Pretty in Purple

I love purple. Here’s me in my favorite purple dress.

I also love The Color Purple by Alice Walker. It’s one of those books that’s different every time you read it. Because of that, you’ll get widely varied interpretations of the central messages put out there by different folks. Some people will swear it’s about racial injustice in the early 20th century. Some others will say it’s about the oppression of women. I think there’s an even more metaphysical layer.

Celie, who is 14 when the story begins, writes letters to a God she’s been told about but has little understanding of. She asks for a sign. He’s just one more man, and a white one at that, to victimize Celie the way every other man in her world does. Celie is pretty much emotionally numb, until her husband’s mistress, Shug, teaches her a different way of seeing. The story ends with Celie finally knowing love of family and friends and using her strength to be successful and independent.

Celie’s life is spent as a victim of her stepfather, whom she believed to be her father and who violated her sexually, and then her husband, whom she only knows for a long time as Mister. Her life outpictures her belief and understanding of God as she’s been told about him: hard, needing to be pleased, to be endured as capricious and uncaring. Everything she ever loved—her children, her mother, her sister Nettie—has been taken away from her and she basically shuts down. Life is to be survived.

One reason I love this story is it has so much to teach about God.

“Here’s the thing, say Shug. The thing I believe God is inside you and inside everything. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don’t know what you’re looking for. Trouble do it for most folks, I think. Sorrow, lord. Feeling like shit.”

More from Celie: “Don’t look like nothing, she say. It ain’t a picture show. It ain’t something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found It…. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see It always trying to please us back.”

This presents Celie with a different perspective on God as good. As her understanding changes, she’s able to develop a love relationship with Shug and something of a friendship with her husband. Suddenly (it seems), circumstances change to where she finds the letters from Nettie that Albert has hidden from her all those years. As she reads Nettie’s letters and learns about all the wonders of Africa through Nettie’s eyes, she finds more and more to love about life and her strength increases. She had made one failed attempt to leave “Mistah Jail,” but at that point she still had a victim mentality. Learning that her children and Nettie are alive provides the counterpoint for her identity. She gradually lifts her consciousness level to a point where these events can happen and she finally get “out into creation.” She leaves with Shug and Squeak and opens a custom sewing business in Tennessee.

Celie’s life had to change when her thinking changed. There was a time when she was unable to accept any view of herself or any approach to her life except as a victim. Although we can presume from her solo visits into town that she could have left whenever she wanted, her shackles were essentially of her own making. She always had had faith in God, but as her understanding of God shifts from heartless taskmaster—mirrored in her stepfather and her spouse—to a God of love, her life follows suit. I can’t imagine Celie using “affirmations,” putting up inspirational Post-it notes or reading self-help books. Thinking different thoughts was the simple difference.

At Home

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So I promised myself I’d stay away from politics here in 2012, which for somebody living just outside The Beltway in an election year is a poor promise at best. Someone recently posted this article link to Facebook. I’m having a hard time not commenting on it even after commenting on it. It’s just too much like bait.

I happen to agree with the writer (whoever you are….) about how college has become a product to be oversold to millions at premium prices. I also happen to agree that high school does not do its job to prepare students to function at a minimal level in society (and just do NOT get me started on the whole change-counting out thing). I have to sort of agree about the whole jobs thing—although really smart people use the $200,000 price tag of college to start businesses instead of simply plugging in to the Machine. I do have to part ways with the author for the very derogatory “living at home with Mommy and Daddy” comment. Mostly, I feel bad for all those kids who did what they were told.

The notion that children finish college and leave home is a manufactured expectation. Yes, we hope our children embark on their own lives and they most often do quite naturally. But in our artificial environment we’ve made it practically a constitutionally protected right for a married “nuclear” couple—the Parents—to have their own space. Not so distantly past, newly married couples lived with parents as a rule even after children were born while they worked and saved for a place or moved into a home that was built on the family land. Older, infirm or merely single relatives lived with family as a matter of course. People didn’t have this overarching “privacy” entitlement because we all never had it UNTIL

Corporations starting making and selling stuff. With smaller and more isolated families, they could sell more stuff as housing functions that had been shared now duplicated themselves over and over again. More couches, washers, dryers, lawn mowers! We didn’t even notice, in our gladness to celebrate our prosperity, that we had been handed an invoice whose only payment due was our family life.

