My lifelong fascination with the divine feminine began as a child while attending a Catholic church service with my mom. I was utterly mesmerized by the beautiful images of Mary throughout the church. I asked Ma why we only saw images of Mary at our (Lutheran) church on Easter and Christmas. She looked down at me and said (with a wink), "because she was only the Mother."
Today is the Feast Day for our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of the Americas, who is said to have appeared to Juan Diego as an apparition on the same ground where the Aztecs worshipped the great goddess, Mother of Earth, Tonantzin. If we peel back the religious narrative, these goddesses (and many others across cultures and history) embody the divine feminine as the healers and warriors who birth ideas, radiate guiding wisdom, and bring hope to those in despair.
I adore this brilliant depiction of Our Lady by my dearest friend, Rosa Vela Sachs.
I recently hired Henry, a wonderful guy from my neighborhood, to help me with some pruning, and he asked if I would like him to hang holiday lights on the house. I felt emotional when he asked the question, which told me it was something I should do as a gift to my childhood self. I knew it was the right decision as I approached my house this afternoon on my way home from school and felt my eyes well up with tears again. I realize this is the first time I've had holiday lights on my own house as an adult, a little thing that has me remembering my dad's yearly Christmas light hanging ritual with such fondness and wondering why it took this long to realize it matters to me. Next up: I think I might just dig out Ma's old cookie press and take a crack at making her holiday Spritz. Missing my people something fierce, but in the best kind of way.
Last year, out of the blue, my beloved teacher and high school choir director, Glenn Patton, called to talk with me after I mentioned (on social media) his significance in my life. He was 94, and looking back with gratitude on a life well lived.
We talked for almost an hour that day, me sitting at my desk on campus and he in his retirement home, educator to educator. He wondered, what was it like working with kids during the pandemic? Probably, he did not know the impact of that conversation on me. Probably, he was just carrying out his life's work as he had always done. Probably, he was just being the teacher he had always been.
Then, last week I dreamt about choir and awakened with memories swirling of our tour in Canada. I have a sweet little carved bird made of soapstone -- which sat on the mantle in my folk's house for decades and now sits on mine -- a gift from my host family on that trip. So I sent an email, asking to connect for another conversation about teaching and music and life.
I hadn't received a reply, which I thought curious, and today I read that my beloved teacher had died. He was the one who inspired me to become a teacher and modeled how to do it. It feels like a big loss to me and the whole world. A Mr Holland sort of loss. A Mr Patton sort of loss.
The formative experiences of connection and community which the great teacher, Glenn Patton, so generously bestowed upon his students, have informed my teaching, my relationships and my life. I wish I had told him that when he was still in a body. I had intended to, though, I suspect he knew.
As he taught us to sing the Irish Blessing: May the road rise up to meet you, Mr. Patton, and May the wind be always at your back. May God hold you ever in the palm of his hand. And give you peace.
He started to follow me into the dressing room but, in a rare act of self-protection, I asked him to wait at the door. "Fine," he said with obvious annoyance, then shifted his attention once again to the phone in his hand. "I need to see them all before you choose one!" he called out as I disappeared into the dressing room, a saleswoman trailing behind me. He reached out and grabbed her elbow as she passed him, whispering flirtatiously, "Please help her find something suitable for a musical gala," careful to mention his position as conductor.
As the attendant zipped me into the first dress he had chosen for me, a black sheath with a high neck and fitted sleeves, a tear slid down my cheek. "Is it uncomfortable?" she asked. I nodded my head but, nonetheless, walked out to where my man sat glued to his phone. He glanced up and remarked offhandedly, "It doesn't do anything good for your waistline.” The next dress he deemed "too low-cut for your weight” and, the next, “not particularly flattering" for my (then size 8) bum.
After my fifth walk down the runway to hell, The Conductor selected a basic black dress with a $350 price tag and told me he would bring the car around while I paid for it. I returned to the dressing room and collapsed in a pool of tears. The kind saleswoman plopped down beside me and lifted my chin with a gentle hand. She looked into my eyes and said, "You're far too good for him, you know. What are you doing here?"
That should've been the end of it right then and there, but it was another six months before I was able to scoop up enough of what remained of my self-esteem to walk away from him and his incessant emotional abuse.
In the six years since then, I packed on 50 pounds of extra protection to make sure I would never attract another narcissist like him. Unfortunately, the weight gain also brought me face to face with something even more dangerous: the full force of a culture that holds its women to impossible standards of beauty that leave us feeling chronically insufficient.
