For over a year I’ve been writing poems about women. Each poem begins with the word “She” and, to set the record immediately straight, they are not about me. Ok, well, some are. But most aren’t.
They are about you. Or someone you know. Or some small part of you, or someone you know.
They are individual, metaphorical and most importantly—visual. As this collection began to take shape I did not see it thriving as a bundle of black and white words on a page. Each woman is a character with a rich and relatable history. Our history informs our psychology and these poems are my small attempt to dip a toe into the oceans of both.
As I wrote I also wondered, how can I turn these words into worlds? I did not want to do it on my own. I wanted to collaborate. So I made a request. I invited 52 women to bring 52 poems to life in a visual landscape— to explore the personalities in this imaginary (or not so imaginary) world of “SHE”— for one year.
52 poems. 52 women. 52 weeks.
Honestly, I was a little terrified to ask, but with the encouragement of a few good women, I typed up my request, took a deep breath, and hit the “send” button. The response was immediate and overwhelmingly enthusiastic.
So here we are.
Over the next 52 weeks, 52 women will explore and interpret the land of “SHE”. I will share one poem and the visual interpretation of that poem every week via this blog, Instagram and Facebook. The inaugural poem, “DIY” interpreted by Lu Lippold, makes it official. “SHE” has launched.
Follow along. See yourself. See someone you know. Be kind to both.
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” —Gospel of Thomas
I launched The Book of She on January 1, 2020 because SHE was within me. Each poem with its embodiment of a new SHE character felt colorful, alive, larger than the black and white words resting on the white page. SHE wanted to break out of conventional constraints, to be seen as unique and individual, to be heard in her own voice.
One year later, multiple SHE poems have been redefined by multiple SHE voices. An idea that started in my sleep and took shape at my kitchen table has been transformed into 52 artistic explorations of women’s lives, bodies, and stories. I wrote these poems, but I didn’t fully know each of the women within until I was was formally introduced to them by 52 women, 52 Saturday mornings in a row.
Thank you to the friends who encouraged me to get going despite my fears—you offered your love and light. Thank you to all participating SHE poem interpreters—you embraced the words and gave each woman a heart and soul. Thank you to all watchers, cheerleaders, and blog readers—you have nurtured and inspired.
During a year of chaos and darkness these 52 new pieces of artwork brightened up my life. I feel like a proud mom. Look! I say to anyone with an ear.
Look how SHE has grown.
To view all 52 of The Book of She poems and their magical interpretations please visit @bookofshepoems on Instagram.
Once upon a time I cheated on a multiple choice test. I was in high school. It was a science test. I hated science. And math too, but this was science. If you know me now and if you’d known me then you would say: Whaaaaaaat? She’s a rule follower. She’s a good girl. She’s the girl that always covered up her paper so that cheaters wouldn’t try to cheat off of HER test!
Yet there I was, cheating. I wrote the answers on a long, slim piece of paper and slid them into my pen (also someone else’s idea).
A. C. D. A. B. B. C.
The entire time that I was cheating my hands were shaking, my eyes were darting, and my insides felt sick. When my test was returned to me with that red circled “A” staring me in the face I felt treasonous. It was holding someone else’s “A.” The teacher was smiling. That poor teacher actually thought he’d taught me something.
Or did he?
Maybe the teacher knew. Maybe my transparent shaking and eye-darting and head-cocking to get a better look at the answers on my slim cheat-sheet had given me away and he just let me implode and that implosion was the source of his guile.
Or maybe the real lesson had nothing to do with science. Maybe I’m a rule follower and good girl after all.
I happened to be watching a movie last night that highlights the struggle of women to be seen as equal humans and equal contributors in a culture dominated by the will and law of men. It focused on that gorgeous revolutionary period known as Feminism when women took to the streets, to the arts, to the working world, and to the courts to say, Hey people, our place is in the world not in the kitchen!
Recently the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by a white guy who disparaged Dr. Jill Biden for using the earned professional title of “Dr.” He diminished her years of rigorous study by referring to her as “kiddo.” Said she should drop the “Dr.” thing and just be happy to be “First Lady.”
Why thank you Mr. White Guy for waking us up from our female fog. Shall I go put on my control top pantyhose, my heels, and my lipstick so I look pleasing as I kick your teeth in?
Over the past four years I’ve reawakened to the grim reality that as a woman I must still slog, struggle, and fight bloody battles to be given due credit, to be seen and respected as equal versus less than, that I must push back when I get pushback, and that I need to recognize and resist the learned insecurity, passivity, and self-deprecation that is so easy to fall back on because I don’t want to be seen as “making a big deal” out of “nothing.”