I guess I’m waiting this election for somebody (and I’m sure I’ll be waiting a very, VERY long time) to suggest that the economic “situation” could possibly be the catalyst needed to pull our weary families back together so I’ll suggest it. I have a friend who at the start of the stink-bug invasion in the Mid-Atlantic said something like, “What if they are the cure for cancer and we’re so busy getting rid of them that we don’t notice?” With all the woe-is-us going on right now with each political “side” throwing the blame darts at the other, what if nobody notices that kids are coming back home and learning to relate to (and value!) their parents as adults. That would-be split-up couples who can’t financially part are knitting themselves back together successfully (yes, that’s happened now for two friends of mine. They couldn’t afford counseling, either.). That the $8,000 and up per day price tag for nursing home care has some families making the decision to have someone stay home to care for their parent(s). Yes, friends, what if the economy right now is a BLESSING—a pathway out of the darkness of corporate-controlled life?

My own daughter is 26 and lives here on the family property with her 5-year old daughter—The Munchkin—and it’s been a time for mutual discovery that I wouldn’t have traded the National Debt for.

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it. Hebrews 13:2

 

Neighborly

There is a goofy cardinal living around here. Almost every day I see this little red guy out by my van. He sits on a rear-view mirror and every so often flies down and flaps menacingly at his mirrored image. He retakes his perch on top of the mirror to rest, but then goes violently against that other bird again over and over. This isn’t my photo, but it’s exactly what my cardinal does. He doesn’t know the fierce bird he sees to be his reflection.

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About a year ago I discovered The Work and Byron Katie. If you’re not familiar with it, her book Loving What Is will introduce you to this interesting form of self-discovery and healing. You can also visit her site at thework.com and find videos of Katie doing The Work with a variety of people. What they learn about themselves is nothing short of amazing.

The Work starts with a worksheet (also available to download) in which the participant completes information around a repeated stressful and upsetting circumstance in their life which revolves around a given person. The worksheet urges you to be as petty and nasty as you want to be. This is YOUR work. Let go and have at it. There are sections for you not only to write down what you think about the person but also for you to answer some other questions about it.

Next, select one statement you wrote, ask four questions about it and then turn it around. The first question asks: Is it true? Well, of course it’s true. He never listens to you and it’s driving you crazy. You’ve been living this situation. Then the next question to answer is: Can you absolutely know that it’s true? Sometimes this injects the shadow of the doubt into the equation (as in you’re not in his head so you don’t know if he listens sometimes or not) but most people answer yes, he never listens to me. The next question “How do you react when you believe that thought?” lifts your thought into the realm of the optional. You don’t have to believe that thought but when you do, what happens? He ignores what you say. Stress, upset, anger, frustration? Usually. Which brings you to the final question: Who would you be without that thought? Katie cautions that she’s not asking or telling you to give up the thought—just to think about who would you be without that story you’ve been telling yourself about believing that he never listens to you.

Now, the turn-around. You reformulate the thought in any of several mixtures. For example, the statement “He never listens to me” becomes either “I never listen to him” or maybe “I never listen to me.” What The Work participants always find out is that this statement is surprisingly as true or truer than the first one. This realization can be incredibly tearful and painful, but also gives that person’s recognition the opening necessary to better love themselves—and others.

The Work parallels Matthew 22:39, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” although in a different sense than most people know that verse. This is, of course, The Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated. Every child learns that in the sandbox experiments of what happens when I throw sand at Johnnie or grab Susie’s bucket. We learn to treat others well so they will be nice to us.

But there’s another layer to the verse, though, (as is more often the case than not). As The Work demonstrates, you can only love your neighbor insofar as you love yourself. If there are things you like about yourself, you’ll find and love those in the people you associate with. If we love our neighbor as ourselves, whatever qualities of creativity, skill, diligence, persistence and grace they embody are those we see in ourselves. Likewise, or maybe conversely, as the The Work demonstrates, whatever undesirable or distasteful qualities drive us nuts in others, correspond to those traits within ourselves.

