The Feminine – What is it?

 

56a0438218f0434a9d1c639b47ec41f3The series on issues relevant to my novel, A Fitting Place, continues this week with a guest blog from Sara Stibitz, who offers a millenial’s perspective on “doing gender.” 

 

In the summer of 2013, I traveled through South America solo and completely unplugged from my life as I knew it. Several months into my return from the five-month-long trip, I commented to a friend that I still felt out of sorts, and I wasn’t quite sure why. 

Part of it had to do with my, shall we say, relaxed personal norms on dress and appearance which tend to go along with life in dorm-style hostels. I’d grown accustomed to putting little to no effort into hair, makeup, or clothes, and it was hard to slip back into the cultural norms expected of women in our society. I struggled with the feel and look of a bare face because I knew it wasn’t what was expected of me. I struggled with clothing because the most comfortable clothes were baggier and hid my shape. I felt frustrated at my lack of ability to be feminine. 

My friend listened to me relate my frustration. In response, she asked me a series of questions, beginning with, “How do you walk?” 

I looked at her, wondering at her meaning. 

“Do you walk like a man, or do you walk like a woman?” she pressed. 

I took a moment to consider the question. The truth, I conceded, was that I likely walked like a man; I tend to power-walk, heels digging into the ground as I launch myself forward step by step. She asked a few more questions which led me to see how I went about my day. “I guess I’m just more manly,” ready to accede that I had no womanly wiles. 

“No,” she said. “You have both masculine and feminine energy. It’s just that you operate from your masculine side more often. How do you let your feminine express itself?” 

I noticed she used feminine as a noun as opposed to an adjective. I also noticed I had no answer. 

The conversation lingered in my mind for the rest of the day, and quite some time after that. Over the next few weeks, as I asked the same questions of several female friends, I realized that I’d surrounded myself with women who identify with masculine energy more than feminine energy. It dawned on me that I allowed little to no room for femininity in my life. 

We like to differentiate and exaggerate the separateness of the feminine and masculine, claiming they are entirely separate entities. The truth is, the masculine and feminine energies are two sides of the same coin. One does not exist without the other. More importantly, we are each masculine and feminine in varying degrees, at varying times. 

To be clear, this is not about sex or sexual orientation. This is about questioning the way we allow masculinity and femininity to play out in our lives. We have a choice over how these energies affect us day-to-day, but it requires us to first tune our awareness to them. 

Feminine power is in being; masculine power is in doing. I was struggling after my return because I was power-walking my way through life, focused on activity and outcome. I had no comfortable outlet for feminine energy; I kept trying to resort to the typical means our culture furnishes for women—clothing, hair and make-up—and felt no connection. Awareness was half the battle; once aware, I could seek out the things that put me in touch with the feminine. Or more precisely, my feminine.  

How do the masculine and feminine show up in your life? How do the people around you change the way your feminine and masculine are expressed? 

 

IMG_3903In 2013, after a seven-year career as an investigator and mediator, Sara left to follow a life-long dream, traveling solo through South America. As she blogged about her adventure, she discovered the creative possibilities of writing, and it has become her passion. Since returning, Sara has written for the Des Moines Register, YogaIowa, Spoilage Literary Magazine, and works regularly as a freelance writer and editor. 

You can contact Sara through her website or through Facebook. 

 

 

Flying the Coop – Leaving Mennonite Land

  

And the day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was 
more painful than the risk it took to blossomAnais Nin

Marian JourneyMy guest this week is Marian Longenecker Beaman, who looks back at her decision to step outside of her comfort zone and leave the Mennonite community in which she was raised.

A prayer covering hugs my head capped by two circles of interlocking dark-brown braids. I chafe in a blue wool dress with a cape that masks my womanly curves. Standing in front of my dresser mirror as Sister Longenecker at Lancaster Mennonite School where I teach, the truth dawns:

Me: I can’t live the rest of my life looking like this!

Other Self: Then come with me.

Me: But what would my parents say?

Other Self: They aren’t living your life.

Me: Dean Noah Good wants me to stay. He says he thinks it is God’s will for me.

Other Self: How can he know? He is not God. 

