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Posts Tagged ‘women’

Elderflowers, a mid-June treat.

Today I stopped into my friend Leslie’s new shop downtown. She’s an herbalist who grows much of what she uses in her products, and created a place where she can sell them.

As far back as I can remember, the spot has been a watering hole, or a cocktail lounge, or something along those lines. I’m being generous, actually. The word seedy comes to mind, and with good reason. I was curious to see what she’d done with the place.

I opened the wrought-iron gate and asked Stefanie, the day’s proprietor and maker of the teas, for a tour. The space is breathtaking for people like me who love turn-of-the-last-century details like a lovely, very high, hammered tin ceiling and trim, now painted a deep bronze. The sweeping, curved bar runs almost the length of the room.

Teas, herbed bath salts in enormous glass confection jars, salves, tinctures, supplies for making stuff at home were here and there throughout—all natural, made by hand, and mostly with local ingredients. Two huge posters Leslie made featuring dried herbs and their names and properties made me yearn for warmer days when I can prowl the countryside again for plants.

On another level I spotted a metal pole running from floor to ceiling and asked Stefanie, ‘Is this what I think it is?’ ‘Yep,’ she said.

For centuries, women (it’s usually women) have combed the earth for plants that can feed and heal. And we’re still doing it. Fascinating, isn’t it, to be in a place where women gave up their power, and to have it reborn as a place where we took it back?

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Vintage Pyrex bowls.

Goodness, this was a lousy week.

Even before the tragedy in Connecticut on Friday I was overwhelmed, disheartened and in need of some peace—proper peace, the kind that soaks into the bones. The song ‘Where Are You, Christmas?’ has never been a favorite of mine, but I have to admit that lately I have been wondering the same thing. Here it was the middle of December, and I should have been happily knee-deep in the fun and joy of Christmastime. Instead, stress seemed to have formed a Plexiglas case around me, isolating me from the season I love so much, allowing me to see it but not feel it. It was as if I was watching it all on television.

By Wednesday I was stretched to maximum capacity and utterly exhausted. I crossed everything off my list for the afternoon, drove to the antique district in Red Bank and walked into the red wooden shop at Front Street and Bridge. My blood pressure went down to a simmer as soon as I opened the door of the old building, a mighty garage sale on two floors. It’s a good place to step out of yourself, out of the present, into what (at least) feels like a warmer time. The place even has a calming aroma; the mix of wood, vintage clothes, books and housewares all together in one spot is what I imagine 1958 or thereabouts smelled like.

This antiques shop relaxes me because the stuff within is not so much precious as homey. There are the odd mahogany end tables and gilded mirrors, but there are far more simple things, ones that waft good memories around me like a May wind. I love seeing the type of 1960s porcelain figurines my aunt used to display on her dresser, the ones of ladies with updos, wearing broad sweeps of black liner on their upper eyelids and real dangling earrings. I love seeing the same miniature Madame Alexander dolls I used to collect, and the kind of metal lunchbox my sister used to carry to school.

The vintage kitchen stuff soothes me most of all. The nooks and alcoves piled floor to ceiling with kitchenware are quiet places where you can step in and feel enveloped by women, long-gone, who imprinted themselves on the worn goods they left behind. Here the potato masher and wooden spoons with well-used handles, there the scratched ceramic bowl in which of hundreds of loaves of bread rose. Corningware dishes that saw countless Thursday night meatloaves, birthday-dinner chicken fricassees, heaps of peas from a carefully tended garden. Within these humble, common possessions were the spirits of generations of women who worked their whole lives to keep their families well fed and protected. I felt that spirit, decades later, and felt the safety they provided transfer to me.

Depression glasses and plates are stacked by color, and they make muted rainbows on the shadowy parts of the shelves. Utensils are in spatterware buckets and inside drawers of wooden hutches. The place is a mishmosh, granted; but there IS order, there IS a layout, and I found that comforting, too. What Holly Golightly appreciated about Tiffany, I appreciate here.

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I liked these as a kid, but my mom wouldn’t let us get them because she heard a rumor that they contained lead. Was that true?

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Jadeite vases, coffee cups and bowls.

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Rolling pins.

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Enamelware soup ladle, made to accommodate a deep stock pot.

Christmas decorations are all around the shop, too, most from 1960 and earlier. I loved peering into the cabinets full of candle choirboys, never lit so they would always stay perfect, and grinning Santas. My mom has Christmas things she loves putting on windowsills every year, and so do I. I imagined the sweet-faced angel below being someone’s mom’s favorite. And once again I felt enveloped and safe, even though it was through an image of someone I had never met, from a time before my time. It didn’t matter that it didn’t make sense on paper; it worked.

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Shiny Brite tree ornaments.

Many years ago I was at this very shop and fell in love with a tiny bottle brush Christmas tree. I came back a couple of days later to buy it and it was gone. Amazing how the loss of something that cost three dollars could have made my heart sink like it did, but it did.

On Wednesday I turned a corner and saw another bottle brush tree. At just two inches, it was tinier and even cuter than the one I lost all of those years ago. Three and change. Done.

