My daughter loves reading right now. Mostly she’s obsessed with Curious George; but when I get the chance I read her a little book called Over in the Meadow. If you’re familiar with the dulcet sounds of Raffi in your family, the title of this book may sound familiar. It’s actually an old counting rhyme, listing out a series of meadow creatures from one to ten. I sing it rather than read it, which keeps V pretty entertained.
I’d heard Raffi singing “Over in the Meadow” many times, but honestly never listened to the lyrics other than briefly noting it generally had something to do with crickets and muskrats. So when hunting through the library shelves one day, I was intrigued to find an illustrated version. We brought it home, I cleared my throat (trying to remember exactly how the Raffi goes), and jumped in. Unfortunately we were only a few short pages in when the beauty of what I was reading/singing hit me. I started weeping, couldn’t keep singing, and needed a few minutes to collect myself while a surprised daughter looked on.
Simply put, if you’re not familiar with Over in the Meadow (or maybe even if you are), it’s one of the best pictures of the creational norm, of the way life should be, that I’ve found.
Each verse is quite simple. It starts by mentioning that over in the meadow some animal, or bird, or bug lives. Then it goes on to describe a mother of [insert animal, bird, or bug] instructing her offspring to do whatever it is said animal, bird, or bug does. The offspring respond enthusiastically, agreeing to do whatever it is they ought to do, and in conclusion they do it happily.
Take for example the third verse about bluebirds:
“Over in the meadow, in a hole in a tree,
Lived a mother bluebird and her little birdies three.
‘Sing!’ said the mother.
‘We sing,’ said the three.
So they sang and were glad,
In the hole in the tree.”
This simple ditty portrays the full glory of creation. In the creation, God said to each living thing, “Do this.” The world responded and God looked upon it declaring it good. The turtles dug, the fish swam, the muskrats dove, the bees buzzed, the ravens cawed, and so on and so on. And then each living creature turned to its offspring and repeated God’s command, teaching their young to joyfully do exactly as the Lord had given them to do.
All that is, except for humankind, leading a simple little book like Over in the Meadow to remind me of the full tragedy of the fall. When I sing this book to my daughter, I feel a deep and longing ache. If the frogs know to croak and they know to tell their young to croak, and this is what they were made to do from beginning of the dawn and what they will find joy in doing until the end of all, what is the equivalent for me and my daughter? What is the one word summary I could give her to sum up the very meaning of our existence? That thing which she might do in response to my command which would give her the joy and satisfaction this song describes of life in the meadow finding the natural rhythms of their short lives? In the fall, humanity lost not only its memory of the life-defining command given to us by God, we also lost the joy inherent to that command. “Be fruitful. Have dominion.” This is a command we barely remember and when we do, it often feels bitter in our mouths. Unlike the bees who buzz in response to the millennia old command engrained in their genetic code, we are a lost and disjointed version of life, leading every human generation to ask again what our purpose here is.
I want my daughter to grow up, knowing and feeling the pain of this loss. I want her to look at the animal world around her and to long for a simple obedience to God’s creational command. I want her to hear this song and one day ask me, “Mama, what should I do?”
My favorite verse is the last one. The tenth verse is about fireflies:
“Over the meadow, in a soft shady glen,
Lived a mother firefly and her little flies ten.
‘Shine!’ said the mother.
‘We shine,” said the ten.
So they shone like stars,
In the soft shady glen.”
When I sing this verse, it takes my mind to words far more ancient that Over in the Meadow.
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of this crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.”
Obviously, this mouthful is a lot more wordy than can fit into an eleventh verse of Over in the Meadow. Nonetheless, it’s a solid reminder of the directive that still remains for us fallen and lost children. Obey. For it is God who works in you. Do not complain. Rather shine in this world. Hold on to the word of life. Rejoice and be glad. These are things I can tell my daughter if she ever asks what she, like the animals, birds, and bugs, ought to do.
*I’m guessing there are more than one illustrated version of Over in the Meadow, but I personally recommend the version by Ezra Jack Keats. You may know him as the author and illustrator of The Snowy Day (another personal favorite). His illustrations of this old folk song will not disappoint.
I've read a couple of great posts recently and thought I would share. It's always exciting to find people either saying the things you want to say or saying things your mind simply isn't smart enough to think of. So here are some borrowed words on topics we love to discuss at Carved to Adorn.
First, Ruthie found an amazing article over at First Things on Lena Dunham's Girls, Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, and the sacred stories we tell. Alan Jacobs's thoughts are chewy, but every bite is fantastic.
"What we need is not condemnation of Adam, or condemnation of Hannah for liking Adam, but better art and better stories, better fictional worlds, by which I mean fictional worlds that rhyme with what is the case, with what is true yesterday, today, and forever. Not the abolition of mythic sandboxes but the making of sandboxes in which to play with true, or truer, myths: fictive spaces in which Hannah can do better than Adam, and Adam can better than what he is, a bitter prisoner of past angers and resentments."
Read it here.
