Sisterhood: Part II

It is a chilly, blustery, very gray day in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Early afternoon finds me in a local coffeeshop. It is a work- and school-day, so the other patrons are a different crowd than on the weekends: the few men here are solitary individuals, grabbing a quick lunch or working on their computers, while the rest of the tables are filled with pairs of women, deep in conversation. My computer allows me the luxury of eavesdropping without appearing to do so. At one table, the women are reliving last weekend’s tailgate at the Hawkeye game. In the comfy chairs by the electric fire are two older women discussing art history and their recent book tour. Another pair prays over their soup bowls, while yet another is going over an astrological natal chart. What these pairs have in common with one another is not immediately apparent. However, as I watch their interactions what I see is a certain intensity of communication – they lean toward one another, they nod, their faces are animated whether they are speaking or listening.

When I first began my recent ruminations on the idea of sisterhood, I was thinking about sisterhood from the perspective of women supporting other women in the great movements for social justice: equal rights, ending domestic violence, working to address the unfairly high percentage of women/single mothers among the ranks of the poor and hungry. I was thinking about women like Wangari Maathi, Zainab Salbi, or Catherine McAuley. And because I couldn’t think about the concept of sisterhood without considering the reality of it, in part one I wrote about my sisters and my relationships with them. In part two, I intended to speak more abstractly.

And then I started hearing from my women friends. They made it clear that in part two, they expected to read about themselves. To them, it naturally followed that once I spoke about my biological sisters, I would write about the “sisters of my heart”. How can I, whose life has been immeasurably enriched by these women, deny them? So I will attempt, on this autumn afternoon, to write about the women who have become my sisters through shared conversation, shared philosophies, shared history and experience. But how do I begin this task?

The women friends who have taken up residence in my heart range in age from their 70s to 11 months. They are professionals, mothers, athletes, writers, beautiful children, wives, straight and lesbian. They have challenged my intellect (through education, book clubs, their writing, provocative conversation). They have nurtured my heart (seeing past my flaws, allowing me to see theirs, holding me when I have cried and celebrating when I have laughed). We have shared an energy that became synergy, and talked until we’ve entered the true definition of dialog. I can’t name you all by name, but you may recognize yourself if you’ve ever: eaten an entire pan of brownies with me; helped me learn to craft something beautiful in words or other material; invited me into your family when mine was far away; or (God love you for this) plucked stray hairs from my chin. If you’ve allowed me to mentor you, or if you’ve mentored me. If you have been there, and been there, and been there for years of being stuck – then been there cheering when I got unstuck. If you quietly continued to offer me love and support while I took you for granted.

Biology may teach us our first lessons about sisterhood, but true friendship teaches us how to spread that idea beyond our own gene-pool. Whether we are talking about our circle of friends or we’re talking about the great social movements, women reaching out to other women are powerful beyond all expectations.

(True story: the music-track playing in the coffeeshop as I write this is Bette Midler singing “Wind Beneath My Wings”).

I work with young women, and I have been dismayed by the oft-discussed concept of “mean girls”. At first, I fought the idea as a media-generated concept designed to sensationalize and sell magazines. In recent years I’ve seen this phenomenon grow among my students, and it troubles me. I wonder if it isn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy – as we talk more and more about girl-on-girl violence and bullying and present it in the news as the new norm, aren’t we teaching our daughters (and young friends) that this is how it should be? I grew up in the 1970s, when the women’s movement led to the portrayal of women’s friendships as life-saving. Either my women friends are counter-cultural holdouts from the 70s (which as a description would insult over half of them!) or there is something MORE TRUE than the mean girl phenomenon. I believe we have a moral imperative to teach this truth to the generations behind us: that women loving and supporting one another is the real phenomenon. “Mean girls” are not natural – this trend is one sign of an unhealthy culture.

Finally, as I think of the amazing women who are my sisters – in every definition and nuance of that word – I feel like a fertile delta, where the generous river has deposited its gift of rich soil. My sisters have helped to make my life truly generative. Whether I ever change the world in a big way, like a Wangari Maathi, it will be enough to know that together we have sewn the seeds of a powerful vision of strong women loving strongly – a vision that our young friends and daughters will want to emulate as they see how deeply nourishing it is.