Starting a [new life] demands a conscious falling through the window,
a journey through the looking-glass — Madeleine l’Engle

I’ve had this dialogue before, but the urge to change is growing stronger. One possibility: My church endorses a Teacher’s Abroad Program (TAP). I’ll sign up for that. Apply for Western Europe, maybe Germany or Switzerland, land of my ancestry. Maybe I will meet a nice German boy. I’ll teach English, learn German, have a family–and never have to wear my constricting Mennonite garb again. 

I can escape!

But one enchanted evening I meet Cliff, on Christmas break from college and staying with my next door neighbor.  I am his blind date. One week into our friendship, he has drawn a portrait of me, written poetry about me, presented me with two hand-made cards, and given me a corsage of pink carnations. He says he is falling in “like” whatever that means. It feels more like true love to me.

Cliff (the Catalyst) suggests I find a school away from my Mennonite culture. Okay, it could be a private Christian school, just not a Mennonite one. Soon I apply to Charlotte Christian School.  The phone interview is embarrassing on both ends. I can’t understand the board member’s southern drawl, and he can’t decipher my lilting Pennsylvania dialect. Overly polite, we ask, “Will you repeat that please?” Nevertheless, I am asked to come down to Charlotte, NC for a face-to-face interview.

The school can afford to pay only bus fare, so I mount the Greyhound for the 14-hour trip with my Baum’s bologna sack lunch and suitcase, a square brown thing with metal snaps. It’s late May so it gets hotter as we head farther south, but at least I am not wearing a cape dress. Before the trip, I boldly shed my prayer cap too, though braids still hug my head. A search committee member in Charlotte says, “You come highly recommended from Lancaster Mennonite School.” (What? Dean Good approves of my leaving LMS and mingling with Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists—maybe even Episcopalians, for heaven’s sake.)

I am offered the job and take it. Even with the meager salary of $4,200, there are fringe benefits: I could understandably leave my family and be closer to my boyfriend Cliff (now teaching in Florida). My family has mixed feelings about the move, but after all I am 25 years old. My mother says finally, “I’d rather have you be a happy Christian than a sad Mennonite.”

My dad, maybe worried that I’ll end up an old maid, even helps me pick out a car. In the 1980s movie, Marty’s time machine is a DeLorean, thrusting him “Back to the Future” where he gets stuck in the past. My time machine is a 1960s Valiant that propels me forward from Mennonite farmland in Pennsylvania to Billy Graham country in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

The obliging officials at Charlotte Christian School recommend a place to live in a neighborhood of elegant Southern ladies. Their charm is most enchanting (How ya’ll doin’? the plural directed to just me) and I take up residence with two fancy young women who roll their hair at night for flip hairdos by day. 

By the end of the school year, I am wearing my first ever piece of jewelry, a diamond engagement ring, which “plain” Grandma Longenecker beholds with an ashen face, her eyes communicating betrayal of my heritage and family values. Nevertheless, the ring never leaves my finger. And I get brave enough to cut my hair.

That’s the way things come clear.  All of a sudden.  And then you realize 
how obvious they have been all along — 
Madeleine l’Engle

Yes, standing in front of that mirror as Sister Longenecker at Lancaster Mennonite school in Pennsylvania, the truth dawns. It had been obvious all along. Why hadn’t I seen it before?

 

Marian - journey #2Marian Beaman’s life has been characterized by re-invention: Pennsylvania Mennonite girl moves to Florida to become traveling artist’s wife, then English professor with credits in the Journal of the Forum on Public Policy published by Oxford University Press. Along with her work as a community activist leading a neighborhood to take on a Wal-Mart expansion, she is a writer and blogger in this second phase of her career. Fitness training and Pilates classes have become a metaphor for her mind-flexing experience as a writer, mining stories from her past along with reflections on current events. 

Facebook: www.facebook/marian.beaman/

Twitter: www.twitter.com/martabeaman

Website: http://plainandfancygirl.com

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pub/marian-beaman/73/3a2/660

 

This guest blog continues the discussion on issues relevant to themes in my forthcoming novel, A Fitting Place.  If you’d like to contribute to the discussion, please contact me here.

While I am hosting Marian Beaman, my essay on the writing process is being  hosted by Linda Austin on her lovely website, Moonbridge Books.  Linda, who encourages life writing, wrote Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, her mother’s memoir of life in Japan around WWII, and Poems That Come to Mind, about the caregiving journey.

