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?

In the Face of Rejection

A few days each week, Zach watches Ramona for a chunk of hours so I can bike off to the library or Panera or Starbucks to have some solid writing and reading time. I spend much of this time reading poetry, writing and revising poetry, and occasionally blogging.

And one quick, stabbing duty I perform every single time I do work: check in on Submittable. Quite a few journals use Submittable to manage writers’ submissions to their publication. My goal is to submit my poetry at least once every three weeks, so my Submittable account is filled with many of my attempts at publishing. I keep an Excel spreadsheet of all my publishing attempts (Submittable, paper submission, direct email, etc.), but there’s something special about signing in to Submittable and scrolling through all those stark red “Declined” statuses. Here’s a screenshot for you:

Lovely, no? In the last twelve months, I’ve written somewhere around 50 poems, I’ve sent groupings of these poems to 14 journals, and I’ve had a total of four poems accepted for publication.

My first thought here is that I should be submitting to more places. I’m also tempted to consider my poetry’s worth on the scale of how many “Accepted” submissions I have versus how many “Declined.” But I know such thinking is foolish. Even well-known poets have to send their work out relentlessly, over and over and over, if they hope to see it published. And so I loop back around to the thought, Send out more! Send them out more frequently! Hop to it, woman!

Honestly, I don’t usually mind the rejection (though it does irk me that Wisconsin Review never updated the status of my submission from “In-Progress” to “Accepted”). What feels more important to me is the work, and I believe the work itself has value to myself, my poetry group, my family and friends, even if it’s never seen by strangers or accepted by publishers.

I have this wish that every neighborhood would have a resident poet, someone who includes a poem in a neighborhood newsletter and holds readings and poetry gatherings. Because in me, there is a need for poetry, for the way it can capture a moment or a mood, the way it can express despair and beauty, the way it carefully arranges language so that in very few words, a reader can find a deep affinity with the poet. Poetry can bring us together, and it can bring us into awareness of the lives of people unlike us. And I think the writing of poetry can be powerful in the life of the poet, too, even if their work is not critically successful.

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)

Green Hills and Desert Valleys

For much of my life I thought myself unhappy. I thought that I’d be happy once the “next thing” happened. I tried to fight this feeling, made the tagline of my life, “Endeavoring to live in ‘now,’ not in ‘soon.'” I struggled greatly against pressing ever forward to some future place where I’d finally feel fulfilled.

This has changed in the last two years. Before Ramona was born, I believed having children would be the thing that finally completed my happy scene. It was the “next thing.” After she was born, I was, for the first time I think, legitimately unhappy. Not depressed, just miserable. I found myself finally and unavoidably confronted with my great depravity, with my insatiable desire for ever-greener pastures.

Here I was, living a dream of mine, and I was full of bitterness: giving birth had been a waking nightmare, breastfeeding was painful and stressful, and the always, always-present demands from Ramona became infinitely taxing. I had crossed over the green hill and found myself in a vast desert valley. And it was here, in this desert, that I gave up on looking forward to better days. I realized that the future holds no unbreakable promise of greater happiness—it may in fact hold greater pain. It’s a thing I always knew in my head was possible but never believed in my heart would come to pass.

As day by day I began to fall in love with Ramona (the nature of her birth did not allow for that instant connection some mothers experience after giving birth), I also experienced sorrow upon sorrow. When Ramona was a week old, there was a death in the family. Around that time breastfeeding took an awful dive and we resorted to pumping and dropper feeding. I became very nervous about Ramona’s feedings, and when she had a nursing strike a few months later, I began a hard journey through delayed letdown issues that never really resolved for as long as I was nursing her. I felt lonely and isolated from other mothers; I had a hard time figuring out how to balance mothering with my own personal needs. I wrote a whole series of heart-sore poems like this:

Eve, Fallen
Somehow—between baby showers and birthing class—
I missed that when this bewildered sea creature
wails her awakening to the world,
she will demand my breast at each hour,
creasing and blistering until, in infant’s Eucharist
she drinks blood from my nipple:
drains milk and life from me
so I shiver and fold like a dry leaf.
My eyes hollow, even my heart
hollows as I kindle
this tiny flame that was lit from the ashes
of my body. She nestles clenched, anxious,
lost in this cold world;
I am all pain and weariness. But I am also
mother, feral instinct,
fierce protector.
I pull her toward my warmth; whisper,
This is the good place. I’ll hold you tight ‘til it’s better.

But as all this was unfolding, I was also learning finally how to live in the now, how to be thankful for the beauty still present in my life, for the simple things: a glass of cool water; clean, folded diapers; a ray of light piercing through the living room curtains; blue snow glimpsed out the window during a late-night nursing session. I thought to myself, Perhaps things will get better. But maybe they won’t. I’d be a fool to not search for light and loveliness in my life right now.

And so I found the grace in all that pain. In many ways, my life is easier now. But the lesson has stayed with me: revel in whatever beauty is in this one day, this one moment, even if the big things are all going wrong, even if I’m crying in pain or screaming in frustration. Acknowledge the beauty; it’s there—and it is the only guaranteed good because tomorrow might be greener, or it might be a vaster desert.

If I can let the light in on the dark days, I will be all the more able to bask in the light of the best and brightest days.

