Monday, February 4, 2008

Spinning and Bathing

As an adjunct I've taught many things. One subject I've taught has been Greek mythology. Inevitably, at some point in each course, some student usually comes up to me after a class and makes a confession; that he or she is beginning to wonder if the Greek gods are real. Over the past few years I've had to admit to them that they might very well be, and that I've secretly been saying prayers to Athena for years, especially when learning something new or finishing a crocheting project.

However, we all learn things about ourselves when our perspectives get changed, as I found out this past week. for instance, I'm now pretty sure that I'm going to have to add statues of Athena, Artemis and the Three Fates to the small altar space in my apartment, the one that has a Black Madonna and a picture of the Buddha on it.

I was sitting up in bed this Saturday-into-Sunday, teaching myself more about drop-spinning, when I stopped worrying if i was doing it right and just allowed the yarn to take over. The tv was on in the background and it was late by normal human standards- about two am. I was tired, and I'd had a long day, but the purple wool I was spinning was so beautiful, and it had a silvery sheen that made it irresistable. I found myself staring at the spindle and watching it spin, my left hand above my head, my right occasionally stopping the spindle or guiding its speed. And all of a sudden- I got it. I pictured a photo in one of the books I've used with students- it shows a group of Greek peasant women with drop spindles, and the caption says that women in Greece have used this method since ancient times. All of a sudden, sitting up in bed, I felt like I was sitting on the floor of a West African hut on a chilly night, the fire glowing nearby, as I spun the spring wool into thread for weaving into cloth for my husband's clothing. Or perhaps I was seated on a three-legged stool, like a woman in a medieval painting, spinning linen for the local church's altar-cloth. Or perhaps I was in any other of a number of places around the world, standing or sitting, spinning wool, flax, cotton, silk, goat, yak. After years of talking about women and crafting, and how in order to understand women in Greek mythology we need to understand why so many of them are weaving or spinning, I finally understood the universality and primalness of it myself. And it felt good.

I think it happened because I'd had another primal moment earlier inthe day. I'd gone to a local Korean healthspa that is rather like an old Roman bathhouse, only without the live entertainment and shopping arcades. The week before I'd gone on a Friday, when the crowd was mostly women and chidren, but it was fairly quiet. On this Saturday afternoon, however, the place was jumping. I picked up my key (an electronic watchlinke thing that one uses to open one's locker and tally one's food and drink), changed out of my street clothes, and headed for the hot tubs and saunas-

and was floored.

In the US, we hardly ever think about bathing and its meaning. for instance, exept when we are little, most of us never bathe with people of the same sex for non-sexual purposes. In fact, if you think about it, it's kind of odd that people consider the idea of seeing bodies that have all the same parts as their own to be horrifying and dirty. It's gotten to the point that in the US, you can be investigated for taking pictures of your own children playing naked in their bathwater, even if it's obvious that there's no sexualized content whatsoever. The only time that it's ok to be naked nowadays it seems, is if there are overt sexual or violent overtones; for some reason that's beyond me, heroes in violent movies usually end up in some state of undress and get covered with more effluvia than an Abercrombie and Fitch underwear model.

When I first went to the spa the week before, there were women there, but not as many. I remember undressing next to another American-born woman who was white, and she commented on her nervousness at having to be naked in front of strangers. I remember nodding, wondering exactly what beastly things she thought were going to happen during a shvitz. Being naked is something that hasn't bothered me in a long time, to the point where it's hard for me to remember when it did. The only person around I feel uncomfortable naked is my mother, and that's because she makes hurtful comments about my weight. However, like most americans, live nudity with no sexual context is a rarity for me. So imagine how I felt on saturday afternoon when I took off my spa uniform and looked through the open glass doors at the hot tub area and saw

Nude fat women. Nude thin women. Old women who sagged. women with newly-budded breasts. Women holding squirming babies in the kiddie tub. Women with tattoos. Little naked girls putting their hands between their legs and laughing. Little boys under the age of four clambering over their mothers' laps. Korean woman. Chinese women. Indian women. Russian women. Black women. White women. Brown women.

And not a single towel in sight.

Some had towels- around their heads. On the left side of the room, women were scrubbing and soaping, while sitting at low spigots with wooden buckets, and then rinsing themselves off. On the right, women were using European-style showers with no stalls. Women casually walked into and out of the saunas, climbed in and out of the tubs, talked, held babies in their laps, scrubbed each others' back, scraped their feet.

When I was growing up, I remember being fascinated by the concept of women bathing together. The Old Master paintings of Artemis and her train always fascinated me, even though I knew I was seeing a man's view of women. I also grew up in a neighborhood where at least some of my female neighbors went once a month to the ritual Jewish bath. When I grew up and moved to Manhattan, I saw old city-run bathhouses that had been set up for the working classes during the 19th century which had been turned into municipal health clubs. I have friends who have lived in the Near East who have gone to hamams. but I never thought I would walk into what seemed like a painting form my childhood, only with real, imperfect human bodies and genital hair.

I felt overwhelmed, and very safe. For the first time in a while, my aging body felt normal, not ugly. My rubenesque curves and rolls garnered no negative comments or looks. not only that, but after I showered, saunaed, soaked, plunged in cold water, and then began to scrub, I felt like a goddess. It was very Zenlike to be in a room where no one was staring, but no one was looking away, either. Quite frankly I had to look- watching television and seeing magazines had dulled my memory of what real women look like when naked. A group of young white women sat next to me, scrubbing each other's backs, while an equally young black woman loofahed her arms and legs. Eventually she asked one of them to scrub her back; she and I had been eyeing each other, unsure of the protocol and too shy to speak. I got up enough nerve and asked one of the women if she could scrub my back also, and we all laughed at how we'd not known what to say. we wondered if the men in their section of the bathhouse were avoiding looking at each other too. and there we were, starring in our own living tableau, and feeling terribly clean and beautiful, like the Virgin Goddess of Crafting relaxing after a long day of spinning and weaving.

So here I am, at the age of 46, rediscovering womanhood and feminity. Not the kind my mother taught me, which other had to do with body shame; not the kind my father tried to imposed, where I was supposed to proetend to be ignorant to reassure men; not thekind many of my teachers valorized, where in order to be a feminist I was supposed to turn my back on the simple artistic pleasures of cooking and crafting; but a much older femininity, in which women don't hate the body as it goes through stages, can be kind to each other without being at odds of being consious of class, race, or marital status, and can sit and spin and feel the golden thread that runs from us to our ancestors without apology.

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