Ramblings On Solnit and Women


"Feminist" is a loaded word. After reflecting on Solnit's essays in Men Explain Things to Me. I think it would be a luxury for me to claim that I'm not a feminist. So much of my reality, expectations, mindset rests on the shoulders of generations of women struggling against a silencing and stifling status quo.

Like many women in my generation, I went to college. It never occurred to me that I wouldn't or couldn't. I often walked home alone, despite the horrible realities that often occur to women on lonely walks, I was one of an ignorant few who never considered that I might be in danger.  Reading the statistics now, it seems naive of me.

Similarly, I and many other women entered marriage and motherhood on the naive assumption that we were to be co-equals with our partners. Same opportunities, same autonomy. It came as something of a shock to me and many of the women with whom I interact that we would have to negotiate time alone, or careers. In defense of our husbands (the men I know are caring partners, and doting fathers), in such situations, push back isn't often from a place of misogyny, but rather the recognition of certain biological/psychological realities. A nursing infant is very attached to the mother. It is not the same for a mother to come and go as for a father to come and go. But for myself and other mothers I know, this push back felt/feels like an affront to our autonomy. It's as if we received the feminist manifesto in our inbox, internalized it and proceeded accordingly. Husbands and children are less willing to conform, without clear demands and boundaries.

To say Solnit has affected me would be an understatement. Her words and ideas are surprisingly reasonable. I say surprisingly, because my issue with feminism is that it often seems to leave out or denigrate what makes women different from men - our biology, our wombs, lactating mammary glands, special qualities of empathy... Men and women are not the same. Nor do I want to be a man, nor does Solnit.

Like Solnit, I would like freedom of opportunity. Unlike Solnit, and I say this with no disrespect or judgment, I have been a mother. I am still a mother. There are certain realities that come with this territory, realities I never anticipated and that must be negotiated with care. Women do not exist in a vacuum. Some women choose not to marry or have children. For these women, forging a career is a necessity and the challenges they face in a male-dominated work place have been extensively documented. For women who choose marriage and motherhood things get murkier.

If I were to approach motherhood with a feminist attitude, it seems to me an unintentionally self-centered attitude.  As Solnit notes, Virginia Woolf wrote about needing to kill the "angel of the house."  While that's a seductive idea, and to some extent necessary to preserve one's sanity, I would argue that part of the value that women add is to BE that angel (not 100% of the time, we are still human, after all). Still, to create a peaceful, nurturing environment is a the essential task of the mother. In fact, I would agree that it is the loss of this feminine energy in the home that is leading to the massacres we see and which are becoming so common. Solnit ponders if there is something about how our culture defines masculinity that may be to blame for the proliferation of violent acts against women. Perhaps. Perhaps it is the masculine devoid of strong feminine role models and care givers that is leading to the proliferation of violence. Perhaps it is the presence of a loving mother that curbs the excess and helps create balanced men and women.

I'm not arguing that all women should get back into their kitchens or that things were perfect before women entered the work force.  I would say though that each family unit needs to figure out how to meet the needs of all of its members, not the just the needs of mothers or the needs of fathers.

I would also argue that life is about seasons. There are times that children need a loving care giver on call (usually the mother), there are times when life is more flexible. I think this is a time when our culture is encouraging each person to focus on herself, increasingly. That way narcissism lies. I think we should look at ourselves honestly with a critical eye and ask: what do I have to offer? How am I contributing - to my family, my community? How can I take ownership of my needs and communicate them clearly?

I think it's dangerous to look at centuries with a broad brushstroke. It's useful. Yet, it can lead to an overly simplistic and also ignorant analysis. It has never been easy to be a woman. There have always been women like Woolf and Plath who have suffered under the bonds of domesticity. I love their work and I love them for the new possibilities they created for the rest of us. They were also incredibly troubled women. Some would say: of course, they were, look at how women were treated in those days. Yet, when you consider how supportive their partners were, how widely they were published and how they still took their lives, I think blaming the patriarchy is a bit too easy. 

