuted for felony child abuse.
1992: A 28 year-old homeless, pregnant, Native American woman, Martina Greywind, mother of six and addicted to paint fumes, is jailed for recklessly endangering her fetus by inhaling vapors.  She is also sentenced (ironically) to 9 months on a State prison farm.  She eventually won her release from jail and had an abortion.
A Massachusetts woman who miscarried after an automobile accident in which she was intoxicated was prosecuted for vehicular homicide of her fetus. (Bordo)
2008: A SC court overturns a conviction of Regina McKnight, who had already  served 8 years in prison on the grounds that she had “murdered” her stillborn infant by using cocaine during her pregnancy. Source: Alternet
Does the State go after fathers for their drug habits, smoking, alcoholism, reckless driving, physcial and psychological abuse of pregnant women?   No.
A recent study at the University of Bristol concludes that there is no evidence that a woman who drink moderately during their pregnancy endanger their fetuses.
Anti-abortion campaigns routinely ignore the personhood of the mother, arguing increasingly that the fetus, even at the zygote state, has more subjectivity than the woman in whose body it is lodged.  In other words, “as the personhood of the pregnant woman has been drained from her and her function as fetal incubator activated, the subjectivity of the fetus has been elevated” (Bordo).
In other words, it is not only women’s reproductive rights that are being challenged, but women’s status as subjects, embodied persons with inherent rights to say what can and cannot be done to them, that are being threatened by the anti-abortion crusaders.  These opponents of women’s autonomy have launched an assault against the personal integrity of women, whom they would reduce to fetal containers of beings whose rights exceed their own.
What makes pregnant women different than the kind of individuals that Locke, Hobbes, Descartes and others envisioned, is that women have the capacity to contain within the “other” within them.  When we are pregnant we are not singular, and certainly we have a responsibility as ethical human beings to nurture the beings we intend to bring into the world.  But we do not lose our bodily integrity and rights to self-determination the moment we become pregnant. 
 It is wrong to compel women to incubate a zygote or fetus that she does not wish to mother.  It is also wrong to force her, with force, imprisonment, or other coercive measures, to behave in a way that others do not consider acceptable during her pregnancy because that denies her right to self-determination.
To finish the story, a few years after the birth of Lars Jr., my uncle committed suicide.  No one knows where Elena took her son, who is my first cousin and the brother of my uncle’s three daughters. I don’t know why Lars killed himself, or whether Elena left him before he did so.  There is a tragic justice to her disappearance.  Why would she want to be associated with the family of a man who turned her into the police and had her jailed until she delivered “his” baby?  I hope she returns to us.  I would love to know her and welcome  my unknown cousin to the fold.

Jimmy Carter is My Hero


Losing my religion for equality…by Jimmy Carter

25 JANUARY 2013 393,009 VIEWS 31 COMMENTS

Women and girls have been discriminated against for too long in a twisted interpretation of the word of God.

I HAVE been a practicing Christian all my life and a deacon and Bible teacher for many years. My faith is a source of strength and comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around the world. So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.

This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries.

At its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities.

The impact of these religious beliefs touches every aspect of our lives. They help explain why in many countries boys are educated before girls; why girls are told when and whom they must marry; and why many face enormous and unacceptable risks in pregnancy and childbirth because their basic health needs are not met.

In some Islamic nations, women are restricted in their movements, punished for permitting the exposure of an arm or ankle, deprived of education, prohibited from driving a car or competing with men for a job. If a woman is raped, she is often most severely punished as the guilty party in the crime.

The same discriminatory thinking lies behind the continuing gender gap in pay and why there are still so few women in office in the West. The root of this prejudice lies deep in our histories, but its impact is felt every day. It is not women and girls alone who suffer. It damages all of us. The evidence shows that investing in women and girls delivers major benefits for society. An educated woman has healthier children. She is more likely to send them to school. She earns more and invests what she earns in her family.

It is simply self-defeating for any community to discriminate against half its population. We need to challenge these self-serving and outdated attitudes and practices – as we are seeing in Iran where women are at the forefront of the battle for democracy and freedom.

I understand, however, why many political leaders can be reluctant about stepping into this minefield. Religion, and tradition, are powerful and sensitive areas to challenge. But my fellow Elders and I, who come from many faiths and backgrounds, no longer need to worry about winning votes or avoiding controversy – and we are deeply committed to challenging injustice wherever we see it.

The Elders are an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by former South African president Nelson Mandela, who offer their influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity. We have decided to draw particular attention to the responsibility of religious and traditional leaders in ensuring equality and human rights and have recently published a statement that declares: “The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable.”

We are calling on all leaders to challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices, no matter how ingrained, which justify discrimination against women. We ask, in particular, that leaders of all religions have the courage to acknowledge and emphasise the positive messages of dignity and equality that all the world’s major faiths share.

The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths. Similar biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.

I am also familiar with vivid descriptions in the same Scriptures in which women are revered as pre-eminent leaders. During the years of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn’t until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted Holy Scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.

The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions – all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God. It is time we had the courage to challenge these views.

OBSERVER

Jimmy Carter was president of the United States from 1977 to 1981.

Copyright © 2013 Fairfax Media

 

http://www.womenspress-slo.org/?p=11440

The Origins of Easter


belarusian_easter_eggs

Christians celeberate a feast day called “Easter,” on which they honor a murdered son and his miraculous return to life through the power of the Father.  This story reinterprets the much earlier, Babylonian myth of Osiris, in which Isis, “the Giver of Life,” mother of the sun, and “oldest of the old,” restores Osiris to life, mates with him, and then begets a falcon-headed sun-god, Horus.  Representations of Isis suckling her son were commonly associated with Mary and Jesus from the 5th century, A.C.E., onwards.

isis suckling horus

Jews celebrate a kind of renewal of life during Pesach, or Passover, and recall the time when the Destroying Angel “passed over” those houses whose doorways had been sprinkled with blood, but killed the firstborn sons of all others, giving Pharoh yet another powerful sign that he should release the Jews from captivity.

Beitzah

Blood and eggs feature prominently in both Easter and Passover.   Christian children hunt for and devour eggs that a magic rabbit has hidden, and Jews place a roasted or hard-boiled egg, the Beitzah on the Seder plate to commemorate and mourn the sacrifices that they used to make in the destroyed Temple. But the Beitzah also symbolizes the joyful return of life at springtime.

A tradition that appears to predate Judaism and Christianity, whose traces have lingered in the Middle East, Asia, and Old Europe, is the honoring of women’s power to give birth, symbolized again by blood and eggs.  Decorated goose eggs were found in a German grave that dates back to the 4th century.   Lithuanians began to decorate and share eggs with one another at least as early as the 13th century.

ScriptMother_GimbutasSchematic

A drawing of an Old European goddess found in Marja Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess

Common motifs on these eggs are  spirals, suns, teeth, trees, flora and birds.  According to  Lithuanian historian Marja Gimbutas, who pioneered archaeomythologyan interdisciplinary approach to scholarship that combines archaeology, mythology, ethnology, folklore, linguistic paleontology, and the study of historical documents,  these symbols represent fertility goddesses worshiped by the people of ancient Europe.

red eggsPersians have exchanged red-colored eggs at the Spring equinox to celebrate No-rooz, or “New Day,”  for at least 3,000 years. The holiday is rooted in Zoroastrian religion, which prevailed in Iran long before Islam.

 

According to Bede, the Northumbrian monk living c. 720 A.C.E., the oldest origins of Easter began in rituals for Eostre, or Ostara, (Northumbrian Old EnglishĒostreWest Saxon Old English: ĒastreOld High German*Ôstara), a Saxon goddess associated with the Moon.  In De Temporum ratione, Bede wrote:

Original Latin:

Eostur-monath, qui nunc Paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a Dea illorum quæ Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant nomen habuit: a cujus nomine nunc Paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquæ observationis vocabulo gaudia novæ solemnitatis vocantes.
Modern English translation:
Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.”
The Moon-Rabbit is also a symbol of fertility and immortality in ancient China.  This is embroidery on an 18th-Century Chinese Robe.

