Saturday, January 10, 2009

1.1 Metaphor of the Madwoman

I call it the story of the Madwoman in the Attic. I borrowed the metaphor from Jane Eyre and feminist expositions that feminine creativity and voice can only be expressed through insanity when struggling against patriarchal repression. Perhaps at its most awesome and unfamiliar God does sound like madness. However, I employed the feminist metaphor to speak for aspects of God that were traditionally left out of the evangelical Christian story. I was especially interested in perceptions of feminine aspects of the divine as well as qualities that did not fit anthropomorphic forms. I imagined God plucked from the wildness and beauty of the cosmos and confined to men’s language. God is, I imagine, a willing captive, desiring relationship with humans, and ever slipping between the cracks of the official story to reveal something more to us. Here is my story of God as the Madwoman:

Once upon a time there was a large house sitting on the top of a hill with long sloping lawns on each side. We all lived in that house and we did not know that there was anyplace else that we could live. On the first floor of the house there is the Big Room. All day and all night everyday that I can remember there is a man standing at the front of the room telling us how we must live in this house. Different men take turns and they each tell us what is right and who is wrong. They tell us what to eat, how to raise our children, why we are cursed. As the men are talking, strange sounds sink through the ceiling into the room. We tremble in our seats. We hear banging, yelps, and other unintelligible mutterings that wrap around the mind and draw it away from the lectures. Rumbling moans and sing song whispers wooing the listener up and away.

The men talk louder. Don’t be afraid of the noises they say. If you obey us, if you stay close, those noises can never reach you. My words will protect you.

The noises capture my attention in a way the man’s voice does not. I slip out of the room and creep carefully across the hallway to a dark corner under the stairs. Other women are gathered there already. They talk quietly. Have you heard the sounds? There was a thump right over my head. I heard wailing the other night. Something dropped from above; I saw them moving it off of the lawn. The women were curious and some were afraid.
“I’m going up there.”
Their faces all turned to me. Tell us what you find. Aren’t you scared? I wish I could go with you. Which way will you go? Don’t go. Let me go with you.
“I’m going alone.”
Come back. Wait. Find us.
I step out of the nervous huddle and walk to the staircase. I want to walk right up it but a man stands like a guard leaning back against the wall at the foot of the stairs. I turn back to where I started and the women are still watching me. One woman points to the back of the house and I leave them in the darkness as I pursue another way.

I move, head down and hunched over, through the kitchen to the laundry room. Here, in dust from the dryer and cloaked in dark shadows outside of a bare bulb’s glow, is a broken staircase that stops at the ceiling. It once led somewhere. It still might. I make the first step. It creaks under the unfamiliar strain of a woman’s weight. Bending over as I make each step, I reach the top warily and push my hands up against the ceiling. Surely it must open. With another glance against being caught, I hit the boards that come loose too easily.

I am still sliding the boards aside when arms twine around mine and I am hauled up onto a floor. The boards are slipped back into place next to my feet. I find myself standing in the center of another circle of women. The noises are louder and clearer here. I hear rattles and roars. A lilting melody sifts in through the walls. Bells tinkle and chime. We are silent in the flickering light of candles and the rush of sounds. I wait to learn who the women are. Will they help me or send me back? Here we are our own, the women tell me. Stay with us and listen to the sounds.
“What makes the noise?”
It is an opera. It is a nightmare. Here we can listen to it and no one rules over us.
“Who put it there?”
We listen to it here.
“You don’t know what it is anymore than they do, do you?”
We are our own here.
“I’m going.”
They turn in together to decide what to do with me. A young woman draws me aside and leads me away from the group while it is still discussing me. An old woman follows us. I am led down a hall, and the noises grow stronger. Slightly above us, in the wall, I see cracks that mark the outline of a door. The younger woman reaches up and tugs it open. Together, both women help me up into the wall and onto another ragged staircase. The young one backs away. The old woman leans in. Tell us what you find, she whispers.
“Thank you.”
They walk away, sided by side, and I want them to come with me. I want to hold hands in a warm circle and be in charge of myself and safe. They are gone. I am alone, on a staircase, hidden in a wall. I pull the door shut behind me and now it is only me in the narrow darkness. There is no light. I press my hands into the wall on either side of me and make each tiny step up in the wall.

The staircase makes a turn and I look behind me to see the tiny cracks of light from around the door. I can always go back, I can always go back. I stand fixed on one step staring at the slivers of light. Repeating the phrase, I can always go back, like a prayer, like it’s all that I want in the world. There are whispers in the walls. My words come back to me, You can always go back, but now it’s a taunt. I turn my back to the light.

The whispers in the wall shatter into laughter. The walls shake with giddy raucous crackling delight. Frowning, I push my hand into the walls and resume the climb. Splinters grind into my palms and fingertips. I swallow hard and make each step. Silence settles on me. I feel like I am being watched but it’s different than how the men in the Big Room watch. I search for an eyeball in the darkness. Can what makes the noise see me? I close my eyes instead. I climb the stairs in darkness, silence, and alone. Fear subsides into exhaustion. I don’t know how long I am walking those stairs.

The singing began sometime during my climb. I hear a woman give voice to words I don’t understand in a tune I haven’t heard before. I open my eyes to find I am standing just a few steps away from a door. Light glows and jumps beneath it. Shadows dance in the tiny space between door and threshold. The light is warm and yellow to gold to orange to white to red to yellow. Flickering and chasing the shadows. Aching and unsure, I lower my body where I am standing and draw my limbs close. In a tight ball I rest against the wall and watch the light.

I am this close. This is enough. I can tell them that there is no where else to go. The stairs end at light. Light and singing. I can return to the other women. I can live on the landing. I can shoo them away. I can remain here forever. With the light and the darkness embracing me forever.

What have you found?
I was sleeping. She’s speaking to me?
“I came this far. I am resting.”
What is up here?
“You are here.”
Who do you say that I am?
“I have seen light and darkness. I have heard music. There is a voice and words.”
So now you know?
“I know something. I know things that they do not know. I know more than what they told me.”
How did I come to be here?
“They put you here. Or maybe you chose to be here? You could be anywhere. You are everywhere.”
I start to think I know less.
What am I? Who am I?
“You are the thing that rattles around us. That frightens us and coaxes us. You are the lullaby, the rage, the jubilee, and the groan.”
Don’t you want to meet me?
Open the door.

The story captured for me a quest I was called to as a woman to meet God and to articulate the God I met in my own life and in my own words. It was only in retrospect that I recognized that the story neglected the other communities residing in the lower levels of the house - the circles of women gathered in secret, the men preaching in the Big Room and the congregants who remained there. The dynamic aspects of the God I called the Madwoman were not for me alone, nor was I the only woman to make this pilgrimage. A more complete understanding of the Madwoman would involve connecting with other people.

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