What is it, to be a feminine soul in search of a God who is ever painted as male? Who is strong, bearded, muscular? Who, if He had a body, would never know a monthly moon cycle, the sensation of a suckling child, the fear of the tall stranger?
What is it, to be a girl in a church where your gender is silenced? Where you are instructed to “keep still,” to “get to the kitchen,” to “tend to the nursery,” when what you really ache to do is speak truth as you comprehend it? Sometimes trivial, other times profound. But words yet to be spoken that must be muffled? The silent dictate may be circumvented with an anonymous pen, or perhaps by credited words read aloud by an accommodating man.
What is it to be a woman who discovers that she most often meets the Divine One not within brick-and-mortar walls constructed by men, but among the trees of the forest, the sands near the ocean, the waters of the lake? Who knows God intimately in music?
What is it to know deeply in the turbulent center of a woman’s body that the Divine One is feminine as much as masculine? That God is Goddess. Father and Mother. Sun and Moon. Birth. Death. And yet to know no safe place to speak it. Not as a child. Not as an adolescent. Not as a young mother, nor as a fresh grandmother. No, instead to understand that there are and have ever been men who hold the keys to the kingdom, women who must allow it, and generation upon generation of girls tucked into the shadows underneath the wings of their oppressors.
For that is what it is. Oppression. Perhaps stemming from a place of genuine belief that God’s will is understood. Perhaps not. The oppression may be violent, greedy, loud. But more often, it is masked in the smiles and benign pats on the back of church elders, pastors, deacons, Sunday School teachers. The oppression may even be gentle, cloaked in the deep and true love of husband, father.
Unless… unless a woman breaks free. She must speak the truth she knows, the verity. The revelation. She may be reprimanded, shunned, put back in her place; destined to feel incomplete and imbalanced in her relationship to the people of The Way and the God they allow.
But if she is blessed, Oh the Joy! Those around her, including the men, will welcome the truth and discover within it a freedom. The chance to understand a Divine One who is incredibly complex and yet miraculously simple.
Here’s a more informative approach to the concept of God as feminine:
It’s a big day for the moon; or more specifically, it’s a big day for humanity’s relationship with the moon. Fifty years ago today, Apollo 11 landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon while Michael Collins flew the command module in orbit. American kids have watched the spine-tingling recordings of Neil Armstrong since we were old enough to sit still, eyes wide:
It took some 400,000 people, working together, to make that miraculous trip possible. Collins said in the Google doodle dedicated to the anniversary that when the astronauts journeyed around the world, the refrain was “We did it. We did it.” Our common love for that beautiful orb and for the courage and ingenuity of our brothers and sisters connected us.
Being a Houstonian, I have visited the Johnson Space Center and stared at the moon rocks, nearly unable to comprehend the distance those rocks traveled. The module the men were in is so tiny, it’s hard to conceive of the courage it required to suit up and shoot beyond Earth’s atmosphere with so little protection.
Last Tuesday evening, after a busy day working, babysitting my grandkids, exercising, folding laundry, and writing, I wearily trod upstairs to my bedroom to soak in a warm bath and go to bed. The blinds in my bedroom were open and the bright, silvery light of the moon caught my eye. I stood at the window, just drinking in her beauty, breathing, and allowing my spirit to settle.
A little later, face washed and teeth brushed, I climbed into my cool percale sheets, fluffed my feather pillow, and curled up with my iPad for a few minutes on Facebook before reading myself into sleepy oblivion. My friend Kyle had posted this lovely, eerie photo:
Isn’t it heavenly? I commented, “I stood at my bedroom window to watch the moonrise tonight. Beautiful. Glad to know my sweet friend was watching too.” A few minutes later a mutual friend chimed in from New York City, she had also been taking in the sublime view from her hotel room. Three friends, touched by beauty, connected by a celestial light.
The moon connected the human race in a vast way in July, 1969. She connected three friends in a small way in July, 2019.
We often tell children to wish upon a star. I love the song from Pinocchio, it’s a perfect message for children about having the courage to wish. But tonight, on this momentous anniversary, I am going to wish upon the moon:
I wish that we can love each other more.
I wish that we will learn to listen better.
I wish that we will allow grace to scatter its beams into the dark corners of our lives.
I wish that the moon’s glittery light will light a lost one’s way home.
Did you go to camp as a kid? I did: Camp Pettijohn Springs just over the Texas-Oklahoma border. I started going when I was about twelve years old and went every summer until I was eighteen. It was both a broad, flat red-dirt plain and hilly, tree-covered wood. The girls got the cabins in the shady trees, the boys got the cabins on the sun-baked expanse.
The pool was at the bottom of a hill, and its deep end was full of algae and weeds, so that when I jumped off the diving board, I would curl my legs up under me, lest my toes brush those creepy leaves.
The mess hall was a favorite place. Here is where Bible Bees happened in my younger days, meals were wolfed down, and talent shows were put on.
