Me: “Mr. S, can I see how your leg looks today? Are you ready to try to walk with me?”
Mr. S [in a thick Eastern European accent]: “Are you…
This man was in pain – he had a very painful skin condition on his leg, and I didn’t know how to help him. I was a student on my second internship, and it was a pass-or-fail scenario for me. It was part of my job to ask Mr. S to get up and walk, and although every step for him was excruciating, he always did the best he could. (I think partly because he didn’t want me to get into trouble, although I had not consciously done anything to leave that impression.)
One day when we were about to get up to walk again, he asked me if I was a boy or a girl. We had been working together for at least two weeks, and all that time he couldn’t tell my gender. I let him know that I was a girl, and he said, “OK,” and we were on our way to another painful attempt at putting one foot in front of the other.
The next time I saw him, before I could ask a single question, he pulled up his pant leg, his foot resting on the wheelchair footrest, and asked in a flirtatious tone, “So – do you want to see my leg?” I was taken aback for a minute – until I saw the mischievous grin on his face and the sparkle in his eye. It hit me that he had wanted to know if I was a boy or a girl in order to joke with me like this. It was his way of trying to cheer me up about having to ask him to do things that were so painful.
He didn’t descend into “dirty old man” territory, he was always respectful and fun, even across the cultural and language barriers, and despite therapy equating to physical torture. There was no threat to him. He was a gentleman, and a saint.
Afterwards I wondered about my gender presentation – what if I was missing out on other things like this due to how people were confused by my appearance?
For quite some time, people couldn’t tell if I was a boy or a girl, and now, even on days when I’m wearing the exact same clothes that I was then, no one questions that I’m a woman. How did I get here from there?
In the last post, we looked at what some of what the Lord tells us in His Word about what it means to be female, or feminine. In this post, I’d like to look at some of what it doesn’t mean to be feminine, and some of the changes that took place in my life over the years.
For various reasons, in my mind as I was growing up, “girl” was a four-letter word. To me it meant the following:
Chained to a stove, a sink, washer/dryer, etc.
To this day, I don’t drink coffee. I never started drinking it because I did not want to learn how to make it, to prevent some guy from shuffling me out of a room, and a conversation, in order to go fix coffee for him or a group of people.
In the church, I didn’t see many examples to combat that low impression of what it meant to be a woman. Passivity was encouraged as if it was a Godly female trait. On the other hand, in the culture the women’s lib movement was in full swing, with men’s chauvinistic backlash in response to glass the sound of glass ceiling’s being broken across the country getting plenty of press.
I searched to find role models, and realized that I would have to create my own. Somewhere along the way, I started keeping a collection of impressions – articles, quotes, pictures – whenever something struck me as relevant to seeing womanhood in Godly ways, and touched my heart and mind, I would copy it or cut it out and put it into a folder. I called it “Feeding the Ewe” – a pun on nourishing the female sheep I’d been created to be.
Before pressing on, please note that these are rather personal reflections, and are not to be confused with instructions. Each person is unique, and after having people try to stuff me into their mold, I certainly am not interested in doing that to anyone else. But, if you find something I’m writing about that you can relate to and find encouraging, that’s wonderful!
Slowly, I started to find stories of women in Scripture who didn’t fit the negative images in my mind of what it meant to be a girl:
- Mary and Martha
My namesake – a prophet, poet, and the fourth Judge of Israel, before they had a king, she was also married. She went with Barak who led Israel to fight their enemies under her direction, and they were victorious, as she prophesied, due to the courage of another woman named Jael. (Judges 4 and 5).
How I wished that I had read about this woman earlier in my life. Her story is found in 1 Samuel 25. She is noted for being “intelligent and beautiful,” and saved her household from destruction due to the foolishness of her husband. David remembered her, and after hearing that her husband had died, proposed and swept her away to be his wife.
Mary and Martha
Mary and Martha were friends of Jesus, whom Martha had invited into her home. This is a short story, so I’ll just quote it here:
As Jesus and His disciples were on their way, He came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to Him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what He said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to Him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.[a] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Footnote: Luke 10:42 Some manuscripts but only one thing is needed
From the stories of these women I saw courage, intelligence, leadership, quick action and a longing to learn and be near Jesus are part of what it means to be a woman in God’s eyes. Quite the contrast to the concepts that had been swimming around in my mind.
There were other Scriptures that made it into my folder, including this from the second chapter of the Song of Solomon:
10 My lover said to me,
“Rise up, my darling!
Come away with me, my fair one!
11 Look, the winter is past,
and the rains are over and gone.
12 The flowers are springing up,
the season of singing birds[c] has come,
and the cooing of turtledoves fills the air.
13 The fig trees are forming young fruit,
and the fragrant grapevines are blossoming.
Rise up, my darling!
Come away with me, my fair one!”
