Unfortunately, an inner darkness has been with me all fall hiding in the corners of my mind and disturbing my body creating headaches and stomach troubles during the day. Although I attempt to protect myself from a culture that I cannot control by not listening to news, watching television, movies or perusing social media I am painfully aware of the fact that politicians on an international level cannot even agree to discuss what to do about climate change – this after 30 years of doing absolutely nothing – creating in me a mindless fury that leaves me in black despair. The time of acting locally and thinking globally is long past. Thinking and doing must occur on a global level. Novelist Richard Powers states the obvious: “People can better imagine the end of the end of the world before the end of Capitalism”. Then we can move to the moon.
I have also been forced to acknowledge how difficult this year has been on a personal level. Aging is affecting my energy level, increasing the severity of depressed states, my sense of inner and outer balance. I am vulnerable and know it although I do my best to begin each day with gratitude as I first peer out at my beloved trees, a little nuthatch or chickadee, gaze at a silver crescent, or celebrate a pale pink dawning.
I love my new life in Portugal and I’m so happy and grateful to be here. However, I have encountered one major roadblock–I simply cannot replicate my daily writing routine that I’d relied on in the UK for nearly twenty years. I used to get up and leap right on the page, but now I keep horses on my property and their care and feeding come first, before I even get my human breakfast. And horse care is the last thing I do before sunset. If once I was a morning writer, now I’m a late morning/early afternoon writer. Writing gets sandwiched between horse care. Creative ideas bubble up as I ruminate while picking poo in the early morning. I’ve had to find a new rhythm that fits my new life.
Many of us, particularly many women, are struggling to find their daily rhythm while balancing the demands of remote-working with childcare, home schooling, and elder care as we enter the eleventh month of our global pandemic. This can be depleting, to say the least. To make matters worse, the old boundaries between work, family life, and “leisure” have unravelled and become impossibly blurred. Many of us feel under even greater pressure to be productive during this time.
Experts preach that we need to manage our time, plan every minute of the day by making little boxes for each task in our daily planner. I have tried to do this, but always rebel in the end. It seems a pointless task to try to force the flow of my day into orderly boxes. Instead I try to find what rhythms work for me so it feels organic rather than forced.
Now as a woman in my mid-fifties, I feel I have arrived at the other side of the mountain. I moved to Portugal, in part, to slow down. To be less frantically obsessed about work and career. To take a step back from the whole competitiveness of the writing world that can be soul-destroying and completely antithetical to the creative process. I’m done running myself ragged in some misguided attempt to get ahead. Perhaps I’m losing my “edge.” Perhaps this is what it means to be literally “over the hill.” You’ve come so far on your journey that it’s too late to return to old ways of doing things or old ways of seeing the world–the view is completely different up here.
Due to the radical reset of the pandemic, I think that a lot of people are arriving at this place, regardless of their chronological age. At some point we reach a peak of life experience beyond which there is no going back. We have entered a new landscape, brand new territory where the old maps will not get us anywhere. We have to seek a new direction. We have arrived in the place where we can claim our power, our inner sovereignty, and live our life to the rhythms that work for us.
For me this means abandoning the cult of productivity, the pervasive belief that living to work makes us virtuous. That our worth is determined by our output. This cult is particularly damaging to women who still carry the bulk of childcare and domestic work–the whole second shift of wife work that goes unrecognized, unvalued, and unpaid. I believe the majority of male productivity gurus can only adhere to their monastically rigid schedules because they have an unpaid woman in the background doing all the childcare and mopping up all the mess.
One thing I’ve learned the hard way is that, if we let it, the cult of productivity will completely poison both our creativity and our spirituality.
The cult of productivity diminishes our daily spiritual practice as yet another demanding task on our to-do list, a result-oriented form of competitive striving. “I’m not a serious spiritual seeker unless I get up at 5:00 am to meditate. How else will I be on track to achieve enlightenment?”
Spiritual practice is by its very nature the precise opposite of doing or striving. It’s letting go, surrendering to a state of pure being and receptivity, relaxing into the divine luminosity welling up in our hearts.
As for creativity, international best-selling author Hilary Mantel, one of my great idols, has written one of the best essays on the writing process I have ever read. Writing world-class literature, for her, is not a matter of locking herself in her office for eight hours a day or adhering to a rigid word count but of finding the right rhythm.
“I have to grab a notebook and write before I am properly awake,” she writes. “The day’s writing starts to unroll in my head. It’s fragile and often a matter of rhythm rather than words.”