I have let go of wistful dreaming for the future. I realize sorrow is probably lurking somewhere in my future, sorrow that may match that of the past. But I don’t dwell on that either. Instead I take the gift of today and do my best to be ever thankful.

Oriole, Autumn Olive, and Cottonwood

Earlier this month, my mom and I took a weekend retreat to Christ in the Wilderness, a nearby hermitage. Below is a journal entry from my final day there:

A pair of orioles at my window. The female perches in an invasive autumn olive bush a few feet from where I sit. They fly across the valley, straight to the top of a huge cottonwood—the tallest tree, whose leaves in a wind sound like a river. I watch the oriole’s bright orange from branch to branch to branch. Breath taken. A sign from God. My favorite bird at my window then in my favorite tree. In ten minutes, Sister Julie arrives to check me out of the hermitage, and I know this visit from the birds is the most important thing that has happened to me while I have been here.
A few days later, back home, I return to thoughts of the orioles. I see the sign more clearly now. At the time, I wrote it all down, knew it was important. I just didn’t know what it meant. 
The female oriole is drawn to the autumn olive by my window. I hear her in me. She says, It is safe here. I will rest here. I will grow here. She does not know the plant she rests in is destructive, invasive—it will eat away at her world. Autumn olive is an extremely invasive and harmful bush—they fix nitrogen in the soil, disrupting native plant growth. They thrive in dry, poor soils.
I remember how when I first saw the autumn olive outside my window at the hermitage, it appeared fragrant and lovely. It grows low to the ground. It’s easy; it’s indulgent. It doesn’t seem bad when you see it—“the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes.” I realize the autumn olive represents my stagnation, my desire to resist work and growth in favor of mindless leisure. I am ever battling laziness within me, that pull to sit in front of the TV with some junk food and tune out the world, tune out my heart. And though food and entertainment are not inherently bad, to rest only or mostly in these artificial, saccharine pleasures is toxic to the soul. Invasive bushes like autumn olive don’t provide the protection from predators that native plants do for birds. If I give in to the easy pleasures of the autumn olive, I endager my creative self. 
And the cottonwood? How tall it is! How far to fly! It’s imposing, but not fragrant, not easy. The reward in its branches isn’t obvious. I read up on cottonwoods and learn they flourish by water and provide shelter and food for many birds and mammals, as well as fostering a healthy fish habitat by providing shade and preventing bank erosion. The cottonwood where the orioles alight is the high place, the fruitful place. It is the place where I can find a truer restfulness as I tend to my creativity. It is a walk by the lake, a contemplative book, a journal entry. It is time spent crafting a journal or a card. The cottonwood livens me, livens not only my spirit but the spirits of those around me, in its sheltering branches and strengthening roots.
I am reminded of Psalm 1:
Oh, the joys of those who do not follow evil men’s advice, who do not hang around with sinners, scoffing at the things of God. But they delight in doing everything God wants them to, and day and night are always meditating on his laws and thinking about ways to follow him more closely.

They are like trees along a riverbank bearing luscious fruit each season without fail. Their leaves shall never wither, and all they do shall prosper. (Ps 1:1-3, Living Bible)
May I ever fly to the cottonwood’s true shelter and flee the shallow pleasure of the autumn olive.

Hope and Lament

What is poetry’s role when the world is burning? Encroaching environmental disaster and the relentless wars around the world have had, it seems, a paralyzing, sterilizing effect on much American poetry. It is less the magnitude of the crises than our apparent immunity to them, this death on which we all thrive, that is spinning our best energies into…shrill denunciations of a culture whose privileges we are not ready to renounce—or, more accurately, do not even know how to renounce. There is some fury of clarity, some galvanizing combination of hope and lament, that is much needed now, but it sometimes seems that we…are anxiously waiting for the devastation to reach our very streets, as it one day will, it most certainly will.
-Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss
 
How I love the lake; it calms me and whispers its fierce, cold lullaby to my heart. I touch the bark of maple and oak, name the names of each flower in spring, glad for their return. I love the snowflake, telling me a tale of infinite delicacy, perfect individuality.
But what does my love translate into? Do I have any salvific strength? I live thoughtlessly inside my large grocery store, my mini-van—a culture whose privileges we are not ready to denounce—or, more accurately, do not even know how to renounce. What words of hope can I speak onto a page, what lament will be more than helplessness? How do I dignify creation without ignoring destruction?
Night Afloat
Last night I dreamed I was alone.
Rain shivered on our roof until
the ceiling dissolved like salt, white-lipped
water beading on my forehead, my knees.
I swallowed buds on trees and sandy peat.
When I woke before dawn, Zach was still asleep
next to me, neither of us drowned,
though mud and grass
still clung to our eyelashes.

Respite

I stand in the clean June night watching clouds wisp around a small curl of moon. I ache with the beauty of these bright days: classes out for Zach, Ramona scooting and sitting and working her way towards crawling, and I wading into the happiness of our little family through my writing. What a joy.

This weekend is Zach’s birthday and Father’s Day. I am so thankful for my husband, who has stood so firmly and tenderly beside me through this tumultuous year: the wrenching birth of Ramona, the death of a loved one, all our struggles adjusting to parenthood. What a mercy it is to journey with him, one who knows my heart so well.

The moon rises higher in the sky’s cool pitch as we now settle into sleep and dream of the long road, and the grace of this peaceful valley.