We had an annual talent show act performed by our youth minister, a stand-up routine in which he acted like a silly little boy with a sideways baseball cap and puffed-out cheeks, then two of the senior boys set up that daffy thing you’ve probably seen where one guy has his hands behind his back and the other one does the actions- including the eating of whipped cream and squirting of ketchup and such. We laughed like maniacs every single year. All the singers, including me, would perform Contemporary Christian numbers, and I think I remember someone playing the spoons. Right outside the mess hall was a propane tank emblazoned with the word “Danger.” We sat on it like it was a horse, lots of harmless flirting happened around the Danger.
The traditional Sunday night arrival supper was baloney sandwiches, but for the rest of the week, food was pretty good. KP duty meant your cabin stayed after meals to wipe down tables and mop up cement floors. At meal times, you were not permitted to put your elbows on the table, if you did and were caught, a song might ring out:
“Get your elbows off the table, David H!
Get your elbows off the table, David H!
We have seen it once or twice and it isn’t very nice,
Get your elbows off the table, David H!”
It was always followed with another song, “Round the Mess Hall You Must Go,” which finished with a stipulation. You might have to run around the mess hall skipping backwards, perhaps hopping like a bunny or singing loudly. If you were lucky in love, you’d be assigned the direction “holding hands,” and the whole Mess Hall population would wait with bated breath to see who you picked to hold hands with.
I saw my first tarantulas and centipedes at Camp Pettijohn. I was so traumatized by the centipede that I could barely sleep for fear that one would crawl, with its hundred nasty little legs, into my sleeping bag.
There was a small metal building that served as our canteen, and twice daily we queued up to get sodas and snacks with our canteen punch cards. My favorite was peach Jolly Rancher sticks dipped in a Sprite, the candy would give just a hint of peachy goodness to the Sprite. When we were teens, boys and girls might use their canteen cards to buy their crushes treats.
The only air conditioned building on the whole site was the chapel, which was a sweet little brick building overlooking a drop-off covered with trees. The windows at the front of the little chapel gave us a glorious view of Oklahoma sunsets over dense green leaves. If memory serves, it was carpeted with some sort of green turf. There were gorgeous devotionals in that chapel, and mid-day Bible studies in shady cabin breezeways.
I always came back from camp with an awesome tan, a suitcase full of dirty clothes smudged with sweat and red dirt, and a list of new pen pals. I slept for about eighteen hours, then got up to head to Sunday morning church, full of light and joy.
As a youth minister’s wife, I spent several years in my 30s attending a different camp, this one in Texas Hill Country along the Medina River; while it shared some traditions and characteristics with the Camp Pettijohn of my youth, it had its own beauty and rituals. Here I was cabin counselor and lifeguard, trying to love on girls while calming my own introverted spirit. A cabin of thirty noisy sixteen-year-olds can be a lot to take in! I loved Bandina for the years I got to attend: its traditional camper vs. counselor softball game, its rope swing, its large, shady gazebo. The food, cooked lovingly by a team of folks from the various churches, was fantastic- way better than the food at Camp Pettijohn (sorry, Pettijohn peeps). Evening worship and talent were in a sweet little outdoor amphitheater, and hymns were accompanied by the sound of hundreds of feet shuffling the gravel that lined the aisles. Late night devotionals happened on the rocky riverside. During the dark hours while campers were sleeping, deer always came out to find snacks and crumbs left on the wide open field around which all the cabins were encircled. My favorite times were the singing sessions in the screened-in dining hall, when 500 people sang songs both silly and holy with every bit of their bodies and souls. The very best memories, though, are spending time there with my own kids. When my youngest wanted to be baptized in the river, I drove to be there and walked into that river with my baby girl and her big brother, who baptized her.
It made me sad when the folks who ran the camp told me I couldn’t come any more because I had switched to a different flavor of church. That sort of closed mindedness, that denies people whose walks might be a little off the approved path, can make it hard for folks to stick with church. At least, it did for me.
The best part of camp was always the friends. In both of these camps, you spent quality time with kids and adults from other churches, other towns, other states. You made real friends. I still have a handful that I am in touch with. Back in the 80s, you had to write real, honest, paper letters; and we did. Now, kids get to follow each other on Instagram- so cool! Camp creates connection. We all need it.
I have been asking people to share old camp stories, and have gotten some great responses:
“A raccoon ate my toothpaste.”
“Finding out I was very naturally good at archery, when I was struggling and behind on every other activity out there. It was nice to find my ‘thing.'”
“Breakfast in bed for having the cleanest cabin.”
“Pranks, kitchen raids, spying on others, building campfires – I worked camp staff for years. We had the most fun when getting in trouble was a possibility.”
“Hiking up Hermits Peak and holding hands with a guy by the time I got to the top.”
There have been a few stories that are sad: abandonment worry, being shunned, getting hurt. I guess every good thing has some dark stuff, too.
