I have a problem. I’ve had it my whole life. It’s that I find men to be compelling and beautiful. Of course, not all men at all times. Not most men most times, truth be told. But when I’m going to get all choked up by something; when I’m going to feel that heart-growing-two-sizes-too-big feeling it’s going to be about some man.
I know, it sounds ridiculous. Especially in the current state of things out there. Men…beautiful? I can’t help it. I know it sounds like I’m off in a corner with my fingers in my ears. Trust me, I’m very aware of what everyone is saying about “toxic masculinity.” It’s just not that interesting to me because, for all that men end up being the ones to do some horrifying shit, they are also extremely glorious when they are doing what they are made to do. I see it. I feel it in my bones.
I am curious to know what makes Woman so great, if anything. It has to be more than the girl power mantra. I honestly don’t see myself changing the world. I’m having a hard time just losing the baby weight. Also, women at the apex still want to be mothers, and motherhood is just down and dirty work. If men and women are basically the same, and women are as good as men at everything, and if all we want is to compete with men, then why would Lady Gaga want to have a baby? What’s in it for her? She’s already at the top.
On the flipside, why then would I ever feel like I needed something more than just being a wife and mother? There are certain circles where I’ve felt pressured not to have dreams of becoming anything myself (with whatever is left of my life force). Why would I have cried when I was little over not having a penis (true story. Thank God I was born in the 80’s), but have grown up to love being a woman? I wouldn’t trade it. Why would I revisit this theme so often in life, even though I am proud of bearing four children and I am proud of what I do? I regularly cry over not having the drive of a man. I am envious of certain men to this day, and I wish I could get over it. Maybe that’s the torture inherent in being a woman. Maybe the sadness of clearly seeing but not being able to possess whatever it is about men is an essential thing about womanhood. Or maybe it’s a curse and it’s meant to be undone someday.
As I’ve said, I don’t find much that’s useful in our culture about this question. But I have found Tolkien. And Tolkien, though he doesn’t write very many women, writes women profoundly. I listen to LOTR every year starting in September, and in recent years I’ve been more and more moved by his description of Goldberry. Goldberry is the wife of Tom Bombadil, Master of the wild woods on the borders of the Shire, where the hobbits live. Frodo, Merry, Pippin, and Sam get rescued by Tom several times in the early part of the first book and this passage is just after their first rescue as they come through the dark woods to the house of Tom and Goldberry (emphasis mine):
“Then another clear voice, as young and as ancient as spring, like the song of a glad water flowing down into the night from a bright morning in the hills, came falling like silver to meet them:
Now let the song begin! Let us sing together
Of sun, stars, moon and mist, rain and cloudy weather,
Light on the budding leaf, dew on the feather,
Wind on the open hill, bells on the heather,
Reeds by the shady pool, lilies on the water:
Old Tom Bombadil adn the River-daughter!
And with that song the hobbits stood upon the threshold, and a golden light was all about them.
the four Hobbits stepped over the wide stone threshold, and stood still, blinking. They were in a long low room, filled with the light of lamps swinging from the beams of the roof; and on the table of dark polished wood stood many candles, tall and yellow, burning brightly.
In a chair, at the far side of the room facing the outer door, sat a woman. Her long yellow hair rippled down her shoulders; her gown was green, green as young reeds, shot with silver like beads of dew; and her belt was of gold, shaped like a chain of flag-lilies set with the pale blue eyes of forget-me-nots. About her feet in wide vessels of green and brown earthenware, white water lilies were floating, so that she seemed to be enthroned in the midst of a pool. ‘Enter, good guests!’ she said, and as she spoke they knew that it was her clear voice they had heard singing. They came a few timid steps further into the room, and began to bow low, feeling strangely surprised and awkward, like folks that, knocking at a cottage door to beg for a drink of water, have been answered by a fair young elf queen clad in living flowers. But before they could say anything, she sprang lightly up and over the lily bulbs, and ran laughing towards them; and as she ran her gown rustled softly like the wind in the flowering borders of a river.
‘Come dear folk!’ She said, taking Frodo by the hand. ‘Laugh and be merry! I am Goldberry, daughter of the river.’ Then lightly she passed them and closing the door she turned her back to it, with her white arms spread out across it. ‘Let us shut out the night!’ She said. ‘For you are still afraid, perhaps, of mist and tree shadows and deep water, and untamed things. Fear nothing! For tonight you are under the roof of Tom Bombadil.’
The hobbits looked at her in wonder; and she looked at each of them and smiled. ‘Fair lady Goldberry!’ Said Frodo at last, feeling his heart moved with a joy that he did not understand. He stood as he had at times stood enchanted by Fair Elven-voices; but the spell that was now laid upon him was different: less keen and lofty was the delight, but deeper and nearer to mortal heart; marvelous and yet not strange. ‘Fair Lady goldberry!’ He said again. ‘Now the joy that was hidden in the songs we heard is made plain to me.
