Finding Queen Esther in Myself

Today is the 14th of Adar according to the Jewish calendar. Or, more famously, it is the Holiday of Purim, I was born on Purim. So, in terms of the Hebrew calendar today is my birthday. (It is March 14th according to the secular calendar).

Roly Poly Lisa

My Grandparents wanted me to be named Esther. Back then, that was the name for old women, although it has had a resurgence of late. So I appreciated my parents decision to name me Lisa instead. My Hebrew name is Leah Hannah.

Baby Lisa and Big Sister Deb

I was originally planning a different post today, about wandering alone through the snowy grounds of a botanical garden and discovering the difference between being alone and being lonely. However, a discussion on Facebook about Hamentaschen (sparked by my craving for that special treat) made me think about the Story of Esther, the story of Vashti, the story of women. It made me think about all the craziness going on in our country and the need for women’s voices. So now I am writing this post.

Vashti was a queen, married to King Ahasuerus until he made an unacceptable drunken demand. He wanted to show off the beauty of his wife, and insisted that she appear in front of his banquet of guests. That might not have been an issue except that he wanted her to appear wearing a crown and NOTHING ELSE.

As any proud, feminist (before the term was coined) woman would and should do, she refused. In defense of his male ego, Ahasuerus (encouraged by other men) decided to replace her by holding a beauty contest.

Yes, the next queen would not be selected for brains or anything else but her beauty. And, let me point out, the contest was judged in this way:

English Standard Version(©2001)
In the evening she would go in, and in the morning she would return to the second harem in custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch, who was in charge of the concubines. She would not go in to the king again, unless the king delighted in her and she was summoned by name.” (Esther 2:14)

In case you are missing that, she had to spend the night with the king and then would be sent to the harem for concubines. So, she was not acceptable to marry until he had sex with her. Who is to blame if women are called whores?

Many criticize Esther, saying she should not have agreed to take the place of Vashti. But what is a young Jewess to do in a world where men hold all the power, including enough power to discard a wife for her refusal to appear naked in front of a group of strangers? In other words, in a world where MEN controlled the decisions a woman could make about HER BODY.

Haman Begging the Mercy of Esther, by Rembrandt

Image via Wikipedia

Esther became Queen, and then Haman entered the picture. Haman was a noble and vizier to Ahasuerus, who set out to have all the Jews destroyed when Esther’s uncle Mordecai refused to bow down to him. Esther had listened to the instructions of her uncle, and never told anyone she was a Jew. She set out to save her people (although some say she was pressured into it under fear of her own death) by reminding the king that Mordecai had saved him in the past by revealing a plot to kill the king. She also pointed out that if the Jews must die, then she must die. In the end, Haman was killed and Jews gained more power in the kingdom.

Perhaps Esther only became strong to save herself, but I don’t criticize her for that because sometimes it takes the realization of danger to gain the strength to fight. I am sensing the danger to myself and my daughter all around. I now want to fight.

This morning Sarah and I snuggled up for a chat in my bed. Yesterday I read “Am I Pretty? Really? You Sure?” over at Broadside, a post that in some ways directly relates to the story of Purim. All the women in that story were judged by their beauty, but they all had something much more important to offer. Vashti took a stand that basically destroyed her life, but she stood for what was right. Esther took a chance to save her people. Yet still today women are so often judged by appearance and sexuality, and we let it happen. So, while chatting with Sarah, I talked about where true beauty lies, and that it has very little to do with outer appearance. You’ve all seen pictures of Sarah. I know she is beautiful, but I would much rather her have the strength of conviction of Vashti or the courage of Esther then outer beauty.

After this conversation she jumped up and said, “I want to read something with you.” She ran over and got a book she had been avoiding: American Girl’s The Care & Keeping of YOU: The Body Book for Girls. We read the first chapter and she said, “I’m more comfortable reading this with you.”

She is growing up.

I am fearful of the world she is growing into. A world where women’s voices seem to be fading instead of growing in power. A world where men still try to control women’s bodies. A world where we are still being judged by sex.

