I took my husband’s name when I got married, and I’m okay with that.

When I got married six years ago, I hadn’t gone through my feminist awakening yet. Sure, I considered myself a feminist…but I didn’t fully realize the extent to which the patriarchy controlled my decisions. I wasn’t fully aware of feminist issues in my day-to-day life. I took my husband’s name happily, from a place of conservatism and lukewarm feminism, rather than from a place of careful consideration as to how taking his name would affect the women around me and the women of future generations.

But here’s the thing. Since getting married, I’ve thought about my last name a lot. I’ve talked to Zach about it a lot, and we even discussed changing our name–perhaps creating a last name that was a combination of his last name and my maiden name, or perhaps having a hyphenated last name. He was totally on board with considering these options. He was willing to go through the red tape it would take to change our name if it felt important to me. Ultimately though, I feel okay with the decision I had made, although I also feel it was not and is not a feminist choice.

Let me explain.

Taking my husband’s name is not feminist. I just don’t think it is. It is an acceptance of patriarchal rule in a very blatant way: my identity is “erased” and is replaced with his identity. It symbolizes my subservience to him.

But keeping my maiden name didn’t seem any better to me. Because where did my maiden name come from? My father. Where did my mother’s maiden name come from? Her father. It’s the same generation upon generation into my history: my matriarchal lines are muddled, rendered nearly untraceable by the patrilineal last name. There is no maiden name that is not traced back through the male line. Some women feel that keeping their last name is a feminist choice, or at least a more feminist choice than changing to their husband’s name. I would take their point, but there are other reasons I didn’t want to keep my maiden name.

For one thing, I like the symbol of the two becoming one. I’m not only a feminist; I’m also a Christian, and I believe in the idea that a Christian marriage joins two people in sacred ways. They are bonded before their families and before God. So for me, whatever our last name was to be, I wanted us to share it.

Then why not a hyphenated name? Well, this choice felt to me like simply kicking the can down the road. What about our daughter? When she got married, would she hyphenate her name again? Would she drop my maiden name? Or keep mine and drop Zach’s? The choice for her would be even more convoluted if she came into the situation with an already hyphenated name, forcing her to make the decisions that I bucked.

I did consider combining our names more seriously. However, it seemed to me this choice carried with it some of the same baggage as the other choices–for instance, it wouldn’t erase the fact that my maiden name is still a product of a male lineage. Also, what choice would our daughter make if she got married? Would she combine her name with her partner’s name? If everyone suddenly decided to meld their names together into a new name each generation, any kind of lineage/family history would be very difficult to trace. I’m not really that into family history, but this does seem problematic to me. If there were a standardized method for combining names which would allow family history to continue to be traced, then perhaps this would be a viable option. But as it is, it just felt a little too wacky to me.

So, what to do?

If I had made a different decision at the time of our marriage, I would not feel compelled to now take Zach’s name. However, after weighing all my options after the fact, I also don’t feel compelled to change my name back, or to hyphenate or combine our names. Each choice has its own issues, and I am left between a rock and a hard place and another rock. I don’t think there is a really good feminist option on this issue. Did I choose the least feminist option of all? Probably. But given the number of reservations I have about all the other choices, I’m not willing at this point to change my name.

As a feminist, I think we sometimes are forced to make choices that are not feminist–or if not forced per se, than at least put in a position where making the feminist choice becomes so burdensome, we just can’t pull the weight any more. Check out this comic by Ronnie Ritchie around wearing makeup. I think it speaks about this problem very well.

If I were a grade school student given the assignment of explaining "What Feminism Means to Me," this is what I would write.

I am talking with a friend when I find myself saying to her, “Yes, I’m a feminist.”

