51LoQ8vCg9L-199x300Reviewer: Janet Levine

“The novel is a quick, compulsive read but leaves much untold; however, this is fiction and not comprehensive biography.”

Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman is fictional autobiography (told almost exclusively in an imagined first-person narrative voice) of 20th century feminist icon and birth control advocate and activist American, Margaret Sanger.

But is this the autobiography Margaret Sanger would have written if she had chosen to do so toward the end of her life?

The title stems from a Margaret Sanger quote from 1914: “It is only rebel woman, when she gets out of the habits imposed on her by bourgeois convention, who can do some deed of terrible virtue.” She adds: “A woman’s duty: To look the whole world in the face with a go-to-hell look in her eyes, to have an ideal, to speak and act in defiance of convention.”

With these words, Sanger, as Feldman notes, found her mission.

What is also “terrible” in this novel perhaps is the toll Sanger’s lifelong activism imposed on her two husbands, three children and many lovers. Among other questions, Sanger’s crusading raises the dilemma of whether activists living for a cause, can also be married or even raise children. Of course the “virtue” resides in the remarkable effectiveness of the activism Sanger espoused.

The novel takes the reader of a fascinating and compelling gallop through the surface of Sanger’s life as imagined by Feldman. The novel is a quick, compulsive read but leaves much untold; however, this is fiction and not comprehensive biography. Yet the novel does range over the highlights of Sanger’s life from a small town in upstate New York to a final home in Tucson, Arizona.

Sanger was born into poverty, a daughter of an alcoholic free thinker and town renegade and a haggard mother always exhausted by the bearing of and caring for 13 children. Due to the sacrifice of two older and devoted sisters Sanger was able to train as a nurse. Early on she championed several social justice causes, mingling with, learning from, and working with other progressives.

Ultimately she brought her leadership skills, powerful personality, and idealism (abetted by constant awareness of her mother’s childbearing suffering that caused her untimely death) into legalizing contraception. This struggle consumed her life and led often to violent conflict with puritanical, patronizing lawmakers, sentenced her several times to prison, and left her little option to further her work but to seek asylum in Edwardian England.

Sanger’s narrative is interrupted by short accounts from her children, husbands, sisters, and lovers that counterbalance and often confute Sanger’s telling of her life in which she gives short shrift to the great cost she exacted from those she loved and who loved her. Another fascinating element of the novel is the vignette appearances of the likes of Emma Goldman, John Reed, Big Bill Haywood, H. G. Wells, Havelock Ellis, and other luminaries of progressive movements in the early to mid-20th century.

Among many other pioneering ventures, Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in America in 1916 (illegal), founded Planned Parenthood in 1952, and in 1960 heralded Congress’s legal protection of “the Pill.”

This is a timely book. Since 2010 hundreds of new laws chip away at women’s choice, access to contraception, sexual education, and abortion—all passed by conservative lawmakers. Women’s rights are assailed today by the same puritanical zeitgeist that railed against Margaret Sanger in 1916. Sadly, Sanger’s work is not yet completely done.

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Winter Solstice 2012

 

Breathe, relax, center and smile. Let things come and go, and just let be. It’s not about trying not to think but about letting things come and go. Learning to relax, just be,center, and naturally meditate is a well known spiritual secret that people ought to be able to learn and integrate into life. Like mental flossing, it keeps one open and free, calm and clear.

–Lama Surya Das, Dzogchen Center, Austin, Texas

 

Season’s Greetings, I decided this year instead of a rundown of where I have been and whom I was with, and what I saw and what I didn’t see. As well as what happened to me and what didn’t happen, I’ll share two useful “message” out of the hundreds that come my way each year. The first is from one of my Buddhist meditation teachers, Lama Surya Das. How often this year I have heard these words in my head “breathe, relax, center and smile.” It is such a powerful mantra, and so useful as a centering or attention practice.     

The other (below) came my way from another teacher, Lawrence Hillman, who quotes the Apple visionary, Steve Jobs (who literally changed our world). I love Jobs’ imagery of connecting the dots of our lifelines.