I don’t want her to have to live in that world. So, it’s time to take on the mantle of  the Queens. To stand up for what is right like Vashti. To protect my people, other women, like Esther. To fight for a world which values intelligence over beauty, and equality over power.

I don’t yet know what that means, but I know I have to try.

But first, I really wish I could eat some hamentaschen.

Everyday Fairy Tales

This picture has nothing to do with today's post, it just makes me happy.

 

In response to SideView’s weekend theme I thought I’d weave a fairy tale today, and become the Storyteller.

Once upon a time some children were born. They weren’t princes and princesses. As a matter of fact, there wasn’t anything obviously special about them. They all had good points and bad points. Some of them were handsome, some plain, some beautiful, some merely pretty. Some showed skills at thinking, some showed skills at creating. Some were smarter at one thing while some were smarter at others. Their differences didn’t matter, because as children their main purposes was to have fun.

They all laughed, they all cried, they all ate, they all dreamed. Some were raised by strict parents, some were raised by silly parents. Some of them worshiped one way, some of them worshiped another, and some of them didn’t believe in anything at all.

As they grew older, they each became more and more individual. They all enjoyed different things. Some liked to study and learn everything they could. Some preferred to build things out of wood and stone. Some wove fabric to make clothes. Some played with numbers and liked to watch money pile up. They all grew and changed. Some struggled. Others soared. Sometimes they met and fell in love. Sometimes the love turned to pain.

As they grew older, life changed. Some faced challenges like health problems or money issues. Some shot for fame and glory, but found loneliness with it. Some settled into cozy homes surrounded by books and family, and quietly pursued dreams.

Sometimes they fought with each other. Those were dark times. Fighting would bring about pain, death, sadness, and the end of people’s stories. So one day, a group of these children, now grown, got together and realized that the fighting had to stop. What were they fighting about after all? So what if people believed in different things and had different dreams. What was the real basis for the animosity?

This small group discussed the issue at great length. They debated and questioned. They argued (without weapons) and negotiated. Eventually, they came to an understanding, and sent out a list for all to see, some simple rules to live by:

  • It does not matter what you believe or how you worship as long as you believe in something.
  • Without life, money and power become meaningless. If you live your life for money and power alone then what kind of life do you live?
  • Everyone has the right to food, shelter, health, beauty and love.

Some of the people who were not part of the discussion did not like this list. But eventually more and more people recognized the truth, and they came together to celebrate a world of difference.

And they all LIVED happily ever after.

A World Sliding Backwards

I had a little wrangle with bureaucracy today and gave up in a fit of frustration (or maybe a temper tantrum).

I simply wanted to accept my current reality and change my driver’s license from Colorado to Kansas. I admit, I clung to the Colorado license for a couple of reasons. Ostensibly, I held onto it because we owned the house in Durango, and I thought it would be good for one of us to still be considered a resident. In reality, though, I did not want to say good bye to Durango, and even more I didn’t want to embrace my existence in Kansas. There was also the fact that they took a really cute license photo last time, and I didn’t want to let it go.

But, we officially closed on the house and it looks like I’m stuck living here for a while longer, so I figured it was time to give in and get a new driver’s license.

“Do you have your birth certificate and marriage license?”

“Well, no.”

“A current passport will do. We need you to prove your married name.”

“But I didn’t change my name when I got married. I’ve had this name on every license since I was 16.”

“We need your passport or your birth certificate and marriage license. Oh, and proof of address.”

“Well, I’m moving into a new rental in a few weeks. I was hoping I could put that address on.”

“Not without proof.”

Needless to say, I still have my Colorado license for a while. I have my passport, but I could not deal with the bureaucracy anymore today. Besides, I feel like the passport isn’t going to be enough, because I kept my name when I got married. Its like I did something wrong, daring to maintain my identity and keep my last name.

Don’t get me wrong. I see nothing wrong with taking your husband’s name when you get married. But for me, it didn’t feel right for a number of reasons. I reserve the name change for my future (imaginary) career as a radio talk show host a la Dr. Ruth–then I will become Dr. Lisa Lee the Love Dr.