I don’t think we should settle for quiet lives, unless we want them. I don’t think we should tolerate abuse. I also think we should be careful and consider how often we are complicit in such abuses. We should think carefully about our thought patterns and whether the threat is from without or within. Many times, the answer is: its both. It is often the aunties of African nations who perform FCM. It was a woman whose "vision" lead to murder of someone's mother in Nicaragua. It is just as often women who are the madams that pimp out our daughters. It is often women who choose to array themselves like sex objects. It is often we who silence ourselves, make ourselves small.

Until we can wrestle with these demons, wrestle with ourselves, nothing will change for women.



On Simplicity and the Ten Item Wardrobe

I am not sure how I stumbled upon Lessons from Madame Chic, by Jennifer L. Scott.



It was probably suggested in my Amazon feed after reading Bringing up Bebe, which is a post all it's own.  Scott shares a number of great lifestyle tips in her book, all of which are about elevating day to day living into something a bit more transcendent, not in an unattainably posh way, but more in the pursuit of the way our grandmothers ideally did things - with excellence and contentment.  She writes on topics, such a, "rejecting the new materialism," the art of entertaining and always dressing your best, even if you are just popping into the supermarket.  One of my favorite ideas that she shares in the book is something she calls the "ten item wardrobe."  In fact, I was slightly obsessed with it for a minute.  Ok.  I'm still obsessed with it.

The basic idea is that you have ten core pieces.  The core pieces include items like dresses, blouses and pants.  All other items like scarves, shoes and outerwear are considered accessories.  You use those ten core pieces to build you wardrobe.  The accessories help you mix things up and keep you from getting bored with so few items.  She lists some amazing benefits from this practice, including self-discipline and almost instantaneous chicness.   How are these qualities related to the ten item wardrobe?  If you limit yourself to a small number of items, you won't be drawn in by fast fashion and flashy sales, because any new purchase will be bought knowing that it will be one of just ten items.  Therefore, you will not likely buy something just because it is trendy or cheap.  Ideally, you will buy only long-lasting things that you love.

I loved the idea and started googling the "ten item wardrobe" like mad.  The term is more or less Scott's own, drawn from her study abroad experience in France.  Her host family had given her a room and wardrobe with just ten hangers in it.  As she observed her host mom and a lot of Parisians, she noticed that the ten hangers might not have been just a fluke.  It seemed that most of the people she observed had a handful of core pieces that they wore on heavy rotation.

I loved so many things about this idea - the frugality of it, the thoughtfulness, the essentialism aspect, less is more, in other words.  Ultimately, however, I found the number somewhat limiting and a bit like cheating at the same time.  Not that Scott is trying to cheat her own system.  More like, if I were to apply the ten item rule to my wardrobe, as someone who chooses to cover most of my body year round (if you cannot tell from my About Me page, I am a Muslim, who wears a headscarf), not including outerwear in my number would be a big cheat for me.  For example, if I limited myself to three tops but then had 30 cardigans, caftans, ponchos or vests, that's not really abiding by the essentialism philosophy that's at the heart of the ten item wardrobe, is it?  Then, in the midst of my google frenzy, I stumbled about the phrase "capsule wardrobe."  One of the first articles I read was posted on The Every Girl about the blog Un-Fancy.

I immediately fell in love with the author, Caroline Rector's approach to the capsule wardrobe.  Not only did her number, 37 items, partly address my dilemma, her number included EVERYTHING.  Ok, not lingerie or workout clothes, but shoes, outerwear, etc.  It also didn't hurt that I loved her style.  Like Caroline, I'm a neutrals girl.  Seeing her capsule images immediately helped me to envision it for my own closet.  She also allowed for seasonal flexibilty.  Instead of 10, 20 or 30 items, period, she had a set number of items, but she had a different capsule for each season.  Now, before you get all excited and think, "120 items, I can easily follow that rule!", she doesn't have an entirely new set of items each season.  Some pieces roll over from spring to summer or from fall to winter.  Additionally, she doesn't buy a new wardrobe every three months.  Seasonal pieces go in storage and are rolled out when the time comes.

