Celebrating Sisterhood

I had already begun to savor the Tuscan white beans and the Chianti with lunch at our outdoor café. The aroma of espresso would be seeping from the coffee bar next door. We would be facing a centuries-old piazza lined with cypress trees, with olive trees on a hillside in the distance. What better way to celebrate turning 50 than with four college friends in Italy? All 1951 baby girls, we were born into a changing world, a world that had seen women enter the workforce a few years before, holding up the U.S. economy while their men fought to make the world a safe place.

Fifty years later, the world felt anything but safe after the September 11th terrorist attacks that ended many lives, ruined many others, and forced us to postpone our trip - a small, but disappointing thing. We had carved a week out of our lives and had written it in ink on our calendars, so we scrambled to find an alternative way to be together. On the day we should have landed in Florence, we found ourselves instead on Edisto Island off the coast of South Carolina, a half day's drive for all of us converging from different points north and west.

We arrived with heavy hearts and whatever else we thought the weekend called for, and as it often works with good friends, without planning we had everything we needed to lift our spirits after too many days of watching and re-watching the tragic events unfold. One friend brought her special talent for lining up activities so that we knew the history and culture and natural beauty of the island with its alligators, bald eagles and glorious Spanish moss within hours of arrival. One brought her love of cooking and the makings for several meals of comfort food, including plenty of pasta and pesto to pretend we were in Italy after all. Our single friend brought romantic intrigue to share, so our conversations were punctuated with sighs and envy. And one brought a supply of CDs that assured we had cooking music, porch-rocking music, wine and cheese music, solving-the-problems-of-the-world music and massage mood music. Which wouldn't have mattered if one hadn't brought the massage oil.

Yes, after all the dancing and storytelling and consuming of good food and wine, and the requisite talk of baseline colonoscopies, high cholesterol, the Sugar-Busters diet, and calcium deposits around rotator cuffs, what we needed was the healing touch of friends to make our heavy hearts lighten. So we draped a plastic lounge chair with fabric, transforming it into our goddess throne, and we each took a hand or a foot until all had been handled with the care only another woman can communicate. It took each of us a while to relax on our throne. As mothers, we were all geared toward giving, but less able to receive. We went from "Can I possibly deserve this?" to "Ah, let it be" to "Please don't stop!"

There's a New York Times bestseller making the bookclub rounds these days called The Red Tent by Anita Diamont. In it she tells her imagined story of Dinah, only daughter of Jacob, son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham, and brother of Esau. The book gets its title from the place where the women gather during their lunar cycle of menstruation and during childbirth. Here they tell stories as they bleed, and even as the midwife catches each new infant, the boy babies to be exiled from the tent, the girl babies enter the bosom of the female clan. There is a natural sisterhood that comes from having this special private place to experience "female" things and there is a power that comes from the camaraderie of women together. And men are afraid of that power.

CNN and CBS show us that the Taliban has stripped all power from women by keeping them in isolation, but Diamont reminds us that men have been domineering and power-hungry and filled with racial hatred and violence throughout history. She expands the story of Dinah and her lover Shechem and his subsequent murder found in the 34th chapter of Genesis and imagines the impact the violent actions of her brothers, Simeon and Levi, might have had on Dinah, justifying their murderous behavior as defending her honor. In Diamont's story, Dinah loses the love of her life and is exiled from her homeland, all a result of the narrow-minded, misguided, power-lust aggression of her brothers. And in a larger story, Diamont shows us a time when women are sadly beginning to lose their God-given connection to nature, abandoning some of their pagan rituals as they blend with other cultures.

