Yes, Virginia Woolf, There is a Double Standard

IMG_1197This month’s trending social media challenge asks people to post five photographs where they think they look beautiful. I have only seen women participating, which is to be expected. There are also the ‘no-makeup selfies’ many celebrities are apparently sharing, with some Upworthy headline calling it brave. And there was the buzz surrounding an “article” about how women in their 40s have suddenly become sex goddesses in 2014. Before that they were resigned to a shackled, maternal, sexually dysfunctional existence out of the light of day as they awaited death. Thank God women finally got the hint and dug deep to find another decade of desirability. Not that I put much stock in the magazine that printed that tripe but I think the writer most likely lives on another planet.

In an ongoing discussion with a group of fellow female artists, we have expressed frustration over societal expectations put on the female, the artist in particular. As creative types, my friends and I have all struggled with how personally our work can be critiqued. The success of a piece of writing or a painting or a photograph is often mixed up with our body language, our lifestyle, our parenting decisions. Honest, intimate work is mistaken as an invitation to overstep boundaries.

I suspect a century ago that same extraterrestrial magazine writer would have spoken on behalf of another society. One that took to task any female who dared express confidence in her intellectuality, her sexuality or her chosen path, perhaps a path that substantially strayed from what was expected of her. We are damned if we do, damned if we don’t. Because women have always had to give an explanation for themselves. A man earns accolades for his body of work while a woman’s body of work is inseparable from her body. Whether she is a presidential candidate or a career mom, whatever the fruits of her labor, they are judged along with her wardrobe, her birth control, her marriage and motherhood and muscle tone and moods.

Our looks, private relationships and personal choices weigh heavy when determining our value to society. It is an entire realm of expectations unique to women. Men have the privilege of being opinionated or withdrawn; fit or fat; enjoying outlandish leisurely pursuits or being total bores. Even at their worst, all is forgivable. Women get away with nothing. The female is constantly being reevaluated from head to toe. Not only must we live through a lifetime of hormonal phases, ever shifting and transitioning, we must also endure public opinion about it all. Note that there is not a male equivalent for the descriptor resting bitch face.

I propose we start holding women to the same standard as men. This means conceding a woman knows for herself how to balance work and children, something we never call into question with men. This means keeping our eyes on a woman’s work product, whether it’s lawmaking or cheesemaking, and off of her fashion or figure. Never heard of any instances of men being warned about their skinny jeans being too tight for the workplace. This means respecting a woman’s right to take risks, to change her mind, to reveal as much or as little as she wants. This means that a woman gets to define beauty and bravery and sexiness for herself. This means shifting the conversation to accomplishments and contributions and interests, however that looks for a woman; personally, there’s nothing I could desire more.

 

All Or Nothing

This month I have lived moment by moment, day to day. It is out of necessity and it takes everything I’ve got. Without the convenience of appliances my time and energy is leached by daily chores. Cooking and cleaning and meeting my children’s basic needs. Continuously organizing and rearranging in order to maintain reasonable living space in a tiny camper. But setting my clock by sunlight and getting down to basics has also forced me to be in the moment. I have a more immediate appreciation of each day’s gifts. Wildflowers gathered by the girls for my table each morning. Wading in shimmering black water under exploding fireworks. Dinners with friends too abundant for a single picnic table. Watercolor art sessions on the beach. Releasing a birthday balloon into the sky with a 5-year-old wish. Gifts as varied as spin art and help with towing and buckets of fresh picked fruit. Falling asleep each night with the people I love best within arm’s reach, watching stars through the open window overhead. Life has become all or nothing.

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Off the Grid

IMG_5454I have written extensively about the desire to live simply, intentionally, in the moment. Minimalist, anti-materialist living is kind of an aspiration of mine (a lofty one I will never truly realize). Taken far enough, one enters into conversations about living off the grid. It is one thing to fantasize about such an extreme existence while maintaining a much more mainstream lifestyle. It is quite another to actually go for it when the opportunity presents itself. This is the situation we found our family in this summer. For two years we have rented a lovely house just outside of Plattsburgh. My only complaint has been that it is too much house. Too much empty space to clean and heat and look conspicuously spartan. Continue reading

Glow

IMG_5006One of our favorite family activities is watching the annual sunrise balloon launch at the Adirondack Balloon Festival. There are few things that motivate me to be up before the sun. Easter morning. All-nighters. Road trips. Hot air balloons. That’s pretty much it. This week we happened to be in the Saratoga region during the first ever balloon fest at the Saratoga Fairgrounds. Friday night we went to the Balloon Glow, where a field of tethered balloons are inflated and illuminated at dusk. We ran into cousins and ordered crêpes and it seemed the sun could not set fast enough. Evening was cool and windy and we were drawn to the heat of the roaring burners. Life has been hectic and it was a relief to be in a crowd of quiet strangers, everyone gazing together. We stayed until the balloons were deflated around us, the silky fabric billowing and sounding like wind rustling leaves. The girls tiptoed away from the collapsing softness big as buildings. Brushed the colors with their fingertips. Summer arrived on an eve of illumination.