The Caruthers’ Corollary to this is—your “neighbor,” your spouse, your child, that guy in the office—they are our living laboratory of mirrors who take the time to be the butt of our angst, all in order to show us where we fall short in loving ourselves. Jesus also comments earlier in Matthew that you might call your brother “Raca,” the term you would use which drew down punishment according to the religious figures of the day, but if you called him “a fool” you risked hell fire. The hell he’s talking about is almost certainly that of self-loathing and the sidecar of separation from God.

To those doing The Work, simply exposing those hidden beliefs to the light of day often not only offers healing to the person, but also allows that painful upsetting situation to just evaporate. There IS no situation once you’ve learned what you need to from it. You no longer believe the lie you were telling yourself about how this other person was making you miserable. It’s over. Of course, if you don’t do The Work or find some other path of understanding how you are thinking about yourself, that coworker/spouse/parent/child/neighbor will find their way into your life again and again in different casting calls. All this also begs the question: Who am I driving nuts today?

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What Do You Do?

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In 1986, I had a 3-year old, a 1-year old, and a cozy routine at home. We had one car that left every day with the hubster to his workplace many miles away from the rural area where we had a townhouse. The neighborhood was a bit of a “pink ghetto,” that buzzy term for localities where young mothers like me struggled either with ends that weren’t in waving distance of each other or with the decision to go out and get a job in order to even think about the coveted single family home or even a second car. As our children grew, though, there were fewer and fewer children around to replace them. The newer moms had not even considered the struggle and were at work.

My husband’s company offered incentives for sales and one of these that he won was a wives’ included trip to a dinner theater. We managed to find a babysitter (probably my mom) and dressed as carefully as we could from our limited closet. In the midst of dinner conversation, I quickly realized I was the only woman there who couldn’t succinctly answer that most defining of all questions: “What do you do?” I cheerfully summoned the wherewithal to explain I was mom of two littles. Every conversation devolved as the expression curtain came down; these women spent their days in offices that were not located on Sesame Street.

I sat there on the verge of tears. The mere fact that I puttered and mopped up after preschoolers all day every day left those other ladies who shared that whole workplace thing talking animatedly to each other.  I was left alone with my thoughts. I noticed how nicely dressed they were. I critiqued the food; I could have definitely made a better chicken, but did that even matter?

That same year I was 10 years out of high school. I opted not to attend my high school reunion. What was I going to say? I had tried college and did well there, but the goals and management of a “career” was a huge disconnect for me. I had grown up, partly at least, in a time before Work-As Life had taken over. As a teenager—well, even in elementary school—I had made a lot of my own money selling artwork, babysitting and working at a farm across the road. My mom and most every other mom I knew—they worked alright! They managed large gardens, sometimes livestock, and contributed to the household accounts with actual cash or by saving money. Even though Betty Friedan and others were touting the glamour and freedom of working outside the home, most women were still in no position to make that leap. Many were not convinced it was even a leap worth taking. At the end of my freshman year, I made my choice to be a homemaker and got married. I didn’t foresee the dreaded question.

What DID I do? Well, first of all, it’s not as though I didn’t get a little money in here and there doing this or that. I sewed quite a bit but also swapped kids’ clothing with friends and neighbors. I bartered things like babysitting and birthday cakes for rides and other “extras.” I read the Tightwad Gazette and got Mother Earth News from the library. I learned to squeeze every nickel. I drew on everything I had learned in that precious time before the home had been drained of economic value; I had taken home economics classes in high school; now the field was termed “Family and Consumer Sciences.” Not the same thing.

I sadly watched the show as I painfully endured that evening and waited for it to end, even as a dogged determination to defend my homemaking was slowly rising within me. What do I do? Well, for one thing, I’m spending the bulk of my time guiding the next generation and instilling our values into our children. I’m making our albeit tiny little house a homey place to be with nutritious meals on the table every night. I’m giving my husband a comfortable and comforting place to be after a day’s work. And I’m even taking substantive volunteer roles within my community and church. By golly, just because I make oatmeal on a daily basis doesn’t mean my brain was turning into mush.

As the final song of the performance reached its height, the singer threw a single red rose into the audience and miraculously into my lap! The other women at the table congratulated me and I delighted in imagining them to be just a tidge jealous. With this small reward, I went back home with a renewed hope that I had chosen a worthy profession after all.