Book Report: Women Talking

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Wow. There are so many things to say about this book that I’ll never get them all said! After I read All My Puny Sorrows, I wanted to read more from Miriam Toews, and selected this one, Women Talking, after reading the intriguing reviews. I said All My Puny Sorrows was a jewel of a book. Well, this one is like the Hope Diamond or something. There are so many aspects of it that are just…perfect…that it’s hard to find a place to start.

If this is soon to be a major motion picture, I think I’d have a hard time watching. It’s intense.

Well, I do know where to start, which is with the content warning. If you can’t handle books where there is discussion of rape, you’ll need to pass this one by, because the premise of Women Talking hinges around the effects of women of an entire community dealing with the consequences of it. It’s based on a true story, but the dialog and such are imagined.

The protagonists are a group of women in a Mennonite community isolated somewhere in South America, who at first thought they were being attacked by ghosts or demons in the night. The entire plot takes place over two days, as they decide how to deal with the men in their community who actually perpetuated the crimes.

None of these women have been allowed to learn to read or write, and very few of them have ever left their small compound. They have been trained to obey the men, never offer an opinion, and to simply do their jobs (cook, clean, farm, and reproduce).

They hold a series of secret meetings, when the men have gone to try to bail out the rapists, and they ask the one educated person in the community, the teacher, who’s an outcast, to take minutes of their meetings. August is not sure WHY they asked, but he is willing to do it.

Through his notes (and his unexpectedly complex asides and insights into his own history), we learn what a fascinating group of people these women are, gain many insights into the beliefs of their Mennonite community (by the way, NOT like all Mennonite communities…it’s a bit cultish), and see how brilliant, brave, compassionate, and feisty they can be.

When they start planning, reasoning, discussing theology, and supporting each other, you can’t help but be in awe. Toews shows how resilient the human spirit is, and truly draws you into their culture and concerns. There are so many details I’ll never forget, such as conditions they have to deal with all alone, with no real medical care (edema, fainting spells, pregnancy and childbirth, loss of eyesight, loss of limbs, etc.). And there are little things like how one of them manages to be a smoker, or how the two youngest women braid their hair together, or jauntily remove their head coverings and roll their socks down in rebellion.

You eventually see that everyone in the book has suffered, has tenuous connections to sanity, but have strengths, the depths of which they don’t always realize. And to get to that realization you get to enjoy the privilege of Towes’s spare dialogue, her knack for expressing things in ways that people from another “world” would say them, and her true love for marginalized people.

I admired the women in this book deeply. They stuck to their principles as I could only hope to do if I was challenged to fundamentally. And I admired August the note-taker, too, poor tortured soul.

This book affected me as deeply as The Handmaid’s Tale did way back in the 1980s. That means it will stay with me forever. Please read it.

Religion, Politics, Grievances

Not sure if this is a rant or what, but I’m experiencing some righteous indignation on behalf of some people I know, in person and online. It seems like folks are really, really bored right now, and I get that. It’s winter and many of us are pretty isolated.

BUT

Nope. Not finished.

Just because you’re bored and you have an opinion about someone’s beliefs or actions does NOT mean you are obligated to share it with the rest of the planet. More important, you don’t need to tell people how wrong all the things they think and do are. Really, you do not.

Yes, people we know do stuff that bothers us. And, I have nothing against talking about things people, in general, do that bother us. I do it, as you may have noticed, and am doing it now, as a matter of fact.

However, just because you have the TIME to send a long email, text, or IM to someone spelling out exactly how wrong their beliefs and opinions are, it doesn’t mean you SHOULD do it. Think about it.

If you are happy with the religious path you have taken, which after all is a personal religious path, would someone telling you how wrong it is do anything other than make you think less of that person. It certainly would not change your religious beliefs. That happens between you and your deity or deities. No one has a right to call your beliefs into question (even Scientologists, ha ha).

Now hush.

If you have expressed your personal thoughts on a personal platform (blog, Instagram, Facebook, etc.) about politics of your country, policies in your area, or issues that need to be addressed, that does not (or should not) open you up to diatribes, name calling, meanness, or threats. Sure, people can express disagreement or other points of view, but why be mean about it?

Does insulting someone or disparaging someone’s beliefs EVER EVER EVER get them to change their mind and see your brilliant point of view as correct? (Hint, the answer is, “no.”)

Suggested Alternatives to Giving People a Piece of Your Mind

If you get a strong urge to tell someone exactly what you think about their life choices or viewpoints, here are things you can do that don’t involve attacking them with your scathing words:

  • Donate money in their name to your favorite cause. That always feels good. I’ve done it!
  • Write the horribly misguided person a long letter by hand, on a piece of paper. Then stomp on it really hard to get your frustrations out, followed by violently wadding it up and throwing it in the trash.
  • Take a long walk around your property while muttering dark and foul thoughts about your target, until you get distracted by something naturally beautiful and you start feeling all sorts of oneness and your hostility dissipates (works for me).
  • Call your best friend and declare that it is time to vent. Rant and rave and complain your head off. The friend will say soothing things. Then you will agree that there’s no point in telling the wrong-thinking person off; they just won’t get it.
  • Wait until Festivus, then stand by your Festivus Pole and air your grievances. That will be okay, because it’s a holiday activity.*

By the way, it’s FESTIVUS! Let us air our grievances!