The violence that shook us to our core on September 11 is nothing new, nor will it end when the terrorists are "smoked out" and brought in "dead or alive." And while females in America have unprecedented power in the workplace, thanks to our mothers' war work and our own perseverance, and a great deal of freedom on many other levels, we still live in a patriarchal society that lacks respect for the feminine, exhibited at its worst in rampant wife abuse and sexual abuse of young girls, in rich and poor families alike.
In her book Walking A Sacred Path, the Reverend Dr. Lauren Artress touches on the history of disrespect for the feminine. She tells us that in the late Middle Ages the church became embarrassed by the intense devotion to the Virgin Mary, who represented the feminine aspect of divinity, and worship of her was banned. Artress goes on to say that "women who used herbs for healing and had knowledge of nature's ways, women who were considered pagan because they observed the seasonal changes and the lunar calendar, were suspect. Women who did not fit into a conventional social role - because they were smart, or unmarried, or childless, or owned property - all lived in fear. Many were being turned into the authorities, tried unfairly, tortured, and put to death. Most were burned at the stake.

"Much was lost," says Artress. "The old religions that embraced the connection to the natural world were destroyed. We lost our connection to creation. We banished the intuitive, pattern-perceiving parts of ourselves. The feminine, receptive, holistic way of seeing had been replaced with a blind faith in the truncated rational mind - a mind that understands force and not flow, either/or instead of both/and thinking, competition instead of cooperation, power over instead of power with, short-term thinking instead of planning for the seventh generation."

So we live in a world that has tossed out the divine feminine to a great degree and it is up to us women to reclaim it. But we will not reclaim it by stepping into men's shoes, although we can learn a few things about solidarity and facing a common cause if we observe the male-dominated military establishment.

There was an email going around recently that suggested taking all American women who are within five years of menopause - training us for a few weeks, outfitting us with automatic weapons, grenades, gas masks, moisturizer with SPF15, Prozac, hormones, chocolate, and canned tuna - dropping us (parachuted, preferably) across the landscape of Afghanistan, and letting us do what comes naturally. "Think about it," says the email. "Our anger quotient alone, even when doing standard stuff like grocery shopping and paying bills, is formidable enough to make even armed men in turbans tremble."

And where does this anger come from? It comes from the knowledge, perhaps largely subconscious, that our best selves have been burned at the stake. And while there are more female heroines being portrayed on television, and it is tempting to view that as progress, they are heroines who kick their way to the top with elegantly violent kung fu moves or smart-mouth their way to success with one-liners of sass and a toss of their long silky hair. Show me a lead female in a series who heals with herbs and understands the lunar cycle and I'll call it progress.

In the meantime, we massage each other's feet and hands. We share the healing touch that even our mothers didn't know how to give. (A friend recently told me she has to remind her mother to use her arms when they hug hello and good-bye.) The rigidity of the rational mind stiffens our arms and hands and we forget that it used to be midwives who caught us with their hands when we dropped from the womb and sisters and aunts and friends who celebrated our onset of menses with dancing and singing.

As we remember how to sing and dance with each other, we must do it for how our hearts soar, not for how we look in our leotards. We must not buy into the beauty myths that the commercial cosmetic world foists upon us, and we must protect our young girls from the damaging marketing hype of perfection. We must eat a healthy diet. Even as crucial aspects of the feminine have been refined out of our culture, leaving the masculine and feminine unbalanced, we are being sold and served refined flour and rice, robbed of their natural fiber and nutrition. Enough! We must choose natural, richly-textured whole grain goodness and beauty over superficial, stripped-down, sugar-coated versions of ourselves.

And we must vow to carry a portable red tent in our backpacks, ready to pitch whenever we meet a young girl on her journey to womanhood. We will invite her in and sit with her and tell her stories and rub her feet and hands that ache from growing pains and travels on rocky roads. And we will hold up a mirror that tells her the truth about her beauty. And we will continue to carve out the time it takes to be with our girlfriends. And for our daughters we will model our love for, reliance on, and acceptance of nurturing from our sisters.

I suspect this modeling works, because I recently heard my 17-year-old on the phone tearfully lining up a meeting with her girlfriends after her first boyfriend broke up with her. She announced she was bringing the richest ice cream she could find for their misery-fest. Of course the mother in me winced at the thought of the cholesterol and calories and the inevitable conversations she would be having in 30 years about her health, but the sister in me was saying "Go girl - when you all put down your spoons, give them your hands to rub or just simply hold."