I immediately put Caroline's rules into play: (1) Come up with a number and go through your wardrobe.  (For me, the number was around 30.)  (2) Remove everything you don't absolutely love and wear that for 3 months.  (3) As the next season approaches, go through your wardrobe, think of the gaps in your wardrobe and set a strict budget for the few new items you might need.  (4) Buy those things at the start of the season and don't shop again until the next season rolls around.

The immediate benefit was a huge sigh of relief!!  We've all cleaned out our closet from time to time, ill-fitting and worn out clothes be gone.  We've probably all applied the "one-year rule",  you know the one "if you haven't worn it in a year..."  But it was only the second time in my life that I was ruthless in applying the "love-it" rule.  I probably had five blouses, four pairs of pants, a few tunics, a few cardigans and five pairs of shoes by the time I put my closet through the edit, but I was so content with it.  Just a month before, I would stand in my closet, with more clothes in it, and think the dreaded: I have nothing to wear!  After the edit, I ALWAYS had something to wear, because I loved those few things that I had.  Also, being a neutrals girl, those few thing all happened to go well together.  By the end of the season, and just when I was starting to get a bit tired of my items, the Houston summer kicked in and I couldn't wear a number of the things that I loved.  (Synthetic fabrics and sweat are not a good mix.  Cardigans of any fabric or denim in 100 degrees is unbearable.)  So, I set a budget and bought about 6 pieces, added those to my spring items that could take the heat, and wore that heck out of those until November.

I have been working with this capsule idea for a year now.  What I've learned a year later, is that I actually have a style, I now know almost instantly if something has staying power in my wardrobe.  Because I stick to the 40 or so item rule, including shoes, blazers etc., it's so much easier to discern how much I like something.  If I know I'm not getting any more tops for the foreseeable future, I can cut through the seductive sales signs and shopping euphoria.  Who cares if it's only $10?  If it looks like it will only make it through two washes, then I might as well throw that $10 in the trash.  Who cares if it's super cute and trendy on the mannequin?  If I don't feel like a million bucks and will only reach for it once a month, or even less, there is no space in my capsule for it.  I'm not saying I haven't made any bad purchases along the way, but shopping decisions are much less agonizing and my style confidence is through the roof!  Win, win.

There are plenty of capsule bloggers out there, so I'm not going to get into my capsules, but I will leave you with links to some of my favorite bloggers and books on the topic.

My absolute favorite is of course, Un-Fancy.  Caroline now blogs more about shopping principles and her new ideal - converting her wardrobe little by little to only conscious/ethical clothing.  However, her old capsules are still available on her site, under the tab "Capsule Experiment."  She offers a free capsule planner e-book, too.

Another thought provoking site is Into Mind.  This blogger really gets into the gritty of planning out your own style and wardrobe, with posts like, "How to pair colors: a short intro to color theory" or "24 Outfit Formulas for Spring."

I also loved Scott's book, Lessons From Madame Chic.  It's an easy read, great for the beach, but it's also really inspiring.  Many of us, at least the people who have time to read this, or any other blog, are probably incredibly blessed.  We live in relative safety and comfort.  Have the basic things in life at our fingertips.  Why not truly be grateful for every moment?  Cook a meal for yourself and your loved ones with care and concern.  Give a darn about how you present yourself when you walk out of the house.  Cultivate hobbies that add meaning to your life instead of turning on the TV and watching just whatever happens to be on.

Finally, on a slightly different topic, but in line with simplicity and curating your life, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is also an amazing read. 



I was skeptical when I first started seeing it all over the blogosphere.  How can anyone add anything more to the topic of cleaning up?  And how can it be that good?  Everyone who has written about it swears it is truly life-changing.  I'm going to jump on the bandwagon and say that author, Marie Condo has some incredibly unique tips on the subject.  For example, when you clean out your closet, take every single item out and put it on your bed, so you cannot sleep until you finish the job.  Then, go through item by item, asking: does this spark joy?  If it doesn't, out it goes.  Now, do this in every room in the house.  Try it.  See if you don't feel a thousand times lighter and more content.  She even recommends doing the clean out in a specific order to get around the overly sentimental attachment we might have to specific items.  It's well worth a read.

