Wednesday, February 22, 2012

In Loving Memory

Seven years ago today.  It doesn’t seem like seven years of course, it’s one of those events that defies time, remaining in my mind when other memories have slid away in the endless succession of days.

It was a warm day for winter, or maybe I just thought it was because I was used to Michigan winters which are so unlike Maryland winters.  We, along with my mom’s brother and my mom’s sister and her family, had been living in my Nona’s house for the past few weeks, caring for her as she succumbed to cancer.  Other family members lived in the area and spent most of their time at Nona’s house as well.  Nona was dying, but she was dying surrounded by her family.  The sadness of Nona’s illness and the intense experience of family love and caring combined to make these weeks the most treasured painful experience of my life.

We knew that Nona had a very short time left to live.  But on February 22nd, that wasn’t so much on my mind.  Because on that day, I was exactly 14 and 9 months, the age at which, in Michigan, I could legally register for driver’s ed.  In sympathy for my excitement about the anticipated joys of driving, my uncle pulled the riding lawnmower out of the garage and taught me how to drive it around the yard.

After driving around for a little while, thrilled by the experience, I finally decided to go inside.  I don’t remember why anymore.  I think I wanted to tell Mom about driving the lawnmower.  I walked through the kitchen, happy, my cheeks stinging slightly because of the chill in the air outside.  And then I opened the door to what we called “the Blue Room,” where Nona’s hospital bed was.  My mom and one of my aunts were sitting on the small couch we had moved into that room.  The room was dark, Nona’s bed against the wall, and the heavy smell of some flower someone had sent in the air – I think it was jasmine.  Before I opened my mouth, I looked over at the bed.

And that was when I knew.  Nona was gone.  Her body was still there but I knew absolutely that her spirit had already left.

Tentatively, I asked Mom and my aunt, “what are you guys doing?”

“We’re just waiting for the angels to take Nona,” she responded.

“They already did, Mom,” I thought, but I didn’t say anything, just left the room.  I went down to the basement bedroom where my sister and I slept, feeling numb, not knowing whether or not I felt like crying.  I grabbed a book and lay across the bed and it was probably just a minute or two later that Mom came downstairs and told me that Nona had died.

I cried then.

Later, I heard that when my cousins, who were still outside in the yard, were told, my uncle asked them if they wanted to come in and say goodbye to Nona.  But one of them replied, “but she’s not there anymore, it’s just her body.”  So instead of crowding around her body to say goodbye, they simply looked up into the cold blue sky and sent their goodbyes in the direction of Heaven.

I remember some of my aunts and uncles standing at Nona’s bedside, singing “’tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free…”  Most of the rest of that day is a blur in my mind.  They gave me Nona’s wedding band, but I couldn’t wear it at first.  I’m not sure why, but it just didn’t feel right.  I started wearing it once we went back to Michigan, a few weeks later, and I haven’t stopped wearing it since.

It’s been seven years.  They’ve been good years.  I miss Nona and I regret that she died when I was only fourteen.  I wish I had been able to get to know her better – I have questions I wish I had asked her, but of course when she died I was much too immature to consider her primarily as an individual, as herself, not just in her role as my grandmother.

But Nona was too full of life and love for me to spend time brooding on her death.  If anything, the fact that one vibrant, loving person passed from this earth seven years ago is greater motivation for me to live the best life I can.  I want to overflow with love and joy the way she did.  I want to live life to the fullest.  February 22nd is not primarily a day for me to mourn, it is a reminder for me to laugh.  It is a reminder for me to love passionately and unconditionally.  It is a reminder that a life well-lived is beautiful.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

What Women See In the Mirror

I have a picture in my head of what I wish I looked like - my ideal self.  Every time I look in the mirror, I turn this way and that, hoping that at the right angle my real self will look like my ideal self.  Even though I normally am very satisfied with how I look, my real self never exactly corresponds with my ideal self.

For most women, this ideal self is formed by pictures burned into our brains by the media - by fashion magazines, artwork, movies and TV shows.  I'm an entertainment addict just like everyone else so I really cannot judge people for exposing themselves to these images.  But some reading I have been doing lately has helped me understand how these images are destructive to women.

Throughout the history of Western civilization, men have held the most power in society.  Although women are gaining more power - economically, politically, socially - this is a very recent development and men still tend to have more power than women.  So women, for thousands of years, have been socialized to believe that allying themselves with a man, usually by marrying him, is their best avenue to power and security.  Rather than cultivating within themselves education, skills and experiences, women spend a great deal of time making themselves physically attractive to men.

But it is not just the great amount of time, effort, money, and emotional and psychological energy invested in the quest for beauty that is destructive to the American woman.  It is the image held up as the standard for attractiveness which not only causes women much pain and distress (physical and mental) but undermines our autonomy and our potential to take control of our own destinies.  The standard of physical beauty shifts from decade to decade, but a few factors remain common.  In 1869, John Stuart Mill wrote that men "represent to [women] meekness, submissiveness, and resignation of all individual will into the hands of a man, as an essential part of sexual attractiveness."  Over a century later, we do still find young women fretting that a man will not find her attractive if she takes initiative.  But these days the "attractiveness of submission" is conveyed to the female mind much more subtly.  An attractive woman is one who looks like she'll need a man's help.  An attractive woman is small, weighs about 100 pounds, has little to no visible muscle mass, is built delicately.  She takes up very little physical space.  The only parts of a woman's anatomy permitted to be large and still thought attractive are specifically sexual areas.  On a basic level, a woman considered attractive by today's standards is one whose physical body says, "I am not a threat to your masculine power, and I will be very good at pleasing you sexually."

Most women cannot conform to our society's "ideal" body type without a great deal of effort, often to the point of starving themselves.  So not only does this ideal body type hold up the appearance of physical weakness as a standard, it also forces most normal women who want to conform to it to mistreat their bodies, becoming sick both physically and psychologically to meet the unnatural standard (also sometimes undergoing painful and expensive plastic surgery).  A woman with a naturally small frame can be strong, of course, and I am not criticizing anyone whose body type happens to coincide with cultural standards.  But a woman who is starving herself down to proportions she was never meant to be is having her life sucked away, her strength undermined, as she fights desperately against her own natural power and beauty.

If we women are to embrace freedom and fight oppression in our own lives, we can start with the mirror.  We can look at our bodies when they are healthy, when they are fit, when they are exactly the beautiful proportions that are natural to each one of us individually, and love them.  Let's not waste quite so much precious time, energy, effort, and money (all of which are power) on trying to meet someone else's idea of attractiveness.  Let's not allow society to tell us that we must be weak to be attractive.  Let's not allow the beauty industry, the fashion industry, the entertainment industry, to induce us to disempower ourselves any longer.