We could be twins. 😉

What really bothers me about all this was the implication about my name. I suddenly recognized that marriage, in the eyes of some laws, means that I am the property of my husband, or at the very least his legal responsibility. I mean, nobody asked him for his marriage license when he changed to the Kansas license last year. Why should I have to provide mine?

I am the property of nobody. I am responsible for myself.

Is that craziness, or just Kansas?

Well, after I finally finished jumping through bureaucratic hoops (I also had to pay for my tags today–a nice chunk of change) Sarah and I got lunch at the only coffee shop in town. I read the Tulsa paper as I was waiting only to be repulsed by the fact that Kansas is trying to cut funding to Planned Parenthood, while also forcing them and two other agencies that provide abortions to go through some inspections to grant them the right to perform abortions–inspections which might inevitably fail in pulling those rights (they’ve already yanked it from one of the three). That would make Kansas the only state to not provide any resources for this as well as the first state to pull all funding from a State Arts Council.

So basically, I believe I am now living in a state that wants me barefoot, pregnant, and the property of my husband without the ability to support myself by doing the work I do the best which involves Arts Education.

You know what scares me the most? The potential that our country could easily continue to slide in this horrific direction–backwards to a world where equality exists only in the mouths of men.

 

Defined by Breasts

“She was outraged at the thought that people would even consider that the letters might not be from Mariana, and I thought of the times when, as women, we are not heard and how after 300 years, Mariana, whose words have changed so many lives, is not allowed the most basic of rights, to claim her own voice.” (Myriam Cyr, “A Note from the Author,” Letters of a Portuguese Nun, xii)

“Be prepared,” my friend Jackie said as we sat working on projects in her fabulous Blue Box Art Studio. “Some artist think that you can only really be an Artist if you’ve taken the proper technique classes, and they will also judge you as a woman.”

I’m just dipping my toe into the world of art right now, and I’m really not doing it because I want to be known as an “artist”. Projects, words, and ideas have all been flooding into me lately, and I’m simply embracing them and then finding ways to express them. This personal journey that I am on is exciting and terrifying and opening me up to so many possibilities.  I don’t really care if  Artists (with a capital A) think what I am doing is Art.

I can’t say the same thing, however, about the Woman issue. If you read my recent post called The Power of Women’s Voices you know that I am fascinated by the stories of women who have pursued their passions and dreams despite society’s expectations. In that post I talked about women historically, but more and more I have come to realize that nothing has really changed for women.

I know, I know. Women hold higher positions throughout the world and have more equality, and yada, yada, yada. But, the reality lies in a subtle manipulation of language that does not allow women to be equal. A woman is almost always defined by her sex: a woman writer, a female artist, a congresswoman, the first woman to run for president. (Yes, yes, I know–Obama will forever be known as the first black president. This subtle manipulation of language to assert power or difference is not exclusive to the description of women).

So, I suggest we change this by our own manipulation of language. How, you ask? Well, here are some examples that have popped into my head:

  • William Shakespeare, perhaps the most well-known non-female playwright of his time . . .
  • Hilary Clinton, who served as Secretary of State under the male President Obama
  • Non-female talk-show host, David Letterman swapped jibes with Ellen the other day, and of course lost (Now . . . I’m making all of this up folks, as examples. This is not intended as a serious statement of fact.)
  • One of the funniest non-female bloggers Mark (aka The Idiot) battles Tori Nelson to a duel of witty banter causing a medical emergency as blog readers every keel over with extreme fits of laughter and tears.  (Okay, I’d really like to see that).
  • The Tony Award goes to newcomer Lisa Kramer who defeats the better-known non-female directors . . . (I told you this is fiction, now bordering on fantasy)

I hope you get my point by now. If we turn the tables, will it reverse the expectations of what is the “norm” or the “ideal”? Or do we continue to stand by and let the “norm” be defined as “white, male, heterosexual etc.” which we all know is a fallacy of the highest order. As long as we continue to define people by their gender/sexual identity/race we reinforce the perception that somehow only certain people define the norm.

