Many of the events that have shaped my life and my thinking are born of mystery and serendipity. In November 2020, my fourteen year old son asked what my favourite author was. Reading is a big deal for me so, he figured out, I would guess later, that a book would be a nice gift for Christmas. I was reading The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd and so I told him that Brene Brown is my favourite author but that I have read everything she ever wrote and that Sue Monk Kidd ranks a close second. The book I was gifted on Christmas was The Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd. Little did I know that the gift the Universe offered me, through my son, of all people, was so much more than a book.
Reading it, breathlessly many times, I felt this book took me back through a tunnel of time, to moments of gut wrenching angst, deep questioning or immense joy, to crossroads where a force larger than what I can explain pushed me in the direction or progress and good and left me feeling, in my bones, the two words that have now become such a feminist statement: #metoo.
A woman in Deep Sleep is one who goes about in an unconscious state. She seems unaware or unfazed by the truth of her own female life, the truth about women in general, the way women and the feminine have been wounded, devalued, and limited within culture, churches, and families. She cannot see the wound or feel the pain. She has never acknowledged, much less confronted, sexism within the church, biblical interpretations, or Christian doctrine. (pg. 25)
I started womanhood in Deep Sleep. Eyes shut, lights off, bearing pain when I started my sexual life under the pressure of not being abandoned or ridiculed by peers, understanding from friends that this is how it is, this is how men are, men are men … etc. Covered head down is how I entered church for the first time, I whispered, looked around like a deer in the headlights always afraid I will break rules I never questioned. Never wondered … Never, ever wondered …And yet … there must have been a voice in me that spoke softly, even though I consciously did not hear it …
The feminine wound is created as we internalize all these experiences – the voices we hear at church, school, home, work, and within the culture at large suggesting (in ways both bold and subtle) that women and the feminine experience are “less than”. If you receive often enough the message that women are inferior and secondary, you will soon believe you are inferior and secondary. As a matter of fact, many experts tell us that ‘all women in our society arrive at adulthood with significant feelings of inadequacy.’ ” (pg. 40-41)
I had understood early the rules of Orthodox Church and was going to confession often. Far be it from this act that it would uplift or encourage me to keep striving to be “a good Christian”. Confession matched my internal voices of blame perfectly and it was usually an ordeal of anxiety and panic. The punishment I got seemed fit, maybe even too little. The moment the shocked me into … something … not waking up, but something … was my very last confession: “Father, I am married to a man I don’t love. I am desperate, what can I do?” to which this priest that was only about ten years older than me and divorced said “Well Cata, you are a woman, you need to stick it out. It is a woman’s duty to save her husband by her sacrifice.”
To name is to define and shape reality. For eons women have accepted male naming as a given, especially in the spiritual realm. The fact is, for a long time now men have been naming the world. God, sacred reality, and even women from their own masculine perspective and then calling it universal experience. As feminist culture critic Elizabeth Dodson Gray points out, this naming tended to benefit men’s needs and concerns and in lot of cases to oppress women. Was it such a wild thought that women might start naming God, sacred reality, and their own lives themselves?
I wondered how the world might have been different if women had been equally involved in the act of naming. How might sacred experience be different? How might we as women be different? Would there be a feminine wound for us to name and heal?
Naming allows a woman to embrace her own experience, to utter her female truth, perhaps for the first time. (pg. 49)
Until I read this paragraph (and I am in my forties) I could not place the lack of belonging I felt and continue to feel each time I enter a church or a religious community. Now I understand it and I liken it to what I have been reading this year about racism. Reflecting on this I fully understood the wound of children who never get to see teachers, caretakers, law makers or famous people to look up to in their own color. How could I have ever belonged in a place when everyone, everyone that mattered, was a man? Even Mary was praised only through her role as the mother of Jesus Christ.
How could I belong in a place where I was judged, and quite harshly, disciplined and guided by men, by men who had no idea what it meant to menstruate, bear babies, experiment post-partum depression or lie next to someone and feeling the most acute loneliness possible while being told you are meant to sacrifice yourself by staying there??
Women with their incessant menstruation, conception, pregnancy, childbirth and lactation have been too visceral for patriarchal religion. In the Bible, women involved in these womanly conditions were considered unclean and were separated from men. They had to go through purifications before being allowed near men or things religious. And since birth and menses were considered dirty, women were in constant need of being spiritualised and sanitised. (pg. 81)
I went through seven years of fertility treatments to have my son. Seven hard, heart breaking, hope killing years, worth every single moment and my unhappy marriage to have my son, one of the brightest lights of my life. But the body always, always keeps score. After years of hormonal treatments, “the baby blues” hit me like a wave of terror. I called the priest in hope of encouragement, care and support. What I got instead was a reminder that I was unclean, that what was happening to me was due to the demons that now had been green-lighted due to my filth. He called me over to the church, did not allow me to get out of the car, only to crack the window slightly and stuck a cross through it. The prayers he read for the next fifteen minutes were meant to heal me. It must have been the exorcism like language that terrified me and threw me even deeper in the claws of postpartum depression.