The Moon-Rabbit is also a symbol of fertility and immortality in ancient China. This is embroidery on an 18th-Century Chinese Robe.

The moon-hare was sacred in both eastern and western ancient practices.

 

 

 

 

 

When Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Holy Roman Empire, defeated the Saxons in 700s, all the months of the year were changed from their Latin names.  April was called “Osteranoth” in Frankish and Ostermonat in German.  Jacob Grimm speculated that the German equivalent “Ostern” derived from the name of an ancient Germanic goddess, Ostara, or Oestre.

Some scholars believe that Isis and Astarte are Egyptian and Syrian names for the same moon goddess whom the  Europeans worshipped.  Astarte,  Asherah and Anath are the three great goddesses of Canaanite religion.

A goddess with a similar name is found on some Roman altar stones from the Lower Rhine in North-West Germany.  These altars were dedicated to local mother goddesses, who frequently appeared as triple deities and were associated with fertility.   Similar altars dedicated to goddesses with Celtic names occur throughout northern Italy, France, Spain, and Britain.  Very close to St. Bede’s  Easterwines monastery at Monkwearmouth there is an ancient Roman fort where many inscriptions are found on an altar dedicated to Astarte, the Syrian and Phoenician fertility goddess.

Fertility celebrations are found throughout ancient European and Mediterranean regions.  The Saxons, the Irish, and the Persians  all kept a movable feast on the first day of the week after the first full moon of the Spring equinox.

Bohemians also had a ritual on the day after Oestre Sunday, which was a “Moon-day,” in which village girls sacrificed the “Lord of Death” by throwing him into the water and singing,

Death swims in the water, spring comes to visit us,

With eggs that are red, with yellow pancakes,

We carried Death out of the village

We are carrying Summer into the village.

Ritualistically casting death into the river, the villagers celebrated the return of the growing season and new life, preparing for summer’s bounty with red eggs and sun-shaped and colored food.

“Oestre “also is the source of our scientific term, estrous, from the Latin Oestrus and the  Greek οἶστρος).  The Oxford English Dictionary defines the estrus cycle as

the period of sexual receptivity and fertility during the reproductive cycle of most female mammals; the time of being in heat.

Lefthandofeminism likes Wikipedia’s version better:

The estrous cycle comprises the recurring physiological changes that are induced by reproductive hormones in most mammalian placental females. Humans undergo a menstrual cycle instead. Estrous cycles start after puberty in sexually mature females and are interrupted by anestrous phases or pregnancies. Typically estrous cycles continue until death. Some animals may display bloody vaginal discharge, often mistaken for menstruation, also called a “period”.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, all people of the planet Gethen experience estrus cycles, or periods of “kemmer,” which come and go.  As Le Guin observes,

Consider: Anyone can turn his[sic] hand to anything.  This sounds very simple, but its psychological effects are incalculable.  The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be…’tied down to child-bearing’ implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be–psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk or choice to make.  Therefore nobody here is as free as a free man anywhere else.

Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive.

Imagine how extraordinary our world would be if, instead of obediently rehearsing these polarities in the liturgies of the Jewish, the Christian, and the Muslim traditions,  every year, we celebrated this time of year by considering the sexes as equals, as companions, as equally powerful and active agents.

What if we were to celebrate Eostre and the oestrus in Easter by recognizing our commonality with mammals, who, like us, give birth by virtue of the blood that softens our wombs and ebbs and flows in us, like the river of life?  What if, instead of lording it over mammals and all other animals, or granting supremacy to those who do lord around, we celebrated our mutual dependence on one another and on the planet from which all life springs?

We should especially celebrate  the oestrus, the gadfly that, by stinging, moves the more bovine among us out of the mud, where we are wallowing.

Let us also remember that the figural meaning of estrus and oestrus is “Something that incites a person to passionate, esp. creative, activity.”  Let’s all be gadflies tomorrow and incite one another to passionate bursts of creative activity.

And really–to all of you who celebrate the holiday, Happy Easter!

On the way home, part 1: Nepali Sexual Politics


SourceURL:file://localhost/Users/aamoret/Nepal/25%20July.2011.doc

On my way home, part one:

I have not been able to write for a while because I have had very limited access to the internet.  Also, my last days here in Nepal have been richly complicated and busy, and I have not had the energy or ability to post.  Right now I’m sitting in a delightful garden café at the Shechen Gompa, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery near the great stupa called Boudha.  There are magnolia and mango trees, and swooping bushy hot pink and orange bougainvillea vines, hibiscus bushes, marigolds, impatients and countless other shade and sun flowers I cannot name.  I have spent a lot of time here in the last week.

There is much to report, much to record, and much more to consider.  For now I’m going to upload some thoughts that I wrote during my transition from the last post to today.  During that period bedbugs drove me out of Sugandha’s house and into what Sugandha called a palace.  It was a nice, upper middle-class Nepali house.  I lasted less than a week and ended up here.  Brendan moved over with me a few days ago.  We’re sharing a well-appointed room at the Tharlam gompa and have had many adventures and conversations.

25 July, 2011

I’m having a difficult time adjusting to the new house.  First of all, I miss Brendan.  I don’t like having breakfast and dinner without him, and I liked getting to say goodnight.   Second of all, I have a lot less privacy here.  Every move is scrutinized.  Not so much by the wife, Nirmala, as by the husband, Kalidas, a traditional Nepali man.  When trying to make conversation on the first day, I asked Nirmala what she liked to do.  Did she like to garden?  Yes.  She told me about her garden.  Did she like to cook?  She hesitated, and then Kalidas interrupted, practically shouting, “Cooking is her duty!”  It didn’t matter to him whether or not she liked it.   He asked lots of personal questions, as Nepalis tend to do, and quickly discerned that I was divorced, a status that most Nepalis find disgraceful.  He makes me uncomfortable.

I don’t have the nice view from the room that I had at Sugandha’s house, and I can’t hear the frogs chirping in the fields at night.  I can’t sleep because the bed is super-hard and the machine that recharges the battery intermittently fires off a round of zaps like a machine gun.  This noise goes on from about 9 pm to 2 am.

Kalidas does not approve that I get up at 7 in the morning.  He likes to inform me that he gets up at 5.  He plays badminton with three other Nepali businessmen, who come over afterwards and drink tea on the front porch.  They keep the front door wide open so when I come out to take a shower they are all there gaping.

At meal times, Nirmala serves Kalidas, then me, and hovers at the table to see if we want any more vegetable curry or rice.  I am so sick of dal bhat. Somehow I have got to persuade her not to pile the rice into a mountain on my plate.  If I say “pugyo,” or “I am full,” when she wants to give me more, Kalidas suggests that I do not like the food.  Nirmala sits only after Kalidas has had his second or third helping.  I want wait for her to finish her food before leaving the table, but Kalidas gets impatient and wants me to bring my dishes to the sink as soon as possible.  He barks at me to get up, so I do.  He is used to ordering women around.  I find this unsettling.  I like Nirmala and am willing to like Kalidas.

Nepali sexual politics are difficult for me.  There are four ways to address a person in the language: the very, very formal “You” (hajur) used for kings and magistrates; the ordinarily formal “You” (tapaai); the very familiar “timi” used for children and between friends; and the very low “ta” which is used for dogs, lower beings and between intimates.  Kalidas says “ta” to his wife but she says “tapaai” to him.  He addresses her by her first name.  She always and only says “tapaai” to him.  “The husband dominates the wife,” he explains to me as she sits beside him smiling and agreeing.  Nirmala never leaves the house.  Her sister-in-law comes over with her 18 month-old during the day and they watch t.v..  Nirmala keeps a relatively clean house—but the bathrooms are not nearly as clean as mine back home.