Next Monday’s contribution to the blog hop on the writing process will come from Sharon Lippincott on her website. Sharon, who began teaching lifestory and memoir workshops in 1999, is the author of The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing and four other books. Her latest volume, Adventures of a Chilehead: A Mini-Memoir with Recipes was released in December last year.

 

The Devil Made Me Do It and Other Lies

 

ControlMy blog this week is a guest post by Dr. Flora Brown, who taught critical thinking for 20 years at Fullerton College in California. Dr. Brown muses on the illusion of control in our lives.  

 

The 1970s American comedian Flip Wilson became famous for his portrayal of sassy Geraldine, who excused her behavior by saying “The Devil made me do it.” This trademark quip became a national catch phrase.

It’s human nature to place blame outside ourselves for our behavior. But it is equally unproductive  to believe we have control in situations where we do not.

Each morning when I join my neighbor for a walk, I dutifully push the button and wait until the crosswalk man symbol appears, signaling that it’s safe for me to cross.  Since modern signal lights are computerized, I have no control over activating that light. It just makes me feel better believing I do.  

There’s a similar phenomenon in gambling. When modern casinos computerized slot machines, a decision was made to leave the handles for gamblers to pull for each play. Appropriately nicknamed “one-arm bandits”, these handles give gamblers something to do that reinforces the illusion they have control in a situation where they have none. 

Benefits of the Illusion of Control

Believing we have control in situations where we have little or none can be empowering.  

When I applied for a community college teaching position, it was to be the second full-time African American teacher in the history of a school approaching its 85th anniversary.  While I had strong educational preparation and experience, the decision would be made by a committee of strangers who evaluated my application along with 100 similarly qualified teachers.  My fate depended on many considerations other than just my personal qualifications.

If I had thought about how little control I had over the decision of that committee, I might never have applied.  But I didn’t think about that. I applied for the position and prepared well for the interview.  If I hadn’t applied, I definitely wouldn’t have gotten the job where I enjoyed a 20-year career. 

Sometimes, the illusion of control encourages us to take responsibility for our actions.  

Do We Ever have Control?

When, if ever do we have control?

We all laugh at Geraldine when she says “the Devil made me do it” because we immediately recognize it as a handy excuse for her excessive shopping.  But most of us have difficulty recognizing how we smudge the line between what we control and what we don’t.

In reality, our thoughts and actions are the only things that belong to us. We never have control over what another person does or says, or the circumstance we encounter. We just have control over what we think about and how we react to what we experience. Our attitude will not change the situation or outcome, but it will increase our chances of survival and triumph.

In his powerful book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, one of the world’s best-known Holocaust survivors, tells of the day he began to see beyond the reality of the daily horror he endured in the camps.

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

After suffering in four concentration camps for three years, Frankl was released, but his wife, parents, and family had all died in the camps. Frankl went on to become a psychotherapist and developed a treatment called logotherapy, which theorizes that our primary motivation is our search for meaning in life. He believed that if we can find personal meaning in life, we can overcome dismal circumstances.

Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camps did not make him vengeful, insensitive, or uncaring toward others’ sufferings. Instead, he realized that the guards could take everything from him, including his life, but they couldn’t control his mind or spirit. They couldn’t stop his sense of the search for meaning in life.

Frankl discovered it is our inner control that gives us power in our lives. It is discovering meaning—in a world that is out of control—that gives us peace.

The Shift in Control

It can be exhilarating to feel in control, to be able to direct our lives like a ringmaster. Some people fight to hold onto perceived control, and others cheat for it, lie for it, and even kill for it.  Even so, the reality is that no amount of victory, good fortune, physical fitness, prayer, personal achievement, fame, yoga, or meditation will spare us from eventually finding ourselves in situations over which we have no control. 

Since we know these situations will recur, how great it would be to greet them like a friend, no longer trying to control them, but learning from them and letting them pass. On that day, we’ll be equally at ease with taking responsibility for our behavior and relaxing when we are not in charge.  

 

Flora BrownFlora Morris Brown, Director of Content for www.ColorYourLifePublished.com, helps take the fear out of publishing, whether it’s your 1st or 7th book. Her 4-week on-demand e-course Rockin’ My Book, helps executives, coaches and entrepreneurs to increase credibility by writing a book. She is the author of Color Your Life Happy: Create the Success, Abundance, and Inner Joy You Deserve, among other books.