My son was almost two when I got pregnant again. Out of the blue. I was so excited. I was excited for almost 12 weeks. At that time, my second baby’s heart stopped. On top of the pain of losing a baby, I was thrown back into the ordeal of two years before when, looking for solace in church I was thrown out almost literally. Turns out I was not to touch absolutely anything in church before a similar exorcism like prayer ritual was performed. At the door, outside, on my knees, covered head down.
One of the more uncomfortable discoveries I made about myself during this time was a need to prove myself to the father world – my own father, the cultural father, the church father. The powerful male presence. I began to recognise how important it was to me that he be aware of my accomplishments. The need surfaced from a deep place in my feminine wound. […] Favoured Daughters are women who, carrying the wound of feminine inferiority, try to make up for it by seeking the blessing of the cultural father. Through accomplishments and perfectionism we hope to atone for the original sin of being born female. We are hoping that Father God will finally see our worth. […] Herein lies the torment of it: Favoured Daughters strive for their worth, piling up external validations, but inside they are most often plagued by self-doubt, wondering if their work or their efforts are good enough.” (pg. 58, 59)
Story of my life. From stepping into a marriage I did not want because my father would not allow me to move in with my boyfriend – who did not really want to get married, to carrying out discussions and entertaining ideas and company I had absolutely no desire to in order to seem important and cool to my brothers, all the way to donating loads of money and time to churches so that I got into and remained in the good graces of the priests in the various parishes I attended, it seemed my life was a chain of events where I was trying find my worth in the eyes of the male figures in my life.
Through a seemingly not related chain of events, it dawned on me yesterday (I know, I am in my forties … ) that I had followed the same pattern in my professional life: all my bosses have been male (and, talking about conditioning, I have no idea how much I would have trusted a female boss… ); from the one I was trying to please so he would stop yelling at me and telling me how stupid I was, to the one that I was trying to impress so that my efforts would be recognised and valued and all the way to saying I don’t matter, you do, I looked for validation outside of myself, in the eyes of the males that dictated my next steps.
This is a stupendous moment for a woman – when she decides to live from her own inner guidance. It is, however, excruciatingly hard for a patriarchal daughter to accomplish. […]
What is held over her head is condemnation, even damnation. We’ve been led to believe that leaving the circle of orthodoxy means leaving the realm of truth. Typically the church has considerable stake in our staying in the orthodox circle. It knows if we claim ultimate authority as something in ourselves, as some inchoate voice in our own souls, it has lost all power over us. We have rendered ourselves independent, outside its control. We have stepped out onto our own path. For some reason this scares people senseless. […]
Women grow afraid at this moment because it means giving up a world where everything is neat and safe. In that world we feel secure, taken care of; we know where we are going. Then we wake up and find the old way doesn’t work, that it no longer fits our identity, that by clinging to it, we’re cutting ourselves off from something profound. But we cling anyway because it’s all we’ve got. We call our desire for security loyalty. We yearn for something we’ve lost as women, but it’s so unknown, so unbearably unknown. And then one day it all comes down to this: can we trust ourselves, our inmost selves, our feminine wisdom? (pg. 93)
I had been looking for something all of my life. I had no idea what for exactly but something that would bring peace to a part of me that was in such turmoil it was making my mind and my body mentally and physically sick. Before my 20s I thought it was a boy and so I fell in-love and pursued him. To my dismay, while fun and distracting from the turmoil for a while, it was not it. School, studies, a scholarship abroad, getting into college, getting a job, supporting my family through hell and high water … no, none of these was it. Having a child – I was getting there. But instead of peace I was hurting more, and more and more. It was like when you combine something salty with something sweet. The love I felt for my son and the unconditional surrender and love he offered me were a taste of a love I was so thirsty for but it seemed almost like getting this was pushing me closer to my wound. The episodes of my basking in motherhood and moments of bliss with my son were paralleled by a sinking into valleys of depression that erased everything I knew, everything I felt, put my life on autopilot and turned everything into one color – grey. It got to the point where the rollercoaster was unbearable. I remember my last visit to the priest … me telling him about the above and for the first time, knowing that I was a good student and I had tried what he told me so far, truth slipped out of his mouth “I don’t know what we could do … I don’t know what is happening to you.” I remember myself stepping out of the church that evening and not being able to quiet the voices inside that were wild and relentless: you are broken!!!
When she said she loved me, we had been best friends for ten years. I knew that none of us had planned or expected this day would ever come. I let the words sink in for a few seconds and I expected two things: the lightening bolt to strike from on high and my inner barometer to go haywire. None of these happened. To my surprise, to my infinite surprise, I started to smile and I replied from the peace and joy I had finally touched – I love you too!