O slender as a willow wand! O clearer than clear water!
O maid by the living pool! Fair river-daughter!
O spring time and summertime, and spring again after!
O wind on the waterfall, and the leaves laughter!’
Suddenly he stopped and stammered, overcome with surprised to hear himself saying such things. But Goldberry laughed.
‘Welcome!’ She said.’ I had not heard that folk of the Shire were so sweet-tongued. But I see you are an Elf-friend; the light in your eyes and the ring in your voice tells it. This is a merry meeting! Sit now, and wait for the Master of the House! He will not be long. He is tending your tired Beasts.’
The Hobbit sat down gladly on low rush-seated chairs, while Goldberry busied herself about the table; and their eyes followed her, for the slender grace of her movement filled them with quiet delight. From somewhere behind the house came the sound of singing. Every now and again they caught, among many a derry doll and a merry doll and the ring a ding dillo the repeated words:
old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow;
bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.
‘Fair lady!’ Said Frodo again after a while. ‘Tell me, if my asking does not seem foolish, who is Tom Bombadill ?’
‘He is,’ said goldberry, staying her swift movements and smiling.
Frodo looked at her questioningly. ‘He is, as you have seen him,’ she said in answer to his look. ‘He is the master of wood, water, and hill.’
‘Then all this strange land belongs to him?’
‘No indeed!’ She answered, and her smile faded. ‘That would indeed be a burden,’ she added in a low voice, as if to herself. ‘The trees and the grasses and all things growing or living in the land belonging each to themselves. Tom Bombadil is the master. No one has ever caught old Tom walking in the forest. waiting in the water. leaping on the hilltops under light and Shadow. he has no fear. Tom Bombadil is master.’
A door opened and in came Tom Bombadil. He had now no hat and his thick brown hair was crowned with Autumn Leaves. He laughed, and going to Goldberry took her hand.
‘Here’s my pretty lady!’ He said, bowing to the hobbits. ‘Here’s my Goldberry clothed all in silver green with flowers in her girdle! Is the table Laden? I see yellow cream and honeycomb, and white bread, and butter; milk, cheese, and green herbs and ripe berries gathered. Is that enough for us? Is the supper ready?’
The way Tolkien writes about women is intriguing. I have always loved Eowyn’s story, since I saw the trilogy of movies in college, although the girl power message was lost on me then. There’s a lot I resonate with in Eowyn’s story. I even named my daughter after her. She has a high destiny, for one, and she’s broody and full of despair, which I love. I can completely relate to the feeling of loving someone from afar whose love you are not destined to have, no matter what great thing you do.
I honestly don’t know how Tolkien gets to the heart of it. It’s true as he writes it; women do want to be useful, we want to be able to fight like a man. We want glory, and we want the admiration of admirable men. Is that so much to ask?! From one angle, the story of womanhood is a story of feeling thwarted and of learning to be content with what you are given. I don’t know, maybe that’s just the story of mankind.
Two other less attractive angles on womanhood from Tolkien:
Eoreth – the woman from Minas Tirith – who can’t stop talking. Her self-importance about the small part she plays in the war is insufferable and lifelike. She’s funny, and also cringy.
Then there’s Shelob – the giant spider-she-monster who lives in caves on the outskirts of Mordor and whose only delight is in feeding on flesh: orc flesh mostly, but man, elf and hobbit when she can get it. After she stings Frodo, Sam wounds her and drives her away with his Elvish blade when she attempts to use her body to squash him. Shelob is the spawn of Ungoliant, one of the oldest followers of Melkor – the original rebel against the maker of Middle Earth. What Ungoliant wants is to consume all of creation. Her hunger is never satisfied. Either Tolkien’s imagination of this is a revelation, or he had experience that informed it. Whatever it was, I find it in myself. Apart from the healing work of Jesus, I am not sure if anything would ever be enough for me.
In fact, I was once given this vision in prayer: my mouth had become a black hole, sucking in everything I saw. Wherever I turned my head, everything in front of me was sucked into my gaping maw. In my distress, I wondered what could ever turn it off. Was I destined to only suck everything up? The answer came when Jesus appeared, turned me to himself, and kissed me on the lips and when He did, my mouth turned into a normal mouth.
But I digress. I don’t need to search far for my pitfalls. I see the folly of Eoreth in myself, and I know that but for God’s grace I would be a Shelob. I feel keenly the longing of Eowyn, and I hope that in the last hour of despair I would act with honor and strength as she does. I feel the sad sweetness of relenting to a lower destiny as Eowyn does when she falls in love with Faramir. Some of Eowyn’s story shows what glories womanhood holds.