Flora Morris Brown, Ph.D.
www.coloryourlifepublished.com

 

Dr. Brown’s comment continue the discussion on the broad range of issues that confront my protagonist, Lindsey Chandler, in my novel, A Fitting Place.  If you would like to contribute to the discussion, please check the topics and guidelines here.

Waiting To Be Asked

 

waiting to be askedAs I noted last week, socially accepted gender roles influence behavior in ways we do not always recognize.  My focus this week is on what I think of as “waiting to be asked.”

Most of my readers are familiar with social norms that encourage many types of assertive and / or aggressive behavior in men, but are less approving of it in women. Those stereotypes, which often label “assertive” behavior in women as “aggressive” are breaking down, but they are still with us.

A significant element of this stereotype, since the days of Gloria Steinem marching down Fifth Avenue in New York City, has been the assumption of widespread male chauvinism (defined by Merriam Webster as “an attitude of superiority toward members of the opposite sex”).  In other words, women’s failure to succeed is all-too-often the fault of men who do not appreciate their skills and or reward them accordingly.

For the first fifteen years of my career in high finance in New York City, I accepted Steinem’s proposition without much question, despite the fact that I was a successful woman in a predominantly man’s world.  My success continued in Australia, despite the fact that “Aussie Ockers” were reputed to leave male chauvinists for dead.

What was different was the way I saw women in Australia. There, for the first time, I had a peer who was an exceptionally competent woman. While I loved my job, she hated hers. I soon realized that one of the biggest differences between us was that she was waiting to be asked. 

In advance of client meetings, I would always advise my boss on what I needed to move my part of the project forward. Whether he incorporated my requests into his agenda or turned the meeting over to me, I always walked out with what I needed to do my job. 

My officemate, by contrast, believed that he should ask what she thought or what she wanted to accomplish. Except he never did, leaving her constantly frustrated by her inability to get the information and resources she needed. She was a perfect example of the phenomenon described in an inspiring little treatise, Lady Leader, 10 Ways to Play in Big Boy Business, by Mary Stier (at one time a top executive for a Fortune 500 media company). Stier points out that there are a host of reasons why women hesitate to speak out: fear of rejection or scorn, lack of self-confidence or self-awareness, family pressure to be “ladylike,” a misguided sense of entitlement, and/or misunderstanding of priorities. 

Stier’s point is that it is your responsibility to speak up. You can’t complain that you’re not appreciated you if you don’t make your voice heard.  For whatever reason, my officemate in Australia did not make her voice heard while I did.

The issue can be as much a problem in a personal dimension as it is in professional one. The protagonist in my novel, A Fitting Place, has no problem making her voice heard in a professional context. In her personal life, however, she has consistently withheld her opinions from her successful and prominent husband. As her same-sex love affair causes her to re-think social norms about gender roles, she also begins to re-examine her own responsibility for making her voice heard in a romantic relationship, whether it be with a man or a woman.

Do you make sure your voice is heard?   

 

This continues the series on themes that are significant in my upcoming novel, A Fitting Place.  If you would be interested in doing a guest blog on one of these themes, click here. 

 

Doing Gender

 

Fish - Doing Gender“Talking about gender for most people is the equivalent of fish talking about water.”

So said Judith Lorber in her 1994 book, Paradoxes of Gender, where she observed that gender and gender roles are “the routine ground of everyday activities.” She added that “Gender is so pervasive that in our society we assume it is bred into our genes.”

Lorber’s book made the case that gender is not genetically based and that gender roles are a “social construct.”

For those of you not familiar with the term, a social construct is something that does not exist in the real world. Rather, it takes its existence from the customs and practices of the society or culture in which it occurs.

A commonly cited example of a social construct is money.  How many times have you stopped to ask yourself, as you paid for your morning coffee, how much your $5 bill was worth? Not many, I suspect. You just assume it’s worth $5. 