Second, in order to help keep the conversation about female sexuality going, I recommend Jordan Monge's post yesterday on Her.meneutics titled The Real Problem with Female Masturbation, Call It What It Is: Ladies Who Lust. I'm not sure that I agree with everything in it, but it is an honest discussion and a good place to start. Please add any thoughts you have about it to our comments!
Lastly, since I'm sure we could all use a good laugh after reading the first two articles, I give you this to end on a lighter note. If you're like me and secretly wish you lived in an Anthropologie storefront, you will identify with these 87 thoughts.
I now have one book down in my Boston reading project. The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro was a pretty good start to the year and if everything I read is as enjoyable and quick as it was, I may be able to start calling myself as avid a reader as my husband.
The Art Forger follows a young female artist's decision to forge a fictional member of the stolen Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum paintings. I won't give any more details on the plot because it's pretty intriguing (I couldn't put it down!) and decently written (keeping in mind the gratuitous sex scenes), but for anyone who loves the art world both present and past, this book is pretty terrific. It's light reading and though I was able to predict the closing twist fairly quickly, it was entirely fascinating. The book seamlessly blurs history and fiction, allowing the reader to step into two worlds embellished with imaginary details by the author - the late 19th century world of Isabella's Paris and the early 21st century world of the forger's Garner Museum, Newbury Street, and MoMA.
As I'm hoping to use literature to influence and inspire my view of Boston, The Art Forger was perfect for my reading project. From the moment I first arrived in Boston, I regrettably lacked an awareness, and therefore appreciation, of what everyone else seemed to believe was Boston's "charm." My family members, close friends, new acquaintances, and anyone with any experience of the city constantly talked about how cute, beautiful, and mostly "charming" it was. But for some reason, all I could see was salt weathered buildings and trash on the sidewalks. Nothing about it captured my imagination or my fancy, not even Cambridge! Everything looked old, but not in the good way, and run down, but not in the hipster-picture worthy way. The city may have been historic, but it felt dreary.
What The Art Forger gave me, though, was interesting characters to populate the city. Shapiro's cast is believable and she describes places beautifully and accurately. With almost every page, I found myself thinking, "I've been there. I know what she's talking about!" or "I totally walk past that person every day!" And instead of seeing the boring Boston of my first impressions, through The Art Forager I started to see a story I wanted more of. Listening to her describe the poshness of Newbury Street, the innards of the Gardner museum, and the transitioning streets of South Boston all helped give both a familiarity and mystery to these places I encounter. Though it may seem silly, what especially drew me in was her description of the misery which calls itself the MBTA's Silver Line. I have had so many horrific experiences with that sham of a subway line and to read that those experiences are very much a part of the fabric of the city helped make it not only somewhat more bearable, but almost poetic.
After all, what are cities if not shared experiences? The past and present gets all mixed up and twisted together in the space you share every day with your neighbors. If you can see the beauty of those shared experiences and spaces, or at least the mystery of them, then you are bound to develop a heart for that city. Finally, after a year of waiting for it, my imagination has been sparked and I am seeing in Boston a whole host of things worthy of my attention and appreciation.
Next up: Poems and Other Writings, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
My paraphrase of the back page synopsis: Lots of emotional and legendary old poems by an epic American Romantic. This will be interesting since I've never before been able to get into poetry. Hopefully the Charles River will inspire me as much as it did Henry!
Why I'm excited to read it: While I've had a hard time with poetry, I really do want to understand and love it. Longfellow is one of the best known Cantabrigians, so I think I owe it to the area to give him a shot. Plus, Trey and I found his grave the other day and nothing inspires one to read old dead poets like an old dead poet's grave!
I'm commencing a year long Boston and New England reading project.
NPR inspired me to this reading project a few months ago. One day at the beginning of the summer, a bunch of talking heads were discussing and recommending newly published novels about Cambridge. Most of what they had to say was pretty snooty in that special Boston way, but some of it was really fascinating and quite intriguing. The truth struck me for the first time that I live in a place "important" enough I actually could create a reading list based off of it! I jotted down a few of the recommended titles and added them to my Amazon wish list.
A few weeks later, my inspiration grew when I finally made a long overdue trek to the Louisa May Alcott house. For some reason it never really settled into my brain that this childhood idol was a local, or that many of her stories take place in the area. Additionally, I had never known how close knit the Alcott/Emerson/Thoreau crowd was, but driving down the streets of Concord and watching famous house after famous house pass by, it's pretty obvious the American Transcendentalists were a bit inbred. My reading list doubled in size as I considered the area's rich literary history and added countless historical works to the list.
Last night, I launched into the growing list. I walked into the Harvard Book Store without any certain idea of where I would start or really of what I hoped to accomplish by reading books set in Boston for a year. As I scoured the shelves, I kept seeing other titles about far away places that piqued my interest. But I carried with me a vision and decided to stick to it. I finally found a book I remembered being recommended and decisively purchased it.
