Our lives—our fleshy existence—is ritual, but it isn't usually explained to us that way. Even before our mothers were born, we, her sons and daughters, existed in her ovaries along with a million other gametes, waiting for her body to bloom into puberty, for breast buds to emerge, for hair to soften the line between her body and her hip, and for her to ultimately begin the ritual of menses. As this point only 300,000 of us remained, through her early dating years and her first flutters of erotic desire. Then, one by one, month by month, for the length of her years of fertility, we matured to take our turn in the fallopian gamble, while back in the ovary—in case we were unsuccessful—another egg had already begun to prepare.
Life, or the capability of giving it, is the birthright of the feminine. Her power is undeniable, and perhaps that is why she has so long been silenced or cut off from her body. A woman who cannot actualize her power is not a threat. Helene Cixous’ enlightened essay, “Laugh of the Medusa” expresses what it is that women possess that might appear dangerous:
"We the precocious, we the repressed of culture, our lovely mouths gagged with pollen, our wind knocked out of us, we the labyrinths, the ladders, the trampled spaces, the bevies--we are black and we are beautiful.
We're stormy, and that which is ours breaks loose from us without our fearing any debilitation. Our glances, our smiles, are spent; laughs exude from our mouths; our blood flows and we extend ourselves without ever reaching an end; we never hold back our thoughts, our signs, our writing; and we're not afraid of lacking." (Deshazer, 393.)
It is a woman’s lack of fear of her power that frightens. It is her ritual nature.
And so it was with the ritual of mountains for me. I was alone, lonely and empty in a clean house at 8 a.m. The prospect of continuing in that state of emptiness appealed none to me, and continued begging of my husband for a child to fill my body, my arms, my heart, my time would not be answered. I sat behind my computer screen waiting for words, but that part of my anatomy was empty as well.
What more was there to do than climb the 'Y'? I drove to the trailhead, maybe a mile from my home, and began the march to the top in a cadence that required I maintain a steady, oxygenating breath that burned in my lungs after only four or five switchbacks. Seven switchbacks later, my back damp from sweat, I looked out over the city of Provo bathed in morning sunlight and experienced near vertigo. I fought back the dizzying effect of heights and allowed myself to revel in my animal mastery of muscle and lung. I told myself as I stood at the top of that trail that if my plea for a child would not be answered I would continue to climb until God heard my cries or until I could climb no higher.
My legs quivered beneath me on the descent. I had little idea that this new mountain climbing exploit would become obsession. I wasn't aware of many events that were to come, each requiring that I delve into both writing and my body, with the many possibilities those two receptacles presented for peace, and ultimately my survival in dealing with the forces of biology and the resistance of a patriarchal order.
Cixous describes what I came to call The Desire:
"We won't advance backward anymore; we're not going to repress something so simple as the desire for life. Oral drive, anal drive, vocal drive--all these drives are our strengths, and among them is the gestation drive--just like the desire to write; a desire to live self from within, a desire for the swollen belly, for language, for blood. We are not going to refuse, if it should happen to strike our fancy, the unsurpassed pleasures of pregnancy which have actually been always exaggerated of conjured away--or cursed--in the classic texts. For in there's one thing that's been repressed here's just the place to find it; in the taboo of the pregnant woman. This says a lot about the power she seems invested with at the time, because it has always been suspected, that, when pregnant, the woman not only double her market value, but--what's more important--takes on intrinsic value as a woman in her own eyes and, undeniably, acquires body and sex." (Deshazer, 403.)
I go to the mountain sometimes three times a week at first. One foot in front of the other at a steady gait increased over the weeks in both pace and cardiovascular cooperation. I brought a copy of The Bible on my Nook, and once at the top of the 'Y' read:
"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth…" (Genesis 1 27-28, KJV.)
By chapter four the first Woman begins her body work. At home, the mountain filling the kitchen window, I am told that bearing children is not what he needs me for. What I am needed for, beyond being an integral piece in the puzzle labelled "social portrait." is never clearly defined. I find it impossible to squelch the desire that continues to live beneath my skin. I wake to recall dreams of an infant with my husband's eyes. My body is haunted. I am objectified by the man I love, ruled by the ritual of feminine desire. The dichotomy of the two states threatens to shake me psychically. Audre Lorde’s essay "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power" perfectly describes this state:
"The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation. For this reason, we have often turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with its opposite, the pornographic. But pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling." (Deshazer, 537.)
I begin writing The Desire letters:
"No one can tell me you don't exist, or that you won't. I can feel you.
You are inside me. You surround me. You are ever present. Perhaps longer than I have worn flesh myself, you have existed.
You are my greatest joy unrealized, the anticipated gift of overcoming so many misfortunes both of my own doing and of random circumstance. But rather than give you life, I allow you to live in the periphery. Or rather I feel you in the periphery because you already live. I'm simply unable to give you the opportunity to flesh out. Yet.