In reality, money has no meaning apart outside of an economic context and its worth as a medium of exchange derives from general acceptance of a value typically defined by a governmental agency. In the absence of such acceptance, your $5 bill is worth about 10 cents, the cost of its materials. Its value in a foreign country can be higher or lower, and may vary from day to day. Even in the U.S., it’s worth a lot less in terms of purchasing power than it was 20 years ago.

In other words, the value of money changes as circumstances change.

Like money, gender and gender roles change as cultural norms change. Think, for example, of the buxom and well-rounded women favored by Rubens versus the slim, almost anorexic creatures of modern advertising. Gender roles—reflected by clothing styles, by labor force participation, by assumptions about intellectual, emotional and physical capacity—have evolved dramatically over the centuries and continue to do so.

Why then, if gender is a social construct, are so many of us trapped by gender roles that chafe? Lorber’s response was that most of us “do gender” without thinking. We follow patterns instilled since childhood because they are easy, because doing so feels safe, because we think it is expected of us. Gender roles, in many cases, are an essential aspect of our all-too-often-unproductive comfort zone.

This is the dilemma faced by Lindsey Chandler, the protagonist in my forthcoming novel, A Fitting Place. Lindsey is an intelligent and capable woman with a successful career but a failed marriage. Like the fish that can’t “see” the water, Lindsey relied unthinkingly on prevailing social norms about marriage and the role of a wife. Only when she found the destructive patterns of her marriage repeated in her relationship with a woman did she begin to “see” how these gender-based assumptions had blinded her to the options she had had all along.

How have socially accepted gender roles affected you?  How has your acceptance of those gender roles limited your options?

 

This continues the series on themes that are significant in my upcoming novel, A Fitting Place.  If you would be interested in doing a guest blog on one of these themes, click here

 

Taking a Break

 

A Fitting PlaceI will be taking a break from my blog as I wend my way back home after six weeks in Florida.  Long drives, a bit of sightseeing, and catching up with old friends is not conducive to thoughtful blogs.

I will be back in two weeks, with more news on the May release of my novel, A Fitting Place.

The Book Review is Dead. Long Live the Book Review.

 

book review 1Would it surprise you to learn that, on the eve of the release of my first novel, I am peering closely at the business of book reviews?  What I observe, as both an author and a reader, is not re-assuring.  In fact, it’s downright perplexing!

Much ink has been spent in recent months on the decline of professional book reviewers, including several articles in the New York Times and a thought-provoking blog by author Susan Weidener (see links below).  The decline reflects both a reduction in the number of publications that offer book reviews (e.g., many local newspapers no longer offer book reviews) as well as a decline in the number of professional book reviewers.

As a reader, this phenomenon is disturbing, as it makes it harder to determine which books I’d like to read. But as an indie author, it is not a primary concern, as I would not expect to be reviewed in the Atlantic Monthly or The New York Review of Books, unless I had already achieved very considerable market awareness.

No, my concern is the book reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, the two primary places where readers provide feedback. Based on my experience with my memoir, Sailing Down the Moonbeam, the system is flawed.

Of the three dozen or so reviews on Amazon, more than half are 5-star, the highest ranking a book can get. I am, of course, thrilled to have them, particularly those that provide thoughtful commentary on the quality of my writing, the structure of the memoir, and the extent to which the reader experienced a “shiver of recognition.”  

But I am puzzled by the number of readers who, in effect, have ranked me alongside Barbara Kingsolver or Sue Monk Kidd.  I am a good writer, but not that good.

The problem lies, in my view, in the reliance on a simple 1 to 5 star ranking, with input from a self-selected segment of readers whose qualifications as critics are rarely known and whose motives are often suspect. This system allows readers (including personal or professional friends of the author) to make public judgments about a book without necessarily providing—or even having—any specific criteria or rationale for their opinions.  Such reviews may puff up or deflate the author’s ego, but do little to help readers determine whether a book will be of interest or whether it is a genuinely good read.

Take, for example, a 5-star review that says only “I loved it” or a 1-star review that says only “I hated it.”  What does a reader learn from this? I’d like to know if the reviewer only reads short books, or only reads memoirs, or only reads sports stories.  I’d like to know if the reviewer prefers action-oriented adventures or character-driven stories. I’d like to know whether the reviewer sticks to familiar topics and settings or enjoys exploring challenging new environments. I’d like to know if the reviewer loved the writing, or a liked a good yarn despite mediocre writing or liked the story but hated the writing.

