Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Women's Room

It's not easy to see one's friends in pain.

There is always the smug assumption among us old married folks, that those who have made it this far will somehow get to the winning post, egg & spoon bravely shoved out in front of us, other hand behind the back, big smile on face. We don't imagine tripping flat on our faces.

My husband, whose birthday is today, is a wise man. It's not just for the beard I call him the Maharishi, although it does amuse me, stupidly, every time I say the word. He is circumspect, understands the peccadilloes of human existence, truly sees others in shades of well-analyzed grey, not just black and white. I listen to him. I like his humanity. He sends money each year to the Southern Poverty Law Center, dislikes hate of any kind, and somehow, for me, this establishes his place as a moral arbiter. He's all for the underdog, the downtrodden. He taught me at a very young age that there is no place for racism, even in dumb jokes. There was never a distinction, for him, between men and women, in terms of what we can do.

He was brought up by his mother mostly. He was of the generation that rode the wave of divorce that was so popular in Southern California in the 70s, saw his father at the weekends, and never questioned female empowerment. His mother worked and went to college to get her Master's degree in Fine Art. She studied in the bath, her damp papers spread out all over the tiled walls, her blonde hair piled loosely on the top of her head. In college he studied Mary Daly. I'd hardly heard of feminism when I met him.

If you were brought up as I was at a certain time, in a certain place and of a certain class in England, and especially if you lived in the country, you were led to believe, quite gently in fact, that the views of men are just slightly more important than your own. Anne Lamott, who is not English talks about this in her lecture "Word by Word," how her father, who she considered quite well-adjusted, left-leaning, a Democrat, still managed to leave the impression that if you're a girl who is brought up in Los Angeles, the views of a man from San Francisco are more important than your own and if you're an East Coast man your views are even more important than the man from San Francisco.

My uncle, a radical thinker, gave my mother a copy of The Women's Room by Marilyn French in 1977 when it first came out. It was the Norwegian version, called Kvinner, I think, that sat by her bed and she rested her morning tea cups on it. I don't think my father knew what it was. She could have read it but I'm not sure that she did. My father thought the feminist movement was "a lot of rubbish." In our house, it seemed to be about people burning their bras. I could never quite understand it. What my father said went and my mother, for the sake of peace, stuck with the plan.

So, to hear a man that I loved say "You can be anything you want to be" was quite revelatory. It may have been the luckiest moment of my life when I met him on that sunny November morning in 1983.

Other friends didn't fare so well. If you've grown up with oppression, even in the mildest form, you don't really have to be a psychoanalyst to know that you will, subconsciously seek it out. Many of the women of our generation married men who were like their fathers, who treated them like like small girls. Some still do.

As you age, I suppose, your beliefs become more crinkly around the edges, more stretchy, are less rigid and fundamental. The stick is removed from one's backside. There is a softening. And yet what kind of behavior should be forgiven or glossed over and what can be acceptable? How far do you have to go to hurt the person that you love before they put up a boundary? What, in essence, can you live with?

I don't believe in settling. Our marriage, for all its weirdness (oh we yell, we scream, we behave far more like Italians than Northern Europeans), is one that is based on mutual respect. We've had huge hurdles to leap (country/city, believer/non-believer, UK/USA)and fosbury-flopped over the cultural divide but we still find common ground, you know, little bits of golden Jerusalem.

And then friends are mistreated. It's funny how the most giving people are the ones who are most taken advantage of. Funny's the wrong word. It's deeply tragic. My advice is always too strong. The Maharishi is dispassionate, lays it out carefully, isn't so strident, while I am almost immediately righteously indignant. It's a place I like to go. "Move in with us," I want to say. My office is cozy, the duvet is warm, the bed comfortable even though it's from IKEA. "I can make you eggs and bacon and bring you tea in the morning."

My daughter, quite plainly the Einstein of the family, and her friend K have decided that they are going to live together as adults. They may still marry, but want a kind of lesbian commune, without the sexual component, where they can be safe and happy and with their best friends. The men in their lives will be allowed to visit, but their house and garden will be a kibbutz of sorts, a sanctuary of wildflowers and vegetables and animals. And women. The idea appeals to me. It feels a little Bloomsbury. Old-fashioned and sensible. And safe.

An aside: There's a Jodi Piccoult piece in the Telegraph today. I've never read a Jodi Piccoult book, but this made me want to:

But there's a common criticism. Her stories can seem formulaic: moral dilemma, several viewpoints, death, court case, twist.

"I can't stand that accusation," she says. "I defy you to find another writer who has written about as many subjects and taken you on as many journeys as I have. John Grisham doesn't get complaints because his books are about the legal system. Maybe it's because I'm a girl."

Everyone deserves a safe place, a place to be oneself. Ideally the place has room for a dog or two, some flowers (pink peonies are awfully nice), a little table, a notebook and pen. And there should be a place for your mate, too. Somewhere that you can sit together, quietly, and read or write or watch the hummingbirds outside.