Have you tried a capsule wardrobe?  Have you read the The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and tried to apply it?  How did it go?  I would love to hear about your experience!

The Sheltering Sky

sheltering sky.jpg

Were you ever into the beatniks?  I remember being an eleven year old poetry geek and loving Ginsberg.  Some of the artists and writers, loosely known as the beatniks were brilliant, and some of them seemed to be misogynist loafers trying to escape from life.  (Have you read On the Road as an adult? Ugh!) 

Why this rambling critique?  There is this group of travel writers, whom I'm going to call the "Desert Writers".  I hope to share a mini series of reviews on their work.  Whatever attracted me to the beatniks, the desert writers far surpassed them in terms of style and depth.  They were pre-beatnik wanderers, tracing the edge of their known world and boldly running into the encounter with "the other", thus, confronting themselves. 



there is something about the desert that has drawn me in for some time.  It forces you to see yourself.  I thought I was comfortable being alone, until I spent some time in the desert.  In the city, there is a constant soundtrack to distract you: honking horns, laughter, music from passing cars, footsteps.  There is something new to look at every second.  In the desert, there is hardly a sound to distract the mind, nothing to look at but dunes and a few bugs weaving through the sand. 

In the summer of 2008, I spent a few days in Wadi Rum and then Siwa.  The first few hours, I almost went nuts.  My thoughts were spinning on their axis in the vacuum created by the vast landscape and noiselessness.  Then I began to observe the constantly changing light, the shadows, the curve of the dunes and the changing palette on the rocks.  My mind began to unwind and mimic the stillness.  Like any truly raw landscape, the desert is profound.



But on to the book...

The Sheltering Sky is a book about three Americans traveling in North Africa, post World War I - a young married couple and a young man, a social acquaintance from New York.  They form an odd little group, Kitt and Port, with their decaying relationship and Tunner as the third wheel, who is constantly trying to keep up with Kitt and Port, intellectually.  The book was recommended to me by a friend's husband just before my own trips to the desert.  I was a young college-grad, working my first nine to five, with little life experience, certainly no marriage or children at the time.  While I enjoyed the exotic scenery in the novel and the beautiful prose, when I put the book down, I was perplexed as to why this book left such an impression on my friend's husband.  The psychology of the characters had been hard to follow and the ending was bizarre.  There is a dramatic subject and tone shift toward the last third of the book, that is mysterious and disorienting.  Certainly, Bowles breathtaking observations flew over my head. 

From the second chapter:

At the table in the darkest corner sat three Americans: two young men and a girl.  They conversed quietly, and in the manner of people who have all the time in the world for everything.  One of the men, the thin one with a slightly wry, distraught face, was folding up some large multicolored maps he had spread on the table a moment ago.  His wife watched the meticulous movements he made with amusement and exasperation; maps bored her and he was always consulting them.  Even during the short periods when their lives were stationary, which had been few enough since their marriage twelve years ago, he had only to see a map to begin studying it passionately...
They stared out into the street's dusty afternoon glare.
"The war has certainly lefts its mark here." Small, with blonde hair and olive complexion, she was saved from prettiness by the intensity of her gaze. Once one had seen her eyes, the rest of the face grew vague, and when one tried to recall her image afterwards, only the piercing, questioning violence of the wide eyes remained.
"Well, naturally.  There were troops passing through for a year or more."
"It seems as though there might be some place in the world they could have left alone," said the girl.  This was to please her husband, because she regretted having felt annoyed with him about the maps a moment ago.  Recognizing the gesture but not understanding why she was making it, he paid no attention to it.

How is that for a searing glance at dysfunctional relationships?  The critiques do not end there.  Bowles also doesn't shy away from the topics of colonialism or racism.  Yet, the tone of the book is not self-righteous.  Even as the main characters note that they are disgusted by cultural imperialism, in every interaction with the locals they are condescending and never enter in true relationships with the native peoples in the countries through which they wander.  It it not an adventure book, per se, and I believe that might be why I was disappointed on the first read.  However,  as a study of human nature, The Sheltering Sky is a sublime read.  Read it.  Reflect.  I'd love to hear what you think.