And she responds, “Okay, I’ve always wanted to ask: what does it actually mean to be a feminist?”
…And in that moment, the idea of feminism just feels so big, so all-encompassing, that I hardly know what to say. I flounder around in some examples about how it plays out in my marriage–my husband is a feminist, too–and how it informs my motherhood, but I leave feeling dissatisfied, feeling I didn’t breathe into my explanation the fire that I wanted to.
So I turn here, to the page, to try to figure out how I actually should have answered her question, with the hope that next time I will be better prepared with my feminist elevator speech.
Part of the problem for me is how do you define something that reveals itself so differently in different people, each of whom has their own politics and religion and personal struggles? The best I can do is say what it means from my own little niche in this world. The best I can do is try to answer the rather simplistic question What does feminism mean to you? And I would say:
Feminism means giving all women the freedom to be who they are, without the worry that they aren’t what the patriarchy or other feminists want them to be. It’s my choosing to be supportive rather than judgmental.
Feminism means giving women power over their own bodies, rather than viewing women through the lens of the male gaze–and it’s taking control of my own body and looking how I want to look, regardless of how I’m “supposed” to look.
Feminism means the occasional loving prod at someone who is clueless about the misogynist comment they just made.
Feminism means writing poetry that celebrates women and challenges patriarchy.
Feminism means being unapologetic that I spend much of my time as a stay-at-home mom, and being clear that this is my own choice.
Feminism means reminding my fellow Christians that God is not male, and maybe making them a little uncomfortable by praying to our heavenly Mother and suggesting that “the Breasted One” is a legitimate translation of the name for God El Shaddai–because I believe in a God who is just as much feminine as masculine, and who celebrates the feminine as holy.
Feminism means the support of women who are oppressed or abused or overlooked: women of color, trans women, queer women, and many others.
Feminism means remembering that comparing oneself to others is never a good idea and that being beautiful is not a competition.
Feminism means choosing self-love over self-hate.
Your turn. What does feminism mean to you?
PS – I also like this article: What Is Feminism?

Excess and Ashes

When is the last time you bought something for yourself? Today? Yesterday? Last week? For me, it is usually no longer ago than “last week,” and that is hard for me to admit. It is, I think, an admission of my selfishness. I buy not because I lack anything but because of some perceived deficiency or because there is some further convenience I crave or because of some less definable hankering that urges me to amass more things for myself. 

And it makes me angry that I do this. Not only is it selfish, but I also believe it is degrading, both for me and for those I exploit in order to buy often and cheaply (think underpaid factory workers, poor environmental standards that lead to health hazards and climate change, perpetuation of unequal wealth distribution, etc.).

I recently read an article in The Anglican Theological Review because the title seemed to speak so directly to me: “The Struggle for Human Dignity in a Consumer-Oriented Culture” by Beverly Eileen Mitchell. Mitchell writes:

In the United States, a leading player in the global economy, too many of us have overspent, going into debt to buy according not to our basic needs, but to manufactured wants. What is insidious is the growing link that has developed between our sense of identity, value and worth and the products we purchase. We no longer buy products simply for themselves, but because we fall for the illusion that they will enhance us or make us into who we would like to be and fear we are not.

In what way did I imagine a new tablet cover would “enhance me”? Did I buy a fancy tea kettle that heats the water to specific temperatures for various kinds of tea because I needed it? Certainly not. I could argue that I bought these things for the added convenience they provide in my life; in fact, that is how I justify the purchases to myself. But I think, if I don’t want to deceive myself, I must also admit that I bought them so that I would look a certain way to others, so that I could bolster up my image of myself as a smart consumer or a tea aficionado or some such foolishness.

I want to be a real person. I don’t want to buy because I’m told to, and I don’t want to cut myself into some prefab shape so that I can be acceptable to society.

In fact, isn’t a prefab person often something of a turnoff? Isn’t someone who is uber-fashionable/always “put together”/always ready to show off their newest electronic marvel, isn’t that person somewhat unapproachable? Do the clothes I put on in the morning make me look good? I think so. But is it possible that some of the choices I make when I am getting ready for the day–when I am putting together an image of how I want to present myself to the world–actually make me seem aloof or arrogant? Could it be that the way I present myself turns some people off from talking to me, smiling at me, sitting next to me on the bus?

What I really want is to be down-to-earth and open. I’m not very good at this. And much of it is my own fault. I put on armor all the time. It’s an armor made of things: my clothes, my electronic gadgets, my choice of highly marketed snack or beverage, even my damn tea kettle and tablet cover. I want to say there’s nothing wrong with looking good and feeling confident, but shouldn’t this be innate within us, as individuals created by a loving God, not a confidence and beauty we must manufacture with all the stuff we buy?

