Remembering Middletown state Mental Hospital from the Sixties

I’ve often felt conflicted about the years my brother spent in a New York State psychiatric hospital. On the one hand, I was in no position to provide a safe home for him, myself.  I was in my mid twenties, pretty broke, married with a small child, and living in another state.  And my parents were ill equipped to handle his frequent outbursts. Besides, in the first year after Paul’s onset of schizophrenia, they had maxed out their medical insurance and had already spent the money they had raised with second mortgage on their home trying to care for him. A state hospital seemed to be the only way to get him the psychiatric care he needed. Yet popular media kept providing stories like One flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and worse, reports filed by investigative reporters that made the hospitals sound like torture chambers. The endless caregivers conundrum:  there seemed to be no way to win.
Yet as the years have gone by, I realize that Paul was one of the lucky ones. Unlike people newly ill in the past decade, after most mental hospitals were closed, Paul was cared for in a safe setting. He was never homeless, never arrested, never in any trouble with police. And he never lost the support of his family. We were there for him, as best we could, till the end.
I was happy to see the following, posted by another blogger.

theunashamedschizophrenic

I recently read an article in Yahoo written by a psychiatrist who has taught at a major university for over thirty years. He referred to the old state mental institutions as “snake pits.” Many today believe they were squalid places where people were warehoused, abused and generally mistreated. I spent time as a patient in Middletown State Hospital twice in the sixties and that was not at all my experience.

The hospital was located in pretty country with spacious grounds and was always kept neat and clean. The staff in no way resembled Nurse Ratched. They always treated me kindly and seemed dedicated to helping in any way they could. During my first stay I was given a series of electroconvulsive therapy treatments. These sessions were nothing like what they portrayed in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Nor was it in any way punitive. I was given a shot which…

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Why I am a Feminist

first-amendmentI was in my bedroom, getting ready to walk to a girlfriend’s house one Saturday morning, when I heard my grandmother and mother talking in the hallway.  It was almost ten o’clock, my agreed-upon meeting time with my friend Annie.  I had already done my Saturday chores – cleaned my room, changed the sheets on my bed, and vacuumed and dusted the living room – and so expected to have some free time for a few hours.

“What do you mean she’s going downtown with a friend?” I heard Grandma say.  “You spoil that girl.  She should be doing up her brothers’ room and helping you with the laundry.”

I looked at the clock and held my breath.

“She’s finished her chores,” Mother said.  “The boys can clean their own room.  She’s not their maid.”

Grandma made a harumphing noise, I let my breath escape with relief, and then I rushed off before anyone could change their mind.

I heard Mother defend me a few weeks later, also, when my other grandmother tried to talk her into keeping my older sister and me from attending college.  “Those girls should get a job and give you the money to pay the boys’ college,” I heard her say.  Mother, who had gone to college herself, said something about how important education was, and I never heard anything more about it.  I had to pay my own way, but that was because there were ten of us kids, and there was no way my parents could have paid for us to go to college.  My father wouldn’t let me major in business – “no place for a lady.” he insisted – but at least I didn’t have to also pay for my brothers. (And I majored in Spanish – an acceptable thing for a woman to study in the late 60’s.  I went back for the MBA years later.)

***

The discussions between my mother and grandmothers took place in 1964, a lifetime ago.  When I tell friends this story, they say thank goodness things have changed and wasn’t I lucky to have a mother who supported gender equality.

A friend in my MBA program wasn’t so lucky.  Her parents were good, hard working people, and they paid for her brother to go to college, but told her high school was enough for her, despite her good grades. Girls had no need of a college education, her father said.  “It just puts ideas in their heads.” So Chris got a job at a local bank and after eight years had worked her way up to an assistant vice president, had a college degree from a nearby state school (paid for by her employer), and was working on an MBA.  Another girlfriend, a licensed pharmacist, was denied a mortgage on the little two bedroom house she wanted to buy unless her father or brother would cosign the note. Her brother, a cash-strapped young man with a growing family, cosigned, and Jan got her two bedroom bungalow.

This is why we are feminists

Women of my generation are carrying these stories around with us.  We are different from the men our age because our participation in higher education and the workplace was often at risk for us.  Though I didn’t have to make up my brothers’ beds or give them my paycheck to pay their way through school, I was aware that I had come very close.  My friend Jan, though not financially dependent on her brother, knew that without him she could not have bought that house.  So women my age are sensitive to how recently our advances were made and fear how easily they could be lost. I try to imagine my brothers being threatened with cleaning my bedroom for me or getting jobs to pay my way through college, or needing me to cosign a note so they could buy a house or a car. It is inconceivable. And I am wary.

So yes, I had good luck in mothers. And Chris was lucky that her bank paid most of her college tuition. And Jan was lucky to have a nice brother. Similarly I hear people say, when a woman faces some trying bit of discrimination, “Well, you are lucky that you live in the USA.  Think of the poor women in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.  They can’t even leave the house without a male family member to look after them.  Women in this country are very lucky.”

I have a problem with this logic, however.

