I know that you all will be reading this the day after Christmas…so this is my Christmas and/or winter holiday gift to you. I so love the Feminism and Religion (FAR) community—its discourse, intelligence, and its community of like minds. And I appreciate that so many of us offer lessons to each other on how to live—wild. For in some ways the very juxtaposition of the words “feminism” and “religion” posits an out of bounds existence. What does it mean?
I was recently asked how I would teach a class on “women and religion.” Among my first responses was that I would, among other texts, use the book The Feminine Face of God: the Unfolding of the Sacred in Women by Sherry Ruth Anderson and Patricia Hopkins (1992). Although this book was published over two decades ago it still holds, perhaps unfortunately, as true today as then. The text is based on interviews with women regarding the “unfolding of the sacred” in their lives. This book was required as part of my graduate program in the first class I took at Claremont Graduate University (CGU) “Women’s Studies in Religion.” CGU was the first program in the country where you could get your Ph.D. in Religion, with an emphasis in Women’s Studies in Religion, and I believe it is still the only program where you can do so.
My professor for that class, Dr. Karen Torjesen, challenged us to write, if we could, the “theology” in the book—was there one? She challenged us to see if there was a “theo” “logo” word of God in this idea of the “unfolding of the sacred” in women. I took up her challenge—and so one of my first big graduate papers was to unpack this book of interviews and see if I could find a theology in these lives/stories. This is what I found—what is sacred to women—right now (in 1992 and still today)—is the chance to find the sacred.
In a nutshell, my thesis:
Women don’t get to go the mountaintop often. We don’t get to go on the wild soul searching quest, because we are always so busy helping other people get ready to go on their soul searching quest.
It is not often available for women –the resources and chance to go on that solitary journey and make it their primary focus. So, how can you go to the mountain top if what you are doing is taking care of others? My “theology” for the book was then that the search for the sacred should be elevated to its own theology—for women the search is sacred. When women have had the time, encouragement and resource to go to that proverbial mountaintop the way that men have— then we can do something else. But we won’t know what that something else is until we have had the time and resources and our own permission to undertake the journey. Until that time, women need to be encouraged to see the very act of searching for the face of god as its own theology–its own word of god. (And, yes, my professor did agree with me! She loved the paper and I ended up presenting it at several conferences.)
Fast forward to 2014.
A slew of movies are at your multiplex. It’s the prelude to Oscar season—so this is the prime spot for a film’s release. Let’s consider Wild, based on the novel by the same name by Cheryl Strayed. This is a film about a woman, Cheryl, hiking the Pacific Coast Trail—1,000+ grueling miles—to deal with/survive/ move on from the death of her mom , a divorce and…getting over a bad boyfriend and too many drugs. Everything has gone wrong in Cheryl’s life so she – literally– takes to the mountaintop –to find herself. And what happens? The unfolding of the sacred. Check out the glowing reviews for this movie, among them this one entitled, “Wild Tells a Remarkable Story of Redemption.”
There are more clips of reviews for the film here and a quick perusal of these will highlight the words “female” “feminist” “strong” “redemptive” “unusual” etc. It’s a cliff notes summary of how unusual it is for a story about a woman going off alone for the sole reason of finding herself, and finding redemption, to be considered important—especially unusual that it would be considered important enough to be made into a studio feature.
It’s unusually extraordinary for a film to be about a woman 1- going on a hike (yes, it’s grueling—but it’s still a woman doing a hike); 2- where most of the dialogue takes place with herself, inside her head; and 3- is about what she is she trying to do –she is just finding herself. She is not trying to find a man, a husband, a lover, or even a career. She is trying to make sense of the world, to find herself. To find the unfolding of the sacred within herself. I hazard that it is almost, if not more so, as unusual today as it was when the book, The Feminine Face of God, was written.
The only book that Cheryl Strayed did not burn as she read (a common hiker practice, apparently, so as to lighten the load) was Adrienne Rich’s poetry, The Dream of a Common Language. Reese Witherspoon, who plays Strayed, is marvelous in the role and performed without any makeup. In the film, she reads the poetry by the fire at night.
Strayed quotes Rich, “The words are purposes./ The words are maps,” in her book to start the chapter entitled “Tracks.” Strayed is literally going to the mountaintop and the words are purposes. The words of another woman are what help her find and make the tracks.
I also remember reading Adrienne Rich for the first time and being utterly transported to that place where we exist with a common language—that of feminism and female empowerment. Perhaps that is what we are doing here with this FAR blog- searching for and sometimes finding that common language. That is what Strayed was searching for as she hiked.
I remember clearly being at a friend’ house when I first read Rich. We were at the Cazenovia Women’s Writers Colony. It was the early 80s. And I remember reading Rich’s Common Language.
I especially remember reading the ending of my favorite poem/ sequence in the book, “Twenty One Love Poems” :
I choose to be the figure in that light,
half – blotted by darkness, something moving
across that space, the color of stone
greeting the moon, yet more than stone:
a woman. I choose to walk here. And to draw this circle.
How I loved those lines: “I choose to walk here. And to draw this circle.” I choose to walk here. No wonder Strayed did not burn Rich! No wonder I stayed up late at night reading Rich, in the women’s collective household where I was living on this brilliant ride of a year in a woman’ writing colony I had somehow financed through miraculous patch work.
I choose to walk here. And to draw this circle.
No, we can’t all hike the Pacific Coast Trail. We can’t all go away and write for a year. But—maybe we can. And in the meantime, we can empower each other to get ready for the big trip to the mountaintop. Or maybe we take a bunch of little trips. We can go to the beach, or the lake, or a body of water, or a field, or a piece of a nature we start to call home and blow bubbles. We can drive our pick up or other ride- like mine with its million bumper stickers- into the sunset and see where it takes us. We can put up a hot pink Christmas tree, as an older female kickass friend of mine does every year, and invite a bunch of friends to decorate it solely with pink ornaments and call it perfect.
We can make art, make love, work for peace, challenge and surprise ourselves—and we can allow the sacred to unfold in us.
If you are looking for a movie to see over the holidays—alone or with others– yes, I would suggest Wild. I’d suggest reading Feminine Face of God against or with Wild. And as for teaching women and religion? It seems to be grounded in teaching permission—permission to create and to forge the path. To go. To climb the mountain and come back with something.
Perhaps that something is feminism. Feminism and Religion.
Thank you, FAR, for all you do. Happiest of holidays to you all.
I choose to walk here. And to draw this circle.
Marie Cartier is a teacher, poet, writer, healer, artist, and scholar. She holds a BA in Communications from the University of New Hampshire; an MA in English/Poetry from Colorado State University; an MFA in Theatre Arts (Playwriting) from UCLA; an MFA in Film and TV (Screenwriting) from UCLA; and an MFA in Visual Art (Painting/Sculpture) from Claremont Graduate University. She is also a first degree black belt in karate, Shorin-Ryu Shi-Do-Kan Kobayashi style. Ms. Cartier has a Ph.D. in Religion with an emphasis on Women and Religion from Claremont Graduate University.