Wednesday, July 06, 2016


Ninety percent of human DNA is exactly the same as that of primates, because most of the molecular directions are meant for survival.  That is the whole meaning of evolution — fitness does not mean big and healthy, it means able to survive under the conditions of a certain ecology, a certain time and place.  Humans are able to change their surroundings and their behavior far more than making a nest in a tree for the night or twigging a termite out of its hole for lunch.

Genetics is useful in separating out one class or kind of person from another, but it is also both problematic and humbling.  The worship reform that didn’t quite form a new denomination but transformed a lot of old ones was called in shorthand the “feminists.”  It’s hard to know whether they were Antigone standing up for what is right, or Pandora opening a box we still haven’t emptied.  

I have a confusing time with it myself because physically I’m certainly female but null-partum (no babies), culturally I’m male but more an adolescent male than a grown man, and I do love sex with grown men — so what does that mean?.  Intellectually I try to address all the gender roles, but when it gets vicious I wish I were from a planet where they don’t have gender/sex/babies and all the subsequent entanglements of pain and joy.  But, okay, the second book in this trio is not a complete account of the evolution of ceremonies without talking about the empowerment of women.  I’ll tell stories.


In Seattle in 1986 I was asked to give the key opening address for a major feminist spiritual conference.  So I did.  It’s the opening sermon in the book the Edmonton UU congregation published called “Sweetgrass and Cottonwood Smoke,” where it is not considered feminist but rather what they call “landscape theology.”  “A Pair of Socks” is about a woman who drew her identity from wool socks she knitted from wool she carded and dyed after she cut it from sheep she had raised herself.  It was a ceremony all the way through, an example of immanence which is a form of emergence.

Immediately there were objections.  How dare I, a Christian (well, a former Christian) be the officiant on Friday, the day claimed by Jewish worshippers?  How dare I claim to be “key” which implied that I was in control of access but no one elected me?  And so on.  This was political feminism, employing the traditional institutional religious rules and rational logic, wanting to sit on God’s lap as his favorite daughter if not consort.  So I ignored it.

The main speaker was “Starhawk,” the chosen name of Miriam Simos, who has been identified as one of the hundred most “spiritually influential living people.”  Her parents were the children of Jewish immigrants from Russia.  She was educated in California, originally intending to be one of those Manhattan fiction writers, then moved on to being a therapist, combining social justice with feminism with neopaganism and nature.  She has no children, self-identifies as bisexual, but has been married to men twice.  That evening she taught us the Spiral Dance, which has become her main icon of practice.  By now she is a one-woman humanities force in several contexts.  I have nothing but respect for her.

At one of the UUMA (UUA ministers) meetings in the PNW District, one of the men decided he would do the kind of exciting things the women were up to, so when he was asked to do vespers in-gathering, he brought bananas.  We all knew what they were supposed to symbolize and hoped he didn’t bring condoms.  But something worse happened.  After the first joke of handing each of us a banana, he hadn’t thought what he was going to do with them.  We could have exchanged them, described “our” banana to our neighbor, compared sizes, mimed thrusting in unison, or peeled them while considering how important it is to reveal ourselves but then cautioning ourselves not to slip on a peeling.  

There were more people in attendance than the officiant had expected, so he was forced to either leave some people out — a more nimble person might have talked about leaving out people who have no “banana” — or cutting up the bananas to make enough pieces for everyone.  The ministers, most of them male, spontaneously provided banana screams as they were cut.  Then we all sat there staring, reluctant to eat them as a communion.  Eugh.

At “civilian” Leadership School we had been divided into groups to devise a Vespers every evening.  Each was assigned a “kind” of service:  traditional (which turned out to be very hostile), silent, arts inclusive (a stringed instrument workshop was on the same campus so we commandeered their cello player), and so on.  Somehow two other women and I were assigned the last service before we all went home.  One of the other women, a respected older person, was deep into feminism and absolutely INSISTED that we have a centerpiece of bananas and brazil nuts along with peaches and apples.  She didn’t want to have to justify or interpret.  They were just THERE.  

We were in long gowns (muu-muus were “in”) with hair down and wreath crowns of white branches from a flowering bush that we raided in the night.  Clearly we were “goddesses,” but what to say?  Finally, we hit on the “Song of Solomon” and used readings about Eros.  We were all tumescent from lack of sleep, too much emotion, and being disclosively intimate for a week.  

What I learned from this event was a gender-difference.  The women did NOT want to stop and go home.  We blessed everyone, dismissed them, told them the coffee was ready — but the women wouldn’t stand up.  They loved this and didn’t want it to end.  The men were jinglng their car-keys, had packed the cars and some had even started the motors.  They were through, over, the end, other duties called.

The 55 million or so differences between men and women are all concentrated on one chromosome and 78 genes, the number on the short leg of the specific chromosome, half of the two number 23s.

The two halves are called X and Y.  X has basic molecular instructions that keep people alive and functioning.  You MUST have at least one X, but there can be people with an extra chromosome, XYY or XXY.  Y is short because it doesn’t have the instructions for creating a womb, gestating a blastosphere into a baby, and pushing it out.  Men have sometimes been able to lactate, but none has been able to create a working womb except maybe surgically.  Cultures are able to treat such matters with great imagination and cruelty.

We don’t quite know what happens with bi-sexual-preference people or those who are physically one thing but socially and psychologically another and take advantage of modern medicine to switch over.  I have never wanted to convert my body surgically because I really don’t pay much attention to my body, but I’m hardly typical, except that there have always been women in every culture much more suited to the “other” gender’s assignments, like being a thinker, being “Mary” rather than “Martha,” to choose a Christian story; or maybe being a female warrior.

Political equity is not quite the same.  We have so much justice work to do on domestic violence, economic arrangements, child care.  In religious terms, times of great social change and incoherence can be both funny and tragic, and the daughters of honor killers know that very clearly.  They desperately need institutional reform, but also courage as individuals.  Many will not survive.

When I looked at both the literature and at personal experience, especially with small experimental groups like the PNWD UU Leadership School in an upscale group, the main difference in style between male and female was that the women wanted warm fusion -- what I called a “hot tub” -- while the men wanted clear rationality -- what I called a glass phone booth.  (This is not new and seems to have a genomic component as well as the social assignments.)  In three-stage liminal terms it meant that when it was time to cross the threshold into liminal space, the women went in too quickly while the men held back.  (Suddenly they had to make a phone call.)  But when it was time to end, the women dawdled in their seats while the men rushed out to check their internet accounts where reception was better.

The most salient difference between high and low testosterone babies (regardless of whether they were formally female or male) is that the high testosterone babies better understand systems like math and “hard” science but the low testosterone babies have more empathy and eye contact with humans.  (Given the usual bell-curves, of course.)  This rather accounts for the male preference for sermons versus the female love of hymns and prayers.  (My fiery grandfather belonged to the Presbyterian church where he loved to dispute theology.  His wife, raised Baptist, secretly slipped over to the Baptist church next door for the warm assurance of God’s love.)

My grandmother and two aunts

These observations are not meant to be prescriptions.  Just sayin’.

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