With my newly acquired treasure in hand (for the weight and smell of a newly purchased book always feel like a treasure despite whatever hesitations accompany it), I stepped out of the bookstore into Harvard Square. Now, I don't do well with change and after moving to the Boston area, I've struggled with my surroundings for the past year. In particular, I've really struggled with not judging the city and its inhabitants and I would venture to say I've never struggled with a judgmental attitude more strongly than since moving here. As I walked to my bus stop, my tendency to judge once again loomed large. These people are ridiculous, this people are snobs, these people are rude, these people are fake... and so on and so on and so on. Truly, my heart is vile when it comes to sympathizing with my neighbors.
Amidst these subconscious thoughts running amok, I contemplated my new reading project. And as I simultaneously judged the people around me and gloried in the charm of New England's sweet night breezes, I realized that this reading project isn't just an interesting idea, or some fun way to blog about my self-appreciated opinions; no, this project is something I need. I need these books to tell me about this place and I need to let them show me things. The only lens through which I need to read these books is the one that enables me to learn something about my city and its people.
So, in the coming year I hope to share with you what I take away from each book concerning Boston, New England, and its people. And hopefully, at the end of the day, my heart will be softer, gentler, and generally more at peace with this place.
First up: The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro
My paraphrase of the back page synopsis: A young artist makes a deal to forge a famous painting in exchange for a one-woman show at a famous gallery. Intrigue ensues.
Why I'm excited to read it: It centers on the mystery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art heist and talks a lot about the art world, two things that intrigue me deeply. What on earth could make a more exciting novel???
Recently, I’ve developed an interest in mythology as the imaginative representations of cultural beliefs and ideals. Beautiful pictures and stories from across the globe fascinate me, but currently, none more than the myth of the Fenghuang, or Chinese “phoenix”. Due to millennia of Fenghuang mythology, the creature’s symbolism is sometimes conflicted. But here is what I’ve gathered and why I think it matters for contemporary American women…
The Fenghuang is part of ancient Chinese cosmology and was responsible along with three other mythological creatures for the creation of the world. After these creatures had created our world, they divided it into four sectors of north, south, east, and west, each taking dominion over one. The Fenghuang’s domain was the south and as a result, the summer. This mythological creature’s body symbolizes the six celestial bodies with its head as the sky, eyes as the sun, back as the moon, wings as the wind, feet as the earth, and finally, tail as the planets.
The actual physical appearance of the Fenghuang is a composite of many different animals. The creature is made up of the beak of a cock, the face of a swallow, the forehead of a fowl, the neck of a snake, the breast of a goose, the back of tortoise, the hindquarters of a stag, and the tail of a fish. This sounds like quite the odd looking creature to me, but interestingly enough, artistic depictions of the Fenghuang never seem to show the bird’s described physical make-up. Instead it is depicted as a beautiful and graceful composite of many bird varieties, most often with a peacock tail with feathers made of the five fundamental colors black, red, green, white, and yellow (corresponding to the five elements of water, fire, wood, metal, and earth).
In China’s most ancient mythology, the Fenghuang was actually two birds united together. Feng represented the male entity and huang the female. United together to create the Fenghuang, they were a metaphor of the yin and yang, as well as the sacred union of male and female. Used to symbolize peace and harmony, the Fenghuang was said to appear only at the beginning of a new era or at the ascension to the thrown of a benevolent ruler. More recently in China’s long history, though, the Feng and Huang have been merged into one female creature, the Fenghuang, so that the ancient mythological figured could be paired with the male dragon as a symbol for the empress and emperor. In more recent centuries, the dragon and phoenix are often seen paired together as a symbol for marriage and unity.
What draws me to the Fenghuang is a particular ancient description of its symbolism. In the Shan Hai Jing (山海经), a classic of Chinese mythology, each part of the Fenghuang’s body symbolizes a word. The head represents virtue (德), the wings represent duty (義), the back represents propriety (禮), the abdomen represents belief (信), and the chest represents mercy (仁). What a beautiful symbol for femininity!
When I think about contemporary American culture, it’s hard for me to come up with any myths as deep symbols for femininity. We have larger than life caricatures of women as sex toys, power-hungry achievers, or spineless and wimpy prey, but there is a fundamental difference between myth and caricature. Caricature is based on what people perceive to exist. Myth presents what people want to be. The beauty of mythology is that it takes us beyond reality and gives us a chance to create an ideal. What does it say about us women if we do not have any collective symbols beyond our reality to remind us of what we hope to become?
If I could pick a mythological symbol to inspire modern women, I would pick the Fenghuang. The creature flies with beauty and strength, ushering in times of peace and harmony. It is virtuous as it carries out its duty. Representing a life filled with belief (I would add, belief in something bigger than itself), the Fenghuang is marked by mercy and compassion. Lastly, the Fenghuang symbolizes propriety, a lost word in contemporary times. But the word has richer meaning than its surfaces usage. In addition to referring to manners of behavior, propriety means “appropriateness to the purpose or circumstances” and “rightness or justness.” Who could argue that justness and an understanding of one’s circumstances are a beautiful component of feminine ideals?