But Goldberry and Tom Bombadil are something else.
I can’t even say that I want to be Goldberry, but there’s something about her that calls to me. There’s something about the picture they create together that feels like home. For one thing, Goldberry is waiting. That seems to be one of her things. Goldberry is not Tom Bombadil. Goldberry is not master. The charms of Goldberry are almost entirely hidden, unless happened-upon by lost, frightened and weary travelers. For the most part, her beauty is lavished upon Tom Bombadil, and him only. And yet, it’s silly to think of Tom Bombadil tromping around and singing in the old forest only to come home to a cold hearth. Gathering lilies was his most important business, not rescuing wanderers.
Is this the final magic of me? Of Woman? In some sense, in a very large sense, there would be no Man without Woman. The men I admire wouldn’t do what they do without the women in their lives. One of the few places we have in this sad realm (where men don’t have much opportunity for swordplay) where I have often beheld the glory of Man is in a performance of some kind. It was after a rock concert that I realized something:
Receiving isn’t passive.
That room and that performance was magical as much because of me as because of the performers. Without me, what would it be? A performance is as much of a dance as anything else. The performers bring expertise, talent, and will, but without open hearts the message is lost. Without someone to receive it, is there really a message?
The picture of Goldberry isn’t glorious because of what she does. Although the practical part of me knows how much work it would take to have a lovely supper ready, be slender as a willow wand, [ancient and new as spring] have downy mattresses and white woolen blankets ready for guests in spotless rooms and be tending lilies in pots all winter. Her glory is in what she IS.
“Fair lady Goldberry!’ Said Frodo at last, feeling his heart moved with a joy that he did not understand. He stood as he had at times stood enchanted by Fair Elven-voices; but the spell that was now laid upon him was different: less keen and lofty was the delight, but deeper and nearer to mortal heart; marvelous and yet not strange.”
My whole being gets pulled into the longing for man, the beauty of man. I want to be joined to it, somehow. And, in some moments I think the answer must be to be like it, to work hard, to be visible. It’s so hard not to want to be visible. Not to want to put all my hopes for wholeness into the idea of recognition and power. Men seem to be able to get it so easily. And I have been told my whole life that I should want it above all things. But I find myself torn, and the path I have chosen means I am hidden. I find myself doing work that no one will ever see, and which may not show forth fruit for decades, if it ever does.
When I was younger, I thought I wanted to be famous. I still want to make something beautiful that makes an impact on the world. Me, myself, not just through my body. In the past, in my bitterness I have thought, “anyone can get knocked up.” I have some talents, and some will to succeed. It often feels like I am letting it all atrophy. I had a friend ask me recently if I ever regret that I never did more with my voice. The answer is yes. Of course I do. But if I had done that, what other thing would I now regret? Men can have a career and a family. Women often can’t, or they find that the split is too great and they don’t want to. I honestly don’t know what the answer is.
But the more I go about life, the more I think this:
In the end, anything worthwhile you do, you do as an instrument. Inspiration is ultimately revelation. It comes from outside of you. All you can do is be faithful to the vision you have been given. I do have a quibble with the difference between pregnancy and giving birth and writing a poem, or a song. One is decidedly more enjoyable for the doer. But in the end, they are both creative acts and they both require submission and sacrifice. Who am I to insist that I will only be this kind of instrument and not the other, or to say that I should have been given this kind of creative work to do and not the other? Who am I to say that I can see its fruition? What fruition there is lies beyond the edge of time.
I will never forget the moment my photography 101 prof asked us to say if we thought the camera was male or female. I’m sure none of us had given it one thought. As student after student gave their opinion that the camera is male for this or that reason – most of which boiled down to the shape of the thing – I got more and more sure they were wrong. I ended up giving what Greg later said was the most heartfelt? passionate? decisive? (maniacal?) response he’d ever heard. All I know is I was, and am, sure of the answer.
The camera is female, and here’s why:
The camera doesn’t spit anything out, and it doesn’t give the raw material for anything. It takes light and time into itself, which is to say it takes in mystery. One, holy moment in time takes shape in the dark secret of the camera’s body and is delivered to the world as a work of art.
No sooner do I say this, than I find it’s what I’m doing, what I’ve always been doing. I’m not on stage, I’m down in the dark looking at the man on the stage in love and compassion, giving his work meaning. I won’t be that spider; I won’t gobble up the world. I was made to take it in, to understand what I am seeing with love and compassion, and to hold it inside myself. I am there to make a home. Do you see what I’m saying? Sister, do you know what it is you’re doing?
You are giving the world meaning. Without you, there would be no world.
What could be more lovely?