Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Quad B strikes again: The Red Tent

The Baren Bitches Book Brigade is at it again, this time reading The Red Tent by Anita Diamant.

The Red Tent is a novel that gives voices to the voiceless and nearly so. It alters the stories of Genesis, or gives them subtext, or, for nearly all of the second half of the book, ventures into entirely separate territory. I found it really interesting that all the questions submitted for the book club this round dealt with the first part of the book, the one that re-tells a Bible story.

I have a connection to this story that seems to go beyond the story itself. It's not just that two of the very important people in my life (one now estranged and one still very much in it) have names that are derivatives of the main character's name, though I am sure that plays a role. I think it's also that I like women's stories, women's voices. I read voraciously as a child, but now that I think about it, most of the stories I read had a very male point of view. Unsurprising, really. And at the time it suited me fine. I was a tomboy anyway, climbing trees and building slingshots. Playing chess. I had good girl friends growing up, but for the longest time a lot (most?) of my friends were guys.

These days I claim friends of both persuasions, but I have to admit to being closer to women friends. More than that, though, women's stories and voices are something I seek out. Not just on the internets, mind you. The two discs in my CD changer in the car that are not Old Country or kid music are Dar Williams and the Dixie Chicks. I am still not a girly girl, and I find that the stories I gravitate to have markedly little in the way of pink fluff. But they are decidedly women's stories, with decidedly woman perspective. Whether the blogs I read only reflect this transformation or actually contributed to it I can't say, and in the end I think it doesn't matter all that much. This is just where I am.

I was struck by the idea that awareness of the moon controlled women's cycles. I always knew that the moon could MARK women's cycles, but controlling them was a new notion. I first read The Red Tent while going through IF and had some magical thinking that if I just paid attention to the moon each night, that I could regulate my cycles. Have you had any magical thinking about returning to Nature, even as you turned to Science to pursue your baby dreams (assuming you did)?

I actually first read the book when pregnant with Monkey. It was the first English language book to obviously invade my dreams. I had this vivid first trimester dream, where I was either in or watching (couldn't remember when I woke up) the famous meeting of Jacob and Rachel at the well. Can we say hot? And I don't mean the temperature in the desert.

The idea of synchronized cycles didn't entirely freak me out, as I saw it happen on a small scale in my dorm. But I didn't think the moon was involved.

So I was reading this in something like the third months of my second pregnancy, achieved after two years of infertility and a miscarriage. I was 27. I was just shy of 25 when we started. The first half a year was just a giant WTF moment, as following bidding adieu to the pill my body hastily returned to my old pattern of period? What period? We don't need no stinking period. And then I got the diagnosis of PCOS, and read up on it. I read about low carbing, and how it has helped some people restart their cycles. I was 25, and I thought I had time.

Had my life been different, had I only been starting to try now, only getting my diagnosis now, I know I wouldn't feel like that. I know I would be pounding down an RE's door (just as I did when we were trying this last time), and lining up vials on the bathroom counter. But then, then I thought I had time. And more will power than a tank. No, really. I went low carb. And stuck to it. It took about two years from the diagnosis, plus gym, plus some other things, but in the end there it was-- I started ovulating, and eventually I got pregnant, twice by the time I was reading the book.

Had I been less lucky, I think I would've found my way to an RE. Though how long that would've taken, who knows. However, one thing I definitely don't remember engaging in at all was magical thinking. I'm a science girl. First thing I did after getting the diagnosis was read up on the whole hormonal axis involved. When I stumbled on low carb, I read up on why and how that could connect to the hormones in question. It made sense. I gave it a try. I stuck with it because it made me feel better, a lot better, and because of that whole tank thing. So it wasn't about magical thinking, though there was a whole lot of listening to my body going on. In the end, the approach I took then was all about the time I thought I had.

For a time uber-fertile Leah and barren Rachel did not speak to each other. "She could not smile at her sister while her own body remained fruitless." Was there a time in your experience with infertility when you ceased communicating with your fertile friends/relatives. Did something finally bring you together or did you drift apart?

I have been thinking about that time in my life lately, the time of primary infertility. I have no idea how I survived that with virtually no support structure. I think, though, that one big factor was that most of our friends were our age, give or take, and very few were engaged in reproduction. So we weren't constantly slapped in the face with successful and glowing friends and relatives. The one time I had to attend a baby shower, shortly after the diagnosis, I held back until I was needled directly. And then I replied honestly. Compared to what many others have had to deal with, this was a very mild episode, and the one asking the offending question learned from the experience. All very lucky, and probably sanity-saving.