They are Brahmin and not particularly religious, which is somewhat of a relief after Sova’s morning puja, which began loudly at 5 with the same version of “Om Nama Shivaya” on the stereo, and concluded at about six with a long and vigorous ringing of a bell and the blowing of a horn.  I will try to adjust to this new dwelling.

Getting Sick in Nepal


Friday, June 24, 2011

Bad scare this morning.  As soon as I got through the orphanage gate, Bipin rocketed himself at me and landed with his legs around my waist and his arms around my neck.  Rupus was right behind him, and then Gorima, Nirmala, and Anura were on me.  Only Krishala stayed behind.  She was sitting on a mat in front of the door.  She has been complaining of headaches and stomach trouble for the last few days, and I have been worrying about her.  Now she was very ill, hot with fever and a racing heartbeat.  I don’t have a cell phone, so I had to walk over to Sugandha’s house, where I hoped to find Pete, one of the fifth-year medical students volunteering here as part of a third world medical course.  He had already gone to the hospital, so I borrowed Sugandha’s phone to call Kat and Maria, Pete’s classmates,  who came straight away.  In the meantime, at my prompting, Bimila had called Tej, who called Gehlu.

Kat and Maria examined Krishala, who had a stiff neck, a fever, and extreme sensitivity to light.  These are classic signs of meningitis, which can kill within hours.  Gehlu came a few minutes later, propped her up in front of him on his motorcycle, and roared off  to the hospital.  We checked there about an hour later, but could not find Krishala.  Hospitals and clinics are notoriously bad here (the doctors don’t come in when it rains, for example), and we could not get a straight answer from anyone.    The staff could not seem to understand why we were concerned about a little Nepali girl, not another westerner.  Finally we tracked down Gehlu, who could tell us nothing because the results of the tests had not come back yet.  He told us that the doctor did not think it was meningitis, however.  We went to check up on Krishala, and she did seem a little better. There was nothing that we could do until we got the lab report.

I taught my class at the women’s center.  Deelu, who is very wonderful but also very demanding, insisted that I start to teach them math, so from now on Fridays will be math days.  I hated math when I was a kid, so I was happily surprised to find that I enjoyed teaching it.  Most of the women can do easy addition and subtraction, but only a few can multiply and divide.     I gave the two advanced women more difficult problems to solve.  In addition to other topics that I never thought I’d end up teaching, I’m instructing the women in basic business skills.  I’m trying to show them how they can make money by borrowing, investing, and repaying, and reinvesting.   Like all things in Nepal, it will take time to get this program underway.  We are beginning from a rudimentary level.

Nothing moves quickly.  I’ve been pestering the landlord to turn on the water and clean the apartment where the women’s center is for over a week.  Shreezanna, who directs the sewing classes and manages the center, simply laid a plastic floor covering over the cement and set up shop.  I want to wash the floors first, but I need some help.  The whole center is still really dirty—the kitchen is covered in construction dust and the toilet is filthy.  I had brought a bucket and some Lysol-like stuff and started to clean the bathroom during our break.  Devi, Menuka, and Rayphati would not allow this.  They snatched the bucket and rags out of my hands, and within twenty minutes had all the tile, ceramic and chrome gleaming.  This was a miracle, since the toilet is a squat-style contraption on the floor, and workers had ground the dust and dirt into the groves where you stand to go.  Their cleaning was truly remarkable.  The Nepalis are nothing if not industrious, but it can be difficult to get them to start or finish a project.

Speaking of projects completed, I got my kurta suruwal back today.  It was finished a couple of days ago, but I wanted to have it taken in at the waist.   I had bought fabric in Kathmandu and brought it to the women at the center.  They charge very little for their services, but they also double the price in order to benefit the women who are learning to become seamstresses.  So, it cost 200 rupees (about 3 dollars) to sew each kurta and suruwal, but I paid 400.  These women will likely be the first entrepreneurs to take advantage of the micro-credit program that I’m setting up.

In my new Kurta Suruwal on an Elephant at Bhaktabur

After class, I took a bus—the wrong one, of course—into Kathmandu to meet Kat and Maria for lunch.  I ended up walking for long stretches without having any idea where in the city had I gone, asking people in my broken Nepali the way.  Finally, one young man in a motorcycle helmet told me to get on a bus that was just pulling up, and so I did.  It took me a little closer to my destination, Thamel, but I still wandered and begged for directions for another half hour or so.  Getting lost is never really a problem, because people are friendly and kind, and taxis are plentiful.  I don’t like to spend the money on a cab, since the buses cost about 15 cents and I’m trying to get my bearings by walking.  I finally arrived at the restaurant, La Dolce Vita, a touristy joint that claims to serve the best Italian in Nepal.

It was great to be eating penne pomodoro with what looked like real basil leaves on top, but I won’t be going back there again.   I could not finish my meal because I got sick halfway through it.  I thought I had simply eaten too much and needed to walk it off.  When I started to collapse on the street, Kat and Maria rushed me into a café, where I threw up into an airplane sick-bag that Kat miraculously whipped out of her backback just in the nick of time.  Then they lay me out on three chairs and pressed a cloth with ice in it to my forehead, wrists, neck, and cheeks.   I felt like a complete idiot.  There I was, pale white woman with golden hair in a green and red kurta, having a fainting spell.  Somehow it seemed so cliché.  But Kat and Maria insisted that this sort of things happens all the time.   When I sat up I was still quite nauseous and dizzy, but Kat produced an anti-emetic from her magic bag.  They said I had become dehydrated, which made some sense.  I still wanted to blame the food.

Of course the monsoon broke just as we tiptoed out into the road to go home, and there were no taxis available.  When you don’t want one, taxis pull up and pester you every five minutes.  We took a bus, but had to change at Ratna Park, where we waited like beggars in the rain for the bus to Pepsi-Cola.  After we were thoroughly soaked we snagged a cab, which cost us another 400 rupees, leaving both Kat and Maria broke.  They had each changed $20 and spent every cent.  It is true that one can live here very cheaply, but not if one is going to tourist restaurants and taking taxis and fainting in cafes where bottled water costs 10 times the price it should.  At any rate, by the time we got home the anti-emetic had kicked in and I felt a lot better.  I took a shower and headed over to check on Krishala.  The report had come in and Gehlu had rushed her back to the hospital.  She did not have meningitis, thank goodness, but rather a viral infection of her tonsils.  I found her shoveling dhal bhat into her mouth with the other kids at the kitchen table.  On the refrigerator were the medicines that the doctor had given her.  She was fine and would get better.

There is an even happier ending to this story.  While Kat and Maria were examining Krishala, they noticed that the children have no toys whatsoever, not even so much as a ball to throw.  They told their parents, who now want to donate some money to buy toys.  They are planning to give the toys to the children at a party.  Since so few of the kids know when they were born, Kat and Maria want to celebrate all of their birthdays at once.  They want to have cake, and candles, and lots of presents individually wrapped.  It’s a grand idea.  I wish I had the money to get each of them something really wonderful, bicycles, for example.  I would love to teach them how to ride.  If you have any ideas, or want to give, please let me know.

Please Help Laxmi


Laxmi on the porch near the kitchen

Click here to donate to this wonderful woman:  HELP LAXMI NOW

I’m very worried about Laxmi, the woman who has been working at Sugandha’s house.  As I reported before, she was living with relatives in Pepsi-Cola until quite recently.  They moved away, leaving her homeless.  I do not know why they did this to her.  It is unthinkable for a Nepali family to abandon one of their own and yet it happens all the time.  Most of the children in the orphanages have been abandoned or rejected by their parents, usually their fathers.  Husbands abandon their wives when they become pregnant, or if the children from her body fail to be male. In this powerfully patriarchal culture, women do not count for much.