I wish our society would dream again and intrigue us with its ideals.
In her 2005 book, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, Ariel Levy addresses what anyone with two eyes has noticed – American culture celebrates a raunchy version of female sexuality with gusto and flair. This isn’t new information to anyone. But what Levy does highlight in a new way is the more than willing participation (and even leadership) of American women in creating and developing an environment where prostitutes, strippers, and three-somes are considered the ideals of thrillingly liberated womanhood.
But again, this is nothing new to anyone who turns on the television or picks up a magazine once in a while. Phenomena such as Girls Gone Wild, Paris Hilton, reality tv, and pole dancing have become so integrated with pop culture that one no longer needs to read an entire book (nonetheless a review!) about the trend to notice it. So what is this review about?
What kept me reading Levy’s book and caused me to furiously underline almost every paragraph was her own response as an avowed feminist to the problem. The reader senses Levy’s natural outrage at what she investigates, particularly in her chapter concerning the effects raunch culture (female exhibitionism) has on teenage sexuality, but she cannot bring herself to give moral weight or significance to the cultural trend. Levy’s worldview does not provide her with a strong enough reason to reject what bothers her so intensely. She feels something is wrong, but has only shallow arguments with which to try and persuade a self-indulgent culture that porn stars really are not the ideal images of female liberation.
Levy’s one and only argument against raunch culture is interestingly post-modern. The stereotypical post-modern argument for female liberation starts with the individual creating her own truth and happiness. Because Levy agrees, she carefully repeats throughout her book that raunch culture does not bother her in and of itself. According to Levy, what bothers her, and deeply so, is the way in which she feels all women are pressured into such trends, often by other women. In other words, Levy wants to say some women do naturally desire to be porn stars and flaunt certain kinds of sexuality, but she personally does not want to, so it should not be a cultural standard for women. Levy views sex as a mysterious thing that every person should experiment with in order to discover her personal preferences. Therefore, society should have no culturally prescribed expressions of it. The only criticism Levy makes of raunch culture is that all women are expected to participate in it as a collective standard for female sexual liberation.
Female Chauvinist Pigs displays Levy’s passion concerning female sexual trends, but it is exactly that passion which weakens Levy’s actual argument against raunch culture. Almost every page of her book belies an outrage and disgust at something Levy cannot seem to fully accept even despite her stated qualifications. The book’s central argument at times seems completely lost as Levy first works to document trends and occurrences she finds outrageous and then quickly inserts her relativist objections. She repeatedly shows the unhappiness, dishonesty, and lack of sexual pleasure the women she interviews experience, and yet she is constantly stating that she is sure some woman somewhere actually enjoys such sexual exhibitionism. Additionally, she dedicates a significant portion of her text to arguing that most people, male and female, do not like the current trend. In a book where the philosophical stance is that there should be no overarching standards or sexual ideals, her arguments against the trend because “most” people do not like it does not fit. Levy waffles between her passionate dislike of raunch culture and a highly intellectual and relativistic criticism of it.
But even Levy’s philosophical objections to the current trend do not deal with the real problem: the communal nature of humanity. Her argument is based solely on the individual. What the individual wants and likes, she should get. There is no consideration made for the fact that very few women, let alone people, make decisions based solely on what they want or like without any influence from peers. There is no realm of life where this is more true for a woman than in the realm of sex.
Female sexuality is grounded on being delighted in and admired by the partner. When the number of sexual partners is limitless, though, so are the number sexual competitors. Life does not give women a relational vacuum in which to decide what they want and like in order to then just go out and get it. The things we learn about ourselves and the things that define us exist against the backdrop of every person, male and female, we are connected to and engage with throughout our lives. And as our world gets smaller and smaller, the number of people we interact with increases. For a woman desiring to be sexually admired and valued in a world where there are no expectations for the responsibility of doing so belonging to one person, the push towards exhibitionism is only natural. The larger the pool for competition, the more a woman must do and display to single herself out as desirable.
Oddly enough, Levy adds an afterword in which she argues that the thing to combat the tide of raunch culture is a new generation of idealists. I assume she means to promote the ideal of each woman’s prerogative to define sex for herself. As I just argued, though, it does not work. Levy is right that what we need is a new idealism. But instead, I propose the old fashioned ideal of one woman and one man, for life. Women do want to be admired and delighted in sexually, but if we make sex a limitlessly individualistic endeavor, we also make it a limitlessly competitive endeavor. People do vicious things when in boundary-less competition with one another; on the other hand, rules provide safety and promote consideration within a community. I even venture to say that rules are what create community. The difference between a society of individuals competing endlessly for attention and a community living in harmonious respect for each other is often the rules and agreements by which the community lives. Concerning female expression of sexuality, the only thing that will halt the current trend will be a rise of communities committed to following shared rules for the benefit each individual.