Thanks to Dr. Cynthia Lane (who has the audacity to call herself a “doctor” because, well, she’s a doctor) for being a beacon, and for speaking to our personal and collective battles with this week’s poetic interpretation. Her pose, on the ground, looking utterly exhausted, says it all. Yes, we’ve come a long way, but we’re so, so, so not finished yet.
The Movie:Feminists: What Were They Thinking? Directed by Johanna Demetrakas.
“The documentary perfectly balances the old and the new, the ways feminism has grown and the way forward it must continue to march. It fearlessly shows us beauty and ugliness, women who painstakingly created something in a world of men, not to be accepted by them but in defiance of them.” —Paige Munshell
During non-Covid times I’m a theatre person. I’ve made more than several appearances on stage as an actor and off stage as a director. So when I woke up one morning to find this poem whirling around in my head, SHE felt like a character. Like someone I was observing or possibly portraying.
I wrote the poem down with a bit of a giggle and thought—It would be so fun to write a whole series of these! And obviously I did.
If you’ve been following this 52-week collaboration of poems-turned-art on Facebook or Instagram you’ve witnessed the birth and growth of 50 characters. There are still two more waiting behind the curtain, but this one is special because it’s my firstborn. My fledgling. The one that launched me into a written world of messy, magnificent female characters, personalities, and circumstances.
I’m not an actual parent of any human babies but, hey—these are my girls. Seeing them express and reveal themselves each week through the eyes and hearts of other messy, magnificent women has surprised, humbled, and wowed me, sometimes to the embarrassing point of tears. Look at my babies, I blubber, aren’t they just AMAZING?
With only two more weeks to go til graduation I find myself feeling like an empty-nester. What will I do when they’re gone? I feel the same kind of nervous despair after a theatre production ends. No rehearsals? No costume fittings? No hairstyle and character research? No performances?
Be like the fledgling bird or actor I tell myself—eyes closed, attempting to embody a zen-like manner, which is not one of my personal strengths.
I didn’t grow up on a full-fledged farm, but I did grow up in a rural area. We had one acre and it was plopped in the middle of corn, cattle, and distant trees. That acre housed a Labrador retriever, a cranky indoor mutt, two cats, three sheep, and a family of five humans.
It was the 80’s and our household roles were still firmly gender-based, which meant that my mom was the designated cook. It was a job that she didn’t relish (pun), but one that she took on in a crock-pot and cream-of-mushroom soup kind of way. And sometimes in a spam sandwich, or ring baloney (that’s how you REALLY spell it), or meatloaf kind of way.
God, I hate meatloaf.
On holidays she added color to our typically monochromatic meat and potatoes with white bread and milk dinner table with—Yes!—a Jello Salad. Sometimes it was red. Sometimes it was green. Sometimes she got crazy and went tri-color. It was like looking at layers of Neapolitan ice cream. Only it was Jello.
In September of 2019 my mom’s crockpot went quiet and her spirit took flight. As I numbly organized and agonized I came across a small recipe book. I laughed and cried (like you do when you watch a really good rom-com) when I found her recipes for Jello Salad and Meatloaf.
Oh, how I hate meatloaf. But I saved both recipes because they make me laugh and cry and because they remind me of those magical, average, everyday moments that blend together and make up a life. Magical, average, everyday moments that I may have otherwise forgotten.
For now I put the recipes to good use as bookmarks. And you never know—someday I might need to make a Jello Salad. But, seriously, I will never, ever make meatloaf.
I am a person who is (despite the pandemic) still buying her groceries in person. It’s pretty much the only thing I do in public outside of driving.
I remember the days (just shy of a year ago) when I’d turn a corner with my cart, nearly play bumper cars with someone else turning a corner and we’d each grimace, lift our eyebrows in surprise and say, Oops! Sorry! Then came the polite smiles, the nervous laughs, the wave of the hands, the subtle hunching of the shoulders, and the simultaneous side-step meant to allow the other person to pass. This kind of body language was all very quaint and Midwestern and, well, normal.
Now that the pandemic is raging the majority of us either order curbside pickup or go into the grocery store with a stern, straight-backed mission to get in and get out, and DO NOT look anyone in the eye as the carrots are being tossed into the cart.
But what if we accidentally bump into each other like we did in the olden days? What do we do? Our faces are covered and therefore our “Oh, that’s ok” smiles are covered too. How do we act?
The “Let’s pretend that didn’t happen” method is very popular. But I personally like the charades method, which involves eye pops, lots of “oh, dear me” hand gestures, squinty eyes to indicate a smile behind the mask, and using my words (even though that’s against charade rules) to say, Oops! Sorry! which I now tend to say more loudly than usual because masks make all words sound foreign. (Luckily we all know that if someone doesn’t understand a word you just have to say it much, much louder.)