14 My dove is hiding behind the rocks,
behind an outcrop on the cliff.
Let me see your face;
let me hear your voice.
For your voice is pleasant,
and your face is lovely.
This was paired with a photo of a woman by the sea, among grey rocks under a cliff that I’d seen in an ad. It struck me that it could be me. Many of these things hit me in that way. It was almost as though I was allowing myself or giving myself permission to imagine myself in a different light – to bring these concepts out of abstraction and internally own them. It was meditative, in a sense, and I also felt quite vulnerable, so I kept the folder hidden away. It’s very intimidating to write as much as I am now about it at all.
Some of the other things in the folder were poems by Emily Dickenson and Rupert Brooke. And this one – a classic that broke the broken notion I’d had about weakness vs. strength:
Yes, Mark was posted to the Tenth that year.
The day we got there priests contrived to bring
This ‘god’ to death, and mobs that made me cling
To Mark surged round us, all one mocking jeer.
No omen warned me when Mark led me near
The yelling street that I should be implored
By God to wear my girlhood like a sword
So edged with mercy men would freeze in fear.
Mark’s armour made the crowd draw back a space
Just there beneath his cross the god limped by.
I saw his eyes and rushed into the street
Through sudden stillness and I wiped his face.
‘My child,’ he said and staggered on to die.
– My girlhood lay in fragments at my feet.
~ Sheldon Vanauken, A Severe Mercy
“…to wear my girlhood like a sword…so edged with mercy men would freeze in fear.”
I’d seen it before, but never read it put into words – how there was such a strength in mercy, in running to show compassion. I’d often thought of myself as “edgy” – and wanted to dress “sharp” – so no one would mess with me, or so that I would attain what I thought at the time was the right impression. And in this poem that idea was thrown on it’s ear – girlhood could be like a sword, and that sword could be edged with mercy. And isn’t that just like Jesus – interrupting funerals by raising the dead, healing the lame man who was literally dropped in on Him on a litter, stopping a stoning, hanging out with swindlers…His life was edged with mercy.
Other entries in the folder were passages from books, such as Katherine Hepburn’s (I know) description of John Wayne, which caught me by surprise – she delights in him from tip to toe. And Tom Bombadil’s description of Goldberry, the River’s daughter, in The Fellowship of the Ring:
Hey! Come merry dol! derry dol! My darling!
Light goes the weather-wind and the feathered starling,
Down along under Hill, shining in the sunlight,
Waiting on the doorstep for the cold starlight,
There my pretty lady is, River-woman’s daughter,
Slender as the willow-wand, clearer than the water.
Old Tom Bombadil water-lilies bringing
Comes hopping home again. Can you hear him singing?
Hey! Come merry dol! derry dol! and merry-o,
Goldberry, Goldberry, merry yellow berry-o!
Poor old Willow-man, you tuck your roots away!
Tom’s in a hurry now. Evening will follow day.
Tom’s going home again water-lilies bringing.
Hey! Come derry dol! Can you hear me singing?
~ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
Even reading this now a tune comes to mind that I’d thought of when I first read it in my old paperback edition of the trilogy. Of course there are other passages in Tolkien – the story of Eowyn and Faramir among them – that made it into my anthology. I would bring it out and read through these things through the months and years. It had taken time for me to internalize the negative impressions I’d had of femininity, and as I wasn’t getting good input from the Christian sub-culture or the culture at large, prayerfully looking over these things was excellent food for thought.
When he was teaching me to drive, my dad taught me to “aim for the spaces.” He said, and I’ve found it to be true, that whatever you’re looking at or focusing on is what you’re going to hit. So if you look at the lines on the side of the road, or the cones you’re trying to avoid, you’ll actually be drawn to hit them. It’s important to aim for the space you want to be in. When I fill my mind with images of women being wimpy, frail, or helpless – those negative concepts I’d connected with what it meant to be female – it has an impact on my attitude, and sometimes even on how I carry myself. When I am for the space I want to be in, I find much smoother sailing.
So I try to remember to screen what I watch, and think about how I’m feeling and why after seeing a movie or show. And when I can’t find the kind of good food for thought that I long for, I will go back over what I’ve found nourishing before. This is true for many areas in life – not just gender identity or sexuality. Our culture tends to breed discontentment – contented people don’t buy stuff they don’t need. Much of what passes for relaxation and entertainment contains a bombardment of images – even just driving down the road we are passing advertisements and signs to aimed at getting us to “come and buy.”
In a way, I’m thankful that I wasn’t able to just take my gender identity for granted, and that I had the opportunity to seek and think and pray and grow. I’m still learning and growing, of course, but I’m also aware that I’ve not bought into someone else’s ideals of what it means to reflect God’s character as His woman. It’s made me grateful and again I hope that these words will encourage others.