My experience of becoming thin to please a partner -- looking at myself in that dressing room mirror at Nordstrom, inconsolable, critical of the healthy body that had birthed a baby and run 10 k races and carried me through endless loss and grief -- is not mine alone. I was having a universal experience of feminine trauma, at the hands of a man who couldn't handle the strength of my spirit and therefore set about the work of breaking me down. At the hands of a whole culture devoted to tearing us down and then selling us potions and pills and gadgets to build us back up.
In our culture, women volunteer to have their bodies sliced up in order to meet some fictitious image of beauty. We surgically redesign our breasts, reshape our noses, chins, and thighs—to meet a set of aesthetic criteria developed by media companies run by men. Criteria that have nothing to do with real beauty, and everything to do with keeping us down. Making us small. Minimizing who we are. Robbing us of our power.
For so many women, the pressure persists to lose the rounded belly, to shrink the thighs, to smooth the wrinkles and the double chin and minimize the evidence of a body that has done good work, birthing work, strength work, carrying the emotional weight of a misguided humanity work.
If we are lucky enough to awaken to ourselves even if just for a moment, in a dressing room or any room, the media continues to remind us about all the ways we are imperfect. So, it’s easy to buy into this or that fad diet or new age affirmational bullshittery. Sometimes women laugh together about all the crazy things we’ve done to alter our sacred selves, to fit in better, to belong. Sometimes we even try the latest get-thin-quick scheme, because we don't understand how this abandonment will inevitably harm us, how our spirits will sink under the weight of it, how we will eventually come to mourn the bodies we had once scorned.
Thankfully, my experience became a catalyst for my healing, a process that I suspect will continue for the rest of my life. It's not easy to dismantle the patriarchal systems designed to keep women in our place.
This year, at age 58, after decades of dieting and therapy and agonizing moments with myself in the mirror, I accepted an invitation to participate in the 50 over 50 photo project. I rescheduled the first appointment because I couldn’t bear the agony of putting my body in front of a camera, but something profound happened when I finally made it to the studio. The photographer, Rachel, who reminded me a bit of that sweet Nordstrom's dressing room attendant, gently convinced me that my curvy body would look stunning wrapped in chiffon. So I allowed her to take the photograph that proved it was true.
What an honor to be invited to write a testimonial for one of my favorite magazines, YES! The publication is filled with fact-based journalism and truthful storytelling at its best. On newsstands May 24th.
Yesterday, I watched with delight as mama junco flew in and out of her nest all afternoon, attending to her tiny hungry babies who are beginning to find their voices. I scattered some sunflower seeds nearby, but not too close. All seemed well with the sweet family until just after dark when a loud thud sent me running to the front door, whereI discovered a neighborhood cat posted below the basket. The thud was undoubtedly the sound made by the cat lunging at the basket. I shooed the cat away, but there was no sign nor sound of mama junco. In the nest, tiny hungry beaks reach upward, waiting for mama to come. I had a difficult time sleeping.
Today, my heart sunk when I opened the screen door but didn't hear the sweet morning song of mama junco. I peeked into the basket and discovered all four babies dead in the nest.
In the wild, even without domestic cats in the mix, hatchlings have a relatively low survival rate. That fact, while not particularly comforting, helped to contextualize the task of burying the baby juncos this afternoon. I buried them in honor of their wee but important lives, and because I needed a ritual to honor my unlikely friendship with their mama. I dug a small hole and laid them beneath the tall Doug Fir closest to their nest, where many other beloved wild and domestic creatures also rest. I decorated the grave with the best bloom from the camellia bush, and feathers I found nearby; perhaps, their mama's.
I said a prayer of gratitude for the babies having died together, in their cozy nest, rather than in the jaws of the cat. And another for that sweet mama junco, who made her home at the entrance to my home; whose beautiful song came in through the screen door; and who taught me a much-needed lesson in acceptance. God bless the wild teachers.
As I moved along the walkway toward my front door I heard mama junco's soft, syncopated trill. I called back to her with the amateurish clicks I've been making to imitate her song. I wonder what she makes of my silly sounds?
I saw her hopping along on the ground, very close to where I stood. She then flew up into the camellia bush, and onto the edge of the basket where her nest resides. As she perched there for several seconds, it appeared to me, our eyes met. She turned and peaked into the basket, then flew back into to the camellia bush.
Whether real or imagined, I interpreted this as an invitation so I quickly peeked into the basket. Mama watched from the bush. The wiggly little mass doesn't yet resemble birds, as eyes are still closed, but tiny beaks and some light feathery fuzz is visible. What a gift, to witness the magic of new life taking form just outside my front door. And a strong metaphor, too. Thank God for the wild things who teach us so much.
We have Dark-eyed Junco babies! Eggs were still intact yesterday afternoon, so the chicks must have emerged sometime today. Mama was peeking out of the nest when I approached, and watched from the Camellia bush as I peeked inside.