So, now I’m moving on to the more “serious” or academic part of the discussion. Feel free to stop reading if you would like, although I hope you won’t. After all, despite the fact that I am a woman, sometimes I actually have valuable insight.  😉

I realize there is value in identifying ourselves by our gender, our sexual identities, our races, and our religions. I myself would be really interested to know the numbers of bloggers who are female vs. the number who are male. I know that most of the blogs I follow happen to be by women, but I wonder if that is simply because they write things that I am more interested in reading, or because there are a greater number of female bloggers out there. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were more women, because we all know the reality that it is hard to get published, and I think it is even harder for females unless they are writing in specific genres. Of course, I don’t have evidence of this, but I’m sure it could be found.

Myriam Cyr’s quote from Letters of a Portuguese Nun shows that, historically at least, anything that surpassed expectations and “threatened to upset the delicate balance of power between men and women” (xviii) could not possible be written by a woman. Apparently, the debate over this issue still rages, led by French scholar Jacques Rougeot and Frederic Deloffre who say

“Admit that the Portuguese Letters were written in a convent, by a nun with little if any instruction, having never known the world, is to believe that spontaneity and pure passion inspired a woman to write a superior work of art over and above what the best minds of the greatest period of French literature could offer their public.” (Cyr xix)

I know there were some French female writers from the time period, but I wonder if the objection is more based on the fact that the nun was a woman than on her training (since she clearly was educated to some extent in the nunnery).  Those who disagree, attribute the letters to a male French aristocrat.

Can we even tell the difference between things created by a man and things created by a woman? I mentioned earlier that most of the blogs I follow happen to be written by women, but how do I really know? Identities can easily be faked in this strange world of web technology.  And, I guess it doesn’t really matter if someone is hiding his identity behind the facade of a woman if I enjoy the blog. (Why anyone would do that, of course, is beyond me). In past Comp classes I’ve conducted an experiment with my students. As a class we pick a topic, and then they write about it with a time limit. They hand these papers forward and I read them out loud. The students then need to guess whether the writer was male or female. I can usually (but not always) by the handwriting or the color of pen (for some reason guys rarely choose purple pens, go figure). Sometimes the students can guess, and sometimes they can’t.  When it comes down to writing about the same things, it is often hard to tell the difference.

Does it matter if something is written or created by a woman? Or by someone with more or less education? Or by a black, asian, mexican, alien with five eyes and a tail. . . It only matters if the creation in some way relates to being one of those things.  It only matters if the creation is rooted in actually living a certain experience. But even then it does not matter . . . because emotions and thoughts can be universal, can’t they?

But maybe I am wrong. Maybe the differences between women and men can be seen in everything we do. If that’s true, then that must be celebrated, because it is difference that makes this world such an interesting place. But difference need not imply one is better than another, Difference simply implies difference.

Art is art whether or not you have learned all the techniques. A writer is a writer even without an extra appendage between the legs. Leaders are leaders even if they happen to have breasts. An artist is an artist, even if the art reflects the feminine divine. A movie star is a movies star even if he/she loves someone of the same sex. [Sometimes movie stars are movie stars despite the fact that they are actually creatures from another planet ;)]

Our reality is defined by language. The question is, does the language control us or do we control the language?

 

Elizabeth Barret Browning

 

“A Curse for a Nation”
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1856)

I heard an Angel speak last night,
And he said “Write!
Write a Nation’s curse for me,
And send it over the Western Sea.”

. . . “Not so,” I answered once again.
“To curse, choose men.
For I, a woman, have only known
How the Heart melts, and the tears run down.”

“Therefore,” the voice said, “Shalt thou write
My curse to-night.

Some women weep and curse, I say
(And no one marvels), night and day.
“And thou shalt take their part to-night,
Weep and write.
A curse from the depths of womanhood
Is very salt, and better and good.”

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