Be Wary of a Powerful Woman | Creative Nonfiction
I have repeatedly blamed my mother for the fact that I was identified as a boy. I didn’t realize until later in life that it was the way I held myself, my actions, and my opinions that produced that reaction. Instead, I thought it was my short hair. I don’t know the reason why mom cut my hair short. Maybe I cried too much when she brushed it; my fine hair was a breeding ground for knots and tangles. Plus, I’m an active sleeper. It is as if little fairies sit on my pillow giggling as they knot the ends together. So perhaps in an effort to defeat those damned fairies and their knotting ways, my mom cut my hair short, sometimes even shorter than my brother’s.
There was a moment in a grocery store that defined me and the complexity of my identity. We were on the way home from my soccer game, and Mom was rummaging in the frozen food bin at the local market. I was wearing my soccer uniform. I may have still been wearing my cleats, but I’m sure my shin guards were in the car. They were the hard plastic guards we used to place in our socks. I wouldn’t get the high-end guards that strapped around my feet until I started playing in high school.
A little blonde-haired boy was in a grocery cart on the other side of the freezers, and I smiled at him before turning back to my mom with her head in the frozen peas. Then I heard him ask, “Mommy, why is that boy wearing earrings?” I looked over to see him pointing at me. His mother looked at me, shocked; I assumed because she thought I was a boy wearing earrings, but I now know it was most likely humiliation that her son just called a pre-teen girl a boy. She quickly looked down and pushed her cart away from me. I have no idea if my mother heard any of this, but it was a statement and moment that haunted me for most of my teenage life.
I blamed it on my short hair, and thus, my mother. Yet, I know there were many contributing factors to that little boy’s statement. I have a stocky German build. I have broad shoulders and a muscular frame. It was a spring evening when I discovered my abnormally large shoulders. 1980s women’s fashion glorified shoulders by adding thick shoulder pads to everything from jackets to t-shirts. I stood in front of the mirror inspecting my wardrobe decision and realized my head appeared surprisingly small compared to my body. At first, I thought it was because my hair wasn’t teased out and hair sprayed yet. Next, I thought it was the shirt with shoulder pads, so I took it off. Looking at the mirror in my bra and jeans, I realized it wasn’t my head that was small, because when I pulled my shoulders back, I looked like any other girl in my school. I am a freak I thought as I cut the shoulder pads out of my shirt.
I have strong legs and well-defined calf muscles that are often a focal point. The other week at work someone called me back into the hallway to show my calves to her colleague. As it always happens, they ask what I do to achieve such defined muscles.
“Are you a runner?”
“No.” It is my pre-teen years all over again. The focus on my body.
The problem with the little boy’s statement about me being a boy was that it spoke something into my life that I couldn’t relate to or understand because I was raised in a religious household with strict lines between the gender roles.
While I was growing up the word tomboy was used to label me a few times. I accepted this and allowed it to wash over me and my view of the world. I assumed they were telling me I was acting like a boy, but I could not understand where it was coming from. Yes, I liked to ride my bike and play soccer. But so did a lot of other girls and no one was calling them tomboy.
For the most part, my young life revolved around recreating my mother’s life within my own context. I had dolls that I cared for with great seriousness. I was their mother, their teacher, and their librarian. I used the dehumidifier with all its lights to mimic the scanner at our local library. And I lined my dolls up in front of the chalkboard in our dining room for their daily lesson, each with a paper and crayon placed before them.
I saw my life as a parallel to my mother’s. My mother wasn’t a boy. So how could I be a boy?
My tendency to analyze a situation and offer my opinion set me outside the realm of “girl.” My desire to create order and structure pulled me out of my understood place in the world. “Tomboy” had nothing to do with my favorite toys, my bed full of dolls, my love of playing the role of mom. It was there because I didn’t fit into the submissive girl role that was so prevalent in my Protestant, Christian upbringing. Instead, I had a different way of seeing the world, and I was using my voice to navigate what was around me. I didn’t understand this as a child. I was sure there was something wrong with me that I was a girl being called a boy.
I was raised in a Mennonite household where the church was prominent in my life, and I spent a lot of time in church where I was trained about my role as a girl. And often reminded how I didn’t fit into that role. In eighth grade, I was baptized and became a member of the church. The Mennonites were one of the Anabaptist sects that formed during the Protestant Reformation. They believed that children shouldn’t be baptized, because they were unable to make a decision about their faith in God. Instead, we dedicated infants to God. The parents promised to raise the child in the ways of the Lord, the church promised to be the example of Christ for the child, and then we would eat some cake.
Every Wednesday night I went to Pioneer Girls, where we were taught crafts, sewing, cooking. They were making us into homemakers living in community with other women of the faith. We could earn badges, much like Girl Scouts, but with a Christian twist.
That is one thing I noticed as I grew up in the church; we are good at taking secular things and turning them into Christian versions of the same thing. This makes something that was first seen as sinful respectable.
