We Know Not What We May Be

There are times when we only seem to hear in sentences, and forget that their meaning and colour is dependent on the words –it’s like ignoring the rivers that feed a lake. It’s like assuming that the story of a wall is written in the bricks we notice, not the mortar we don’t. History can become like that, too: a sentence, a reality -until we parse the words that is. Each word.

Take, for example, women in the workforce. Until relatively recently, their collective contribution was both underestimated, and definitely undervalued. In fact, if there was anything for which they were eminently suited other than family matters or, perhaps, a subordinate role in cleaning and food preparation, it was seldom apparent in the prevailing ethos. But, like the image on a developing photograph, it was there, but blurred. Hard to see… and yet there, however indistinct.

The invisible is all around us –like the nuns. And, as an abstract from a 2005 issue of Women’s History Review informs us, ‘Despite their exclusion from historical texts, these women featured prominently in negotiating the boundaries of religious life […]Prescriptive literature gave one model of womanhood, married life, with a second model, single life, clearly an inauspicious alternative. Women religious provided a different model and created a religious, occupational and professional identity that varied from the prescriptive literature of the day.’ –the workplace, in other words. We see the world but through a glass darkly, indeed; maybe change is the only constant. There are none so blind as those who will not see. A BBC article forced me to look again: http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20170908-the-extraordinary-undervalued-work-of-nuns

‘Becoming a nun [was] not often associated with women’s emancipation. But it did offer an interesting career option for women. […]But Catholicism in the 20th Century saw the world of work as fraught with dangers for women, and could only reconcile female professionals with the notion of them entering professions in a wider spirit of religious charity and sacrifice.’

It would be too much to expect that their rewards would be commensurate with their worth, but rewards come in different forms. ‘Revelations of women being paid less than men for doing the same job make it clear that society has a serious issue when it comes to valuing women’s work. Nuns offer a unique insight into how work is divided between the sexes and rewarded accordingly.’

In fact, in spite of the widely held belief in the subordinate and often inadequate abilities of women at the time, ‘The testimonies I [the author: Flora Derounian] collected shared many commonalities, the most striking of which is the contrast to the existences of most other women living in the epoch between 1947 and 1965, otherwise known as “the era of the housewife”.’ So, for example, ‘[…] interviewees had founded communities in rural Burundi, housed victims of civil war, and set up pharmacies in the Pakistani desert. Many others had taught in schools, cared for the elderly, worked with drug addicts, or given communion and comfort to the dying.’

The article reminded me of  the time I found  myself sitting beside a nun on the bus a few weeks ago. I didn’t know they even took buses, but maybe that’s because many of them nowadays are like unmarked police cars –you don’t know until they catch you unawares. Anyway, I don’t know that I was so much caught as observed, staring at the Bible she was reading. Well, more likely the spreadsheet under it on her lap. The combination seemed jarring.

I could see her smiling as she noticed my interest. “Is it the Bible, or the spreadsheet that caught your eye?” she said with a mischievous grin. A short woman with even shorter auburn hair, she was wrapped in a dark grey raincoat, and except for the oversized briefcase at her feet, looked like any other person on the bus.

I have to admit I was embarrassed at the question and I think I shrugged. “Oh…” I tried to think of a quick answer. “… Is that a Bible?” Stupid thing to say, and my face immediately reddened.

I could swear she winked at me before I hastily withdrew my eyes, though.

“I prefer the King James, but my Order decided to go modern over traditional…”

“So… what…?”

“New Jerusalem Bible…” She watched me for a second. “Less literary, I’m afraid, but more literal… Maybe they chose it because it’s also more gender neutral. Anyway, I use it for work now and then.”

I allowed my eyes to hover around her face for a moment and then called them home.

“We like to believe we were the first feminists, but…” she studied my reaction with a steady, almost practiced gaze, and then relented. “… It depends on the motherhouse, of course. I was fortunate, as it turns out.”

“Oh? And why is that?” I said, hypnotized by her eyes. And her voice was so soft and reassuring, I couldn’t help smiling. She could have sold me tundra in the far north and I would have felt honoured.

“We’re allowed to work in the world at large, as long as we donate our salaries to the Order.” I could see her watching my eyes hover above the spreadsheet. “I find it’s easier to work with this,” she said, touching the paper, “rather than booting up my computer on the bus.”

“I see,” I said, pretending I actually did. “So… Are you an accountant, or…?”

Her eyes twinkled and she giggled softly. “Why don’t you try to guess?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know. An office manager? A bookie…?”

We both laughed. “Nobody gets it right,” she said and shrugged as if it wasn’t all that mysterious nowadays. “I started a company with a group of my sister nuns…” She glanced out of the window to see if the bus was approaching her stop. “We’re a compassionate order serving single moms and homeless or troubled girls in the city and we -okay I– thought maybe we could be more proactive about it. Should be, in fact…”

I sat up straighter in my seat as she pulled the cord for the next stop. “How, can you be proactive about that?”

A mischievous smile gradually surfaced and she winked again –this time for sure- as she stood up to squeeze past me. “I’m the CEO of an online dating service,” she said and squeezed my left hand naughtily as she reached the aisle. “No ring, eh?” she whispered, and handed me her card.

I glanced at it as the bus pulled away again. There was just one word, Inundate, superimposed over a picture of a large crowd. Clever.

I’m tempted to send in a profile…

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The Tresses of Her Hair of Gold

I wish I could tell for sure, you know. I’m even afraid to compliment my friends on their hair nowadays for fear of getting it wrong –the colour, I mean. I’ve never been very good at colours, though; to me, hair is red, brown, black, or blond… and grey, of course –although I seldom see that except in roots anymore. Words like ‘auburn’, ‘chestnut’, ‘strawberry’, or ‘caramel’ are wasted on me. And, apart from the obvious camouflaging appeal of a foreign word, I confess I’m not sure why a brunette doesn’t just have brown hair.