Mantel stresses the importance of writers trusting themselves, trusting their creative flow, rather than obsessing about productivity. Good writing is not a matter of “persecuting paper with ink or pounding the keys. . . . You can’t measure your productivity day-to-day in any way the world recognizes.”
Then Mantel spills her secret that cuts the productivity gurus down to size:
I feel shy of saying this, because to non-writers it sounds lazy–but if, seven days a week, you can cut out two hours for yourself, when you are undistracted and on-song, you will soon have a book. Unoriginally, I call these “the golden hours.” It doesn’t much matter where I find them, as long as I do. I usually work many more hours. But sometimes I wonder why.
When we step into flow, either creative or spiritual flow, we enter a realm of timelessness, where our calendars and clocks dissolve into oblivion. We lose ourselves in that rich inner world. And it’s not forced. It’s not imposed upon us. The flow carries us. May we all be blessed with golden hours.
Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history. Her acclaimed novel Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, is published by Mariner. Her new novelRevelations, about the globe-trotting mystic and rabble-rouser, Margery Kempe, will be published in April 2021. Visit her website.
Over the past few months, I’ve been struggling to write posts. This month is no different. I am currently sitting with four different half-drafts on three semi-related topics, none of which I seem to be able to complete. I’ve gone back to each of them numerous times. I write. I erase. I rewrite. I copy bits of one into another to save for some other time. I’m left with one sentence: this week’s Torah parshah is Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8). Great. Glad to know that. Now what?
When writing, I often find myself in one of two camps given the current state of the world. Either, I have so much to say that I have no clear idea where to start, so I write three pages of more or less nonsense. Or, I find myself just so inundated with information that I don’t know where my opinion begins and another’s ends. I write another 3 pages of completely different nonsense. I get fed up with both. I start praying better thoughts will just write themselves. They don’t.
Over the past few days, I’ve been spending time at a church in Alexandria, Virginia conducting oral history interviews. I’m doing research for a project about the arts and the church that has me diving deep into the church’s congregants’ and leaders’ experiences. Yesterday’s conversations offered insight about many theological topics that interest me, but what was particularly encouraging was what I witnessed concerning women in ministry. That’s not what I was looking for, but it is what I needed to see.
Before beginning these interviews, I had already been thinking about the ways women’s authority and voice are often challenged. This past weekend, I attended a regional religion conference where I assumed a leadership position and my voice was sought out for advice and insight. I had great conversations with other women in academia about wellness and success while I was there. Attending the conference provoked fond memories of a similar conference many years ago, when I connected with many colleagues in this FAR community and we discussed the theme of “Women and Authority.” Those were positive experiences. But I had an unpleasant encounter, too, when I was on the receiving end of a male colleague’s condescending remarks. I was also made aware of a disturbing incident in which a woman of color was publicly disrespected while speaking at a university event and subsequently trolled. Those experiences triggered anger and deep sadness. To be honest, I also felt a sense of resignation and defeat. Patriarchy is just so persistent.
The poems below are excerpted from my new (I hope forthcoming) collection, Tell Me the Story Again. Ancient dreamer’s voice is one among many voices including sorrow singer, temple sweeper, sword woman, morose fool, merry drunk, grey cat and mouse, stone mountain, skeleton woman, mother rain and many more. The voices speak from a time perhaps just after (or long before) our time, in a real and magical world.
I chose to excerpt ancient dreamer’s poems because winter is the time, in Celtic lore, of the Cailleach, the old one, the divine hag. When I began writing the poems in 2014, my mother-in-law, then age 101, was in the last stages of her life. She slept and dreamed most of the time, and I would sit and daydream with her. She died two months before her 102nd birthday. When I took up the collection again in 2018 to complete it, ancient dreamer remained a strong presence and has the last word.
Lately I’ve been reading a few Paulo Coelho books. I won’t say they are beyond feminist criticism, but it’s not what I’m going to focus on this post; but as always, feel free to say in the comments why/if you find them problematic. I expect and welcome it because it might be another layer of this conversation that I don’t have time or am not yet emotionally ready for myself.
What I want to focus on is the solution the author seems to advance in each of his books, at least those I’ve read, to our perpetual unhappiness despite the evidence that everything is fine, better than might otherwise be.