Laxmi came to the attention of VSN only because she has been attending English lessons at the orphanage, where the women’s group has been meeting.  She is my age, 50, very gentle and kind.  When she first arrived she had a strong, full-bellied laugh and a direct gaze.  Now, only a week later, she is withdrawn, downcast, and somewhat frightened.  She is also very, very anxious.  Sugandha arranged for her to live with her sister, but the sister’s generosity has expired, and Laxmi again has no place to sleep.  In my very broken Nepali and her weak English, I discerned that she will spend the night at a friend’s house tonight, and that the friend’s house is very far away.  Before she could set out on this journey, she needed to eat.  She receives two meals of dhal bhat (rice and a watery lentil soup) per day, at 10 am and at 8pm, after the volunteers have eaten.  For this she spends the entire day, beginning at 6 am, cleaning and waiting upon the family.  She has no source of income.  I would like to help her find a secure place to live and a more reliable and dignified way to earn a living.

I have donated an amount of  money to set the women’s group up in their own headquarters.  These funds will pay a year’s rent on a large flat.  I want this place to become a shelter for women like Laxmi, women who have suddenly found themselves cast out, good women who need help.

Right now the apartment stands empty.  We need to bring in furniture, a counter-top gas range, a refrigerator and basic household items. Most important of all, we need beds, mattresses, pillows, and sheets.  It is vital that we provide a safe harbor where Laxmi and others like her can recover from the trauma that they have undergone, and begin to rebuild their lives.

I am still in the process of bringing this project about, but Laxmi cannot wait.  She needs your help now.  Any amount that you can give will go directly to her.  She is a very strong and capable woman, but she has suffered a severe setback and needs support to get back on her feet again.  Please give as much as you can.  Your money will help her through this crisis.  There are no overhead costs.  Every cent will go this deserving woman who needs your help. Please click to  HELP LAXMI NOW


			

The Culture of Rape in the Congo


In the last few days, Congolese thugs raped 60 women, men, and children.  Sexual violence in the Congo has escalated at a terrifying rate.  Over 15,000 cases of  sexual were reported there in 2009.   And in the first six months of 2010, there were 7,685 cases.  More than half of the victims were younger than 18 years old.  The catastrophic transformation of the region has become so severe that Nene Rukunghu, a local doctor was moved to say, “This is no longer a crisis, it’s becoming a culture.”

What does it mean to say that a crisis has become a culture?  What is a culture of rape? What could possibly sustain such a culture, and what happens to people who live in a rape culture?

Let us begin with some definitions:

Culture, -noun: the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.

Rape, -noun: an act of sexual intercourse that is forced upon a person.

In a rape culture, dominant human beings sexually force themselves onto others and transmit this “way of living” from one generation to another.  In a rape culture, sexual violation becomes a way of life.

It has long been established that most rapists are men and that rape is an act of extreme violence and aggression, as opposed to an act of sexual desire.  The aggressor inflicts himself on another to get power over another person by humiliating, degrading, and injuring that person.

Rape is a uniquely human act, barbaric but not like other animals’ aggression.  Only human beings rape because rape involves the complex, cultural understanding of “self” and “other” which the act itself reinforces.

Rape is a weapon of war that is used to shatter and erode the morale and dignity of an entire village, community, or people.  The act itself registers differently in different cultures.  It is most effective, or destructive, in cultures in which women are considered to be valuable only insofar as they remain sexually inexperienced and chaste.

This attitude is pervasive in cultures in which women are regarded as the property of their fathers or husbands, as chattel or goods that have a symbolic value that accrues to the owner of that property.  According to this way of thinking, the personal honor of the possessor suffers grievous injury when his chattel, his woman, wife, or daughter, loses her value through unauthorized sexual contact.   This way of thinking dominated Europe throughout the first millennium B.C.E. and is still vigorous in fundamentalist Christian pockets of the United States.

Rape, or any outlawed sexual experience, not only depletes the putative value of the woman, it also allegedly pollutes the honor of her father or husband.  In many cultures the rape of a woman is thought to pollute the honor of that woman’s entire family or tribe.  If you don’t already know about this, you should.  Introduce yourself to the topic with this video:

In order to recover their lost dignity and standing in the patriarchal community, the family or tribe will shame and ostracize the victim.  This practice was widespread in Bosnia and Serbia during and after the wars in that region, where rape was routinely used as a weapon of mass humiliation.  In aggressively patriarchal cultures, it is felt that male/tribal honor can only be restored through the murder of the victim.

In other words, patriarchal cultures are barbaric.  They are founded on the mythical belief that women are inherently inferior to men, and that therefore men have the right to own and control women.  Women do not have the right to own themselves or to make their own choices about their sexuality in these barbaric cultures.

Rape is an ancient means by which men have destroyed the mental and physical health of women to dominate and control them, but it is more fundamentally the crude method by which men seek to elevate themselves above other men.  By damaging the goods, and more importantly, the honor of another man or another group of men through rape, a man crudely proves that he is more powerful, more masculine.  Men in patriarchal culture are caught up in a mass illusionary game of quien es mas macho.

When men rape other men, they “feminize” their victims, treat them to the ultimate indignity to gain weaken their enemies and gain power over them.  But the rape of a man’s wife or child, especially if it is performed in front of him, also effectively emasculates that man.  He is forced to experience his own puny effeminacy in the face of other, allegedly more masculine men who have the power to take, degrade, and supposedly destroy, his woman or children before his eyes.

The rapist pathetically and barbarically “proves” his masculinity–his strength, his power, his honor–to himself and to his fellows, who also must engage in the same barbaric acts to sustain the fiction of their collective superiority over the people, the women, the men, and the children whom they are terrorizing.  For this reason, the rapist is completely unable to tolerate or even imagine how he might feel if someone were to rape his sister, or his mother, or his daughter.

Consider the frightening self-delusion  of the rapists in this video:

In the culture of rape that has grown up, tragically, in the Congo, men pass on to the next generation the perverted understanding that a man is only a man if he can out-man other men by raping their women.  But this culture is itself the natural expression of a culture in which men believe that men are superior to women, and that they have the right to possess, control, and govern their inferiors.

It is common to blame the crisis that has developed in the Congo on the Belgians, who brutally colonized the area in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Certainly it is true that the whites committed many terrible crimes as a result of their own racist and sexist assumptions.  But the culture in the Congo had gone wrong long before the whites came.  It went bad when masculinism–the arbitrary belief that masculinity is superior to femininity–began to infect African culture, probably about 6,000 years before the current era.

One could certainly say–as Andrea Dworkin did say–that all masculinist culture is rape culture. One in four women in the United States has been raped.   In any society in which men and women have internalized the arbitrary myth that masculinity is superior to femininity, a rape culture develops.  It does not always exhibit itself in the brutally overt violence that we are seeing in the Congo.  As explained very well in one of my favorite blogs, Ben Roethlisberger, the degenerate quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, is a product and producer of rape culture.

At home as well as in the Congo, human beings–mostly men–appear to be degenerating utterly into something that we shudder to call human.  When gangs of children who themselves were kidnapped, raped, and tortured commit these very same crimes against other children, and against women and men who fall into their paths, the myth of masculinity has taken then down a very dark and deadly road.

The good news is it is simply a myth, a perversion of human culture.  We have the power to imagine and built a better world.

Extreme Plastic Surgery, “Artificial” Sex, and the Insane Death of Carolin Berger


Today’s post began as a response to ECHIDNE of the snakes. who brought Carolin Berger to my attention

She was a German erotic actor who died in her sixth breast enlargement surgery, at the age of 23:

She went under the knife for the last time at the Alster Clinic and was having 800g (28oz) of silicon injected into each breast.  But her heart stopped beating during the operation. She suffered brain damage and was put into an induced coma.The tabloid’s headline read: “The senseless death of Big Brother star Cora shocks the whole of Germany. “(Her) frail, 48kg (106lb) body struggled against death for 224 hours. She lost. Cora is dead. …Her previous five operations were reportedly done at a private clinic in Poland which refused to admit her for a sixth time.