My heartfelt wishes to you and yours for a healthy and fulfilling 2013. May we all “connect the dots” awaiting us and learn a little more about where we are going.

Steve Jobs once said,  “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

At this threshold moment in history, I wish to remind you that nobody can predict what will come in the future and that if you trust that part of you that knows this, you will connect the dots in due time.

–Lawrence Hillman

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Virginia Woolf said famously in 1928 at Girton when addressing a group of those first women to attend Cambridge University in Cambridge, England, the hallowed sanctum of male intellectual and creative life that helped to ensure male hegemony for the eight hundred preceding years, both in Great Britain and indeed the far-flung British Empire, (and that largely continues today) that if we have “five hundred [pounds] a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think…and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worthwhile.”

I was reminded of this sterling essay from one of my favorite thinkers and authors the other night when I attended a showing of a documentary Who Does She Think She is? This is hard-hitting, factual reportage of several outstanding women artists—potters, ceramists, painters, singers, film makers—to honor their creativity while juggling the raising of children, relating to spouses and partners, washing dishes and car pooling, in other words quilting a patchwork life.

The greatest toll on these artists is in relating to their spouses or partners, specifically male, whose expectations are shaped by society and familial expectations that the woman partner support their endeavors artistic or otherwise, and while they support their female counterparts—it is only to a point. Now of course there are variants on these themes but that is the general pattern. Surprisingly male children of these struggling artists—who generate their livelihood from their work primarily to feed their children—support, admire and honor their mothers.

The venue for this showing was a meeting room at a retreat center in suburban Philadelphia where thirty women writers (who are also teachers) were meeting for a weekend retreat of writing, sharing and networking. It was striking to me that the film- maker interviewing a male physician, an ardent feminist himself went on record reminding us that the great women writers and artists of the last one hundred and fifty years—ranging from Emily Dickinson, Colette, Georgia O’Keefe and Woolf herself—did not have children.

In discussion after the showing many participants shared that the struggles we had just witnessed on film still speak strongly to the patterns and events of their current lives. I thought of my life, the first woman in my family to attend university, my two wonderful sons, my political career in South Africa that included elected public office at a young age, my publishing career that began when I was an adolescent and fortunately continues, my love of teaching—but also of my divorce after twenty six years of marriage. I thought of my mother and the women of her generation and the generations that came before her without these opportunities and those women all over the world who struggle daily with this reality. It is my profound belief that we cannot create a “whole” world while more than half of humanity is barely valued and even more rarely acknowledged in public domains—such as that of artistic expression.

I will blog again on my thoughts of this retreat weekend, but now it is time for me to return after a many month hiatus to grapple with my current writing project that is requiring more “freedom and the courage to write exactly what [I] think” than I have experienced before.

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Below you will find a photo of peonies that bloomed in my garden this morning. For some reason this is a once in three years occurrence so I greet each bloom with excitement. They are among the most beautiful peonies I have seen, and the scent is intoxicating. I have been a gardener for as long as I can remember. Growing up in a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa, I remember my mother at work with her roses, about 50 bushes of various varieties, secateurs in hand as she deadheaded, debudded (to leave only one rose on a stem) and carefully removed aphids and other undesirable pests. My grandfather who spent a third of every year with us always wore a fresh rosebud in the lapel of his suit jacket. When I was an adolescent I was given the rock garden as my provenance and loved to plan and plant and move rocks. My nemesis was the snails who shared my rock garden. Johannesburg, situated on a plateau at 6,00 feet, and with a temperate climate, dry heat and usually reliable summer rain, is an Eden for gardeners. There is one drawback, cyclical drought and with it watering restrictions, so every seven years gardeners watch their hard work, manicured lawns and the beauty they created wither and die. In the suburbs drilling for artesian water sources was a flourishing business.

As a young wife and mother I had first a pocket garden with an almost sub-tropical micro-climate due to a sunny vantage and thick white washed walls. Around giant strelitzes,  avocado and mulberry trees the carefullly designed borders flourished. Later I had almost an acre in which to garden and loved every inch of the rich loam in which whatever I planted grew with vigor and beauty.