This marvellous (and often marvellous) dismantling actually goes on two levels – inner and outer. On the outer level it means confronting patriarchal patterns externally within marriage, religion, culture and career. On the inner level it means confronting the voices of patriarchy you’ve internalised. Those voices are your own personal Minotaur. […] the voices from patriarchy, which attack our inherent worth, become internalised as the self hater. It is the old king […] with five faces: the Conqueror, who treats the self and those around us as enemies to be feared and destroyed; the Ordered, who inflicts a rigid control; the Master of Servants, who demands that we deny our own needs and desires to serve others’ ends; the Censor, who keeps us silent; and the Judge, who offers to restore value to us in exchange for obedience.
Just let a woman start through the spirals of the labyrinth with a design on ridding herself of the Minotaur, and the self-hating voices will become a cacophony. Threatened, they rise up even stronger, in the hope of holding on. They may appear with more frequency or intensity in her dreams and their voices may harangues her in her conscious thoughts. (pg. 135, 137)
Upon the uttering of these words, my Minotaur woke up from its slumber and started to kick left and right, wanting to kill that faint knowing of joy and peace whispering: you found it! This is it! This is your way to the truth! Grab it and hold on tight.
My arms go numb today, almost ten years later when I remember that first year of my trying to part with my former life. From my then husband reading all of my emails and texts, printing them for my parents to see, from him aiding the Minotaur every single night with words and threats that make my mouth dry with fear even today, from the new relationship I was trying to form hanging by a spiderweb’s thread so many, many times … all of the voices I had internalised were now raising hell inside and outside of me, in a desperate plea to hold on to who I was, who I had to be because this is how it is done, because what will people say, because you will go to hell.
I was standing in the small bathroom of my office. It had been the only space where I could just hide to cry, to just be, to meditate even. I remember I looked in the mirror and told myself: so, what if you go to hell? In that instant, I sent myself back into the life I had lived until that moment and forward into what I felt I could live if I said yes to love and took a chance on this woman, regardless. And I waited again for the lightening and voices but looked deeper … and here it was again, the knowing: better in hell with her than without her through a by the book life. That is when I knew I had found my Ariadne’s thread that was going to lead me out of the labyrinth, away from the Minotaur, (Sue so beautifully likens our awakening with this beautiful myth). Almost ten years later, I have one recurring dream: that I have dreamt all of this and I will wake up one morning to my former life. Each time I wake up scared and I have to look around to realize what my life is now – this is my sign that I still have work to do to put those internalised voices to bed once and for all.
I was standing in my son’s room, putting a stack of clean clothes on top of his dresser. I looked at his high school picture wedged between the old soccer trophies, and I thought – no, I didn’t think, I knew: Their lives are theirs to live. My life is mine to live.
That’s all, just this thought that swept through me and changed my mental landscape. I felt as if I’d been released. […]
[…] I no longer had that bittersweet need inside that mothers know so well, the one driven by love and nurture gone overboard, that need to bend, spindle and spread ourselves over the lives of our children as if we are the St. Louis Gateway Arch. I felt it go – the need to oversee and manage all the aspects of their lives. The need to work constantly, relentlessly to make them into happy people and their world into a perfect place. As if they had little steering wheels protruding from their backs and it was my job to drive their lives around, never taking my hands off the wheel for fear they would bump into something, get lost, rearend things, run a caution light, show up late, miss the destination.
Ultimately I was not responsible for the living of their lives. They were at the helm of their lives, and I was suddenly willing to let that be – to let them pilot their courses, make their mistakes, learn their lessons, choose their roads, and take on for themselves the job of being human. (pg. 146)
Both within and outside of me, the biggest threat I heard was how I would screw up my son’s life. And I must be honest and say that I thought about this many times over and the images in my head were not the nicest because they stemmed from what I had been taught and told.
In the moments when I managed to be sober from all of the shaking, anxiety ridden worries and thoughts, I got glimpses of would I want him to stay in a life that imprisons him? of isn’t a happy mother a better mother? of he will be ok as long as I am ok.
Little by little these glimpses got stronger and stronger, they became visions and then reality. The caveat was and continues to be, that I never lied to my son. Of course, age demands that some things be simplified but my lifeline continues to be truth because I trust him to know that I love him unconditionally, that I am human and also to understand and remember that, when we choose to have children, we s don’t have to give up our lives. Martyrdom never made great parents.
My life had been miles and miles of reconstruction, but […] I felt glad for it. I was even glad for the miles and miles of my entire life before the reconstruction. For a time I’d thought of that part of my life as wrong. But our earlier lives aren’t wrong, they are just preconstruction, that’s all. Our lives are meant to unfold, to evolve and that’s good. The only wrong thing, perhaps, is permanently hesitating on the verge of courage, which would prevent this process from taking place. (pg. 264)
On Christmas morning I received two books. The other one was Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly. – the first book that sparked a change of great magnitude in me. I am obviously going to read it again. Nothing is by chance. Not even the fact that this edition is a reprint of the first one and it landed in my hands in Romanian. Who knows, maybe my next journey is learning the language or truth and vulnerability in Romanian. 🙂