I have to admit my relationship with the church continues to cause me deep internal conflict on a regular basis. I struggle to come to terms with how I was raised and what I now believe. But the line needed to be drawn when I heard about a group of friends going to Holy Yoga. Holy Yoga! Are you fucking kidding me? They claim Holy Yoga was an: “experiential worship created to deepen people’s connection to Christ.” Downward Dog is Tent Pose in Holy Yoga; don’t even think about calling it Adho Mukha Svanasana or you might go to hell.
The same hell my sister believes I’m going to since I started going to yoga class on Sunday mornings. Nervous on that first day, I walked into the studio with a borrowed mat. I am a competitive person and a sport where it is just about yourself and the inward gaze seemed pointless and terrifying. But the focused act on breathing combined with total awareness of the body – my body – became a place for me to rejoice in my muscular frame. One Sunday I stopped by my parents’ after class; my sister asked where I had been, and my mother mouthed “yoga.” I watched my sister recoil. Satan had apparently entered the house.
It was within the walls of the church that they could contain women and control them. It was a narrative ingrained in me that took decades to fade away.
In the 1980s, the Church was tackling political issues such as abortion. I attended my first March for Life in 1989. I had never thought about abortion, and I didn’t have an opinion about it at the time. My mom had never talked to me about menstruation, and there was no way she was going to talk about sex, babies, and abortion. No, I was regurgitating what I was told at church and what my friends were saying. I was excited to get a day off school and go to D.C. I wore my little rose patch on my acid-washed jeans jacket but carried no sign or banner. We listened to President George Bush praise us for our commitment to the life of unborn babies. He stated that he felt Roe vs. Wade should be overturned, and we cheered. There was never a conversation about women’s rights, women’s bodies. But then again, women’s bodies were only to be discussed in whispers. It was the first protest walk I had ever been on, and I was following a crowd, not a conviction.
Coming from a fairly compassionate religious sect there were only a few things I was taught to hate. Well, hate might be a strong word, more like strongly dislike and discourage. 1. Catholics – because they were preaching false religion with their saints, statues, and prayers to Mary, and for the horrible things they did to Protestants, which I was forced to watch through dramatized reenactments of the Reformation. 2. Feminists – those anti-Christian women with their men-hating notions and their unholy ideas about women in leadership, sexuality, and abortion.
Once I was out of high school I stopped going to church. Sometimes the guilt would rain down on me, and I would pile into someone’s car with a group of other guilt-ridden young adults to sit through a service that bored us but freed us from the boiling anguish of being bad Christians.
I grew up singing hymns and to this day they can cause a shiver up my spine. I remember listening to my dad talk about what hymns he wanted sung at his funeral. He wrote them down in his Bible so we would remember. He brought that list out when my brother died in a farming accident. Dad already knew which hymns he wanted us to sing as we celebrated the life of my brother. Hymns still call me in the middle of the night. So, hearing “Great is Thy Faithfulness” play in my mix of instrumental music while I was writing a paper for grad school compelled me to wake my husband early on Sunday and force him to go to church with me.
The church was large, one of the mega-churches in the early 2000s with its own café. It had three services each Sunday morning and parking attendants to help direct the traffic in the parking lot and on the road.
The music, practically a full Broadway production, was over and we were settling in for the sermon. A stagehand brought a ladder onto the stage. The pastor gave the men in the audience the advice that a Coach bag could do wonders when you do something to piss off your wife. He then started to focus in on his message about the ladders. He said Ladders are part of our lives. We even have ladders at work, and we continue to try to move up the ladder to get to the highest position. Sometimes there is a woman ahead of you on the corporate ladder and that just pisses you off. You don’t want someone to be ahead of you on the ladder, and you know she most likely slept her way to the top.
I gasped. Crumpling the bulletin in my fist, and I looked around at all the people laughing. This moment lives in my memory as slow-motion. It was as if a spotlight was on me, and I was confused at the haze of spectators and their laughter. I wanted to just stand up and scream “No.” No to his sexism oozing down from the stage; No to the women laughing and thinking their thoughts and opinions could be erased with a leather handbag; No to the young men in the audience learning how to treat women; No to the young women listening to the lies about them. I regret that I didn’t make the scene I played in my mind. I sat in my seat like I was raised. I respected the holiness of the building called the church, but I no longer respected the people in the building. At the end of the service, I pushed my way out of the auditorium vaguely sensing my husband, confused by my urgency to leave, trying to catch up with me.
“I’m done,” I said. And we walked out of the foyer and into the fragrant spring air.
Oh, how I wish I could say that was the last time I went back to a church. It was the last church I went back to in Pennsylvania. When we moved to Washington, I thought it would be a new beginning. That we would find a progressive church that didn’t take part in hypocrisy. We found a lovely community made up of a few families and a small church that focused outward on the community and giving back. It was similar to my Mennonite roots but without the legalism and sexism. At one point the group talked about hosting events at a local coffee shop to give back to the community. They talked about a writing group, a book club, even teaching yoga. I remember thinking, Yes, let’s just be a community and share our talents. And that, my friend, is when I heard about Holy Yoga. This progressive church that once made fun of evangelical churches for their ways of Christianizing secular things was taking part in the very thing that they saw as ridiculous. Yoga. Yoga was the final thing that made me leave the church forever. You can tell me my place is to be subservient to a man, you can tell me that I’m a horrible sinner, you can teach me that sex is bad and feminism is a curse word, but don’t fucking mess with yoga.