(*The article I link to above explains how Festivus is the perfect pandemic holiday and is pretty cute. Also, if you Google Festivus, there’s a Festivus pole in the margin! Hilarious!)

Crisis of Faith…or Denomination

FIRST: To all my long-time church friends. Don’t panic. You are still my friends and will always be. And to the current and former ministers at the church I’ve been a member of, it’s not you. You have my deepest respect and admiration.

That said, in the back of my mind, I’ve been thinking about my membership in an organized religion for the past twenty-something years. It’s clear to me that I did it for reasons that had nothing to do with the institution itself: I just wanted to meet some people with values similar to mine and to have a chance to sing with others.

Thank goodness I did yoga today.

I had not made friends in my neighborhood (only ever made a few), and my work was online, so I couldn’t make work friends. A church seemed like a good idea, and a church that would accept me as I am and give my children a foundation from which to create their spiritual paths.

I joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation, where I made some wonderful friends and enjoyed a close-knit community for many years. When the church changed focus from building community to growth, I still had my friends and the music we performed to serve my needs. I also enjoyed women’s conferences and other activities.

I enjoyed the traditions and rituals in the weekly services, too, and I learned a lot from the sermons. I also liked how sermons seemed educational and disagreement was welcomed. I didn’t feel like I was being told to toe some denominational line or being put down for having a different perspective. That was good.

Change is inevitable

People change and institutions change. There were a couple of upheavals in the church, but we got through them. I was really surprised at how much I grew personally from these challenges. I handled change! Scary change!

Change is scary! It’s often good! It can be hard.

But some of the change I’ve seen in the church and its parent denomination have made me feel less and less comfortable. And for that reason, I don’t think I want to be a UU anymore.

Lack of forgiveness: Leaders in the church keep getting removed from positions for mistakes that seem totally human to me. Someone said something “politically incorrect,” or they made a mistake when they were younger and less wise, or in some way they just weren’t living up to expectations of “wokeness.”

Rather than working with people to make amends; allowing them to learn from mistakes, apologize, and move forward; or look into how an error occurred and not do it again…people just get forced to leave. And people get shunned for not being perfect.

It’s the “me-too” movement taken to other areas. If you screw up and someone points it out, you should go into your corner or cave and stay there.

Intolerance: More and more, I see denomination and church members conveying an intolerant attitude towards people who have a different point of view, a different perspective, or unique experiences that might lead to conclusions that are different from what’s being promoted by the leadership. That reminds me way too much of the kinds of spiritual communities I’ve avoided my whole life (prescriptive, more uniform traditions are fine if that is what makes you comfortable; it’s just not for me). I see lip service for supporting diversity of thought and expression, but in practice I see a LOT of pressure to conform to whatever’s currently en vogue.

[Unpopular aside alert: It sometimes even seems that, if you are white and straight, you start out with so much negative baggage and un-earned privileges that nothing you say or do will make your input worth including. Wow. Even if I think I believe in reincarnation, I don’t think I chose to be a white straight woman (European-American cis-gender I mean). I was just born this way. I might actually care about people who aren’t like me and want to help make the world a safer and more welcoming place for them.]

Ageism: And this one’s the straw that breaks this old camel’s back. I know it is very important to mainstream denominations in the US to attract youth and young families. They don’t want to die! (I understand that from the first-hand experience with the church we bought because there were no new people joining the congregation.)

I also enthusiastically embrace the inclusion of new perspectives, new voices, and new energy into all institutions. They bring welcome change and help us see where we’re bogged down from always looking at our communities and institutions in the same way. Like I said yesterday, I learn so much from people who are growing up today.

But, both the larger UU Association and the church I have been associated with have been (both subtly and occasionally overtly) pushing aside or putting down input from older church members. And I’m not just talking about recent events. I once said a program didn’t really meet the needs of me and my friends, and I was told that well, the church isn’t looking to please the long-time members.

Individuals have also given me an uncomfortable feeling about being my age in the church. My generations experiences with racism, sexism, homophobia and other issues are put aside as no longer relevant. That’s really hurtful, especially when I consider how much I learned from feminists and equal-rights activists of the generation before me!

A fond (I mean it) farewell

I’d been thinking of starting a satellite church in Cameron, but I really don’t think the lack of acceptance of people who think differently would go over well there.

I mean it.

So, I think I’ll go back to being a solo practitioner of my own brand of crazy pacifist/neo-pagan/Buddhist/gnostic mish-mash and leave institutional religion to people for whom it works. At this stage in my life, I want to focus on areas where my input is appreciated, my propensity to make mistakes tolerated, and my imperfect ways of supporting and allying with others are welcomed.

I’m just going through a phase where I’m tired of having to prove I’m good enough to be in the same room with UUs. I still support people who get their needs met by UUism or other such things. I’m just outa here.


PS: I’m not wanting to be convinced my perceptions are wrong or to be told not to feel how I feel. I get to have my feelings. That said, you get to have YOURS, too, and you are welcome to share them. I also get to perceive events the way I perceive them; yours may differ. I won’t judge you.