Sisterhood: Part I

I’ve participated in a few events recently that have got me thinking about the concept of “sisterhood”. The first of these was a gala supporting a local agency that I attended with several of my close women friends. The second was the Especially For You Breast Cancer Walk on Sunday, at which I was one of 16,000 people in a sea of purple celebrating life, hope and healing. The third was the House of Hope annual banquet, an event which every year reveals something new to me about the ways women can support and heal one another. There is so much I want to say on this subject, yet it’s difficult to start anywhere other than with the place my original ideas about sisterhood were formed: within my own family.

I have three biological sisters: Chris, Gwen and Anne. Growing up, we didn’t remember from day to day (or sometimes from minute to minute) that we loved each other, but we did so fiercely. Some people say their sisters are their best friends, but I’ve never understood that – my sisters are my SISTERS. That means something different. It just does. I don’t talk to them every day, I don’t necessarily go to them with my hurts and disappointments, the way I go to my women friends. All the same, my sisters are like my appendages. I could probably survive without one of them, but I wouldn’t want to try. It would require a complete adjustment to the way I do everything in my life. A complete adjustment to my sense of self.

Through high school, my sister Chris and I shared a room. For many years, we shared a double bed. (Which totally sucked for her because I was a bedwetter.) We shared school, clubs, friends, spiritual awakening. We did not share any of these easily. There was jealousy, impatience, anger, frustration. Of all the people in my life, ever, the person who has had the harshest words from me is Chris. Thankfully, not recently. Big sisters: can’t live with them, but eventually you grow up and live separately. And that’s when you discover you need them.

Gwen was born just before my grandmother, Rose, passed away. Grandma always wanted a blond, blue-eyed grandchild and Gwen was both. Gwen was the sun to my gloomy cloud of teenage angst. I was always depressed and maudlin, Gwen never was. Her laughter has always been the most infectious I know. Her kids are funny and both look like her too, though completely different from one another. They are like the flip sides of Gwen’s personality – funny snarky (Hallie) and funny sweet (Atalie). Like all of us, Gwen has faced challenges, and though she sometimes expresses frustration, sadness or even a little depression now and then, her sense of humor and her optimism remain intact.

Annie was my sweet little girl. She was so tender-hearted as a little one, caring for pets and stray animals (and, if no living specimens were available, stuffed animals) that we expected her to become a vet. Surprise!  Anne turned out to be the nomadic adventurer of the family. For many years, now, sightings of Anne have been few and far between. She might be in the South Pacific, or South Africa, or sailing on a tall ship. Or filming a reality show in Los Angeles. Seriously, this woman could do anything she puts her mind to, and has proven that as an artist, pastry chef, ship’s cook, sound technician, letter press operator, television and film cameraperson and producer. She can still be sweet and tender, but is more often acerbic.

My sisters and I could not be more different from each other. The outward trappings of our lives are completely disparate. Our religious and spiritual beliefs and our politics run the gamut (trust me – Anne and Chris are pretty much polar opposites in these). Since my sisters have different last names, a casual acquaintance who happened to meet each of us at different events might never put us together as relatives. However, get us in the same room and it won’t be long before everyone figures it out. The laughter will give it away. Then, if you watched us interact, a certain “Aha!” would come as you realized there are deeper similarities than you first recognized.

My friendships with other women ground my days and allow me to feel connected to people and things outside myself. My sisters, on the other hand, help me to feel connected to myself. Connected through genetics and physical resemblances, through personality traits, relational styles and oddball quirks. The confluence of these traits is so intermingled, there’s not really any separating out the genetic from the “nurtured” qualities. It is just a fact that we share both surface and deep similarities. Sometimes when we talk, we lament our shared struggles (with control issues, with poor self-discipline, with rooting out our inner martyrs). Other times, we just laugh and enjoy the sense of home that is created when we’re together, even if only by telephone.

My sisters are not only smart, they’re thoughtful about themselves and their lives. Reflective. What I’ve learned from them hasn’t been overt. Its more like osmosis – their wisdom and their positive qualities surround me and I absorb them as much as the boundaries of myself will allow them to permeate. Sisters – both the word and the experience mean something qualitatively different from “friends”. Not necessarily better, but more elemental.

In August, my college roommate visited for a couple of hours as she was passing through town. One of her sisters passed away recently and we sat  in the warm sun, crying together as we talked of it. My sorrow for her loss was informed by my knowledge that I could not fathom the depth of her grief nor would I, if it were me, bear it well. It was tinged with an inner sense of relief that I haven’t needed to find out how to do it.  Relief, followed by a gratitude so immense that it defies description. If I ever question whether I am beloved of God, I don’t have far to look to confirm that I am. I have three wonderful, complex, lovely sisters who have enriched my life and helped to make me the woman I am.