When we moved to the Boston area many years ago I had to re-examine everything I had learned about gardening. Our first home was a three hundred year old carriage house set on an acre of land. We had hundred year old giant beeches on the property. The land itself had been neglected for years, but with care and attention a garden will emerge with alacrity from underneath the undergrowth and weeds. As I uncovered flower beds, dug and sowed, the garden returned to some of its previous glory. From spring to autumn we ate fresh produce from the rescued and resuscitated cold frame beds. I planted strawberries around the swimming pool, hosta in the shady areas and a riot of day lilies wherever I could. I learned to accept the cycle of the year, and reluctantly return my gardening tools to their permanent place in the garage each November. Come February the catalogs arrived and soon I would have spindly seedlings growing under lights.

I planted myself in American soil in bringing that garden back to life.

Now I have a much smaller garden again. It is all I want to manage. For me little else in life compares to the satisfaction of caring for a flower bed of rich dark soil where every plunge of the weeding fork or hand spade reveals not only the roots of the weed but wriggling earth worms too. Then you know you have an arable patch and the result is glorious peonies like these.

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I saw a robin today as I walked across campus, a harbinger of spring to come. In a flower bed in front of my home office window there are a host of white and green snowdrops emerging from under those leaves that were not swept away last fall. My heart leaps at the marvel of them. Up here in the north-east corner of this great country of ours, in and around Boston, despite some frigid weeks in December, January and February we have had a mild winter. While all around us and especially to the south and west snowfalls amounts have accumulated above sixty inches (which is our average too),  this year we are at twenty eight and a half inches. Of course we can still encounter some huge storms and maybe will, but on the other hand an early spring is also a possibility. In my native South Africa the change of seasons was not of note. Nine months of summer merged into three months of winter and then, at least in Johannesburg where I lived, the dusty winds of August (spring) heralded the first rains and onset of dry summer heat. Here the spring is a true rebirth. The talons of icy winds and below freezing temperatures slowly loosen their grip on the land and on our psyche. There is an explosion of buds and birds, lawns turn green, the air is warmer on our cheeks, days lengthen, and it rains (a lot). Suddenly the sidewalks are filled with suburban walkers and joggers. More people smile.

Over the past weeks my Philosophy class of college-bound seniors read and discussed Tibetan Buddhist master and Western teacher, Chogyam Trungpa’s book “Shambhala, The Sacred Path of the Warrior.” As I read their reflective journals these past days I was struck at how these two-thousand year old teachings caused a rebirth of sorts in my students, an awakening, an opening. They responded with touching honesty to ideas such as “basic goodness”, “being in the now”, “letting go”,  and “drala” the energetic interconnection of all that is. Some wrote of their awareness of their own fears, of how they worry and question, of the endless conveyor belt of expectations they find themselves on, of the material rewards they have accepted as the goal they need to strive towards in order to be “successful” and achieve “happiness.” Trungpa suggests alternative mind-structures, those built of inner balance and harmony, gentleness and respect for self and others. He posits meditation practice as a giant step on the path to becoming a spiritual warrior. As we read the book I taught the basics of meditation and breath-focused attention practices and many students responded positively to the sense of inner calm they can begin to feel burgeoning within.

As Trungpa says “Synchronizing mind and body is not a concept or a random technique someone thought up for self-improvement. Rather, it is a basic principle of how to be a human being and how to use your sense perceptions, your mind and your body together.”