Honestly, I think it’s kind of nice to ram into someone’s cart now and then because we’re all so isolated and a little cart bump offers us a chance to say a few words—in public! And to do a little apologetic dancing—in public!
Am I saying you should worry about the safety of your eggs if you spy me pushing a cart at the grocery store? Until a vaccine arrives and we can all fearlessly breathe on each other again, yes. Yes, I am.
This week’s poem and the interpretation inspired some questions. Who better to answer them than the interpreter? Susan Gaustad agreed and her commentary is right here and ready to read.Enjoy! —MM
The invitation from Michelle to join with all of you in the “Book of She” project brought me back to the art that I did as a child before I found words as a way to express myself. I left making images behind for decades. Somehow, I developed the cockeyed belief that I could only be a writer!
The poem Michelle gave me,”Compromises,” I wrestled with for days. It even came up in a session I had with a somatic therapist I’ve been working with.
I thought about all the compromises women make from childhood through old age. Compromises within—about our bodies—health—emotional and physical. Compromises in relationships with spouses, companions, lovers, parents, children, friends, employees. Society. The media.
I sketched. I read poetry. I looked at images of women’s bodies, of the goddesses. I took long walks among the trees. I thought about how content must find its own form. Something a “writing me” to told the rest of me years ago when I was working on a memoir.
Nothing seemed to be emerging. I could feel that discomfort inside when something is getting ready to be “birthed,” when I write. And, then one night I dreamed of her. The Goddess of the New Earth. I didn’t know that’s what she called herself until later.
She was vibrant. Glowing. Reverberating. She was Light and Vibration of Energy. If only I could have painted all of what I saw!
She showed me that her purpose is to show us how to listen to ourselves in our bodies, and in turn, to the Living Beings of the Earth. This is done through listening with the entire body—the Heart, the Passion of the belly.
By doing this at an even deeper level than we may have before, we more easily embrace the choice of not compromising Self, of not being caught up in Distractions of the world.
She insisted on a BIG canvas, which scared the crap out of me. I have NEVER worked on canvas that large before! In retrospect, it felt freeing to use my whole body as I drew her at the easel.
At a key time while working on the piece, I got a message from Nina Verin (another SHE interpreter). That message changed the course of image, and I dedicate the glowing trees in the piece to her.
What looks like a clock in the tree is actually a drum! That’s where I was guided to put it. The symbols on it show the lunar cycle. Also, Warriors. Women. Hunting. Deer. Home. Peace.
They come from the Saami, Native American, and Aboriginal tribal traditions. The Goddess uses her drum to connect with the beating of the Heart of the Earth, to encourage us to feel the vibration of chanting and dancing, which connects us to the Earth.
The poem I wrote is channeled directly from her to us. The Light you see in her and around her is in you as well!
She has no name, yet. I have been told that her name will emerge from someone in this group.
I am inspired by Michelle’s poems. I am inspired by the art you each have created and by who you are. I feel so deeply that this group of women has created something beautiful, wise, and life-giving. Our work together has just begun.
Yesterday I felt heavy. In my shoulders, in my heart, and especially in my head. Virus fatigue? Political fatigue? Climate fatigue? Not-enough-chocolate fatigue? I can’t pinpoint the reasons why I felt the way I did, I just…did.
For me that heaviness tends to manifest into a kind of all-day, low-grade depression that feels a lot like grief.
I have methods of getting through these days—long walks, calming music, stimulating podcasts, making mental lists of what I’m grateful for—but they still suck. And I’ve learned that I just have to let them suck and muddle through. The walks, music, podcasts, lists, and whatever other distractions I come up with help, but no matter what, I know that the heaviness, the grief, will travel with me throughout the day like a hidden sliver in my sock.
I hate slivers. And because I know the sliver is coming from within I start to get really mad—at me. I lash out—at me, and I say…. Hey, me what the hell is your problem?!
Yep. Vicious cycle.
There are other days when I have a clearer head and a sunnier outlook, but I still wake up some mornings feeling strangled by the surprise heaviness, the grief, the ache that causes me to punch the air, wave my fists, and throw an inner self-shaming fit.
A few days ago I encountered this quote:
“The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible.” —Francis Weller
Thank you, Francis. Thank you for telling me that I’m allowed to hold grief without shame. I will add your words to my distractions drawer and pull them out when that heaviness, that grief does it’s breaking and entering once again.
Today I feel better. I don’t know why. I just… do. Maybe today is a day that I can hold more gratitude. Whatever the reason, I’ll take it.