The issue is further complicated by the reluctance of many authors (myself included) to put anything less than a 3-star review on Amazon.  How, in this environment, does a reader identify a poorly written book with a thin plot and/or bad editing or one that is a real gem.

Goodreads appears, at first glance, to provide a more reasoned approach, as the preponderance of the Moonbeam reviews are 3-star or 4-star.  The problem here is that Goodreads reviewers can “rank” a book without so much as a word of explanation as to the basis for the ranking.  

I am stuck with the system as it is, but I wonder how you, as a reader, think about reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Do you rely on these reviews?  Do you write reviews?  How would you change the system?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

 

Suggested Reading

Susan Weidener: What’s Up with Book Reviews?

New York Times, Colin Robinson, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Reader”

New York Times, Maureen Dowd, “Bigger than Bambi” 

The New Yorker, Lee Siegel, Burying the Hatchet” 

 

Reaching My Reader — Part III

 

Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.  ~  Stephen King

"Rock and a Hard Place" Several months ago, I blogged about the challenge of writing on a controversial subject—sexual fluidity—for an audience that spans three generations.  As I noted then, many of the words that describe the spectrum of sexual relationships described by Alfred Kinsey a half century ago carry very different connotations depending on whether you are age 20, 40 or 60. 

In retrospect, the challenge was more easily met than I anticipated. Because the theme of A Fitting Place is the growth that occurs when you step outside of your comfort zone, my interest was in how Lindsey Chandler deals with change, not with social constructs of gender or sexual identity. 

In this context, my camera is trained on the day-to-day interaction between two idiosyncratic women who are searching for new ways to cope as they struggle with failed marriages and distraught children. What matters is their ability to provide support, affection and physical comfort along the way. They see no need to attach a label—such as lesbian, bisexual, or sexually fluid—to their relationship. 

In a sense, the concept of sexual fluidity is of much more interest to me as an author than to my characters. In recognizing that sexual attraction, particularly for women, is often influenced more by the person than the gender, the concept allows me to discuss the dynamics of rebound relationships without getting ensnared in the “chick lit” genre.

The situation seems far more problematic now that my focus has shifted to marketing,  to getting this book into the hands of readers interested in the options available to women who have left, not always by choice, a long and stable relationship.

Suddenly, I am in the world of sound-bites, of pithy phrases, of zingy one-liners.  To use a cliché, I feel like I am between a rock and hard place.  

The term “sexual fluidity” has only recently come into non-academic usage, and is unlikely to resonate with a large audience.  Marketing copy that uses “lesbian” or “bisexual” implies something about my characters that may or may not be true, depending on the reader’s definition of those terms.  While the labels don’t really matter to the story, leaving such terms out of my marketing materials may result in  disappointed or angry readers who do not wish to read about unconventional sexual behaviors.

A Fitting Place addresses the challenges of rebound relationships, and their implications for all of us. The trick is to find a way to make an unconventional story appealing and accessible to a broad range of women.  

Hmmh ?  ?

 

My series on themes in A Fitting Place continues.  I welcome your comments on this blog. If you would be interested in contributing to the discussion with a guest blog, please check out my guidelines here. 

 

Secrets Unravelled

My blog this week offers a very different perspective on secrets. My guest, Philipa Rees, offers the view that some secrets are well-kept and may be a source of strength.

Marna 001Phillipa’s Story

Secrets are of many kinds, some buried beneath a significant event, some like fungi that spore underground and mushroom when the light is right to poison the unwary. On the surface my family seemed to have no secrets. That was the doing of ‘Marna’, my galleon grandmother, whose high disdain and certainty of her natural superiority sailed the high seas of our misfortunes, trimming her sails to every wind, and charting our independent course of proud poverty.

It was only after her death that I learned her secret, which explained everything. Triumphing over the secret was, I now see, her raison d’être.  It’s why independence of mind and courage was all she fostered and cared about, why we were all shaped by that ancestral thorn.

Thinking about this guest blog, it occurred to me that secrets are usually thought to be destructive. In her case, by contrast, I see the transformative potential of a closely guarded secret. I suspect without her secret to stiffen her spine, my grandmother, an educated woman with little to do but to direct African maids and entertain tedious Colonial grandees, would have sagged under the weight of boredom.