I kept going over those weight numbers, the amount of silicone to be injected into her and her body weight. Then I started thinking about the widespread impact of heterosexual pron on what women’s breasts should look like and how we now regard artificial breasts as really the natural ones, how seeing a very thin woman with very large breasts on television now looks normal, in the sense of averages. Porn has also affected the shaving of the pubic hair.

If it has done all that, surely it must have had some impact on general interpretations of sexuality and on the roles women and men take in sex?

I think that the cultural turn towards increasingly artificial bodies would indeed affect sexual habits and roles.

Women who are willing to alter their bodies dramatically are likely to engage in degrading and humiliating acts that do not sensually stimulate themselves, but, rather, their partners.  Of course, being able to excite their partners would theoretically also get them off.  Presumably, they would be more stimulated by partners who fit the roles that they have learned to find exciting–wealthy, powerful, dominant.  These are the very men for whom they are mutating their bodies, after all, the men for whom they (think they) live, presumably.

Or would it be more accurate to say that these women live entirely in the Gaze, permanently disconnected from themselves as subjects, and utterly and only aware of themselves as objects?

I think that porn alters the mind and sexual experience because the culture has prepared the mind to alter.  We are all subject to deep and long patterns of dominant-submissive  behavior that are not at all “natural” in the sense of being permanent and unalterable.

In other words, it has not always been this way.  We have been humanoid, Homo Sapiens, upright, intelligent, and communal, for approximately 100,000 years.  Only about 10,000 years ago did human males begin to figure out how to dominate human females. Human females learned how to cope with that arbitrary and unnatural situation in various and often freakish ways.

Sexual desire is very malleable, easily manipulated–we know this.

But at what point does the subject who is experiencing sex as an object, and nothing but an object, utterly lose herself (or himself)?  At what point does the long-objectified self break down completely, in severe depression, catastrophic phobias, or addictions, or bizarre, disfiguring and self-destructive behaviors?

Coralin Berger seems to have broken down in the last sort of way.  We can imagine that she at one time had a sense of herself as a person, a girl, a young woman, before she became obsessed with her body, or, rather obsessed with the notion of herself as a body, a body that needed, in her eyes, continually to be improved.

We can speculate about the forces that influenced the way that she came to think of herself.  They are the forces that influence all of us: the family, the church, the schools, the juridical system, the economy.  There is also the increasing power of the media that manipulates our sense of ourselves as women, as men  (for some good examples, check out About Face and the film Generation M).  Each one of us resists these forces to the best of our abilities.

My question is: at what point do these forces drive us completely insane?  At what point does the self who struggles to think independently break down so completely that there is nothing left but a shell, thin, brittle, and driven to the operating table for the sixth and final fix?

The Women the President forgot to mention


It just wasn’t the most stirring speech I’ve ever heard, and the even the wacko response from the tea-party did not liven things up much.  Ho-hum.  Does the president really think that a rhetoric of “competitiveness” is going to set us back on the road to prosperity?  As Paul Krugman points out, this may be good politics but the diagnosis is wrong.  A bipartisan committee has proven that the economic catastrophe we’ve all been suffering through was preventable.  What brought misery upon most of us was not lack of competitiveness but rather

widespread failures in government regulation, corporate mismanagement and heedless risk-taking by Wall Street”

Widespread failures in government regulation, corporate mismanagement, and heedless risk-taking have severely hurt both sexes, but women have borne the brunt of the Great Recession.  And women are still suffering.

Women LOST jobs while men gained from July 2009 to December 2010.  In fact, the National Women’s Law Center reports that women lost 99.6 percent of the 257,000 jobs cut from the public sector. MORE AND MORE WOMEN have been unemployed for a long period of time.

When women lose their jobs and become economically vulnerable, they are much more likely to become victims of domestic violence.

Now, more than ever, women need our support.  Please give what you can to your local Women’s Shelter.  If you live in Pittsburgh, please donate to the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh.  It’s one of the oldest and finest facilities of its kind in the nation.

Patty’s Story


When she got pregnant and wanted to keep the baby, the father of the child said he would have her beaten until she miscarried.   Terrified, she hid from him.  She eventually went back and stayed with him after the baby, a girl, was born.  She stayed for years, even after he began to hit her.  She was smart, educated, and never thought that she’d become one of “those women.” How did she join the substantial numbers of women in our country–one in every four–who have suffered domestic violence?

He was wealthy and powerful.  She was 20 and just out of school and landed a job working as his secretary.  He quickly became the center of her world.  He isolated her from her friends and family.  He owned the car she drove and the house she lived in.  He was her boss.  During the beginning of their relationship, she thought that his demands on her time were an expression of his love for her.  She did not recognize the patterns of emotional and financial abuse closing around her.

When their daughter was born, Patty wanted to file with the court to ensure that he would support the child. He talked her out of it.  He needed to control the situation completely.  She believed him when he said he would take care of her and her child, but her fear grew.

Four years later, the little girl discovered her father strangling her mother.  “Daddy!” she screamed.  He threw her mother onto a cement floor, knocking her out.

When their daughter began telling people in the neighborhood that her daddy hit her mommy, Patty tried to hush her.  She was afraid of what he would do to her if he found out.  But then she realized that she didn’t want her daughter to grow up thinking that it was normal and acceptable for men to treat women this way.  She enrolled in counseling sessions at the Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh.  With the help of their legal services team, she began the long fight for her freedom.

He fired her.  He took the car.  He took the house.   She faced homeless and poverty, but she refused to live in fear any longer.  Patty found a job at a church, and later took another position in a law firm.  Thanks to her determination and the support she received from the Women’s Center and Shelter, she extricated herself from her abuser, and eventually bought her own house and her own car.

Why didn’t Patty leave earlier?  It’s simple.  He had terrified her.  Thank goodness she found help for herself.  Thank goodness for the fantastic people at the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh.

Domestic abusers like Patty’s boss and partner terrorize and erode their victims’ self-confidence in many ways without bruising their bodies.

  • They isolate them from friends and family by pretending to care for them more than anyone else ever could.
  • They threaten to withdraw their affection from the woman who has no other support system.
  • They dominate their lives by controlling their finances, by setting themselves up as the sole source of income, the sole source of food, shelter, and clothing.
  • They treat their victims like children, encouraging them to think that they are helpless or too stupid to take care of themselves.
  • They react jealously whenever their victim shows the slightest interest in other human beings, particularly other men.
  • They demand that their victims demonstrate their devotion continuously, with greater and greater displays of affection.
  • They belittle their victims through allegedly harmless “jokes,” negative innuendos, and put-downs.
  • They deliberately manipulate their victims with guilt trips in order to keep them under their thumbs.

The most telling sign of an abusive relationship is fear of your partner. If you find yourself walking on eggshells, worrying that the slightest mishap will set your partner off into a rage,  the chances are that your relationship is abusive.

If you believe that you are in an abusive relationship, please do not hesitate to reach out for help.  Immediately call the WC&S 24-hour hotline:  412-687-8005. Someone will help you.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-7233

Note: Patty recounted her story at the 2010 Spring Clothes Out Fundraiser for the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh.  You can read more about her in the Summer 2010 issue of Rosewood.

Feminist Discovers New Love for the Steelers


It has been hard for me to cheer for the Steelers ever since we found out that Ben Roethlisberger sexually assaulted two women, and that he wasn’t going to be prosecuted for the crimes.  But I’ve just found a reason to root for them with full-throated passion.