I cling to that... Yet."
The 'Y' soon grew insufficient. My oldest daughter had joined me in the endeavor and together we looked for longer, higher climbs, going faster and pushing our bodies to new limits. Stewart Falls took its place, but only for three or four climbs. The lack of view at the top of the trail left me frustrated, and it didn't help that much larger peaks were within sight each time I veered left to take the easier trail. Squaw Peak seemed the next logical step in mountaineering options, and the summit was glorious, though still not high enough. I believe I'd convinced myself that the higher I got, the closer to God, He would hear me and my desire would be answered. Our goal was TImpanogos by late August.
My letters to the power of The Desire go on:
"I did not sleep last night. Instead I lay next to your father, watching the changes to the cool shadow of his outline as he slept. He is strong even when he sleeps, and when I look at him I see a young man, capable of giving you life, capable of lending the flesh, capable of cradling another soul to his heart. But he tells me he feels old, and I know your presence is heavy on him too. Although he doesn't know what to call you, he feels you through me. How can he not?"
What I surmise he felt was panic—a slipping grasp on the patriarchal control that is instilled in his every thought and action. We can love with all of our might, but when controls are put in place to maintain male dominance, when feminine power is denied, a human relationship lacks the necessary authenticity that keeps union vibrant and tender. Audre Lorde describes in rich detail the descent of a man locked in these patterns:
"…Women so empowered are dangerous. Se we are taught to separate the erotic demand from most vital areas of our lives other than sex. And the lack of concern for the erotic root and satisfactions of our work is felt in our disaffection from so much of what we do. For instance, how often do we truly love our work even at its most difficult?" (Deshazer, page 537.)
A woman's soul--body and spirit—are cosmically bound to the principle of nurturing. Even the woman who chooses not to bear children of her own is a sister in the tradition of growing things: gardens, art, relationships, business, community. But the patriarchal mask that she has long been told she must wear round her awareness and expression of body, which separates her from the ritual and desires of her soul, obscures the view of her nurturing work and hinders the power she has been given to bless humankind. Audre Lorde’s description of this impediment continues:
"Such a system reduces work to a travesty of necessities, a duty by which we earn bread or oblivion for ourselves and those we love. But this is tantamount to blinding a painter and then telling her to improve her work, and to enjoy the act of painting. It is not only next to impossible, it is also profoundly cruel." (Deshazer, page 537.)
Ironically, my husband purports to be an artist. He longs to paint religious works, and one of his greatest arguments against having children was that he couldn't both paint and parent. Delving into my body, during that crisis of purpose and soul, I wrote a piece for him.
Where is the lacquer of my belly
the ochres and vermillions
of my womb?
Take up your lead
and craft me a Jesus
to hold my thirsty breast in this desert,
to shepherd my straying
lambs of hope.
Sketch me a man-god to soothe
my chasm ache,
to transform empty stones into manna,
calm my heartʼs raging tempest,
and pull back the shroud
from my Lazarus faith.
Dip your brush
and stroke this canvas
with a Savior
to succor the absent cries
from this Eveʼs garden tomb.
Paint me an atonement
for these missing babes
and fill my arms with
promises of resurrection.
Craft me a Lord
and let Him weep
My writing began a metamorphosis. It became an explorative act of a single body—my own—in a long Judeo-Christian tradition of women, singled out to shoulder the roll of bearing the bodies of the sons and daughters of God. My work also focused on action which, as certain as the first commandment, required deep awareness of desires and rituals of eroticism. These women have been protected and blessed by a God and suppressed and controlled by their male counterparts. Where did the woman stand in this chaotic tradeoff of values and responsibilities? At what point did the Serpent beguile Adam into forgetting the power in watching his wife first give birth?
"I have lain down and sweated and shaken
and passed blood and feces and water and
slowly alone in the center of a circle I have
passed the new person out
and they have lifted the new person free of the act
and wiped the new person free of that
language of blood like praise all over the body."
Sharon Olds, "The Launguage of the Brag" (Deshazer, page 560)
These thoughts were heavy on my mind the morning my daughter and I rose before dawn to drive to the Timpanooeke trailhead. And as with birthing a child, we began, one foot at a time, matching breath and cadence, focusing on our own thoughts in the fading darkness, giving into the strain and knowing muscles, joint, bone as they individually manifest hour after hour on the push to the summit. We'll call The Saddle "transition" as the nature of the climb changed and become more harrowing along a trail barely discernible in the uncertain shale. But the summit was in sight and the months of preparation to condition a body, exploring its possibilities as it aged within me; hours of work to hone the mind, to reach every summit before it that wasn't 11,749 ft; the drive to stand within earshot of God--all fear dissolved.