For two and a half years now, I've been discussing Christianity with Chinese friends. In these discussions, my understanding of my own worldview has grown in unexpected ways due to difficult or complicated questions posed to me by my friends. Usually a topic is brought up, they express their reservations about it, and I am forced to admit I don't have a ready answer.
One such confusing topic is Eve's involvement in the fall of mankind. What surprises me when discussing this topic with my Chinese friends is that they think Eve was condemned for curiosity. Growing up in a Christian home, I was always told Eve was condemned for rebellion against God, not human curiosity. Additionally, my Chinese friends quickly jump to the conclusion that Eve receives the entire blame for evil entering the world, another contradiction to what I was taught. It bothers them to see the female sex blamed for the world’s evil and problems. After all, isn’t curiosity a natural part of human existence?
A few weeks ago, I read something that shed light on this topic for me and has caused me to contemplate the Western worldview’s conflicting influences. I climbed into bed and took out Bulfinch's The Age of Fable for light reading before sleep. Remembering a painting depicting the story of Pandora I once saw and loved, I decided to educate myself and actually read the myth. In one short paragraph, my mind was filled with thoughts that kept me awake for some time. The Greek myth of Pandora relates how evil was brought into the world by the accident of a woman. In some ways, it resembles the Biblical account of Eve's participation in bringing evil into the world, and yet there are crucial differences. Within the West’s literary and religious heritage, we find competing descriptions of womanhood.
Bulfinch's recount of the myth reads as such:
"Woman was not yet made. The story (absurd enough!) is that Jupiter made her, and sent her to Prometheus and his brother, to punish them for their presumption in stealing fire from heaven; and man, for accepting his gift. The first woman was named Pandora. She was made in heaven, every god contributing something to perfect her. Venus gave her beauty, Mercury persuasion, Apollo music, etc. Thus equipped, she was conveyed to earth, and presented to Epimetheus, who gladly accepted her, though cautioned by his brother to beware of Jupiter and his gifts. Epimetheus had in his house a jar, in which were kept certain noxious articles for which, in fitting man for his new abode, he had had no occasion. Pandora was seized with an eager curiosity to know what this jar contained; and one day she slipped off the cover and looked in. Forthwith there escaped a multitude of plagues for hapless man, -such as gout, rheumatism, and colic for his body, and envy, spite and revenge for his mind, -and scattered themselves far and wide. Pandora hastened to replace the lid! but, alas! the whole contents of the jar had escaped, one thing only excepted, which lay at the bottom, and that was hope. So we see at this day, whatever evils are abroad, hope never entirely leaves us; and while we have that, no amount of other ills can make us completely wretched."
In Pandora's tale, the creation of woman is a punishment, which is alone cause for concern, but even more interesting is the relationship between woman and evil. Evil is a problem that comes from outside of Pandora, rather than something that lies within, thus making the release of evil into our world an excusable mistake. The justifiable act of curiosity gets the better of woman by accident. Though woman herself is a punishment for an act of treachery, the action that brings evil upon humanity is not condemnable. Evil's entrance to the world is grieved and regretted, but not condemned because the culprit made a mistake rather than a choice. Pandora is a victim who is not held accountable, thus stripping her of a protagonist’s role. In short, woman is a curse without moral accountability for her decisions.
In the Biblical narrative, we see almost the exact opposite. Genesis 2-3 reads:
"And the LORD God said, 'It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.' Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name. So Adam gave names to all cattle, to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper comparable to him. And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place. Then the rib which the LORD God had taken from man He made into a woman, and He brought her to the man.
And Adam said:
'This is now bone of my bones
And flesh of my flesh;
She shall be called Woman,
Because she was taken out of Man.'
Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.
Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, 'Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden?'' And the woman said to the serpent, 'We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’' Then the serpent said to the woman, 'You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.' So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings. And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden."
Here, Eve is a protagonist, someone capable of making important decisions. In the beginning, Eve is in her being and essence a blessing to mankind. Her purpose and existence is to fill a void, the answer to a felt need recognized by God. With her arrival, human relationship begins and she is recognized for her physical, mental, and moral comparability to Adam. Most importantly, she is a responsible being who will be held accountable for her actions. In Genesis, curiosity in not the cause for evil's entrance to the world. Evil enters by willful action, a choice to disregard the truth and forget the promises of God. There is no victimization by others, rather a sad and despicable rebellion.
This distinction is incredibly important to the way we view ourselves as women. One of the most common misunderstandings of Biblical Christianity that I've come across in my relationships with Chinese women is that Eve ate the fruit and fell from grace because she was curious. And how could God punish someone for being curious? For my friends, it’s like asking, how could God punish woman for being human?
We women need to reexamine what our inherited Western worldview tells us about Eve, learning to distinguish between the dignity given to woman in the Biblical account and the assumed Pandoraish version of the story we’ve inherited and is passed on to those outside the West. If we think of Eve as a Pandorian mistake-maker, then God’s condemnation of mankind truly does smack of injustice. But if I look at the Biblical account without the centuries long influence of Greek mythology, I find a much more dignifying, though terrifying, explanation for the state of woman’s sorrow and of the world.
