HERSTORY

When I was in college, for one of my classes in world history, I was assigned a textbook called “Herstory – the underside of History”.   The premise is that human history has been written by the victors, reinforced by denying literacy to women, and that what we are taught in school – tales of geopolitical conquest, tales of religious wars, that these chapters are actually not that important.  Not to our evolution as a species.  Cultural and scientific breakthroughs, changes in the definition of family, the fall of matriarchies and the rise of patriarchies – these are the truly historical events.  Lines drawn on a map, borders and country names changing as soldiers and warriors bled to crest a hill for the right to rename it – what we celebrate – it is all decidedly one-sided, and perhaps progress towards this goal of complete subjugation of the natural world is actually taking the human race backwards.  The so-called Renaissance was the Dark Ages for woman’s rights – the Napoleonic Code and the blithe assumption that women are chattel was the opposite of a giant step forward for mankind.          

      Conflicted left and right brain working at full capacity in a society willing to accept only one per gender.  Logic reason, intellect, numbers, analytical thinking – not expected from one who pines to take brush to paper and paint EVERY branch of those stark trees silhouetted by the sunset.  Turning a phrase like a lump on the potter’s wheel.  Only I don’t know what shape it is going to take.  How many half-uttered thoughts died aborning because some pitiful pre-programmed inadequacy department determined that no-one wanted to hear them?         

     So I take much of what has been written with a grain of salt.  There was a female Pharaoh named Hatshepsut who ruled one of most peaceful and abundant periods in Egyptian history.  Her name was literally erased from history – the hieroglyphics were chiseled out of the stone monuments and tablets, her name was not included in the lists of rulers.  I always picture that chisel and the chunks of stone where once there was wisdom whenever I read an account of the period I’ve been researching for the book.  Important contributions, I assume, will have been left out if those contributions were made by women.

What’s in a name?

Have you ever been asked:  “What’s your married name?  What’s your maiden name?  How can they be the same?”

This question seems so ludicrous.  It stems from a quaint custom, a rite-of-passage which is not, nor has it ever been, expected of men.  For women, however, a public pronouncement of love and commitment to a chosen mate is not enough.  A traditional band of precious metal worn on the left hand at all times is also not enough.  For, I have been told, it is expected that a woman must become an adjunct to her mate, to be put; like property, in his name.

            Let’s examine the common usage.  Take “Mrs. John Smith” for example.  Does anyone LIVE inside that name?  Could be a Rachel, could be an Angela, could be a nobody.  This appellation is Mr. John Smith’s portable label for his current spouse.  It is not truly a name.  Whose house is that?  John Smith’s.  Whose woman is that?  John Smith’s.

            I was born with my father’s name.  All of us children were.  My first name belonged to an Empress, and it is at the top of my resume, stating the necessary gender.  Prior to marriage, I lived twenty-seven years with this name, the one I have always used, the one I am using now.  It has been engraved on name plated, credit cards and business cards.  I can be found under this name in school yearbooks, personnel records, alumni listings and the phone book.  I have fleshed it out and made it ring with memories of a unique person.

            Consider, for a moment, the name:  “Mr. Jane Smith”.  Does it sound ludicrous?  Your first question may be:  “What’s his first name”?  But you won’t have to ask who he’s married to.

            But what last name will the children have?  Why not both?  If one last name must be chosen, why not the mother’s name?  And why is it assumed I will have children?  That leads to another essay altogether.

            I may decide to change my name someday – for convenience, or pure caprice.  But many women have fought long and hard for the right to choose where and when that change may take place.  In the not-too-distant past, it was illegal for a woman to keep her birth name.   Hopefully the change in legislation will lead to a change in attitude.  For the present, however, I will endeavor to gracefully field questions about the impossibility of having the same name after marriage as before.

The salt licks of remembered dreams

To see the author read this poem, here is the link to Poet’s Choice on YouTube:

Brilliant but crazy, creative but self-destructive.  You know her.  Her breath comes out like broken chess pieces, all their strategic importance gone, like the dust on an abandoned game board.  Sweat in crevices pooled in the matted hair behind her neck, soaked through, she is imagining the pillow stains – they are salt licks of remembered dreams.   Sleep is always hard to come by, searching for the owner’s manual.  There must be some instructions for nights like this.  Elusive Mr. Sandman, furtive, dispelled from the shadows by the light required to write.  This time for sure, when the light is extinguished, this time, he won’t be coy. 