Each summit I reach is a thrill. The original vertigo that I experienced on the 'Y' never left. On Squaw Peak it is even greater. And as my daughter and I topped the elevation marker on Timpanogos I had to squeeze my eyes shut at Heber Valley, Salt Lake Valley, Utah Valley, Utah Lake, The Great Salt Lake, and the Uinta Mountains all swirled around me.
The last time I gave birth was almost eight years ago. My husband at the time had bankrupted me and left for another woman when I was five months pregnant. The 29 hours of labor that I underwent were both physically, mentally and spiritually harrowing. I'd been pressured to give my child up for adoption, as I was already a single mother of three. I'd considered and decided that for the security of my older children, so that they would never wonder if I might give them up when times were hard, I would keep my baby. I had not bonded to him prior to birth, in uteri like I had the others. At times I was even plagued with indifference.
And so the needed oxytocin, a naturally produced bonding hormone which also produces the contractions of labor, was not in rich enough supply to maintain a steady rhythm. My water broke, but labor did not proceed. The only option was Pitocin, a chemically manufactured replacement for oxytocin which produces deeper, more painful contractions than if it is not utilized. I sat on my midwife's birthing ball and breathed through an evening of chemically induced labor. The nurses couldn't understand how I was managing without painkiller, and I'm not certain why it mattered to me that I didn't use them. The nurses turned down the Pitocin dosage so that I slept for a few hours during the night, but once I woke and labor hadn't picked up on its own we continued with the hard chemical contractions for most of the day.
By 3 p.m., 27 hours in, I was completely exhausted and emotionally spent. Painkillers were against my plan, but the nurses coaxed the midwives into offering me an intrathecal anesthetic. The idea was to offer me just enough pain relief to give me the needed energy once I'd fully dilated and was ready for pushing, and it didn't take much for me to agree. For one hour I was able to rest as the Pitocin continued to contract my uterus at an alarmingly powerful rate, and then I felt as the anesthetic peeled away and I was left in the grips of my labor for the last hour, as body opened, as agony tore through me, as I felt the cosmos reach out from between my legs threatening to split me wide. I felt as the arc of scull, spine and shoulders moved along in the darkness toward the door to the universe, and slowly, alone at the center of the circle, that awesome ring of fire and incalculable awareness, my son's head appeared, crowned with glory. My midwife instructed, "Grab hold, under his arms." And I felt him—ribs, hips, legs—pass from me into this. Mine was the first face he saw, and I was instantly in love.
"a woman can't survive
by her own breath
she must know
the voices of mountains
she must recognize
the foreverness of blue sky"
Joy Harjo's "Fire" (Deshazer, page 569)
I opened my eyes on the mountain and I understood how small I am. Wind buffeted us. My daughter and I clung to each other, or more truthfully, I clung to her as she is the more sure-footed of the two of us. The foreverness is of more than blue sky. By nature of our vantage point it was impossible not to feel heady, even powerful. I forgot to speak to God. I stood on the summit of Timpanogos and instead I learned what it must feel like tobe God, and with that increased knowledge, looking over the foreverness of everything, I suddenly understood how immensely important. For any any answered supplication, those that I cannot pass off as mere coincidence, I know every word I say is of value, is heard. I am awestruck at the gift of the body and the gift of language bestowed to me, a woman.
"To write. An act which will not only "realize" the decensored relation of woman to her sexuality, to her womanly being, giving her access to her native strength; it will give her back her goods, her pleasures, her organs, her immense bodily territories which have been kept under seal; it will tear her away from the super-egoized structure in which she has always occupied the place reserved for the guilty (Guilty of everything, guilty at every turn: for having desires, for not having any; for being frigid, for being "too hot"; for not being both at once; for being too motherly and not enough; for having children…) A woman without a body, dumb, blind, can't possibly be a good fighter. She is reduced to being the servant of the militant male, his shadow. We must kill the false woman who is preventing the live one from breathing. Inscribe the breath of the whole woman." Helene Cixous "The Laugh of the Medusa" (Deshazer, page 395.)
In writing as women we come into a divine awareness not only with our own origins, but with the erotic origins of our children who are already part of the mystical stuff of mountains and skies long before our male counterparts acknowledge the possibility of their existence. Plummeting into the deep regions of our souls brings us to the Big Bang, the crucible wellspring, the eternal door of creation. Whether we open that door is unto ourselves, but to know that power, to stand and feel it knocking against our hearts is to soak up the wisdom of ever-asked questions. From where? She answers: From here. But why? She answers: Because you always were, and when I felt the rhythm of the door knocking from within, I wielded a mighty power and I opened it. We must come down off the mountain and write the words found in the fleshy tablets of our hearts. When Adam will not hear the Word of God, we must remind him, with patience and in our nurturing way because we are the Daughters to whom the Words are given.