Oral History of Jean D.*
“We seek beyond history for a new and more possible meeting.” –Audre Lorde
This is a retelling of Jean D.’s story in an adaptive form. In the way that the Indian Shakta tradition has reclaimed their history by adapting the Bhagavad Gita to a form more comprehensive and pertinent to their particular experience in the form of the Devi Mahatmya and the Devi Gita. I have decided not to include certain factors in this retelling, such as race, for Jean’s ancestry is European American and this is just her story. Other factors have also been left out due to length of this project and the complexity of the interconnectedness of all of them, this project would become infinite (issues such as occupation by invasion and immigration). Mary McGee described stories such as this as “women-centered” stories in her essay, “The Virtuous Hindu Woman as Icon and Agent.” She also agrees with A.K. Ramanujan, who asserts, “that women’s tales ‘present an alternative way of looking at things. Genders are genres. The world of women is not the world of men’”. In this way, women become significant agents in defining morals and consequently bringing about change. The deviant behavior that results (according to the contemporary social norms) is backed up with moral justifications- the benefit of their families, friends, etc. The adaptive history can be very useful in empowering women to change their own perceptions of the “ideal woman” and in turn change similarly held perceptions of women by men. In essence, “the icon (ideal woman as represented in the story) becomes agent” (McGee 1994: 4).Although the women in Jean’s family are strong within the context of contemporary social ideology, I did not wish to create conflict between their adaptive and historical stories. Instead I wanted to impart on them even more strength in the form of divine power as expressed in their roles as the centerpieces of their families, as mothers, daughters and wives.
“…it is undeniable that the male symbolism of deity has been a major contributor to the exclusion of women from positions of respect and authority in Western society and religion.” –Rita Gross
The Divine Goddess is the supreme entity of this universe. All believe so. Her two foundations are Creation and Power; the two combined are the forces that pervade all things. All know that Her divine form is the foundation for all existence, living or non-living. At one time, just for her own entertainment, She split Herself right down Her middle and created a male form to compliment Her own form. This is expressed as the female and male forms of all creations. Interestingly, Her iconography consists of Her divine form seated with a smaller form on her lap, facing in, the couple engaged in a loving embrace. One can only discern the back of the head of the smaller form and therefore many have taken that to indicate an individual interpretation of the Goddesses ultimate consort, and therefore one’s own interpretation of who is their correct partner. Her Cosmic Body is expressed in the form of the domestic shelter, the home. Her physical form is situated along the north-east, south-west diagonal of the structure. Her head lies in the north-east and the feet in the south-west. And from there all of the other parts of Her body lie accordingly in the correct directions. Her heart, most importantly, is located in the actual center of the home. This is where the most activity in a family is located. Women are considered to be the incarnations of the Divine Mother, as they have been endowed with her physical attributes.
They are spiritually regarded as such and are sources of intimate knowledge and power of the Divine Goddess. Realistically they are regarded in much the same way. They take charge of the household and in fact, it is a widely held belief that the home is built as a sort of temple to the Divine Mother and to house her most important disciple and most intimate mortal form- the female human being, as mother, daughter and wife.
Women as workers in this system are revered for their direct connection to and power from the Divine Mother. Traditionally they seek to utilize this power by taking on the roles of mother, householder and wife (oftentimes with another woman as her partner- for as the iconography indicates, it is up to the discretion of the female heart to decide with whom she chooses to create a family with). Although, more recently (but never-the-less, throughout time) some women have chosen not to follow the Divine Mother’s most popular role as mother, householder and wife. As the creation myth indicates, all life sprang forth from the Divine Mother (including men), and therefore females are by nature self-sufficient. Her varied forms (according to the particular story) give women reference for direction in life and at times that may include not engaging in family life.
Men have traditionally taken on the role of external supporters by acquiring jobs outside of the home. They demand and receive wages (and comparably higher wages) in order to provide the material sustenance essential to the success of the home as the foundation of the family. These jobs (professional, industrial and commercial) unfortunately create a direct disconnect with the divine, but they have reconciled themselves to this role in support of the female being the constant direct connection and source of the divine.
Some contemporary women have chosen to utilize their dual natures as internal and external caretakers by engaging in jobs outside of the home alongside men. They initially only chose to partake in jobs that replicated their divinely influenced caretakers: nursing, teaching, stabilizing someone else’s home that was incapable of doing it themselves (domestic work). Generally speaking, they tended to stray away from industrial, professional jobs because it created that extreme disconnect with divinity. But as in every case, there were and are women who are capable of making that connection no matter what they are engaged in. That is the wonder of women, they can do anything! As incarnates of the Divine Mother, their natures are essentially dual and powerful! Women will continue to fight those who do not see their duality and ability to take on men’s work by paying them less in wages. It is in their nature to make sure that their families are cared for, spiritually and materialistically. This is the foundation for Jean’s family, both on the maternal and paternal side. She was blessed to have strong women that provided what was necessary for the success of their families and ultimately of themselves.