The picture of womanhood given us by Pandora is the globally common and pagan one, and it is this version that has helped create the marginalization of women. A summation of this view goes, "Women don't know what they are doing, they can't be trusted, so to keep them from making harmful mistakes, keep them out of the loop." To say our involvement in the destruction of mankind was a mistake is the first step to giving up our dignity, our rationality, and our voice.
Interestingly, this is the first thing the Biblical account describes Eve doing after her eyes are opened to evil. Eve’s first statements after eating the fruit pass the blame of her actions on to someone else. She removes herself from the protagonist’s position and assumes the role of victim. Man was not the first to victimize woman, keeping her from being an active participant in the world’s decisions. Woman was the first to do so. Our mother Eve victimized herself and the rest of us when she told the first myth that it was someone else’s vault she ate the fruit. Since then, every victimizing myth, every story or fable that has made women helpless and stupid is only a retelling of what Eve herself declared to God when asked who was responsible. Pandora was Eve’s creation.
So how do we respond? By no means am I writing that women should be proud of Eve's actions. But I do believe that if women want to claim "comparableness" to Adam, our first step should be to stop passing the blame were it isn’t justified. Our second step should be to stop blaming the Bible for the victimization of women, for in its texts, even in woman’s worst moment, she is given more dignity than the world’s myths provide. And lastly, through my conversations with Chinese friends, I’ve learned that the third step is to grieve the reality in which we live and to reach out for the overwhelming grace given woman by her Creator.
"But Alexandra," he said wistfully, "I've never been any real help to you, beyond sometimes trying to keep the boys in good humor." Alexandra smiled and shook her head. "Oh it's not that. Nothing like that. It's by understanding me, and the boys, and mother, that you've helped me. I expect that is the only way one... person ever can really help another."
I read the above a couple months ago in Willa Cather's O Pioneers! (trust me, the book is waaaaaay more interesting than it sounds) and it has stuck with me. I don't have any ready proofs (scriptural or secular) for why being understood seems like a basic need of humanity, but isn't it?
It seems to me, too, that this need, or at least the degree to which we feel this need, has dramatically increased in 21st century America. As our society becomes increasingly self-focused and expressive, the felt need to be understood has increased and the hurt and despair when we are not has multiplied.
It seems to me, though, that with so much desire to be understood, we are loosing our ability to understand. So often, it feels like we are all trying to out-shout each other in our attempts to express our thoughts and feelings. Maybe that is what I am trying to do with this blog. But where are the listeners? Where are those who don't desire to always express, but rather to hear others? How can anyone be understood if no one is listening?
It takes sacrifice to listen and understand. It means letting go of being understood yourself for the moment. But isn't that the only way one person can ever truly help another?
"So much information is available, locked up in the minds and hearts of each person in every city. It is there, if you will but ask... When you listen, you validate their experiences and thoughts."
The moment he was through the hole in the roof, all the winds of heaven seemed to lay hold upon him and buffet him hither and thither. His hair blew one way, his nightgown another, his legs threatened to float from under him, and his head to grow dizzy with the swiftness of the invisible assailant. Cowering, he clung with the other hand to the huge hand which held his arm, and fear invaded his heart.
"Oh, North Wind!" he murmured, but the words vanished from his lips as he had seen the soap bubbles that burst too soon vanish from the mouth of his pipe. The wind caught them, and they were nowhere. The couldn't get out at all, but were torn away and strangled. And yet North Wind heard them, and in her answer it seemed to Diamond that just because she was so big and could not help it, and just because her ear and her mouth must seem to him so dreadfully far away, she spoke to him more tenderly and graciously than ever before. Her voice was like the bass of a deep organ without the groan in it; like the most delicate of violin tones without the wail in it; like the most glorious trumpet-ejaculations without the defiance in it; like the sound of falling water without the clatter and clash in it. It was like all of them and neither of them - all of them without their faults, each other them without its peculiarity. After all, it was more like his mother's voice than anything else in the world.
"Diamond, dear," she said, "be a man. What is fearful to you is not the least fearful to me."
"But it can't hurt you," murmured Diamond, "for you're it."
"Then if I'm it and have you in my arms, how can it hurt you?"
"Oh yes! I see," whispered Diamond. "But it looks so dreadful, and it pushes me about so."
"Yes, it does, my dear. That is what it was sent for."
At the same moment, a peal of thunder which shook Diamond's heart against the sides of his bosom hurtled out of the heavens: I cannot say out of the sky, for there was no sky. Diamond had not seen the lightening, for he had been intent on finding the face of North Wind. Every moment the folds of her garment would sweep across his eyes and blind him, but between, he could just persuade himself that he saw great glories of women's eyes looking down through rifts in the mountainous clouds over his head.
He trembled so at the thunder that his knees failed him, and he sank down at North Wind's feet and clasped her round the column of her ankle. She instantly stooped and lifted him from the roof - up - up into her bosom and held him there, saying, as if to an inconsolable child: "Diamond, dear, this will never do."