Adultery: I never finished this one, actually. I had to take it back to the library the last time I had to leave Ireland, but I’m sure I will find it again and read the rest of it soon. So I can’t say what the ending revealed, but what sticks in my mind was the predicament of the main character. She, from her perspective, had it all: wealth, an interesting career she liked, an attractive husband who was attentive and kind, a family, health. This was why she was so confused that she was unhappy. This is the premise of many of his books: the person who doesn’t know why they are unhappy. Also, the observation that no one is really happy.
For about a year and a half, I have been working on a collection of poetry that I feel is worth something. I have been writing poetry since I scribed pages hidden between my math textbook when I was 9, gone through poetry workshops in graduate school where I produced a creative thesis, and continued to write off-and-on after that. I have an extensive cornucopia of poetry, but it was around last October of 2016, perhaps, that I decided to write my experience.
As a pre-teen, I wrote about what I thought my life could be, fantasizing about being an older woman with mottled relationships, missing opportunities to discuss my fragile relationship with my parents as the only-child-golden-child, my passion and doubts as a religious, my shame at not being more experienced. Even when I was in graduate school for poetry in Ohio, I didn’t think my life was worth excavating. I wrote dreamy, dense poetry that was surreal and symbolic but largely incoherent. I could again have written about my evolving religious beliefs, my curiosities and risks I took living outside of my home state of Oklahoma as a young woman for the first time, my declining relationship with my mother, or my insecurities again, but this time as a lesser-prepared graduate student in comparison with my literary and theory-laden colleagues.
On one hand, some might say the culture I come from is narcissistic and navel-gazing. I would agree, but just like I feel women can sometimes be selfish in a quite necessary and liberating way (as opposed to those around her accusingly saying she is “so selfish” for abandoning them/following her own path/needing a room of her own), I feel the confessional and self-reflective can be the healing and helpful side of the coin. For me, at least in my experience, my “finished” collection feels exactly this way.
Over the summer, I’ve been writing more than I do during the traditional academic year when other tasks consume the bulk of my workday. I have spent more time experiencing the joy of creative discovery and production, but I’ve also had more time confronting the difficulties of creative work as I’ve wrestled with some of its unique challenges. One of those challenges has been to refine my academic writing voice. I’ve approaches the challenge of developing my voice as both a spiritual and feminist practice and this has helped me find confidence in my work.
Kavannah is a Jewish concept meaning intention or motivation, perhaps most associated with Hasidism. Hassidism teaches that prayer and the fulfillment of mitzvot connects one more with the Holy One if the right state of mind is cultivated before participating in said activity. While going through the motions (prayer, mitzvot, etc.) is important and still technically fulfills the mitzvot, it is not as spiritually beneficial to the individual as is doing those tasks with kavannah. Praying and fulfilling mitzvot within a certain mental space more fully connects you to the divine. Judaism is not alone regarding this religious insight. Clearly there is something to it.
The world at large might view artists and writers as free spirits rocking la vie bohème, but creative people know that it’s much more complicated than that, especially if we’re striving to earn even a modest living from our work. As a writer, I often fall into the trap of measuring my success or failure on factors completely beyond my control, such as the ups and downs of a fickle book buying market.
I know that I’ve often wrestled with the feeling that I’ll never be enough. Never be big enough, never be a bestseller. Sometimes it’s hard not to succumb to a flailing sense of helplessness—why are any of us doing all this? Worst of all is my fear of creative dryness—that my inspiration will turn to dust and I’ll never write—let alone publish—another book.
I was in New York having tea with a colleague whose prominence in our field has risen significantly over the last several years. I confessed half-jokingly that had we not known each other before this happened, we probably would not have been sitting there catching up in a coffee shop because I would’ve turned down the invitation. For as long as I can remember I’ve had an aversion to being in close proximity with even moderately well-known people, even if they are known only within our shared professional circles. Continue reading “Taking Risks to Heal Ourselves and Our World by Katey Zeh”
I’m currently developing a book that considers how theological and ethical considerations in architectural design can define good architecture. My book discusses five virtues related to the architectural design process that promote human participation in bringing out God’s intention of flourishing for humanity and creation. Those five virtues (or values) are: empathy, creativity, discernment, beauty, and sustainability. In the book, I’ll explain how these virtues orient design tasks to the social and ethical aims of architecture.