Jean’s dad, Roger, had a very traditional upbringing; there were six children and his mother was the head of the household. She remained a homemaker for the entirety of her life, committed to the wellbeing of her husband, children and herself. His mother was an irreplaceable and an essential element to the family’s success. His father was a devout believer in the centrality of the Divine Mother as expressed in the form of his wife and therefore took a job as an independent businessman (furniture repair) so that he could be easily accessible to his family while providing them with stable external support. He was born in Italy and moved to America in order to provide better opportunities for his family (he had already married Roger’s mother and they had already had a child). With a booming population and morphing economy, America was the perfect place for a furniture repair business. He left Roger’s mother in Italy in hopes of eventually bringing her to America when he had succeeded in providing a stable and comfortable home for the family. His efforts took longer than she was able to wait and at the encouragement of her family, she left for America to join up with her husband (at this time, unfortunately her first child had died and she reunited with her husband alone). He was initially resistant to her coming to America because it was essential to him that he provide her with an atmosphere conducive to her internal success as homemaker and therefore to the family’s success as a whole. They eventually had Roger, Jean’s father. His father’s efforts provided them with a lower-middle class lifestyle. Roger graduated high school and immediately left home for the military. He eventually came back and entered college to study engineering, which surprisingly led to his return to his roots- he took over his father’s business of furniture repair and began to build the foundation for a family. He held firm to the belief system he had grown up with and was intent upon making an external support system conducive to a successful and loving home.
Jean’s mother’s upbringing was also based in a belief system of the household and mother as the core of the family. Her father was able to acquire a government job that provided his family with a lower-middle class lifestyle; her mother remained a devout homemaker throughout her life. Jean’s mother, Jennifer, was nurtured by a strong willed mother who encouraged her to recognize her strength as the foundation of her future family but also as a person with a dual nature- a woman with the ability to not only nurture her family internally by being the head of the household but to venture outside of the home and provide others with that same nurture. Jennifer graduated high school and eventually put herself through college to attain a bachelor’s degree.
Eventually Roger and Jennifer met, fell in love, got married and had three children- one of them being Jean. They lived a traditional, yet contemporary lifestyle: Roger remained self-employed so as to remain close to the core of the family while providing the external support. He provided them with a middle class life. This status allowed for Jennifer to venture outside of the home, as her mother had encouraged her to not be afraid to do, and held several part-time jobs. Specifically she worked as a substitute teacher, volunteered at soup kitchens and worked as a computer salesperson (talk about duality!). She eventually attained her master’s degree and became an English professor. Roger additionally contributed to the internal support of the family by often cooking meals. This in turn, gave Jennifer some time to devote to her academic studies and outside activities. Although Jennifer continued to be the foundation of the internal sustenance of the group, organizing the house and grocery shopping so that the most conducive environment and required nutrition was provided to her family. Unfortunately Roger and Jennifer’s relationship has dissolved and they have informally separated. After a very trying period for both of them (Jennifer suffered economic and emotional hardship due to the requirement that she now had to utilize to its fullest potential her dual nature as internal and external provider; Roger suffered emotional and spiritual hardship due to his fear at disconnect with the Divine Mother through his wife), they have reconciled their differences to a degree and Jennifer has moved back into their home, with Roger living in the apartment above the garage. This arrangement suits them just fine, as Roger can retain his closeness with the divine connection through his wife and Jennifer can ease her mind of financial woes and dedicate her life to inspiring others through her work as a mother, friend, professor and co-worker.
Jean has directly benefited from the wisdom of her grandmothers on both sides of her family, but most importantly from her mother, Jennifer. She taught her to break with tradition if she wished but to always remain true to her divine nature as an incarnate of the Divine Mother. After graduating high school, Jean left for California on her own to start her adult life. She held odd jobs while here: delivery person; worker in a perfume factory; caterer and fine dining server. She traveled to North Carolina to attain her bachelor’s degree and then returned to California. She began to work for La Casa, a domestic violence center, which she very much enjoyed. After a short stint away from the center, working again as a server and even as a valet, Jean began to make the distinction between all of the jobs that she had ever held. The job that had meant the most to her and had affected her in a meaningful way, the job that she valued as an incarnate of the Divine Mother was a job concerned with the nurture of others. Helping women deal with domestic violence issues fulfilled her in a way that none of the other jobs had. I believe that it is directly tied to the amount of connection that she had as a person able to soothe the heartache of others and to help them out of their unhealthy situations.
It is essential for us to seek new forms of (religious) experience and expression, either through the reinterpretation and reconstruction of our traditions or through alternative models of Ultimate Reality that will emphasize as well as include female experience…women need to identify personally with positive images and role models, models that can assert the importance of the ‘feminine in all…experience.” –Lina Gupta
I believe that women, in whatever capacity they choose to express it, are essentially nurturing creatures. They may not realize it, they may think that their work or essential purpose in life is not geared toward the benefit of others in a mothering/nurturing way, but when women are happy and healthy, they positively affect everyone and everything around them. Look at history – for generations many have fought directly and indirectly against oppression of others and themselves, in an effort not to benefit themselves but to benefit the whole. One of their most important fights has been to create equality outside of the home.
My story here has been an effort to encourage a change in the value system. I believe it is perfectly acceptable for women to be housewives or physicists or astronauts or daycare workers. Just as long as it is a job that is fulfilling to them as individuals and that our current system of value places them equally with men. Not only should they be valued monetarily (for we cannot escape the capitalist system we are entrenched in currently, for the time being) but we should value it spiritually, in a deeper, more meaningful way. Women should, themselves, value their efforts and importance in the home in addition to demanding that they be valued outside the home. They should see themselves as empowered individuals capable of doing what they wish and loudly demanding that their efforts be recognized as essential and important and awarded as such. It starts in the home, as children we observe our surroundings and develop our path in life accordingly and so I truly believe that the home is the center of life and should be an environment conducive to the uplift of all that live within it. As essential as I believe men are to that equation, I also recognize the foundation of that equation-women as mothers, daughters and wives.
(C) 2004 By Shannon Laliberte Parks. All Rights Reserved. Please Obtain Permission to Copy.
*Jean D. was a colleague of mine during my masters program at New College of California. I have shortened her name and changed the names of her family for her privacy.