I can handle a lot from the church, as I have most of my life. I’m torn between my desire to follow the rules I’ve been taught and my intellect which tells me most of it is bullshit. I mourn the loss of hymns from my life and the sense of community. Sometimes I hear a prayer whispered from my lips in the middle of the night asking Jesus to keep my husband safe on the roads. Then I question whether I believe the prayer was heard by anyone. I’ve lost my old True North, but I think I’m okay with that.
It was three days before my 43rd birthday. My cat, Myrtle, decided to sprawl her fat, fluffy body down the center of my yoga mat. I grabbed my phone, as was customary when Myrtle joined me for yoga, to take a picture of my #yogacat. As I posted her picture on Instagram, I noticed an ad for one of my favorite local designers. They were having a half-off sale. I left the cat lounging on my yoga mat and hollered up the stairs to my husband that I was going out to buy a bag and get my birthday book.
I knew exactly what book I wanted this year, so I would not spend hours wandering the shelves trying to make that single birthday book decision.
I assumed I’d find the book on the bestseller shelves at the front of the store. The plan: Go to the front of the store, grab the book, go to the cashier and present coupon, run to the car so as to not get the book wet, drive home, remove cat from yoga mat, practice yoga. It was set in my head like a lock-step program. But it all crumbled when the book was not on the bestseller shelves. How was this possible? I walked to the biography/memoir section and scanned the S section but didn’t see it. The “no” was raging through my head as I put on my glasses and started at the top of the S section looking at every single book. Maybe they messed up the alphabetizing in this section. I refuse to believe that my bookstore did not have this book. In my defeat and dejection, I walked toward the front of the store planning on picking up an alternate book. I had to pause mid-way to wait for a group of people to move into a side section and there it was — my book – on an endcap. Relief and a little “thank you, Jesus” ran through me as I picked it up.
I clutched the book to my chest as I waited for the cashier to call me forward, like an old-time revival meeting. I proudly plopped the book, my birthday postcard, and my credit card down on the counter. She asked if I wanted a bag. “Yes, that would be lovely. If you have one.” (We live in a town that has banned plastic bags, which I fully support.) I told the cashier how I wasn’t planning on it raining to explain why I failed to bring my own bag to the store. However, when she slipped my book into the plain brown paper bag it felt right.
As I walked to my car, I realized no one could see what book I had in my hand. To them, it just looked like a boring brown bag. This was slightly exhilarating. I felt as if I did something wrong – sinful even – by buying this book. It was the only book I wanted, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the inner conflict that started building. That part of me, my past, told me that I crossed a line. I placed the book, still in the brown paper bag, on the table when I arrived home. I sneaked it out of the bag every once and a while to prove that I indeed owned it.
The next day on the ferry, the book, still in its bag, sat in my suitcase. In the hotel room, I slid the book out a bit of the bag to show my husband. “This is what I got for my birthday from Village Books.” He looked at the book peeking up from the bag, “That’s nice.” I put it back in the bag and placed it on the bedside table smoothing the crinkling paper. That night, I finally pulled the book all the way out of the bag. The reveal. I looked at the cover daring myself to open it. She looked back at me, the woman and what she stands for, what I’ve been instructed to hate. In big red letters and centered, like an anthem and a challenge, her name: Gloria Steinem.
The narratives of my youth made opening the book a battle. I wasn’t prepared for this. I did not know how to handle this emotionally charged moment. I questioned myself – Had the book not been placed in a secretive brown paper bag, would I still be faced with this struggle? There seemed to be something about the hidden nature of how I obtained the book that mirrored my inner dialogue. Who am I keeping this secret from? The sixteen-year-old Rebecca who still lives inside me? Why can’t I open the book?
My views of feminism (and Catholics) have changed over the years. I was a late-blooming feminist. I know what I believe and why I believe it. I am no longer just following the beliefs of my parents and my friends as I once did. I am no longer apologetic for my outspoken nature and my authoritative demeanor. Confusion no longer washes over me when people comment on my body or mannerisms as manly. My inability to emotionally connect with all people I come in contact with does not make me less of a woman. I shouldn’t fear opening My Life on the Road, and yet something deep down asserted itself. A whisper of the past that reminds me. It was a sirens’ song about the love and grace of God, the simpler times of youth, the Mennonite heritage that was the foundation of my sense of social justice, and the teeny-tiniest voice telling me that I needed to be wary of a powerful woman. I dismissed this fear and opened the book.
“About us.” Holy Yoga. Holy Yoga. n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2016 (https://holyyoga.net/about)
Rebecca Beardsall works at Western Washington University. She received her MA in English from Lehigh University and her MFA from Western Washington University. She has more than twenty years’ experience in freelance writing in the United States and abroad. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Origyns, SWIMM, West Texas Review, Two Cities Review, The Schuylkill Valley Journal, Amaranth, Common Ground Review, Poetry NZ, and Rag Queen Periodical. She wrote and co-edited three books, including Philadelphia Reflections: Stories from the Delaware to the Schuylkill. Find her at rebeccabeardsall.com