In this virtual space, I want to have a discussion about what these virtues mean from a feminist standpoint. In my writing, I draw from theological ethics, architectural theory, and feminist theory to emphasize community discernment and participation. It’s fitting, then, to claim opportunities in my work to acknowledge the feminists who have influenced me while also opening up the dialogue to the feminists in this community who continue to inspire and guide me to do my best work. Continue reading “What Dorothee Soelle Taught Me about Creativity by Elise M. Edwards”
There are three vicious circles: patriarchy, samsara and wanton destruction of environment. All three lead ultimately to annihilation of life. All three are incredibly difficult to escape. One of the reasons for this difficulty is that there are pay-offs. Someone or something benefits from keeping the cycles going.
I still remember the first time I read Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology. It awoke something within me. Her use of language, the power of her writing and the ease with which she created new words taught me so much about the world around me and about the way the language, and subsequently its use in writing, shapes lives, choices, abilities and destinies. She also taught me about myself.
I was hooked, but not just on Mary Daly. Shortly after I finished her book, I moved onto other feminists writing about religion like Katie Cannon, Judith Plaskow, Alice Walker, Carol Christ, Rita Gross, Gloria Anzaldua, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Margaret Farley and Starhawk to name just a few. All of them, in fact every feminist I’ve ever read, has shown me the way in which words have power and how words speak truth to power. Ever since, I’ve wanted to be the kind of writer whose words carry a power that not only affects people but also inspires a more just, more equal, more compassionate and more humane world. In other words, I wanted to be a writer activist.
Yet, I’ve always carried around with me a sneaky suspicion that people don’t consider writers true activists. If you aren’t holding a sign, screaming or participating in some sort of public demonstration or civil disobedience, then you have no right to call yourself an activist. Is that really true? Continue reading “Writing: Changing the World and Ourselves. By Ivy Helman”
In honor of all the new, especially female, matriculates (at my school or elsewhere), I’m reposting below one of my first entries on this blogsite. It was entitled “Undermining Our Own Authority.” The advice I gave then still captures what I’d say now.
In her book Queer Phenomenology, Sara Ahmed investigates how we orient ourselves in space with respect to tables – the tables around which we sit, at which we eat with friends and families of choice and birth, and at which we write. She describes moving into a new place and arranging the furniture. “After the kitchen, the room I hope to inhabit is always the study. Or the place that I have decided is the place where I will write. There, that will be my desk. Or it could just be the writing table. It is here that I will gather my thoughts. It is here that I will write, and even write about writing. … Making a place feel like home, or becoming at home in a space, is for me about being at my table. I think fondly of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. How important it is, especially for women, to claim that space, to take up that space through what one does with one’s body. And so when I am at my table, I am also claiming that space, I am becoming a writer by taking up that space.” (11) Ahmed goes on to discuss how certain possibilities are opened up, and others foreclosed, by the way we orient ourselves (or find ourselves oriented) to others and to objects. She describes the bodily postures that result from orienting oneself to the writing table – the way one might hunch over one’s computer, or find oneself with ink-stained fingers.
In a very different context, the queer theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid describes a scene from her childhood in Argentina. She kneels in front of a priest for confession. But instead of kneeling to the side, aslant, as she ‘ought’ to have done, being a girl, she kneels directly in front of the priest, as if she were a boy. Kneeling here too is a form of orientation, a form of direction, a bodily habit of becoming. “Kneeling is troublesome and it has a theological referent in the church’s also troubled waters of sexuality and power. A whole symbolic sexual order is obviously manifested in kneelings as positions of subordination and sites of possible homo- and hetero- seductions, because these are theologically distributed around the axis of the priesthood’s male genitalia. The priest’s penis carries the sacred connotations of the phallus as a transcendental signifier of the theological discourses to everyday Christianity, and kneeling is a liturgical positing designed to centralise and highlight this.” (The Queer God, 11) To kneel in the right (gendered) position in relation to the priest is also to kneel in the right relation to God. Continue reading “Orientations: Body, Space, Authority by Linn Marie Tonstad”
“I’ll be the first to admit that it can be difficult, if not exhausting, for women professionals to discern how to be strong and assertive (and thus be taken seriously) without coming across as arrogant or b*tchy. But there is indeed room for play between over-deference and cockiness, and the ability to code-switch while in formal settings would be a good step in the right direction for many of us.”
Whatever your take is on Madonna’s feminist bona fides, she was definitely on to something in her 2001 hit “What it Feels Like For a Girl.” Madonna sang about the tremendous pressures females of all ages face to conform to gendered norms of physical appearance and demeanor. I want to use her lyrics to discuss some ways I have seen young women in academe subtly undermine their own authority.