No, not because they’re poised to win the Division Finals, but rather because of William Gay, who lost his mother to domestic violence, and has spoken out about it to help the Women’s Center and Shelter of Pittsburgh.  Listen to William Gay here:

What is domestic violence?  According to the National Institutes of Health,

Domestic Violence is control by one partner over another in a dating, marital or live-in relationship. Domestic violence occurs in every culture, country and age group. It affects people from all socioeconomic, educational and religious backgrounds and takes place in same sex as well as heterosexual relationships.

Domestic violence is difficult to quantify because the crime is often under reported and police and social service agencies have no uniform method for collecting statistics.  We know that it is pervasive in our culture and that most perpetrators of domestic violence are male.

One in four women has been a victim of domestic violence.

(Sources: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The National Institute of Justice, Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence, July 2000;  The Commonwealth Fund, Health Concerns Across a Woman’s Lifespan: 1998 Survey of Women’s Health, 1999; Matthew R. Durose et al., U.S. Dep’t of Just., NCJ 207846, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Family Violence Statistics: Including Statistics on Strangers and Acquaintances, at 31-32 (2005), available athttp://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/fvs.pdf )

Domestic violence includes verbal abuse, intimidation, isolating a person from friends and family, emotional and financial control, and routine “joking” that amounts to putting another person down.   Abusers are often charismatic and deceptive, seemingly caring and considerate when friends and family around, and frightening and violent when they have their victims to themselves.  People who have suffered domestic violence commonly speak of their abusers in terms of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

I’ll be cheering loudly for the Steelers this weekend.  Whoever you’re rooting for, I urge you to be like William Gay, and work to support the Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, which provides a 24-hour crisis hotline, temporary shelter, counseling and support groups, advocacy and support services for women victims of domestic violence and their children.

You can donate money, items (needed: new clothing, especially size 14 & up, pajamas, socks, underwear, bras, especially larger sizes, slippers, casual shoes, baby soap, lotions, toiletries, journals and notebooks for women), or your time.

Bikram Day 26: the back and the belly and the mind


What I’m liking best about bikram these days is the yogatalk in the locker room afterwards.  Today I mentioned that  sivasana is still incredibly painful for me and elicited a chorus of similar complaints and advice.  The consensus view is that I don’t know how to stand or sit properly, like lots of women.  What I need to do, the women in the locker room said, is tilt my pelvis back while tucking my butt under and pulling in on my stomach muscles.   A number of them demonstrated, in various states of undress, standing and kneeling on the floor.

It’s not like I haven’t heard this before.  My wonderful Iyengar teacher in Hotchkiss, Nancy, suggested that I think about my pelvis as a bowl of milk.   I need to tilt the bowl back, bringing the front rim up, so that I don’t spill the liquid that I’m carrying in it. This is an old metaphor.  As the lover says to the beloved in the Song of Songs,

Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies.

According to the naked and sweaty women in the locker room at my yoga studio, combined with the advice I got from my wonderful Iyengar teacher in Colorado, my back pain, which is sometimes so debilitating that I can hardly move, comes from not having enough respect for my belly.

So where does this leave me?  How do I continuously focus on how I’m holding my self, my spine?   I don’t know if I can do this, but I will try.

What I am noticing now on day 26 is not physical.  I haven’t lost an ounce and I can’t see that I’ve tightened up in any one of my muscular areas.  My arms still look flabby, damn it.  I’m still drinking a couple of glasses of wine every night.  But I am eating less junk food, and I do notice that I’m craving healthier meals.  Yesterday, for example,  I did a double class–four hours in a 90 degree room, three of them holding poses–and afterwards I wanted to eat green stuff.  But the greatest noticeable benefit is psychological.  I feel calmer, more centered.  I feel more self-confident and less anxious.

For example: today I sent off my book proposal. This is a huge achievement.   I’m embarrassed to admit how long I’ve been working on it.  Something about the commitment to yoga made it possible for me to make a commitment to myself in this way.  After years of anxious hiding,  I finally said to someone, “hey, this is my theory, and it is mine, and you should pay attention to it.”  Also: “My ideas are interesting and worthy of publication.”  And, “I’m not going to sit on this for one more minute.”

What is the connection between this locker-room lesson about the belly and the back and  my having sent out something that I have been sitting on and fretting over for 10 years?  The sending out of the proposal is a kind of birth, a kind of delivery of what is within me to the world.   This gesture, so long guarded against, so long feared, has helped me to relax.  But I wonder if I would have been able to make this vital move if I hadn’t also been going through the same 26 spine-altering poses for the past 26 days.

Tonight I practiced yoga with a woman who I have had trouble accepting, even though I have also been very touched by her.  When I first met her, I felt resentment, competition, and dislike.  Tonight my anxiety, or discomfort in the world, abated a bit, and I was able to see and accept her with much more compassion than before.  I caught myself comparing my ability to do the poses with hers, and tried to let this ridiculous competitiveness go.  Tonight she was rather noisy and self-centered and vain and domineering.   I sensed that her not very likable behavior was coming from pain and misery.  She’s very confessional and at the end of class she mentioned that, just before it, she had been weeping in her car.   Christmas is coming on and she just broke up with her boyfriend.  None of her family is here in Pittsburgh.  She doesn’t know quite how to get through the holiday.

I’m having a huge dinner for Jonathan’s family.  Jonathan is the husband of my boyfriend’s sister, MJ.  Jonathan and MJ live around the corner from us.  Jonathan also comes often to bikram and knows this woman.   It occurred to me to invite her long before I the words of invitation came out of my mouth.  When they came, they were completely sincere.  She did not accept.  But I hope that she will.  I will be in the studio on Christmas day.  So will she.  I will invite her again.  I hope she comes.  I did not invite her because I felt sorry for her, but rather because I like her and would enjoy getting to know her better.  Also because I like her and want to help her.

Why did it take so long for my heart to soften and to see her as a human being whom I actually liked and wanted to help?  Is it not because I get into these habitual and rigid poses of the mind, not unlike the habitual and rigid poses of the body, that ultimately bring me pain?  Isn’t this guarding of the heart, and these customary ways of holding the body and the mind, a way of dwelling in dislike and distance and alienation from other people? I experience this alienation from other people as a form of pain.   I don’t know how I learned to hold myself in these ways, and it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that I learn to change the way I carry myself in the world, not only in relation to other people but also in relation to myself.  The old habits of rigidity and separation may once have protected me from pain, but they can also increase the discomfort, the stiffness, that makes the movements of my body and mind excruciating.

Can we talk about race? On Obama and Tony Porter.


There is a lot that is right about Tony Porter’s “A Call to Men” speech, also a lot that is wrong.  See also the website. What is right is the message.

I like what he says.  I preach what he preaches.  I want my son to hear this.  I want him to memorize every word.  But I’m bothered by the racial undertones.  How do you respond to them?  Did you notice them?  Did they bother you?  Do you know why?  I’m trying to figure out why they bother me.  ESPECIALLY because I like the message.

What creeps me out is that the deliverer, the prophet, is preaching to mostly white women of a certain class.  It’s called “A Call to MEN” and here’s this black guy calling to an audience of mostly white women.  The camera searches and searches for the random dark-skinned women, as though to say—“see!  he appeals to black women!  we can prove it!”   What’s up with that?

Alas, he corresponds in some ways to racist stereotypes that liberals have.  We aren’t a bit surprised to find out that he grew up in the “tenements” of New York City, since, after all….he’s Black, and that’s a romantic image for us Northerners, in a sexy West Side Story way.   But also he’s astute, and right (as in correct, as in just) and he is in fact delivering the truth about gender relations.  He’s a boundary-transgressing animal.  He makes us uncomfortable.

His message about gender may be a truth that has been obvious to  you since you were born, or maybe only after a revelation, in a college film class, for example.  You got a dose of “good news” which meant not “the news that Christ was born,” but rather, “a refreshing dose of rationality in a sea of violently emotional and sometimes frighteningly violent thinking, a.k.a. the Truth, or its closest approximation so far.