So for Lent this year, I’m choosing to abstain from the culture of superfluous spending. For forty days at least, I’m going to step back and stop. I’m not going to buy anything for myself.

I’m a fan of the band Giants & Pilgrims. They’ve got a new single out for Lent this year, and they’ve posted it online along with a short reflection by pastor Jeff Cook. It really spoke to me, and I hope you’ll take a moment to listen as well, to start off your Lenten season with a deeper contemplation of what it means to be a soul in a body, what it means to subtract the excess, and what it means to celebrate with ashes, which are a symbol of destruction–something we may need to do to our insatiable desire to buy. The reflection is first, followed by the song:

http://bandcamp.com/EmbeddedPlayer/album=3531241630/size=large/bgcol=ffffff/linkcol=0687f5/tracklist=false/artwork=small/transparent=true/

Snow Spell

Winter has finally settled deep over Madison, and as I bundle in wool and down, I return again to a sense of wonder.

On a snowy night, my feet wander over ice-and-salt sidewalks, and tiny crystals float from clouds to rest upon my knit hat and mittens, and the silence is deep, all the way to my heart and gut. I am small again. I believe in Magic again, the Magic that was the root of Truth in my childhood.

My daughter believes that if she stamps her foot just right upon the parking lot, ice will flow out from her, just like it does from Elsa. She believes in dragons and in spring sprites who grow small yellow flowers and towering pines. And tonight, so do I, and perhaps if I jump with the right spring in my step, I will float up into the falling snow.

Perhaps the delineation between what I can and cannot do is less clear than I thought it was last summer, when I stood under a blazing sun as I watered the garden and the mosquitoes snacked on my bare legs.

Perhaps this luminescent blue landscape is whispering some spell into my rosy mind.

If I stand still, I can hear Winter ringing her tiny glass bells as snow alights upon my shoulders and grows thick as good cream around my feet.

L’Engle and the Child Still within Me

I’ve been re-reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water with my mom, and this week, I read this passage from her chapter “A Coal in the Hand”:

Only the most mature of us are able to be childlike. And to be able to be childlike involves memory; we must never forget any part of ourselves. As of writing this, I am sixty-one years old in chronology. But I am not an isolated, chronological numerical statistic. I am sixty-one, and I am also four, and twelve, and fifteen, and twenty-one, and thirty-one, and forty-five, and…and…and…. If we lose any part of ourselves, we are thereby diminished. If I cannot be thirteen and sixty-one simultaneously, part of me has been taken away.

The way this hits me is as a call for grace–grace for ourselves, our selves, past and present.

It’s so easy to glance back and blame/condemn/scold/dismiss my past selves for their foolishness. And it’s amazingly difficult to love who I was in the midst of my biggest mistakes. But I think L’Engle is on to something: I cannot be whole if I cannot love myself with God’s love–even as time gives me the hindsight to have a thousand if-only-I-had…’s.

I must set the tearful, timid, selfish girl that I was at five upon my lap, let her rest her head upon my shoulder.

I must wrap my arms around the lonely, self-deprecating, depressed college student and hold her tight, as she so needed.

I must hold the hands of the laboring mother and look deep in her eyes and say, “It’s okay, it’s not your fault. This failure doesn’t make you a failure, doesn’t void your motherhood and womanhood.”

I must forgive myself for the things that are most difficult to let go of because all these selves are me: I am the result of them; their lessons are mine. Their thoughts and cravings and perspectives are under my care, and they flesh me out into a roundness of cold and hot and happy and sad and gut-wrenching and fist-pumping and still, slow breaths.

If I forget who I was, I truly am diminished. If I hold all of me and accept all of me and forgive all of me, I grow to fill the wholeness God intended for me.

Putting it into Practice

I love to buy new stuff. I love wandering thrift store racks, searching for skirts with eclectic patterns, for vintage dresses, for name-brand purses. And I love to buy shoes on Zappos. I love waiting for packages from Amazon. It’s really the best, pulling from cardboard something bright and shiny, something that still smells of warehouse and factory.