The secret? Her mother was murdered, stabbed to death as she slept, though she must have struggled before the gruesome end. That explosion of violence was witnessed by a small boy of three, my grandmother’s son, in the corner of a dark room, clinging to the bars of his cot. As the two Zulus who committed the act turned to leave, they caught sight of him, wide-eyed with terror. One said, ‘Now we must kill him too.’

‘I can never kill a child’ said the other. Putting down a bloody knife, he placed the small boy on his back, covering him with a blanket. ‘Sleep gently little master’ he said.

I can already hear you saying ‘Now we are into fiction, how could she know that?’ I know because that child was my uncle and it was his testimony that hanged the two murderers.  He was the youngest witness ever to send men to the gallows. Zulu was his first language, but after the trial he never spoke of it again, and nor did my grandmother.

I learned the facts, twenty years after my grandmother’s death, from a stranger passing through a Wiltshire village pub. An extraordinary synchrony, it seemed we were plucked like migrating birds, perched momentarily together to complete each other’s memories. He was a rural post boy, detained at every doorway to hear the details of torture. Not just the murder, but the torture of my grandmother, beaten as a toddler on the soles of her feet with thorn branches, or tied to a chair with cotton thread for hours.  Both the murder and my unlikely hearing of it convinced me that everything has its deep thread of purpose.

So, it turned out that this murder liberated my grandmother from a deeply sadistic mother. For her, God had intervened. The murderers, farm workers who came to kill their torturer, had come for nothing but a sacrificial service. To save the other farm workers cowed by the mistress of their lives, they had drawn the short straws round a kraal fire, saviours for the rest.

That harrowing liberation had certainly traumatised her small son and bonded a relationship no one else could share. Marna’s first husband, more interested in flying than farming, flew away (literally, in a canvas biplane sewn on her Singer), leaving her free to marry Heli, my grandfather. Heli was an educational missionary who escaped the social prison of Northern working-class Britain. From a dutiful Methodism and a clerical desk, he set sail for Natal, to ride through hills of grass, master Zulu, and take upon himself the untapped field of African education.

Oh, brave new world.

My grandmother was at home in the world he sought to make his own, with nothing but a joyful and supportive liberty to invest. Her small son took Heli’s name; the births of my mother and my aunt soon followed. Photographs reveal that the sails of my grandmother filled, and floated above everything thereafter. She had a unique perspective on both life and death; nothing small ever mattered, not money, not clothes, and least of all the opinions of others. Conformity had no place in anything she did: on a beach, this grand Victorian stripped to a petticoat; at pompous gatherings she dissolved with laughter.

As an only child with a bereft and hard working mother, I saw Marna as the early centre of my existence. I adored her constant irreverence. There was nothing she feared, except that her children would settle for less than confident liberty. Something deep and constant lay at the root of what she gave to us—the permission to be exactly what we were, without apology. I am sure that was her dark secret translated into strength and celebration.

From her I learned almost everything I still value. Her maverick genius for finding the unique and amusing has sharpened all the characters I like to spend time with as a writer. My characters are all solitaries; even when, historically, they were famous and important. I have chosen to seat them with the monosyllabic labourer, just as she would have done.

  

_Phillipa ReesPhilippa’s early life was spent in remote parts of Southern Africa, often on safari. At University, she studied science, theology and literature and graduated in Psychology and Zoology under the seminal palaeontologist Raymond Dart and the father of Embryology B.I Balinsky.

She has recently published the ‘book that wrote the life’. Involution-An Odyssey (Reconciling Science to God) retakes the  journey of Western thought to discover an alternative to Darwin’s evolution. Her other published work is a poetic evocation of the sixties ‘A Shadow in Yucatan’

 Writing apart, she has lectured to University students, built a music centre, and raised four daughters. She lives in barns she converted in Somerset, England.

 Her blog can be found at http://involution-odyssey.com/blogscribe/

She would welcome contact at philipparees7@gmail.com or through Twitter @PhilippaRees1

 Website: http://involution-odyssey.com/

 

If you are interested in participating in this discussion about themes in my novel, A Fitting Place, please check out the guest blog guidelines here.