"The Red Tent" vividly describes the ritual Dinah's mother & aunts perform to celebrate her coming of age. Lately, I've been hearing about young girls being presented with cakes & gifts when they get their first periods. This was definitely NOT done when I was growing up! Describe your first period & your family's reaction (if any) -- how old were you, & how was the occasion marked (if at all)?

Originally I wasn't going to answer this question, as my own memory of the event is not exactly great. My mother, whom I told when I found the blood, reacted as it was custom in the Old Country. A strange little custom laced with superstition. She thought I knew that's what it was supposed to be, but I didn't. I was horribly confused and hurt. I remember sitting on the toilet, having no idea what to do and crying. When my mom returned, having gotten some supplies for me (it must've been minutes, but it felt like hours), I was sobbing, and I asked her what did I do that she would react like that? How was this my fault? She hugged me and apologized. She thought I knew. I wonder now what happened when it was my sister's turn. (Adelynne, care to tell the class?)

But the reason I decided to take this question after all is that this is a great reminder that I don't have all that much time until it's Monkey's turn. Very likely we are more than half way there. Funny that when I read the book the first time, I remember being mesmerized by those scenes-- when first Rachel and then Dinah herself are welcomed into womanhood. But I didn't make a connection to our lives today. Even this time around it didn't ring that particular bell. Methinks time to consider a new family tradition...

Dinah is awaited and welcomed by all of Jacob's wives. The one daughter, the one to carry all their stories, all their voices. In the context of the book it is a literary device that allows the author to tell us stories of Jacob's wives from their own perspectives. But what does it speak of to you? In your own life, have you felt, as Dinah does, a carrier of living memory? Do you feel your own voice to be better protected in the age of the blog, or do you see an enduring need for connection across generations?

This is one of my questions. I think the reason it bubbled up for me is that I have been thinking about my own family. My grandmother, her voice now almost entirely unrecognizable, warped by disease. In the last couple of years I tried to get her to write up some of her family history, but it seems I was too late. Or too busy/too overwhelmed by grief-- I considered at one point calling her up every so often with questions and writing down what she said, but I never found the time. What I do have of my grandmother's voice, though, are the recipes I managed to learn over the years. Just like women in the novel, there are recipes in my family that almost define us, define the taste of my lineage, if you will. Some of them have skipped a generation, because my mother and aunt never asked for those recipes, content to consume the finished product at grandma's, but I did. And have now taught my sister. But there are also those that none of us got, and those are likely gone forever. Just like most stories of the generations gone before. That makes me very sad.

And at the same time I wonder about these blogs of ours. Will our children and grandchildren treasure these, or will this be an expected detritus of their lives, generations growing up with cheap electronic storage space as their birthright?

In the book, women's relationships to higher power(s) are complicated. Jacob brings with him the one God, but that is not any of the gods of their childhoods. And it is to the gods of her family that Rachel calls with her simple and desperate ultimatum: "Give me children or I will die." In the context of your own relationship (or lack thereof) to a higher power, do you feel entitled to the same kind of an ultimatum?

And this is my other question. This scene, and the description of Rachel's barren life, unsurprisingly struck a chord both times that I was reading. The role of prayer and relationship to the higher power is something I have been thinking of a lot, particularly since A's death. Though I have to say that my theological foundation was firmly established before, and possibly because of that, it didn't crumble. My personal foundation is that the age of miracles is long behind us.

My feelings as I read that scene are mixed. Wonder is big, for this scene is almost breathtaking to me. The boldness of it. I would never utter a prayer like this, mostly because in my theology it doesn't work like that. Personal requests are not granted. There's no divine intervention. If there was, if I believed that prayer actually works as a means of procuring one's heart's desire, it would be devastating to consider the implications. But, as the rabbi in Monkey's school says, in my theology God doesn't work as a vending machine-- insert prayer, receive outcome. I don't feel singled out for blessings or curses, and I don't feel entitled to think that I am so special (or that I can pray hard enough) that my prayers would be answered.