Be assured that I appreciate the rich palimpsest available today, it’s just that I can never remember the names –or, except in some of the more fluorescent hues, know if it is their cheveux de naissance. And, yes, I share with Longfellow, a delight in the gold of long blond hair: Her cap of velvet could not hold the tresses of her hair of gold, that flowed and floated like the stream, and fell in masses down her neck. But I have to say that for me, at least, beauty has never resided in hair length, or presumed intelligence or desirability in hair colour. All these things are mere adjectives to the noun of personhood.

And yet, I say this as a retired, older man, unplugged from the business world, and I accept that from the other end of the spectrum, things may seem different –perhaps are different, for reasons I no longer have to accept. Take the case of Eileen Carey, a successful 30-some year-old CEO in Silicon Valley who, naturally blond, now wears glasses and brown hair: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-41082939

‘Carey was told that the investors she was pitching to would feel more comfortable dealing with a brunette, rather than a blonde woman. “I was told for this raise [of funds], that it would be to my benefit to dye my hair brown because there was a stronger pattern recognition of brunette women CEOs,” she explains. Pattern recognition is a theory which suggests people look for familiar experiences – or people – which in turn can make them feel more comfortable with the perceived risks they are taking. […] “Being a brunette helps me to look a bit older and I needed that, I felt, in order to be taken seriously,” Carey says.

‘”People are more likely to hit on me in a bar if I’m blonde. There’s just that issue in general. “For me to be successful in this [tech industry] space, I’d like to draw as little attention as possible, especially in any sort of sexual way.”’

Forgive me, I don’t wish to appear unduly benighted about this –I’m just trying to understand. Just trying to put it in some sort of context, albeit probably an outmoded one. Is the need to dye one’s hair similar to the need for a man to don a shirt and tie for a successful interview? And would going in blond be like arriving in jeans and sweatshirt? Just how are people –women, in this case- judged? Unless she was auditioning for a waitress job at the Cactus Club, how could the otherwise successful possession of whatever criteria were advertised for the position be invalidated by hair colour? Come on!

Of course, if she freely chooses to dye her hair, and decides she prefers glasses to contacts, then that is a different matter, but it seems suspiciously akin to changing your name on an application form to disguise your nationality –or skin colour… or even sex– just to get through the door, no matter your qualifications.

It reminds me of something that Janice, a family doctor once told me about hiring her secretary. She was just opening her medical practice in a new city and had advertised for a someone to work at the front desk and answer the phone. She wasn’t having much luck, apparently. She’d asked for a résumé from each candidate before their interview, and none of them seemed to invite further consideration, until she received one from a Gerri Coland who, at 27, had apparently been trained as a social worker, and although she’d already worked at it for several years, felt it was time for a change. She still wanted to engage with people and help them whenever possible, she had written, but without needing to take their problems home with her each night. Perfect, Janice thought.

The résumé had arrived via Email, so Janice replied immediately with a request for an interview the next morning, if Gerri could make it. But she didn’t receive a reply, so the next day, Janice phoned the number provided. A very pleasant man answered.

“Hi, this is Dr. Janson,” she said. “Is Gerri there?”

“No… actually Gerri’s at work right now. Can I take a message?”

“Well, she sent in a résumé to my office and I wanted to interview her for the job.”

There was a slight hesitation before he answered. “Well, I’m Gerri’s partner, so I’ll pass the message on. When is the interview?”

“Would nine o’clock tomorrow morning work for her? I know it’s rather short notice, but I’m trying to start up my new practice as soon as possible.”

He chuckled into the phone. “I’m sure tomorrow morning will be fine. Gerri’s only filling in for someone right now…”

The job of a secretary in her office, Janice informed me, would merely be to greet and register the patients, and organize appointments over the phone. But it was an important first impression of the office. So, she needed someone pleasant, understanding, and able to cope with the different attitudes and moods patients often staple to their illnesses.

The next morning, ten minutes early, a smiling young man arrived at the office dressed in grey slacks, and a dark blue sports jacket over a pale blue shirt. Janice assumed Gerri was in the washroom, and smiled at the friendly man who was fairly obviously Gerri’s partner.

He glanced at his watch and stood up to shake her hand. “Sorry we’re a bit early, but my partner thought the traffic might be heavier coming across the bridge…” He glanced around the newly furnished office. “Wow, this is well-designed,” he added, walking up to the front desk after admiring a large Areca palm in an earthenware pot by the window. “I like the way the waiting room is furnished. The comfortable chairs, the pictures on the wall, and the box of toys for kids is so welcoming. So calming.” He allowed his eyes to rest on her face. “Did you design it, Dr. Janson?”

She nodded. I’ve always felt that the last thing a person needs is a sterile, airport-style waiting room when they’re already stressed with whatever problem brought them to the doctor.”

The man nodded in agreement and walked up to examine one of the pictures on the wall. “A Carol Grigg! I’ve seen some of her other work down in Oregon. She’s a Cherokee artist I think, isn’t she…?” But he seemed to be talking more to himself, than Janice.

This was a man who was obviously at ease with new situations, Janice thought, no longer caring, where Gerri was.

Suddenly the man stopped and looked at her. “Look, I’m sorry about this…” He stared down at his feet for a moment, and then rested his eyes on her cheeks as softly as small birds on a branch. “Perhaps there was a little confusion with my résumé… I’m Gerri.”

Janice broke out in a wide, reassuring smile, and touched him gently on the shoulder. “I was hoping you were…”