But I don’t believe in buying new stuff. Buying another thing I don’t need–duplicative purses, more skirts than days of the month, shoes in every color–it’s not healthy for me. Because no matter how many purchases I make, the hunger for unboxing never abets. I am never sated.

When I spend my time and money on new stuff, I’m encouraging and living out of my discontent. I’m also exploiting underpaid workers and feeding a system that undervalues the humanity of the targeted consumer. I’m accepting the religion of upward mobility, of upper middle class-ism, of a hierarchy that values the rich and the privileged and, at best, ignores the needy and the oppressed. What about living out of contentedness, Christianity, love, and justice?

I have been pointed to the blog Un-Fancy by several people in my life, and most recently by this mom’s post. As I read, I thought to myself, You know, you need to start acting on what you believe. You need to simplify and you need to stop buying. So I was inspired to start by raiding my closet.

I didn’t do the capsule wardrobe. Instead, I decided I’d get rid of 3/4 of my clothes. And then I wouldn’t buy anything new until something I had wore out. (My old friends will remember I did something like this sophomore year of college! I made it most of the school year before buying some pants at Gap.)

Bagging up all those clothes, many of which I still liked a lot, didn’t feel good. And now sometimes I miss some of the things I got rid of, but I still think it was the right move for me. I want to feel good about the person that I am and the things I put my time into. Putting so much emphasis on presenting myself just so through an ever-growing wardrobe was not something I wanted to spend my time doing.

Really, emptying my closet was the easy part. The hard part is not filling it again–and not just shifting my focus from clothes to other purchases. After dropping off about six packed garbage bags of clothes at St. Vinny’s, I bought a new water bottle. And a week later, I ordered a new backpack online. No good.

It was hard for me to stop spending money. It’s such an enjoyable pastime! I knew I needed to resolve myself to more than just a small wardrobe. I had to commit to a small everything–to the idea that one of something is enough, to the mindset that I am a good seamstress and I can fix what I have to work well enough. To the belief that I don’t need new to be happy–that, in fact, new will not make me happy even if I indulge in every purchase I desire.

After all, the center of my existence is not my investment in capitalist America. It’s my belief in a Jesus who loves and accepts us (everyone!) along with our crazy, my faith in a God who has set in my heart passions for words and for the craft of my hands. The center of my existence should be spreading love and justice, writing poetry, creating beautiful things. (And here I think, Ah, if only money didn’t make the world go round….)

I want to start a new pattern, to recommit to truth and beauty and justice. To meditate on this Bible verse: “Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.” (Philippians 4:8-9, The Message)

Seeking Silence

Mid-fall, and the bike ride to the library today was perfect. The oaks still hold onto about half their leaves, and with the sun shining warmth through their branches, leaves glow deep red and bright orange. My favorite maple has lost every dazzling flame to the wind, leaves scattered on lawn and in gutter. The birches and ginkgoes are a perfect luminous yellow.

How I love trees, their seasons: now, they grow tired, prepare for hibernation, for diapause between the hot green of late summer and the soft petals of spring. Each year, I ride this arc with them, rejoice in their first pale breath in spring, dance in their growing glory in summer, marvel at the patience their long sleep teaches me. And this fall, I feel especially close to their sloughing off of summer activity in favor of rest and silence. I am weary, too, and I have had a season of much growth. I long for the soft pillow and cozy blanket of a long winter—deep, white snow; scarves and crocheted hats; zippers and slippers; drafts under doors and through windows while the humidifier runs all night to replace lost moisture.

I crave digestion time, when I can sit back and begin to understand everything I’ve felt and learned over the last six months. I want to come into balance with God, with humanity. I want the Spirit to whisper deep within me, remind me that YHWH is, that Jesus loves me dearly—the simple things that so easily slip into phantom in the plod of life.

I long for forgiveness, for myself, but more than that, I long to be so full of forgiveness that I pass it out in great sheaves to everyone around me. I want to learn how to balance strength and bravery with graciousness. I don’t ever want to give up on me, on what I believe, but I don’t want to be me at the cost of love.

So I ask for space, and I slough off the bright hot skin of summer in favor of simplicity—the snowy sheet of the season of my diapause. Come, winter. Come, Spirit, to my meditation in the silent spaces.