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A Feminist Shout-Out to Fatherhood

IMG_4622Growing up, one of my favorite stories was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Though to some the book may seem sentimental and folksy, Alcott counted Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller as family friends. Alcott belonged to a group of intellectual transcendentalists and as an adult supported women’s suffrage and the abolitionist movement. As a young girl I was drawn to Alcott’s affinity for family and feminist ideals. What spoke to me in particular was the profound connection she wrote about between mothers, daughters and sisters. I grew up in a family of three girls, though my sisters are 8 and 16 years younger. The fact that we were never peers only added to my desire to be a mother, as I grew up taking care of children and loving them as I now love my own girls. I was thrilled to end up with three daughters. I truly love living in a house full of girls. Continue reading

Sunday Afternoon

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We cast no shadows in the park on Sunday afternoon. We bring fruit on ice and books to read and blankets to spread. The pages of my book are blinding. The fruit warms, purple juice sweating all over our fingers. The girls run up and down steps, skin their knees, roll down the hill until their faces are red and their hair is shining. They beg to go down to the water. There is a high wall overlooking the lake and it is lined with men, all shirtless, all in work boots and with fishing lines running out to the water. There is a staircase cut out of the wall. The girls could kneel on the bottom step where the water is deep, scoop cold water into their cupped palms. I want to feel it, too. But there is only one set of steps and many people at the park today. I send the girls across the hill to a patch of shade, long and narrow, under the trees. On my back I take off my shoes, roll up my jeans, shade my eyes with my arm. When I turn my head I see shapes and movements of the girls through the green grass. Feet intertwined they laze, trying to instigate an argument. They pick burrs from the bushes. I hear their laughter, the water slapping the wall where the men aren’t catching fish, birds calling from the branches bending to the girls. Looking straight up I see only blue, clouds. I think of the masts I love to watch in the harbors dotting the lake. How they dip and rock and seem to belong more to the sky than the sea. Bare and docked and lonely they rise like grand architecture. The masts exist for the water but still there is a sense they climb like ladders into the water’s blue twin, into the cold of the clouds.

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From a Mother of Girls to the Cult of Conquistadors

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In all the conversation this week surrounding the killing rampage that took place in California, there has been a recurring quote by Margaret Atwood on social media,

Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.

The killer was motivated by insecurity stemming from issues surrounding his sexuality; he felt ignored by women and threatened by other men. And though people are outraged, nobody is surprised. Mental illness may be a factor but part of the root of his psychosis is real. And archaic.

Consider some of the oldest slander on earth: the role of Eve’s sex in bringing sin into the world. On the page we read that Eve and Adam lived in perfect relationship with God and with one another (and had no shame about their sexuality, by the way) and yet each chose to sin. But at some point in extra-biblical history Eve’s sexuality became serpentined throughout the story. Adam was not tempted by his own flesh to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, Eve used her fleshly enticements to deceive him. Throughout time and cultures women have been associated with the origination of sin, having a greater inclination toward it and a knack for leading their counterpart astray. Females have been made into symbols of temptation and lust; sin incarnate; something to be conquered. Continue reading

Blush

IMG_4448In the waiting there is rain
gray thick enough to grasp
to wrap in folds like a shroud
brought low and near by silence
or everything that fills it
the day becomes the night
no light to tell the time

and there is only one window

which when opened reveals
prisms and watermarks
a day’s worth of color
blushing in surprise
released in a wash
the sun and its luxuries
suspended in the interlude

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Fear and Loathing in Lake Placid

IMG_3711I was somewhere along the Ausable River when the drugs began to take hold, a heady mix of caffeine, white water rapids and some kind of ear blasting optimistic music. I pushed our old blue hybrid as much as I dared. Two bucket seats, 60 miles per gallon and any number of service warning lights all indications this was not the family car. This was the desperate drive after a week that had started with a breakfast tray and an audience in my bed on Mother’s Day and come to a frantic conclusion in the form of a marathon cleaning binge. Washing all the laundry and all the kids, leaving the house in shipshape not out of the goodness of my heart as much as a selfish desire to not have it all waiting for me when I returned in a day. Continue reading

Bouquet

In honor of Mother’s Day, an excerpt from a manuscript I’m currently working on.


When I am introduced to someone in Rwanda I learn their name and also their scent. They reach for my hand with two hands sticky and warm and evenly calloused so as to be smooth when they are clasped around mine. And when we embrace their clothes and skin are damp with the meaty smell of sweat. It clings to me as I am released. If we meet again I search my memory for their name and what I breathed of them. This sense of smell is a physical intimacy. A reminder of the connection we share through the common form we inhabit. Continue reading

An Evening with Artist T.E. Breitenbach

IMG_3991Last Friday we attended the opening night of T.E. Breitenbach’s 45 year art retrospective at Albany Center Gallery. The artist was born in Queens, studied at the University of Notre Dame and in Italy and makes his life as an artist in upstate New York. T.E. Breitenbach: Then & Now showcases his diverse body of work, including a grandfather clock he handcrafted as a teenager, props from his musical about medieval artist Hieronymus Bosch and an impressive collection of decades of oil paintings. Continue reading

Waterline

IMG_2708Waiting on a season change
unlikely, unattainable
one which turned
nightly in illusions of brightness watching for
cracks in the soundless
white walls on the mountainside listening for
the faintest trickle and
all at once a flow
of what winter had built
melting from the cloud heights
to the cradling places of earth
standing long and lonely
at the edge willing
movement into reality, this
quiet pool transformed into its
memory of sea
it is hungry, dangerous
on the highest paths where the land
reaches out like fingers
its rage licks at something to swallow
and in quiet draped curves the waterline
rises dark on the rock
drowning shadows
where they once stood