This week’s blog is courtesy of “Thank God it’s Not Friday” poem interpreter, Judy Krohn. For those of you who know Chef Judy, the fact that a food poem found her proves once again that serendipity was at work during my random choosing process almost a year ago. For those of you who don’t know Chef Judy, well, I’m sorry because you’ve missed out on some pretty good tastebud parties. But you can get to know her a little bit here as she tells, “The Rest of the Story.” Enjoy and TGINF. —Michelle
Well of course, I was going to make a tuna sandwich—the most beautiful looking, cooking- magazine-worthy, mouthwatering creation that anyone could imagine. A pretty plate, sliced garden tomatoes, crisp lettuce, a house-made pickle on the side. I had everything I needed on hand, except for the usually-expected white sandwich bread. No dowdy, homemade, hole-y sourdough slices would do.
Lightbulbmoment: I recently learned that Julia Child liked to prepare her open-faced tuna sandwiches on English muffins. And I have English muffins in the freezer—Eureka!! Now, off to gather the remaining “ingredients” to complete my assignment.
Who is “She”? She’s very old, very Catholic, accustomed to regularity. But with a streak of stubbornness. I traveled throughout the house, looking for items that could help tell her story.
A large, old (1881) Bible came to mind. It was one of several things we acquired from the estate of an old family friend, “Aunt Hazel” (she wasn’t a relative, but a close friend of older family members). Hazel was a single child, very well off, never married, and—from tales told about her —rather suspicious, bitter, and definitely stubborn.
Dust off that bible and discover all the forgotten treasures we’d hidden inside: a few child’s drawings, newspaper clippings, 4-leaf clovers and pressed flowers, the names, along with the names, birth & death dates of people we never knew. Open the book and lay out the relevant items on one side: the poem, a gold pocket watch (also from Hazel), a holy card from a friend’s sister’s funeral, the rosary is a memento from our daughter’s trip to Spain, a family photo that reminds me that I am not that far from being “very old” myself, the candleholder is a gift from a talented tinsmith friend.
The Bible falls open to the Book of Lamentations; there is much weeping and wailing about pain and loss therein. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that “She” may have dallied in this realm from time to time.
I select a colorful plate for the sandwich. But “She” has such contempt for the idea of a tuna fish sandwich; I don’t think “She” wouldn’t have taken the time or the trouble to make a beautiful sandwich for herself. She would follow her routine and religious teachings, and reluctantly consume an ordinary, uninteresting, white-bread tuna sandwich each Friday evening. I hope “She” would be delighted to know that Starkist now makes a tuna “creation” that tastes like bacon.*
The elements are collected; they are assembled on a bed tray and photographed on our 4- poster bed, yet another legacy from our “Aunt Hazel”. While my connection to religious practices and rituals is limited, it occurs to me that “my” poem happens to be quite relevant to this time of year, when many Western religions will celebrate “All Saints” and “All Souls” day.
Thank you, Michelle, for inviting me to be part of this project, for giving me the opportunity to travel through time and memory, to relate once again to objects neglected in the dusty corners of the house, and to become better acquainted with the person in your poem. And, thanks to all your talented friends who have both overawed & inspired me so far this year. I look forward— with relief— to the remaining weeks of this collective effort. Having now dismantled the image and put the objects away, I’m going to make—and enjoy— that beautiful tuna fish sandwich!
(* Spoiler alert—it doesn’t taste the least bit like bacon!!)
When I graduated from college and got hired for my first graphic design job I remember being looked at by some of the clients as if I were a cute puppy. Young. Darling. Not to be taken too seriously. I remember smiling to appease them. I remember thinking about how I’d like to punch the faces of those dismissive, “aren’t you just adorable” superior, inferior, business-types who judged me not on my professional merit but on my youth and on my physical appearance.
I remember smiling again and again to appease them because I didn’t know how to handle their snide smiles and visual diminishments. And because I needed to keep my job.
I hated them. Probably wished them ill. Probably had lots of arguments with them in my head. The kind where I always pummeled them with words and sent them sullenly slinking away.
They never knew it. Because I smiled. Because I was darling. Because that’s how I was taught to act as a “girl” in the world. They liked me that way. They liked it that (according to them) I was young and dumb.
But oh, if they could have read my mind. If they could have seen the disgraceful thought bubbles popping out of my head. If they could have seen the graphic novel of my dreams where they were the bloody victims of my verbal mayhem.
If they could have, would they would have taken me, and my work, more seriously? Probably not. I would have been just another “nasty woman.”
Back in my “darling” days that label would’ve bothered me. Now, I wear it as a badge of honor. Because, the way I see it, “nasty women” are really just human beings who refuse to be labeled or judged or mistreated. And for those who label, judge, and mistreat—that’s nasty stuff. So?