"Oh yes, it will," answered Diamond. "I am all right now - quite comfortable, I assure you, dear North Wind. If you will only let me stay here, I shall be all right, indeed."
"But you will feel the wind here, Diamond."
"I don't mind that a bit, so long as I feel your arms through it," answered Diamond, nestling closer to her grand bosom.
"Brave boy!" returned North Wind, pressing him closer.
"No," said Diamond. "I don't see that. It's not courage at all, so long as I feel you there."
"But hadn't you better get into my hair? Then you would not feel the wind; you will here."
"Ah, but dear North Wind, you don't know how nice it is to feel your arms about me. It is a thousand times better to have them and the wind together than to have only your hair and the back of your neck and no wind at all."
"But it is surely more comfortable there?"
"Well, perhaps; but I begin to think there are better things than being comfortable."
"Yes, indeed, there are. Well, I will keep you in front of me. You will feel the wind, but not too much. I shall only want one arm to take care of you; the other will be quite enough to sink the ship."
"Oh, dear North Wind! How can you talk so?"
"My dear boy, I never talk; I always mean what I say."
"Then you do mean to sink the ship with the other hand?"
"It's not like you."
"How do you know that?"
"Quite easily. Here you are taking care of a poor little boy with one arm, and there you are sinking a ship with the other. It can't be like you."
"Ah! But which is me? I can't be two me's, you know."
"No. Nobody can be two me's."
"Well, which me is me?"
"Now I must think. There looks to be two."
"Yes. That's the very point. You can't be knowing the think you don't know, can you?"
"Which me do you know?"
"The kindest, goodest, best me in the world," answered Diamond, clinging to North Wind.
"Why am I good to you?"
"I don't know."
"Have you ever done anything for me?"
"Then I must be good to you because I choose to be good to you."
"Why should I choose?"
"Because - because - because you like."
"Why should I like to be good to you?"
"I don't know, except it be because it's good to be good to me."
"That's just it; I am good to you because I like to be good."
"Then why shouldn't you be good to other people as well as to me?"
"That's just what I don't know. Why shouldn't I?"
"Because I am. There it is again," said Diamond. "I don't see that you are. It looks quite the other thing."
"Well, but listen to me, Diamond. You know the one me, and that is good."
"Do you know the other me as well?"
"No. I can't. I shouldn't like to."
"There it is. You don't know the other me. You are sure of one of them?"
"And you are sure there can't be two me's?"
"Then the me you don't know must be the same as the me you do know - else there would be two me's?"
"Then the other me you don't know must be as kind as the me you do know?"
"Besides, I tell you that it is so, only it doesn't look like it. That I confess freely. Have you anything more to object to?"
"No, no, dear North Wind; I am quite satisfied."
"Then I will tell you something you might object. You might say that the me you know if like the other me and that I am cruel all through."
"I know that can't be because you are so kind."
"But that kindness might be only a pretense for the sake being more cruel afterwards."
Diamond clung to her tighter than ever, crying: "No, no, dear North Wind; I can't believe that. I don't believe it. I won't believe it. That would kill me. I love you, and you must love me, else how did I come to love you? How could you know how to put on such a beautiful face if you did not love me and the rest? No. You may sink as many ships as you like, and I won't say another word. I can't say I shall like to see it, you know."
"That's quite another thing," said North Wind; and as she spoke, she gave one spring from the roof of the hayloft and rushed up into the clouds with Diamond on her left arm close to her heart. And as if the clouds knew she had come, they burst into a fresh jubilation of thunderous light. For a few moments, Diamond seemed to be borne up through the depths of an ocean of dazzling flame; the next, the winds were writhing around him like a storm of serpents. For they were in the midst of the clouds and mists, and they, of course took the shapes of the wind, eddying and wreathing and whirling and shooting and dashing about like grey and black water, so that it was as if the wind itself had taken shape, and he saw the grey and black wind tossing and raving most madly all about him. Now it blinded him by smiting him upon the eyes; now it deafened him by bellowing in his ears; for even when the thunder came, he knew now that it was the billows of the great ocean of the air dashing against each other in their haste to fill the hollow scooped out by the lightening; now it took his breath quite away by sucking it from his body with the speed of its rush. But he did not mind it. He only grasped first and then laughed, for the arm of North Wind was about him, and he was leaning against her bosom. It is quite impossible for me to describe what he saw. Did you ever watch a great wave shoot into a winding passage amongst rocks? If you ever did, you would see that the water rushed every way at once, some of it even turning back and opposing the rest; greater confusion you might see nowhere except in a crowd of frightened people. Well, the wind was like that, except that it went much faster, and therefore was much wilder, and twisted and shot and curled and dodged ad clashed and raved ten times more madly than anything else creation except human passions. Diamond saw the threads of the lady's hair streaking it all. In parts, indeed, he could not tell which was hair and which was black storm and vapor. It seemed sometimes that the great billows of mist-muddy wind were woven out of the crossing lines of North Wind's infinite hair, sweeping in endless intertwistings. And Diamond felt as the wind seized his hair, which his mother kept rather long, as if he, too, was a part of the storm, and some of its life went out from him. But so sheltered was he by North Wind's arm and bosom that only at times, in the fiercer onslaught of some curl-billowed eddy, did he recognize for a moment how wild was the storm in which he was carried, nestling in its very core and formative center.
