The Lives of the Dead

Some of the most interesting people I meet are dead…

Blessed Are You, Among Women…

woman walking to well



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I never had to think for myself. Where I lived, a woman was not meant to think. She was meant to obey.  She was meant to follow first her father’s, then her husband’s commands. There was no good reason to teach her to read or write.  Men had to be careful not to let women have access to new and strange ideas.  A woman’s place was just below that of a good pack animal. She was judged by how much work she could do, by how much she could carry, and by her acquiescence to her master’s will.

The men held fiercely to their small power over women. Every possible minuscule advance in our status was weighed with great solemnity. They discussed and argued.   The loudest voices were the ones who warned, that if we were allowed to do this, soon we’d want to do that. And if we did that, there’s no telling when we’d demand to do such-and-such. Or, if we found out this, we might surmise that which might eventually lead us to discover so-and-so. And then, before you know it, we women would not be able to be controlled.

As a female, I learned at the breast that I was inferior to males, even the stupid ones, even the lame ones, even the young ones, even the evil and crazy ones.

I didn’t get angry about it. It never dawned on me that it should be any other way.  I would no sooner think that I could change the color of the sky or stop the snow in winter. These were just the immutable facts of life; laws of nature. Why waste energy on trying to change what cannot be changed?

Joy and relief were only to be found among women. In this sisterhood, we eased each others’ burdens and shared our hearts. We did not converse about changing our lot. We did not secretly plan to topple the status quo. We had no power and we knew it. And even if we could, by some miracle, shift the balance to our own favor, what then? We did not have the knowledge or skills to run things.   Perhaps we might eventually have learned what was necessary, but we might well have starved before then.

In our group of women, there was a funny one who could really make us laugh.  She imitated perfectly the fat man’s swagger, and his way of talking down to everyone as if he alone knew all the answers.  When she told stories of things she had seen in the village or in the fields or on the road to market,  she described them in her special way, noting funny things most of us would not have noticed. We giggled like little girls at her sharp-eyed observations.

But even she dare not show this talent to the men. She was far too clever to reveal her cleverness.  And if she dared not to rise up;  if she, in all her cleverness, saw no hope of changing the existing conditions, how could any of us even think about dreaming of change? It wasn’t hopeless. It just was.

We were not completely helpless. Sometimes the women banded together to achieve certain concessions from the men. But our demands were not for freedom or education. Such requests would only cause us to be beaten back down severely, to teach us our place.  We used our wiles.    Once, we wanted a new well closer to our end of the village so we didn’t have to carry water so far. We convinced the men of the economic logic in this. If we didn’t have to waste our time carrying water, we would then have more time and energy for other, more productive work. It was suggested – with words which were never spoken – that less time walking to and from the well meant less time for gossip.   Men hated women gossiping because they did not know what we were saying, and they understood something that we did not – that if we women ever decided to rise up together, the men would be helpless against us.   They could not vanquish us as an enemy. They could not kill us all. They could not live without our work; without our child-bearing and child-raising. I think they all lived in fear that one day, amid our gossip, we would suddenly realize  that although the men had the guns, the women held the power.

The idea of less time spent together appealed to their logic, and so we got our well.

Any man who thought by curtailing the time women spent together pulling water, they would curtail our gossip,  did not understand women at all (not that many of them did!). We simply made up the missed time while doing other communal chores.

This sense of community made light of our work. I cannot say the gossip did not sometimes get hurtful or petty or manipulative. In every group, everywhere, there are always those who will be small-minded and those who will rise above. Thus defines the dynamics of the group.

Our aspirations were never much higher than these types of mundane changes; changes which did not raise our status but merely rearranged the packs on our backs.

I cannot say I was unhappy. My life was my lot, and I accepted whatever came to me. I did not expect grace or kindness or respect in the world and so I did not feel deprived not to have it.

There is something to be said for accepting one’s lot in life the same way one eventually must accept one’s own face, the structure of one’s own body. Wishing for something different is a pointless. Better to put our energy into making the best of what we have.

To fight against that which cannot be changed is a sure recipe for an unhappy life.

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