In a New Year marked by uncertainty and boredom there's plenty to gripe about. What if gripingwere just what we needed? In "The Art of Noticing", Rob Walker reminds us of that a source of creativity is to complain about a problem then proceed to fix it.
A vile little poem published in the December 2020 issue of Harper's magazine, "Penelope Waits for Odysseus", by Edmund White is jolting me into action.
Remember Penelope? Greek mythology. She marries Odysseus, who knocks her up then leaves for twenty years. She raises their kid alone, cares for his aging parents, runs the kingdom and submits herself to mind-numbing work as a ruse to fend off the harassers who are pressuring her to remarry. Penelope, faithful wife, loving mother, dedicated daughter-in-law, competent interim leader of a kingdom she never asked for. That Penelope, your everyday female caregiver.
You would think Penelope deserves respect, but no. White tells us she is pathetic, old, wrinkled, her face “creased”, “age spots blighting” her neck and hands, her fingers callused, two teeth missing. She looks like Odysseus’s mother. She reminds him of his dog. Come to think of it, Penelope was barely “presentable” even in her youth.
The mean little poem concludes with this illuminating fact: Penelope herself realizes that she is “not worth waiting for”.
The myth of the worthless old woman isn't new. It is the stuff of wrinkle-cream ads, fairy tale witches. fashion magazines and just about every Hollywood movie not featuring Frances McDormand.
Nothing new here. But why rehash the same old stuff, with the added cruelty that the older woman should acknowledge her own worthlessness? This, at a time when women have never worked harder, in their roles as mothers, teachers, nurses, doctors, scientists, engineers, corporate leaders (to name a few)?
A 2020 survey tells us that the typical family caregiver is a 49 year old woman caring for a 69 year old woman. The government census states that women occupy 75% of health care professions. 76% of public school teachers are women.
In our time of greatest need, there is a large army of Penelopes taking care of business. Forgive these women for not taking better care of their skin; it's a busy time.
Unlike Mr. White - and the unfortunate poetry editor at Harpers - I think these women are worth every second of their lives. They deserve our respect - not for how they look, but for what they do, who they are, what they believe in and the enormous difference they make, showing up every day.
These women are loved. By their clients, patients, students and co-workers. They are loved by their children, families and friends.
They are loved by husbands and partners who see into their hearts.
They are loved. End of story.
I am devoting 2021 to research and talk about the invisibility of women. I will do so through the lens of textiles and embroidery. There's a great deal to say and to think about. I will share my findings with you every Wednesday and will also post on Facebook and Instagram.
Let's get started!
PS: This week's featured image is a hand-embroidered patch inspired by the Helzberg Diamond Foundation 1967 advertising campaign. This beloved classic design is a fitting response to the upsetting poem.