I remember my father-in-law coming home from a run to the ice-cream shop, his car packed with females, including my daughters, nieces, and a couple of friends. He said from the back of the car he heard the girls giggling because someone made the astute observation that they all had “virginias.” I have to believe it was Kelley but we may never know. This speaks poetically of our feminine commonality, but fails to acknowledge our unique contributions, consider how the term pussy was lassoed for derogatory purposes. Maybe it’s time to repurpose this word.
I work at a forward thinking all-girls high school in downtown San Jose, inspired by the teachings of St. Julie, a spirited nun, whose philosophy was “teach them what they need to know for life.” We have a freshman project at Notre Dame, inspired by the artist Judy Chicago, who created a work of art called The Dinner Party, her goal was to “end the ongoing cycle of omission in which women were written out of the historical record.”
The Dinner Party is presented in the form of a triangular table, decorated with thirty-nine place settings, honoring women from prehistory to modern day. Each place setting features an embroidered table runner with the woman’s name and images or symbols relating to her accomplishments. These formal settings include a napkin, utensils, goblet, and plate. The plates feature a butterfly or flower like sculpture as a vulva symbol. The plates were meant to represent woman’s gradual independence and equality, as you can imagine they were highly controversial in 1979, but paradigm-shattering nonetheless.
Notre Dame has adjusted the project slightly to accommodate the age and maturity of our students. As a freshman you select a woman of impact, someone who has significantly improved the world, and create a unique place setting using symbols and images associated with this woman’s work. We set the display up in the gym and it is a spectacular celebration of feminine achievement. Walking up and down the rows of elaborate place settings gives me such hope, my arms ripple with goosebumps, as I imagine a world where every girl has a chance to shine.
I’ve been looking through old photographs and heirlooms trying to identify the gifts and talents of the women who came before me. I want to know their limitations and how they exceeded them. There was a time when women were listed alongside livestock, linens, and farm equipment, a woman’s value based on what she produced, rather than her humanity. Where did they find hope when they lost a child, when the pantry was empty, when their health took a turn? How did they find the courage to give birth more than once without the benefit of modern medicine? I want to know so much more than the picture I am holding.
I am grateful that I was born at this time, in this country, to parents I love, with a “virginia.” I live a privileged life, I worry about rationing food because I eat too much, not because I’m forced to stretch my resources. My housing, relationships, finances, and faith are all fairly stable. I sit on my carved redwood perch, in this beautifully decorated cage, writing blogs. My cage isolates me from the world where instability is a daily struggle, I can contemplate this kind of suffering, but I will never know it in the marrow of my bones.
For most people God exists in the crevasses of life, where the dirt settles, and disorder resides. I look for God in the bounty of the sky that starts at my feet, under the vail of prayer, and most profoundly in the bread and wine. The faith of my ancestors was strong, because it was rooted in struggle, based on a vision of God who comes from within. When I dare to leave the cage I know this to be true.
“Her difficulty in finding hope and God in the midst of such devastation is one that struck me as both distinctly human and distinctly privileged.” Christena Cleveland
One of the most beloved characters in the bible has to be Mary Magdalene. She knew God, stood in his presence, and was healed my his enormous compassion. Mary lived outside the cage. Marie Howe wrote a beautiful poem about Mary from whom seven devils have been cast out. She writes in the first person, as Mary, it is long, but worthy of a careful read. (Listen to Marie’s entire interview On Being with Krista Tippett)
“The first was that I was very busy. / The second — I was different from you: whatever happened to you could / not happen to me, not like that. / The third — I worried. / The fourth — envy, disguised as compassion. / The fifth was that I refused to consider the quality of life of the aphid, / The aphid disgusted me. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. / The mosquito too — its face. And the ant — its bifurcated body. / OK the first was that I was so busy. / The second that I might make the wrong choice, / because I had decided to take that plane that day, / that flight, before noon, so as to arrive early / and, I shouldn’t have wanted that. / The third was that if I walked past the certain place on the street / the house would blow up. / The fourth was that I was made of guts and blood with a thin layer / of skin lightly thrown over the whole thing. / The fifth was that the dead seemed more alive to me than the living / The sixth — if I touched my right arm I had to touch my left arm, / and if I / touched the left arm a little harder than I’d first touched the right / then I had / to retouch the left and then touch the right again so it would / be even. / The seventh — I knew I was breathing the expelled breath of everything that / was alive and I couldn’t stand it. / I wanted a sieve, a mask, a, I hate this word — a cheesecloth — / to breath through that would trap it — whatever was inside / everyone else that / entered me when I breathed in. / No. That was the first one. / The second was that I was so busy. I had no time. How had this / happened? / How had our lives gotten like this? / The third was that I couldn’t eat food if I really saw it — distinct, / separate / from me in a bowl or on a plate. / OK. The first was that I could never get to the end of the list. / The second was that the laundry was never finally done. / The third was that no one knew me, although they thought they / did. / And that if people thought of me as little as I thought of them / then what was / love? / The fourth was I didn’t belong to anyone. I wouldn’t allow myself / to belong / to anyone. / The fifth was that I knew none of us could ever know what we / didn’t know. / The sixth was that I projected onto others what I myself was / feeling. / The seventh was the way my mother looked when she was dying, / the sound she made — her mouth wrenched to the right / and cupped open / so as to take in as much air… the gurgling sound, so loud / we had to speak louder to hear each other over it. / And that I couldn’t stop hearing it — years later — grocery / shopping, crossing the street — / No, not the sound — it was her body’s hunger / finally evident — what our mother had hidden all her life. / For months I dreamt of knucklebones and roots, / the slabs of sidewalk pushed up like crooked teeth by what grew / underneath. / The underneath — that was the first devil. It was always with me / And that I didn’t think you — if I told you — would understand any / of this —” Marie Howe
The devil can not compete with the sacredness of the womb, all of humanity was ushered through a feminine portal, even God. It is as if we are attached umbilically to all of the mothers who came before us. This is our salvation. Their blood flows in and out of our veins, keeping us nourished, our hearts beating, and our fruit ready for harvest. As a woman, the vagina is the first thing by which we are identified, “its a girl,” as she is pushed out of the womb, and into the world.
I’m Living in the Gap, drop in any time.