My life now is defined by a mission to recognize magic in an ordinary life, and to share it; and I believe that for many of us, summer camp was, and is, magical. Whether church affiliated or not, camp gets us into nature. We swim and hike and tell tales under the stars. We sing- have you ever heard of a camp without songs? Whether it’s “Big Booty,” “On Top of Old Smoky,” or “El-Shaddai,” music is pure enchantment. We use our hands to make cool crafts. Best of all, camp creates friendship, and love between people is about the best magic there is.
This morning, I awakened to a gift. A poem that my eldest child, my daughter, sent to me. It was by Mary Oliver. I read it. I was stunned. And then I was intrigued. So I decided to find some more of Oliver’s work. What followed was no less than a descent down a white-rabbit tunnel into a wonderland of beautiful words and exquisite thought. It seemed I had found a poet who spoke to my soul. It turns out Mary Oliver is also a deep-thinking, dream-driven introvert who loves nature, and she has drilled deeply into the questions of Divinity. God’s nature. God’s revelation in nature.
Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Fred Hammond described it beautifully, and he quoted author Kathleen McTigue as well:
“Kathleen McTigue writes regarding Oliver’s theology, ‘By that word [theology] I mean not only what her poems reflect of her beliefs about God, but what they reflect about a host of other religious questions: What is holy? Who are we? What are we called to do with our lives? What is death, and how do we understand it when we turn our faces toward its inevitability? These questions matter to all of us. And the answers in Mary Oliver’s poems feel so resonant and so true…’”
These are the questions that have become the very litany of my new existence. I now have an empty nest. It’s just me and my husband and our two dogs knocking around the house. I always believed my calling to be a mom was holy. I know it was. But it’s pretty much over. Now I wonder what I am called to in this new chapter. And with each arthritic pain and new wrinkle, I am forced to turn my face toward the inevitable. My parents are gone, my husband’s parents are slowing down. Beloved aunts and uncles seem so much older. These days, my heart is tender. Tears hover behind my eyelids, waiting just out of reach for a bit of tender piano music or the sight of a mother nursing her baby to call them forth, dripping down my lined face.
I have begun to embrace the idea that I am holy, in and of myself. Not my motherhood. Not my wifehood. Not my artistry. Not my vocation. Not my voice. Not even my silence. I am all of those things. All of those things are holy. But even without them, I am holy.
And trees are, too.
This poem moved me to tears:
When I Am Among the Trees
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”
I love trees. I love them. I just got back from a walk, and the photo above is where I walked: a quiet lane completely enfolded in green leaves and branches. The trees whispered in the spring breeze. Like Oliver says, trees save me. Daily. All my life.
I have always loved trees. The first tree with whom I fell in love was a locust that lived in my neighbor’s yard. My seven year old self, a neighborhood pariah, would climb into the tree and nestle in its branches, eating the little brown beans that grew in pods, watching the kids play without me from the safety of my perch.
My ten year old self adopted the tree in our new house, wedged into the V shape that just fit my scrawny behind, Beverly Cleary and Madeleine L’Engle books nourishing my lonely little soul.
Near my house there was an enormous weeping willow, and I would stand in its fronds, imagining that I was in a safe and magical world where no one could find me. I recently visited that street. Both of those precious trees were gone. I grieved.
In the yard in front of the house where my husband and I spent most of the child-rearing years of our family, there was a giant oak tree whose leaves created a canopy outside my bedroom window. All of every spring and summer, I felt like I slept in a tree house. I kept a chair on the balcony just outside my bedroom, and when my spirit was angry or in despair, I sat in that chair and simply let the tree speak to my soul. I hugged that tree. Literally. I hugged her. And when we left that house, I had to spend time with her, saying goodbye and thanking her for taking such good care of me.
Psalm 52:8 says: “But as for me, I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the lovingkindness of God forever and ever.” I think that oak tree in Shenandoah, Texas was a gift from the Divine One, to show Her lovingkindness for my soul.
Have you ever seen a giant tree? Maybe a California Redwood? When I visited Sydney Australia with my younger daughter, we found what I think might have been a giant gum tree in the Royal Botanical Gardens. It was stunning. I almost couldn’t walk away. I had to stroke her trunk and talk to her a bit, much to my daughter’s amusement. She’s a bit more pragmatic that her older sister, who balances her chakras and talks to trees like I do.
My daughters, my son, my husband, our parents and grandparents back and back and back have created, as have all families, forests of family trees. Roots go deeper than we can imagine, soaking up nourishment of love like water. Branches reach toward the azure sky and the vibrant sunshine as the seeds of dreams are created and carried. Sometimes there is disease. It might cause a branch to fall, or perhaps even need pruning. That is the great cycle of life that the Divine One has created and set in motion, isn’t it?
What I know today is that my walk amongst the trees fed my spirit, so will the rich poetry of Mary Oliver. Her inner monologues, as revealed in her poetry, just seem to affirm that there are other introverted and tender souls out there who are like me. God has given me my soul, Mary’s poetry, and gorgeous trees to hug. His lovingkindness is everlasting.