Dad’s Dilemmas

 

In the ongoing discussion of themes from A Fitting Place, another perspective on keeping secrets comes from Paige Adams Strickland, an author and teacher, who writes about a father and daughter, each struggling to come to terms with a secret.

Paige’s story:

Sisyphean toilWhile I was growing up, my father was loving but always conflicted about everything.  

His work life was love-hate.  He enjoyed sales and marveled in new technologies that would change the world, but was annoyed by the stodgy, old cronies who made the rules and the young university grads who, having dodged Vietnam, still landed executive positions right out of college. 

At home, he hated religious dogma and hypocrisy but worried what would the neighbors think. He conformed to the norms, but grumbled at the phoniness. He enjoyed the arts, and swore that all sports were rigged. He had little faith in doctors and the clergy, but was intrigued by aliens, horoscopes and other unexplained phenomena. 

At first, we thought Dad was just quirky and unpredictable. And then we learned that he had two unresolved “secret” issues. One he gradually accepted and embraced.  The other embraced him. 

When he was 60, Dad finally came out as gay. He lived in an era when it was forbidden in his corporate lifestyle. Once he retired and moved to Florida, 1,000 miles away from most of the rules that had governed his reputation, he slowly stepped away from his closet of conflict and shame. 

He hid it from his family for a while longer in fear that we’d not only lack understanding but also completely reject him. It took years to convince him that the only reason we kids were upset was because he did the one thing he insisted we never do: lie. 

Dad was very much a fan of “be yourself,” but he struggled to follow his own advice.  

That hypocrisy drove me crazy. During this time, I was also “coming out” as a once ashamed adoptee and decided to search for the truth about my birth family and circumstances surrounding my adoption. I could not lie about who I was to my friends or myself any longer, and it was a huge relief when my dad began to open up about his need to follow his instinct and pursue a lifestyle in which he could find peace and pleasure. When he stopped lying and pretending, we found common ground where we could share jokes and more meaningful discussions without barriers and secrets.

His second issue was alcohol. It’s hard to know if it was a result of his angst as a gay man in conservative, upper-middle class society or if the alcoholism would have been present regardless. He’d built his professional success over martini lunches with bigwig clients and company vice-presidents. He was reared in a culture where drinking made him more of a man and enhanced his competitiveness. Alcohol allowed him to win deals and land contracts. 

He didn’t drink for pleasure and fun. He did it to earn a better living, impress people and divert their attention away from his “gay” mannerisms and preferences. Sadly, coming to terms with his new identity and finding a partner who brought him happiness and acceptance did not stop the excessive consumption of hard liquor.

He was still my dad:  The guy who loved making chocolate fudge on autumn Saturday afternoons and riding big roller coasters in June, who took us swimming and shell-hunting at the beach, cussed a blue streak if we made a mess in his car, grilled the world’s best hot dogs on Labor Day and cheered the loudest at band concerts and plays. 

He loved music and art, cried at movies and when the first Space Shuttle launched. He provided well for his family, in a Walter Mitty kind of way because he feared he had a better chance if he could hide his reality behind liquor and the illusion that his lifestyle was straight.

Dad’s been gone since 1996, but it still feels like yesterday. I wish he could have met all his grandkids and been able to ride a few coasters, swim a few swims and grill a few ‘dogs for them. He’d give standing ovations for all of their plays and recitals and dance like a fool at their weddings. 

My dad was a smart man of mixed messages but forward thinking in a time when people weren’t ready.

Conflicts and all though, I wish he were here. 

 

Paige StricklandPaige Adams Strickland lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is married with two daughters. Her first book, Akin to the Truth: A Memoir of Adoption and Identity, is about growing up adopted in the 1960s-80s (Baby-Scoop Era) and searching for her first identity. It is also the story of her adoptive family and in particular her father’s struggles to figure out his place in the world while Paige strives to find hers as a young adult. After hours she enjoys spending time with her family and friends, her pets, reading, writing, teaching Zumba ™ Fitness, gardening and baseball games.

Links for Paige:

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/AkintotheTruth

Linkedin:  http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=106898209&trk=nav_responsive_tab_profile

Twitter:   https://twitter.com/plastrickland23

WordPress:  http://stricklandp.wordpress.com/

 

If you’d like to join the discussion about themes from A Fitting Place, please contact me here.