I stayed for an hour and left the shop feeling much looser and calmer. Yes, the rest of my week got hairy from time to time, and I’m sure it will again. But I have my little bitty tree right here on my desk, and it helps to remind me of the joy and peace this season is supposed to have.

I’m not sure I believe in sweeping generalizations like great joy is all around us, if only we reach out and grab it. Would that it were. At times like this it seems even more implausible, and that’s coming from a pretty enthusiastic optimist. But I don’t think that’s how it works.

Instead, I think we should seek out any bright little glimmers of joy we can find. Those are all around us, and those we should grab. It doesn’t matter if it’s Christmastime or any other time of year. Hang on to them and let them sink into your bones. They’ll fortify you. When necessary—before it’s necessary, really—I recommend taking a day, or an afternoon, or even an hour, to play hooky from the world.

And I figured this out: Maybe stress is best diffused just by seeking out anything or anyone that can help us to feel safe. Maybe that’s where peace comes from, too.

I hope you figure out a way to find it—all year long but especially now.

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There’s a cyclone of ambivalence going on within and between women these days. I don’t even know why it started, but that’s beside the point. The media started it, though.

Should women be skinny, what half of the media (who must have been car salesmen in another life) calls ‘slender’ or ‘willowy’, like knobby-kneed Victoria’s Secret models or that beautiful misguided 84-pound Romanian model, Ioana Spangenberg, who says it’s impossible to be too thin? Or should women be what the other half of the media calls ‘healthy’ (what my mom would call ’round’) like the women in the Dove soap campaign? Whatever is a girl to do?

Now, the media dictating what women ought to look like is no new box of Jolly Ranchers. Every generation has a different arbitrary (so it seems) set of requirements when it comes to women and size. Curvy Marilyn and Elizabeth in the 50s. Skinny Twiggy and Audrey in the 60s. If you happened to be born looking the way the media said you should, hooray. If not, you took it in the shorts, because the media Harpies (your newspapers, magazines, tabloids, glimmering girls at the cool table in the cafeteria) were going to remind you of it at every turn, every day of your life.

In case you’re wondering if I’m speaking in generalities—no. I was a size-14 teenager (back then that was pretty chubby). I secretly loathed girls who had flat stomachs and depressed myself looking at photos in Seventeen magazine (regrettably, before airbrushing was publicized). I stuffed myself full of Heavenly Hash, the most delicious ice cream on the planet at the time, and then wrote in my diary, ‘I did it again 😦 now what?’ Once I was late to a wedding because I thought my arms looked fat in the dress I had on (for real). I had drunk the Kool-Aid just like old Ioana did. It was bad.

Except.

And this is The Whole Point.

It would be very easy to say it’s all the media’s fault, that they’re mean and we’re victims. But we are the ones who decide to drink the Kool-Aid or not. And we have to remember: they can’t sell it if we’re not drinking it.

To wit: I remember reading about women and corsets in the late 1800s in the Little House books. The goal of this almost-24/7 torment with corsets was to make your waist teensy (and thus make you more likely to snag a man). You were even supposed to wear it to sleep every night. You’d put this thing on, made of fabric, laces and actual whalebone—and you can bet that was plenty comfy—and your sister would take the laces in her hands, brace herself with one foot on the floor and one foot on the edge of the bed, and pull within an inch of your lungs. Laura Ingalls’s mother, Caroline, proudly tells her daughters that her waist was so small when she married that her husband could span it with his hands. Laura, heroic girl, wouldn’t wear her corset to bed, causing her mother untold distress. But she wouldn’t back down. There are others as well, I am sure, who wouldn’t have any of that—100 years before the women’s movement, I might add. If they can tell the Harpies where to stick it, we can too. We choose what works for us and what’s a crock.

I’m not a size 14 anymore, but I will never be skinny skinny 1) because I’m not supposed to be; I am small and round by nature 2) I love food way too much. Yes, for sure, sometimes I still worry that I look fat (old habits die harder than cockroaches). But most of the time I’m able to shake it off. It didn’t just hit me that I look fine out of nowhere last Thursday at 6:30 or anything. It took me most of my life to get that through my head. I balance eating and moving and get on with my life. Usually.

Food isn’t just supposed to be something that you put in your mouth and chew and swallow so you don’t die. And you’re not supposed to be afraid of it, the way I was. It’s supposed to be a joy, and a solace. It’s supposed to evoke, in different turns, nostalgia, pride, celebration. We shouldn’t overdo it or underdo it. Balance is key.

We women need to remind ourselves that we aren’t victims. I need to decide for myself what’s the right weight for me, and so you do. If we have that squared away, it won’t bloody well matter what anyone else says.

The same idea: when you hear about women who take offense at men who hold open doors for them, calling it sexist and getting all worked up, saying men are trying to keep women down. But it doesn’t even matter what his intention is. Why? Because any woman who knows her own power is not going to be threatened by a man holding a door.

So while the media started this nonsense, I won’t say that’s where it ends. You know as well as I do that it ends with us. All we have to do is say so.

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