News.  He spreads it.  It is good.  But the context in which he dispenses (his seed?) troubles me.  The gender relations of this gender-conscious video bother me, actually, much, much more than its race relations.  I thought I was going to see a rally from a man to men, some kind of masculinist ideology-fest at which men were reinforcing with one another, muscling themselves up in defense against the feminizing threat of wimpy-ness or small-penis-nes.  So I tuned in.  It sounded fun.  But what I got was this quite different animal.

What do you think about it?  Can we talk about race here?  Does the race problem cancel out the feminist message?  Do you think it is important to talk about race and gender at the same time?  I do.

I mean, surely that was one of the greatest things that our president did for the nationwas to talk about race relations (A More Perfect Union), which have been brutal, indecent, and hard to comprehend, in our country since its founding.

The Europeans who landed here, in search of gold and slaves, neither of which they found, slaughtered thousands of natives deliberately, with swords, and by accident, with disease, in the 1500s.  So we Americans were founded in violence, pestilence, and fear.  And greed.  Yes, also in hope, in a search for freedom from interference by other people with whom we don’t agree. But that quite liberal inclination to seek liberty was not strong in the first settlers who got themselves established here–they were much more repressive and intolerant than most Americans learn.  With the goodwives looking on approvingly, the venerable Fathers of Massachusetts burned people at the stake.  They whipped Quaker women naked down the streets; they tarred and feathered; they ostracized; they publicly humiliated.

Not all the European invaders were English or Protestant, of course.  They were far more diverse than most seem to know.  They were Dutch; they were Swedish; they were French; they were Spanish.   They were also Natives of that continent, whose ancestors wandered, we think, from the Bering Strait.  They were Asian but also maybe Russian and Sami, too.  When you start moving back, you realize there is no single blood line, no such thing as a “pure” race; no such thing as race.  No such thing as native.

Our family history is rich and complicated.  But violent.

Here’s the problem: The”democratic spirit,”  the spirit for freedom, seems to have gotten tangled up with the spirit for imprisonment.  It seems to have gotten involved with bizarre theocratic notions of American male supremacy, of Judeo-Christian mythology about Adam and Eve; and religious intolerance. You think we’ve evolved?  Today’s Puritans have no compunction about compelling their fellow citizens to accept major infringements of their civil liberties without a whimper.  These people who use “freedom” like a weapon, a blasphemy, these people who claim to be the “moral majority,” who want to put women back into the kitchen and the kindergarten, these “men’s rights” groups and “white rights” groups, these devils who claim to be angels, …THESE are the people who have mastered the game of self-representation, of marketing, of selling the soul, selling the SELF, self above all, in our country?  These people who want to give the top 2 percent of the population the greatest tax benefit?  How did they sell that one?  Why are still selling it?

We’re the center of capitalism, why has the left let the right control this market?  We live here, too.  We, too, know how to sell the self to get ahead.  We’re just as good, we think, at the game.  Except we’re not.  We’re not making any progress lately.   What is wrong with us?

It’s the age of the internet; yet people are lazy.  They mostly want to be fed.  So.  FEED THEM.  Get the slogans out there; advertise, throw all your creativity into the project.  OUT PERFORM them.  What has gone wrong?  Are we stuck in the 18th century? Don’t we know how to sell knowledge?

Don’t get me wrong.  I admire the President.  It matters that we finally elected a man who defines himself as a Black man.  And he is a great man, a well-educated man, an eloquent man, a philosopher, an intellectual (he’s practically French–he’s our Jefferson!).  He’s thoughtful.  He’s a feminist.  He’s by all accounts enlightened in his views about women, race, class, ethnicity.  He gets an A plus for human rights.  He won the Nobel Prize.

I like him.  But why isn’t he standing up against intolerance and bigotry with greater strength?  What, in fact, is the difference between fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims?  None that I can see.

What is good, in Barak and in Tony, is the turn towards the light, the truth.

Too many people seem to think is that the truth is fixed. Therefore. once they find what they think it is, they freeze it in time, and won’t let it move or change with the flow of history and events.  We call these people fundamentalists.

But really the truth is not fixed.  It is continually in flux, like an amoeba or an energy.   It is always changing in response to historical events taking place in a specific environment.  These might be events that have uncertain and potentially cataclysmic, world-altering consequences.   Like, for example, if Ahmadinajhad and his cronies were to get possession of the nuclear bomb and to set it off.  World-altering.  But who would you fear more?  I’m-a-dinner-jacket or Rick Santorum?  Mike Huckabee?  Mitt Romney?  Re-read The Handmaid’s Tale.  Say hello to our possible future.  We have to overcome our unwillingness to embrace the product, to sell “the truth.”  We need positive slogans.

Or do we?  We can’t predict events.  But we can predict the way that we respond to them.  Do we escalate the violence?  Or do we master ourselves?  Could we ever really master ourselves as long as we were trying to dominate an Other? Isn’t this the message and the method?

Day 19


Day 19.  It was good to hear that Mayhem, who is also on day 19 in the challenge, had a lousy day today, especially since I have been having some pretty crummy times in class lately.  She’s a roller-derby queen.  I think her real name is Michelle.  She doesn’t like it as much as her derby name, Fannie Mayhem, which, you have to admit, is pretty cool.

I liked her the first moment I saw her.  She has a beautiful smile, great teeth, very white, which she flashes a lot at you.  Her face lights up when she speaks, and she looks at you directly, usually with a smile.  Plus she is very frank.  She announced to all of us in the locker room in the very first week that she had to do this challenge because she has gained so much weight since she started skating.  And then she told us exactly how much she weighs, and how old she is, and other things, like what it’s like to be in the roller derby.

Anyway, she’s great.  And it is great to be able to say to each other, today is day x….  But I think she’s going to stop at Day 30, which will be hard for me, since I’ve taken the challenge for 100 days in a row.

I had to do it because I’m pretty lazy, and would come up with all kinds of reasons not to go if I hadn’t publicly announced that I was going for the big run.  My name is up on the poster board in the studio, and every day I get to put a sticker to mark off my accomplishment.  Since most of the names up there are followed by 90 or 100 or more stickers, my little run of 19 lady bugs, happy faces, gold coins, and penguins looks pretty short.  But it’s longer than it was a week ago.

As I’ve probably mentioned, I’m doing this primarily out of curiosity.  To see if my body will change, as everyone assures me it will, to see HOW it will change, and to see if I can do something for 100 days straight.  It’s a long time for me to stay in one place.  I can’t even leave for the weekend.

What else.  I’m starting to make friends.  Mayhem and four other women from the roller derby signed up at the same time, all on a groupon.  They’re quite a bit younger than I am.   I like imagining how it might be to be a roller-derby skater, at my age, roaring around the rink, smashing into women, getting all my aggression out.  I think I’d like it a lot.  I wouldn’t shave the sides of my head, as Mayhem has, but I’d enjoy drawing attention to myself in other ways, by wearing some ridiculous pink outfit, for example.

What’s interesting is finding out who all shows up every single day.  A certain solidarity builds up over time.  What’s more interesting is that the people who do show up every day are not all incredibly skinny.  Some of them are quite round, even rounder and blubberyer than I am.

Maybe because you really do get incredibly sweaty–I mean the sweat streaming off you patters on your mat like rain, and your face gets really red in the heat, if you have a complexion like mine, and you have to pull your hair back into a pretty tight pony tail to keep it from driving you mad–and because it is impossible to look good doing this, the practice does not appeal to princesses and glamour girls.   Many of us may indeed look glamorous (and yes, the teachers certainly do) after getting cleaned up.  But you don’t see the kind of women you often see in gyms who appear to be wearing brand-new, tight, sexy little outfits every time they show up, and who actually wear make-up on the floor.   It would be severely stupid to wear mascara or foundation to bikram.

OK, some of the yoginis flaunt their incredibly thin bodies in incredibly tiny shorts and bras, but that is not because they’re showing off but rather because they want to have a little fabric next to their skin as possible.   And plenty of the fleshier women wear the same sort of thing.  It’s not pretty.