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Every four years the Winter Olympics come around and I am hooked. I love the speed of downhill skiing and bobsled races. I cannot comprehend the luge and feel distraught at the death of the young Georgian on the first day of these 2010 games in springlike gorgeous Vancouver. I am a sports fan but trying to understand curling is one sport too many. The skating competitions have the strongest draw for me: gymnastics, dancing, skating at the highest level all in one package. The costumes, the different personalities (go Johnny Weir and Patrick Chun), the symbiosis of coach (Svengali) and young athlete, the choice of music; this is compelling. But this time around the thrill of watching is enhanced by two factors, HDTV and the record button on my remote. HDTV is image perfection; watching the cross-country ski pursuit on a picture perfect Saturday fully displays what I am talking about. Then there is the ability to record programs so I can watch at my convenience and zip through at alpine ski speeds those endless, inane and mind-numbing ads. To say nothing of Bob Costas and his smooth talking, bland commentary and schmaltz with which NBC tries to tie the drama (that needs no enhancement) together. (Although I did enjoy watching Mary Carillo attend the Royal Canada Mountie school. But then I am a tennis fan too.) No doubt it already exists, but is not available to the American public, raw live feed of the events as they happen without commentary and without ads. May they day come soon when we can see what the TV producers and  journalists see.

Another huge plus (which perhaps is our live feed of the moment) is the amazing official Olympic Winter Games website with myriad opportunities to follow in real-time each and every minutia of the Games.

So this leads me to a socio-political line of thinking. HDTV, touch of the button recording of at least two channels at the same time, access to the latest computer technology and the ability (economic and utilitarian) to use the ever-changing and increasing tools of the Information Age creates a cyber-age global apartheid that separates the hi-technology and computer literate and savvy haves, from the billions and billions of have-nots. Earlier this week I lost electrical power as I was settling in to watch the medal round of the Men’s figure skating (why all those falls?) Sitting in the dark for two hours while the electrician did his work, brought home to me how utterly dependent so many billions of us are on electricity. Think about it.

I have no idea what this means for the future of our beautiful planet. I am an optimist, so I think of great opportunities for out-of-the box thinking entrepreneurs who can attempt to close the gap. On the other hand the gap may become so vast that cyberspace implodes and sinks us all in an immense dark hole.

Happy Winter Olympics second week TV watching.

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This weekend I had some discussion with a high-level member of an organization that focuses on reconciling differences between Israeli settlers and Israeli Arabs. Old feuds and resentments run deep. Who took whose land from whom? We can go back thousands of years trying to understand the roots of this conflict. The truth is that over millenia the vast majority of feuds, struggles and wars between all people everywhere are over territory and resources. It is part of our DNA to defend our territory and ensure not only our food supply but the future of our children and our clan. Xenophobia’s face is that of the cave dweller across the valley.

In my native South Africa the famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission that for three years in the late 1990s tried to heal the wounds caused by apartheid atrocities for both the oppressed and the oppressor was a daily Greek theater played out on TV and radio across the land; a catalyst for airing the tragedies, the manifold tragedies of those years. The mighty, the all powerful, the members of the Security Police brought face-to-face with their accusers and humbled by the probing commissioners. Amnesty or no amnesty, a bad conscience set to rest, a death explained, some expiation of revenge. Thus far there is no similar commission anywhere that has attempted to tackle the root question of who took whose land from whom? White settlers with a four hundred year history of living in South Africa regard themselves as Africans born of African soil. And they are, but who took their land from them? History is a tangled knot.

There are so many well-meaning, well-trained mediators conducting grass-level interventions in so many conflict areas; to mention but a few,  Sunnis and Shia, Serbians and Bosnians, Hutis and Tutis, Israeli settlers and Israeli Arabs, Tibetans and Chinese, Indians and Pakistanis. These mediators do good work especially when they work with children to create a new narrative that bridges the differences of conflicting older stories. Then the children can believe, “This is the nownarrative of our land, this is ourstory. ”

A fundamental challenge for our time, as cyberspace  shrinks our planet, is how do we change the humanstory, the rigid mind structures of past eras? How do we  preserve the richness of cultures and traditions and learn to share the resources of the planet. Mother Teresa said, “Small steps with great love.”

Perhaps. But until we understand the fundamental truth that all conflict arises from a struggle for resources even small steps towards lasting reconciliation are unlikely. In North America the Water Resource Wars have already begun…how are we going to change our mind-structures to accommodate this story?

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