It seemed to Diamond likewise that they were motionless in the center and that all the confusion and fighting went on around them. Flash after flash illuminated the fierce chaos, revealing in varied yellow and blue and grey and dusky red the vaporous contention; peal after peal of thunder tore the infinite waste; but it seemed to Diamond that North Wind and he were motionless, all but the hair. It was not so. They were sweeping with the speed of the wind itself toward the sea.
I don't believe in God's goodness towards me. It is something I want to believe in and an area of faith where I am progressively growing, but it remains true that at the core of my heart, I doubt God's goodness. It is easy for me to believe all of his other attributes and I consent rationally to his goodness, but the degree of stress, anxiety, worry, etc. that I keep around in my life shows that regardless of logical agreement and correct theology, there is a doubting disconnect between my mind and my heart.
Two weeks ago, God used some frustrating circumstances to give this disconnect a lesson. I was with friends in Siem Reap, enjoying the first delicious days of vacation and very ready to move on to the beach so I could completely unwind and let go of an exhausting semester's lingering stress. In a twist of events, though, my passport was stolen and I lost any chance to rest as I battled embassies, immigration control, crowded international buses, and sickness just to be able to return to start a new semester. The stress was almost unbearable, primarily because its roots lay in my anger that God wasn't giving me what I needed. I needed rest and he wasn't being good enough to give it to me.
As I sat on a bus from Cambodia to Bangkok, I read something in George MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind that has started to dissolve the head/heart disconnect. MacDonald tells the story of Diamond, a little boy who meets the North Wind and progresses through a series of adventures with her. North Wind is at times an allegory for God and in one particular chapter, MacDonald uses North Wind to give one of the best illustrationa of God's infinitely wild love and goodness towards us, even though it is often almost impossible for us to comprehend this kind of love.
Two keys aspects of the story stand out to me. First, being as close to North Wind as Diamond is brings pain with it. Diamond could choose to stay on the safe side of North Wind, benefiting from her and having relationship with her, but keeping a safe distance. Instead he desires to be close to the very heart of North Wind, regardless of the pain it includes. Being at the center of God's loving heart is simultaneously the best and most painful place to be. Diamond makes the statement, "I begin to think there are better things than being comfortable." Knowing God's love is a tremendously powerful thing, but there is nothing comfortable about it.
Second, it is only possible for us to doubt God's goodness when we think we have done anything for him; when we realize we have never done anything for God, that only he has done on our behalf, we can start to make sense of God's wild goodness. As North Wind holds Diamond in her arms, she sets out to sink a ship. Horrified by this, Diamond questions her goodness. He knows there can't be two North Winds, one good and one bad, so he is faced with deciding if North Wind is completely good or completely bad. Diamond admits he has never done anything for North Wind and therefore their relationship is based entirely on North Wind's goodness to him. Because of this acknowledgment everything about his relationship is based on North Winds desire to do good, Diamond has faith that sinking the ship is within North Wind's good character and they continue on their journey.
It's a difficult argument for me because at times I think I see God's goodness and at times I seem to see God's badness, for a lack of a better word. What is to keep me from deciding that God is entirely bad all the way through? When the ship is sinking in my life, why shouldn't I decide God is bad? And it can only be harder for others. It is one thing for me to flip flop back and forth on this issue because sometimes inconvenient things like stolen passports happen in my life. But what about the really bad stuff in this world? What about sex trafficking? What about people I love going to hell? What about starvation? What about earthquakes that kill thousands of people? Based on the collective experience of humanity, what is to prevent us from concluding that God is bad all the way through? Grace.
George MacDonald got it right when he highlighted grace as the evidence in our lives that God is good. If I think I have contributed anything in my relationship with God, or on the large scale, that people have contributed anything, then yes, there is enough in this world to think God is bad. But if I believe that I have not been able to give God anything, that even my best is worthless, that God is in my life simply because of his own desire to be in my life, then that is enough goodness for him to be thoroughly good. MacDonald's point is that if I accept God's grace in my life, then I also accept his goodness, even when I don't understand the sinking ships.
I'm still trying to wrap my head around all of this. No, I am trying to wrap my heart around it. I want it to transform the way I see my life and my God, so that stress and anxiety don't define me. If I lived like God was good to me, fear would have nothing to control. I want belief in God's goodness to sink down into me, deeply and completely. And it will. Just as the North Wind's billowy and blustery presence changes Diamond and leaves her mark in his life, so will God's powerful and loving presence leave its mark in my life.