I am vain, so I suffer the extra cloth.  I just can’t stand to look at my stomach muffining out over my shorts just yet.  Maybe I’ll get there.  Probably not.

O, and, I’m not really losing weight.  Maybe a pound.  Maybe six pounds.  I was scarily over-fat just before starting, and dropped five really fast.  But they were the kind of pounds that you pack on in one day and lose right away.  Water weight?  I don’t know.  I am down one pound from the amount my body seems to have stabilized at for the past year.

Got to run now to see my incredibly thin therapist.

Danse Macabre


So I’m listening to Mahler’s first symphony, which I love and have loved for all of my entire adult life.  Or since I was 20.  When does adult life begin?  Hard to say.  I’m about to turn 50 and still sometimes have trouble understanding myself as grown up.  But what is the 1st symphony about? It is about life, the business of life, the joy and buzzing business of the bees and the flowers and the animals and the fervor of everything that never ends, even when some of us die.

But standing here on the verge of my fiftieth decade frightens me, not least because my mother died of colon cancer when she was 55.  She was diagnosed when she was 54.   There were signs before.  The winter of her 53rd year we were in Sun Valley, and instead of skiing my mother stayed home, in agonizing pain that every one of us, my father, an orthopedic surgeon, my brother, my sister, and I interpreted as gas.  How could we all have been so stupid?  Yet we were.  What do orthopedic surgeons know abou the diseases of the internal organs?

So, she died.  By the time we caught it, the cancer has metastasized and spread throughout her body, including her lungs.  She died of asphyxiation, fluid from the cancer building up in her lungs.  It took some time…enough time for us to go on a river-rafting trip down the Salmon River in Idaho.  She had had the first eliminating surgery, and some chemotherapy.  We were all pretending that she was going to recover, go into remission. But she was so short of breath.  And my father knew.  I didn’t.  Not until the very end.

It was yuk.  You can’t say how awful it was so you have to understate it.  I remember driving around the hills of Santa Barbara on the days just after her death, madly playing polka music, which I didn’t actually like all that much, not least because it struck me as a kind of dance of death, that mad refusal to believe in the end, that the peasants of Bruegel or Defoe are dancing.  I was driving in delirium, the furious round and round of the mind that cannot take in what is.

The thing about death-dealing sicknesses, or bills of death, sentences of death, in short, cancer, is that the mind does not go there.  It refuses.  And death or its prognosis never makes any kind of sense.  It interrupts the rational.  It fucks you up.

So here I am witnessing the sentence pronounced on my dear sister-in-being-and-love, MJ, who has just discovered that she has ovarian cancer.  The silent killer of women.  A sort of Jack-the-Ripper of the reproductive organs, a disease for which there are few reliable diagnostic tests, and fewer cures.  When it is found in the body late, as it has been with my sister, the prognosis is not good.

Everyone said that my mother’s cancer was nothing to worry about.  O, people recover from colon cancer all the time, they said.  It’s one of the best cancers you can get.  There are no good cancers.  Each one of the is deadly.  Every cancer spreads like a noxious weed, a plant that, thriving, chokes out the life in which it grows.  And it flourished in my mother.

My mother did not acknowledge this flourishing.  This bitter root spreading throughout her.  Or she did, but thought that somehow thought could eradicate it.  She believed that if she could heal every one of her significant relationships, her connections to her brothers and her children, that miraculously the cancer would die.  This theory infuriated me because it located the source of the cancer in other people while blaming the victim.  It seemed to be a kind of mental torture program masquerading as help.  If she could only fix her relationships, she would recover.  And we were all enlisted in this recovery, of  course.  We weren’t allowed to be negative

I took this philosophy to heart, and tried to be supportive, accommodating, helpful.  I quit my job as Director of State Relations at NYU and moved home to be with her.  I was pregnant.  I needed my mother.  Nothing worked.   She died. But I was not permitted to acknowledge that she was dying.  As a good daughter and caretaker, I was enlisted in a program of upbeat thoughts and morale building.  It was worth a shot, of course.  But I never got to say goodbye, because my mother never acknowledged that she was going.   When she left, I felt it was my fault. If only I had tried harder, had believed more in the possibility of her recovery. If I had had that powerful faith, then it would have been enough.

Yes, I know.  This was an unreasonable fantasy of power.  But we are exhorted in our culture to have these fantasies, to pray, to believe in prayer, and to blame ourselves for not having prayed hard enough when our prayers fail to come true.  I did not believe that she was going to recover.  Was it therefore my fault that she died? Or am I to blame for not having been more “supportive” of the fiction that she committed herself to?

My mother seemed to be the victim of a false consciousness program propounded in books for people dying of cancer–a program that exhorted that if only the mind would change, the body would follow.  This program sold lots of books but also made lots of people who ended up dying of the cancer they couldn’t control anyway feel like losers, like people who hadn’t tried hard enough.  I hate this program.

It seems to me–and how I hope that  will not need to practice what I preach here–that when something happens to us, especially when that thing is a medical condition that we have no control over and cannot understand, that we need to accept what is and step aside from the whole program that tells us to feel responsible for the fact that we got sick and that falsely promises that we have within the power to get unsick.

Now this is not to say that we shouldn’t try to maintain a healthy body/mind connection, or that we shouldn’t eat well and take our vitamins and get plenty of exercise.  We are responsible for our health every day.  But my mother was the healthiest person I knew, a moderate drinker, a light but hardly anorexic eater, and an active exerciser.   She played tennis three or four times a week, walked vigorously for miles every day,  had good friends, a relatively happy family.  As a good if lapsed Seventh-Day Adventist, she avoided fatty foods and alcohol and caffeine and ate loads of fiber.  But she still died of colon cancer.  It wasn’t her fault.  Nor was it mine. Or anyone else’s.

I just wish she had said goodbye, that she had let me know that she knew what was going on and that she had some kind of parting wisdom for me.  But she didn’t. She just left.   And I felt really guilty about it, because it seemed that I had not done everything that  was capable of doing.  If only I had prayed harder; if only I had believed in prayer.

It’s hard.  You have this life, however short.  My younger sister, with whom I have a difficult relationship I guess because we lost her, our mother at such different stages in our lives, directs everyone who receives email from her to live each day as though it were their last.   Nice sentiment.  What if you only had a year, or six months, or two weeks, to live?  What would you do?

My first impulse is to say that I would keep on working on my book.  Or I would try to paint at least one painting, that “tree of life”painting that I’ve had in my head for all these months.  But what if I didn’t have the energy?  What would I do then?  I would like to think that I’d write letters to all the people I love, in order to tell them how much I appreciate them. I would explain what they mean to me, and how they have changed my life.  Maybe I would do nothing.

My mother did not write any letters.  She just left.  But that is not quite right. She had been telling me all her life how much she loved me, how much I meant to her.  What more could she say?  Probably something.  But that was not her style.  She would have frowned, as I would, on some perfunctory expression of love, since she would have known that no singular declaration could possibly encompass all that she felt.

In short, we forgive the dead whom we have love, we make an effort to understand how they went, under what circumstances, and to appreciate them over the course of their lives.  We do not measure them according to their last moments, or years.  We remember them fondly, openly, with love.

Does everyone who leaves us remind us of this primal loss, the death of our mother, the woman who bore us into the world?  Probably.

I don’t have the faintest idea of how to process this new confrontation with death, this reminder of my own mortality.  How are any of us to know that we do or don’t have ovarian cancer, the silent killer of women?  Why don’t we as a nation or world have better tests for detecting this killer?  This, too, is a woman’s issue.  Why should the silent killer go after one of the great woman leaders of my time, my friend and sister, MJ?  How do I know that it has not also invaded my body?  Why don’t we have better technological understanding of this disease?

I am frightened.