A Secret Langua…

A Secret Language

of Friendship between Women

I am fascinated with rose petals. In each of the stages of the development of a rose, from tiniest bud to fullest bloom, every petal’s unique intricacy, how the petals overlap and intertwine, create such a thing of beauty. While there is no question that the rose’s beauty is hard to surpass, one cannot neglect the simple elegance of a single petal.  I am perhaps biased by the fact that my June birth right is the ability to claim the rose as my “flower”.

I think that the use of the metaphor of the rose is so appropriate when speaking about community. As I examined one exquisite petal after another in my garden this morning, I thought of each and every one of you and just how gorgeous, and talented and wise you are all. It only makes sense to me then that combined, we create something as magnificent as a rose.

“If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day, so I never have to live without you.” – Winnie the Pooh

I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be in community. I am a loner and introvert by nature. I would be very happy cloistered away in my studio for weeks and need very little contact with others. I recognize this neither as a particular gifting nor as a deficit, but a part of what makes me who I am. I also know that it could possibly be a disservice to both myself and others by not being engaged in “community” more often and yet my natural propensity is not to purposely seek out friendships or public gatherings. In fact, retreat situations were tortures to be avoided for most of my life. Assumptions might be unfairly made about my social skills, when shyness and hypersensitivity to external stimuli might be more accurately to blame.

I tend to cultivate relatively few friendships and keep those closely held relationships for many years. I was raised with a lot of brothers so I have to really practice at having “girlfriends”.

As I prepare to teach for a week at a wonderful place of retreat and community, the Grunewald Guild in Plain, Washington, I am gearing up for spending time with many like-minded artists and creative sorts. For more information about the Guild you can go here, or visit Jan Richardson’s site, the Painted Prayer Book here for a reflection on the Guild and a glimpse into the community and Liturgical Arts week over the past few years.

When I determined to stretch myself a bit this summer and not only teach at the guild during the Liturgical Arts Week but volunteer to facilitate a week at an online monastery that I am a part of, I knew just what I wanted to explore in preparation. There is a beautiful little book written by Lisa See, published in 2005. “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” is a sweet insight into another culture and what friendship and love between sisters (LaoTong) or “old sames[1] is like. While the circumstances of the main characters, Lily and Snow Flower are far outside my comprehension and include foot binding, promised marriages, taboos and the role of women in 19th century China, the core of the book addresses how it is to be in close relationship with the other women in our lives. Snow Flower is set in a time when women were illiterate and kept from thinking or having any emotions, including love.

Within this culture in a remote country, women created a language of their own, with beautiful script form, which they used to communicate with one another. NuShu or “women’s writing” is the only known form of gender specific written language[2]. Men did not use the language and it is unclear if they even knew about it. I find the concept of a secret language fascinating and will bring greater detail around this later in our discussions.

Young ladies were often paired with an “old same” by a professional matchmaker with someone who had a similar astrological type[3]. Isolated women who were subjected to incredible hardships formed bonds tied by contracts and sealed with special symbols in some cases. These relationships were not to be broken and last lifetimes. They shared details of their arranged marriages, child-bearing, joys and painful moments over the years through a system of writing and embroidering on silk fans or in leaves of journals.

“By writing, so much suffering disappears,” – Yang Huanyi

The movie based on the book[4], portrays the painful practice of foot binding in a very graphic manner. This incomprehensible practice, while intolerable in our western minds, has been compared to the sexual mutilation of girls in other cultures. I am not knowledgeable enough to draw that parallel, but the practice might have some parallels that resonate with us on other levels.  I found the author Lisa See’s integration of this practice into her novel an interesting tool for opening the concept she explores in-depth about a type of love and relationships best described by the love that mothers have for their children. See states that “Women took great pride in their feet which were considered not only beautiful but also their best feature”.[5] In her novel she adds that the “Chinese character for “mother love” or teng ai consists of two parts: one meaning “pain” and the other meaning “love”. With that in mind and with a peak at the culture of the Hunan region of China in the 19th century, one can instantly get a feel for a kind love that abides torturing a child’s foot, knowing full well that one in ten will die by the practice. The untenable act that might make a daughter more “marriageable” created a foot with seven attributes. The perfect foot would be “small, narrow, straight, pointed, and arched”.[6]  A foot that resembled a folded Lotus bud roughly the size of your thumb was the highest ideal.

For the purposes of this discussion, the examination of communities of women, how we communicate with, support, and stand by one another have much to teach us about women in relationship, their friendship and love for one another and how important the different types of communication between women is, even for the introverted silent types among us. This sort of presence goes well beyond a physical showing up; it is a heart connection that often spans countries and generations.

Questions to Consider:

Where might you find yourself bound up, stifled or forced to conform to rigid structures that keep you from being fully yourself?

Do you find that having your “hands tied” (or feet bound), or other analogies to physical binding are metaphors that frequently enter your vocabulary when justifying a decision not to be included in a group activity.

What aspects of being bound together, either by contract, circumstance or some other sort of pre-arrangement feel safe and comfortable to you? Are “family-ties” symbol of security or imprisonment?

Are they any aspects of the LaoTong relationships of 19th century China that are similar to your own friendship bonds?

[1] written: 老同 in Mandarin

“Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” by Lisa See[i]

[2] Orie Endo 2001, http://homepage3nifty.com/nushu/PinInhtm , 6/28/2010

[5] See, Lisa, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Random House, 2005, Study guide, p. 268.

[6] See, Lisa, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Random House, 2005, p. 26

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