Or, in my case, a monster tv showing the Lakers play-offs, broadcast loudly, with maximum audience participation.


LPC said...

"If you've grown up with oppression, even in the mildest form, you don't really have to be a psychoanalyst to know that you will, subconsciously seek it out. Many of the women of our generation married men who were like their fathers." Well, yes. And it's not always overt. Lovely post. I hope your friend finds comfort with you.

Tania Kindersley said...

I adore this post. It has a poetic, almost mesmeric quality to it. I love the sound of your family.

Slightly like your daughter, my best girlfriends and I have agreed that when we are old we shall all go and live on a commune together. Husbands may come, but they shall have a special annexe of their own. We are all rather more excited about this plan than possibly we should be.

Love from rainy Scotland xx

thelma said...

Beautiful writing. I think life is so complex and the things that happen to you along the way so arbitary that sometimes we have no choices. A commune is on the outside an attractive idea but reading all those 'green' magazines as I did years ago there were many pitfalls. Idealising a future is maybe a bad idea ;)

David said...

Lovely post, Bumble. You can be anything you want, you know. Come to think of it, I think you should be a writer. :)

Best to you and yours.


annemarie said...

Hello-- This is my first time to come to your blog (I headed over here after reading your hilarious "round-the-world" comment on LLG's blog).

I found this post very interesting. I have one question about this comment: "He taught me at a very young age that there is no place for racism, even in dumb jokes."

I live in the US, but am from Ireland originally, and have lived in lots of different countries between leaving there and coming here. The US is by far the most racist country I have ever lived in, and I think it is made worse by the fact that operates in such a dangerously subtle way. Language is so policed here that it takes on an insidious, under-the-surface form that makes it all the harder to detect. And of course easier for it to thrive.

I feel that one of the problems with Americans is that they don't understand the difference between RACIST JOKES and JOKES ABOUT RACISM.

The former are hateful, but the latter are very healthy-- they expose the absurdity of racist hate.

Most cultural groups who have been the victims of racism (like the Irish) understand this difference very keenly.

Once, at a party here, I silenced most of a room by making an "off-color" joke (it was a joke ABOUT racism, I assure you). Only two people "got it" and laughed-- an American Jew and a black South African.

This was not an isolated incident-- I've been to other parties, however, that were all-American, and I wanted to be swallowed up by a hole in the floor at such moments.

I'd love to know what your husband (and you) thinks of my theory.

John said...

I think your observation about the difference between jokes about racism and racist jokes is dead on.
As a kid my favorite comic was Richard Pryor. He was the first comic that told jokes about racism. He had an ability to tell jokes that made racism look as plainly stupid as it is. This political correctness we live with now has done some real good, but it has also harmed our ability to talk about and make fun of racism. I think, on the whole, most people just want to avoid the whole thing for fear of being called out.

Howard Stern is a great example. I listen to his show every so often and, after one gets past the lavatorial humor, there is a real honesty there that often makes fun of racism and sexism. I often meet people who say they would never listen to Stern because he is a sexist and a racist. When I ask if they have ever listened to the show, they invariably say no. So clearly they would know. Stern, like all the best comics, makes you think and laugh about ideas that sometimes we just adopt without real consideration.

Miss Whistle said...

Wow. Thank you for all the comments.

Annemarie, I think my husband (John) weighs in on your question about overt versus latent racism.

I think it's all about intention.

Tania, I'm loving the commune idea, rather like that nice place near you, Findhorn. Have you been?

Thelma, you're probably right, but a girl has to dream!

David, you made my day.

Thank you, thank you all.

-- Miss W

Wzzy said...

I'm sorry that your friend is in pain... but very glad that she has you to help assuage it. x

Mrs L. said...

Darling Bumble,
I miss it when you don't right and am reminded of how brilliant you are when you do. Thank you for this. Oh, and two more things: first, I'd like to be on Minks & K's commune; second, I rather feel like making a racist joke all of the sudden...
With so much love,
Mrs. L

Mrs L. said...

Darn! Did I say "right"? I meant "write". Shame on me... xo

shayma said...

may i just say something very simple: wow wow wow. your post touched my heart, i read each and every single word- this is one of those posts which you hope never end; you scroll down slowly bec you dont want to see the last sentence on the page. i loved it. x shayma

annemarie said...

Thank you John-- I love Richard Pryor! I have not listened in to Howard Stern, but have made note of it. I'm gratified that you think my theory is "dead on"!

Miss Whistle said...

Wzzy, Shayma & Mrs L -- a huge thank you.

Much love,

Miss W x

mothership said...

so glad that the Mahirishi has allowed you to be who you are, even if your friend's husband has not allowed her to be who she is. It is a crime for anyone to have - or allow - their true spirit to be suppressed, whatever their gender.
Beautiful post. xo