And yet I don't read this scene as arrogant. I read it as a window into the time of miracles (or the time when people believed was the time of miracles). Rachel asked because she believed she could. After all, her husband's grandfather talked to his God personally. He damn near killed his own son because El told him to (ummm... yeah, ask me some other time what I think of the binding of Isaac, ok? It's a separate discussion, and not a short one either). And, I think, Rachel asked not because she was posing, or overdramatizing, or threatening even. It doesn't mean that had she not had Joseph, she would've died. She might have, as some remarkable women we all know (and sort of like Dinah towards the end of the book), after a lot of hard emotional work found a new way and a new purpose to her life. But at that time, I think, that was her truth, simple and, therefore, devastatingly powerful.

More book club posts can be found at Mel's place. Please go over to follow the links, and to sign up for the next installment of the book club, Mel's own book-- Navigating the Land of IF.


Inanna said...

Oh I love The Red Tent. I would love one, for all of us... a Red Tent and a Wailing Wall... a whole community of women...

Adelynne said...

I had had sex-ed in school, and so I knew what was happening. I was actually kind of proud, but Mom treated it as a "no big deal" kind of moment. It happened at the start of summer vacation, so I was home, and that probably helped avoid any embarrassment. I was actually very surprised that that one didn't hurt like I thought it was going to. (Boy did my later periods make up for that!) Later I asked what age she got hers, and you.

Donna said...

I loved this book when I read it. It's been on my list of top 10 books since I read it. But that was years ago - before all of our IF issues. I never really thought back on it from this perspective. I think I'm going to go back and re-read it now with all of these questions in mind. This really has inspired me. Thank you!

Tash said...

Funny, I never read this book. I always thought the way it was described was so . . . . precious? Anyway, lovely discussion, I might just give it a go.

Coming2Terms said...

Like you I've always resonated with books that have strong female voices. And Dar Williams!? A big favorite. Love her voice and her lyrics.

Thanks for asking the question about Dinah as the voice of her mother's stories. It made me realize how much and why I needed to have a voice and to tell my story.

There were, indeed, some powerful scenes in the book and we clearly responded to them in ways that relate to our own experiences. The collective response is what I find comforting and reassuring.

charmedgirl said...

i admit i didn't read the whole post...but i want to tell that, during my four year IF period, i learned about that moonlight-controlling-ovulation thing and bought this fucking book that taught you how to try to use light and darkness to aid ovulation. when i think about that last IF year- the year i did EVERYTHING POSSIBLE not to do IVF (thought it was weird and unnatural)- that shit is what makes me feel the dumbest. HAHA! i haven't thought about it in a while...

Lavender Luz said...

I did not know about low-carbing. Science and Nature really are not poles, are they?

And I am thinking that it won't be long until I am ushering in my daughter. I want to make it special.

Finally, thanks for being a good enough bloggy friend to let me know I was walking around with toilet paper on my shoes! I fixed the mistake -- thanks!

loribeth said...

I loved your question (& your answer) about women's voices. I've come to realize how important they are and how often they are still not heard in this world.

christina(apronstrings) said...

I loved this review. I am looking for new books to read. I do believe in the moons ability to regulate cyles-just like the tides. To me, it is all connected. I never believed that until after b/c my regulated right with the moon. And when my post partum cycle came-it came at the first of the month.
Plus, our bodies are 70% water.
But who knows.
Good to hear from you.

Jenni said...

i love the red tent. beautiful, challenging book. it may be time for me to re-read. my girlfriends and i often talk about our desire for a red tent - a space of retreat and reconnection.

there's a book called the path of practice by maya tiwari that details ancient ayurvedic (indian) healing practices, including regulating the cycle and tuning into the moon cycles. very much for women. and her personal story is fascinating. i haven't tried her approach myself, but it's a good read. i do track the moon cycles as well as my own cycle just for a little extra info about what's going on. i never ever sleep well during the 3 days of the full moon and plan accordingly!

Cassandra said...

I wouldn't read too much into the questions focusing on the first part of the book -- many times, people haven't finished the whole book by the time the questions are due! That was certainly the case for me this time and several other times, though I always finish the book before posting.

Dar Williams and the Dixie Chicks aren't girly girls either -- after all, one of my favorite Dar songs is "When I Was A Boy."

Lollipop Goldstein said...

I had forgotten about recipes until I read your answer. That is a huge way we pass our voice or our experiences down through the family. I have my aunt's sauce from her years in Italy or my great-grandmother's rugelach. Or my grandmother's banana cake :-)

Amelie said...

Thanks for sharing this. I just read it again, more than a year later. Though I'm not 25 any more, I hope I still have time.