Random thoughts swirl and spin in the eddies of your mind, Hard to catch, hard to ban They flit or hunker down, looping like audio tape.  Repeating like that scratch on your favorite record that jumps the needle, retracing the same lyric over and over.  Decades later you cannot sing that song without the skip.  Despair is like that scratched record.  You have to get up and lift the arm of the phonograph and place the needle past the crack.  You love that record, those songs of your youth.

Happiness was just there, skittering briefly through neural pathways like mercury without the poison.  You grasp it and work it into the defiant fur of her favorite cat, banking the glowing embers of a warm contentment.  Knowing that even in the land of endless summer, storms will come. 

In the morning you and she will dance to the tunes only you two hear.  She listens.  She lingers.  What a luxury to be heard!  Dancing in the rain, swinging on a lamp post, no longer relegated to the spry guy wearing sensible shoes.  Let go, love, she has put together a mix tape.  Locking in the light with a liberal sprinkling of libation, limbs akimbo they will morph into a mambo.  Enough of loss lessons, love wins by a landslide in this daintily possible tomorrow.

Aunt Mary’s Mask

My Aunt Mary and Dolly Parton had something in common; they never left home without their “war paint” on.  Pond’s cold cream and Oil of Olay – goop on, goop off.   Gluing on false eyelashes and curling the ones she had, applying foundations, powder for the shiny spots, rouge to add color to the cheeks she just painted beige, eyebrows plucked, eyeliner traced across lids, lips painted with a color to match the manicure.  Clairol’s honey blonde dyed hair wrapped like cotton candy, coiffed and sprayed.  Her neck was encircled with metal and stones, ears were pierced and hung with baubles, dangling and glittering like fishing lures.  

I would sit on the bed, she perched on the tufted stool at her vanity, lifting one then the other jar of unguents and potions. The makeup would leave Aunt Mary’s telephone surfaces smeared with the blues and tans of eye shadow and cover up. How would Aunt Mary cope now?  She was always the glamorous one, I expect her masks would be fashionable, another matching accessory.

I am exhausted, just remembering the elaborate war paint ritual.  

I realized recently that she selected from a complexion wheel with several shades of “natural” but only one shade of brown.  “Racism in the makeup aisle!”  Sometime in the 60’s Crayola changed the name of their pinkish tan shade from “flesh” to “peach”, because, like, it ISN’T flesh colored, not everyone’s flesh anyway. 

She also planted the idea in my head that since whale and bull sperm has been used in cosmetics for years, how about using the raw material?  So, if you’re giving a blow job, don’t spit it out, don’t swallow, but smear that jism around to tighten up those sagging corners.  Would that not save thousands of dollars wasted on plastic surgery, not to mention saving the whales?

I think about my face, this face that simply merges and replicates those features worn by my mother and father, it sports the Broeker nose, the Niedbalski chin, the blond wispy hair of Teutonic ancestors and the pasty complexion of the Celts and the Brits.  So pasty, even my hippy mom would wheedle: “Aw honey, you would be so much prettier with just a little mascara… 

I realize it shields me from the ingrained suspicion of dark faces, it shields me everywhere I go.  My whiteness pops out from the cloth edges of face coverings.  

Are we now putting on masks over masks?  Without the best cosmetics showing off our makeover skills, is the playing field levelled in an unintended way?  Will all of it get wiped off on the inside of our masks, where only our lovers can see what’s underneath?  Will we miss Tami Faye’s face melting when she cried?  Is that why Orange 45 won’t wear a mask?  Afraid of the smeared face underneath?  

I hope our men will take to decorating their eyes, to augment their expressions while masked.  I hope they embrace the eyebrow plucking concept or at least trim the wayward finger length hairs above their eyes, free of societal pressure to conform by gender.

Sometimes, outrage leaks out of my face.  My whole body goes into fight-to-the-death mode.  I got this thing against being hit.  I mean, If you hit me, I will take you down.  Did you know I was suspended from school three times (in three different Oakland public schools) for fighting?  Those three kids never hit me again.  This righteous warrior part of me is not a mask, it is full body armor.  I love my inner warrior.  She is the reason I survive.

This face can wear a beautiful mask, or when enraged, can wear a hideous mask, lips twisted, teeth exposed.  I can wash off the tears, I can moisturize their tracks, hide the traces of despair, place artfully the invisible mask of false contentment upon the surface, but the anger remains.