I am certainly thankful I am not one of the downtrodden wretches in a third world theocracy where the local imam can dictate life or death.  But why compare myself to them?  I have compassion for them, certainly, and I’d like to think the collective “we” will help improve their lives.  But if I were a woman there I truly WOULD depend on luck.  Luck if my father or brother will let me learn how to read, luck if he doesn’t beat me, luck if my family will find a nice man to marry me off to at a reasonable age, not some brute when I am only thirteen. I would have no laws to protect me except sharia law, which does not protect a woman at all. But here in the U.S.A. we DO have civil laws that are supposed to protect our rights. So I see no reason to compare myself to them.

Instead, I compare myself to my brothers and their friends.  Why do our brothers still have it so much easier than we do?  And I put that in the present tense. Title IX got women into professional schools and EEOC gets us into the entry level interview. And no one can deny someone a mortgage based on someone’s gender anymore. But many families still raise their chidden differently, according to gender; they encourage their sons to go to college and their daughters to find a man.  In the workplace, men still have it easier getting considered for the next promotion, and women still make up a pitiful percentage of CEOs.  And unlike men, women are virtual prisoners at night, fearful of being raped if they go anywhere after dark without a man to protect her.

Laws, not luck

Women need laws so we don’t have to depend on luck.  We have those laws in the U.S. today, thanks especially to the work and sacrifice of feminist pioneers of the past fifty years, but there are men trying to do an end run around those laws.  And like the men leading the Iranian revolution back in 1980, they don’t appear at first glance to be planning to send women back to the kitchen.  But that is exactly what the men of Iran did after the revolution. Abandoning Western-inspired laws, they instituted Sharia law and women lost all their rights.

I look at what is happening today with women’s reproductive rights and I shudder.  Margaret Sanger must be turning in her grave. The people behind Holly Lobby and the myriad other efforts to deny insurance coverage for contraception are identical twins to the men of the FLDS who have held women captive in the Southwest for decades. The Pew Trust reports that “in the weeks since new regulations were published explaining the contraception mandate in the ACA , one religious charity (Little Sisters of the Poor) has asked the Supreme Court to overturn a decision upholding the regulations, and a Christian school (Wheaton College in Illinois) has announced that it will stop offering its students health insurance due to the mandate.”  Also among protestors are egotistical television evangelists who make millions of dollars from gullible followers who are looking for answers. And we can’t forget the all male secret society known as the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, which has subjugated women for centuries. All of these groups are believers in religions of the Abrahamic tradition who insist that a male god created man and then created woman to serve him, and who blame the problems of the world on one woman’s curiosity, instead of the man’s concupiscence.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

If these reactionary men want to selectively pick out verses from their holy books written by a few misogynist middle eastern men two thousand years ago and believe in them, I can do nothing to stop them. But where our country’s rule of law and their beliefs disagree, the law supersedes the old holy book.  Their fixation on not wasting man’s seed – a phrase written at a time when our planet had very few human inhabitants – makes no sense to me.  My personal religion calls for me to celebrate my sexuality in a way that does not harm my environment, so I have practiced birth control.  And my religion calls for me to be a good citizen, behaving in an ethical and honest way and helping those less fortunate than me, (not so lucky), so I contribute to charities.  And my religion calls for me to speak out to protect those less fortunate.  So  if I see anyone using his religious beliefs as an excuse to restrict the lives of others, I will speak out.

But I do not impose my beliefs on you.  And you may not impose your misguided beliefs on me. It’s not luck. It’s the law. And so I am a feminist, and I will fight to preserve and improve women’s rights at home and abroad.

Wishing Stones and Tea Leaves, part II

ruins of old Crom castle
ruins of old Crom Castle

Our group of nine women had been led by our cheerful cook and counselor, Violet, to a wishing stone on the grounds of Crom Castle, in Northern Ireland. Now, wishes wished and the sun setting, we followed Violet again along the shore of the lough and through the lengthening shadows, past the castle and boathouse, and into the darkening woods.

“Come along,” Violet said, urging us to keep up.  Well into her seventies, Violet walked faster than most of us, despite being more than 20 years younger.

“Do you think we’ll see the pine marten?” someone asked.

“Maybe so,” Violet said. “We’ll see.” The brown, endangered, weasel-like animal is a rare nocturnal creature that in Ireland lives mostly in trees. One had taken to visiting Violet from time to time.

“She has a way with the creatures,” our guide, Brenda confided to us.

Our pathway curved on through fields and woods, a ten-minute walk to her home, a small house we had seen from our boat ride with the Earl a few days before. It looked like a story book cottage, with a low roof, little dormers, and a patch of pink and white annual flowers planted near the front door. I felt like Gretel or Red Riding Hood, but hoped for a more pleasant cottage visit.

Inside, the faded, floral-papered rooms were stuffed with doileyed furniture and shelves of china bric-a-brac. Small hooked rugs in a floral pattern lay before the two petite armchairs. We found Cynthia, our evening cook and Violet’s daughter, in the yellow kitchen. True to her word, she had brought along the rhubarb crumble, and while we had been at the wishing stone she’d started water for tea, as well.

The first order of business was to see if we could catch sight of the pine marten. Perched on wooden stools or leaning against the 1950’s era red and white enameled table, we watched quietly for about ten minutes in the darkening kitchen, whispering and giggling, until a rattling of the garbage cans outside gave away the animal’s arrival.  Violet’s little friend soon nosed up to her window for the ginger snap cookies she usually spread over the sill. Our hostess went out to greet it, speaking to it in a sort of whimper and chatter, and it came to her hand, ate the snack, posed for a few pictures, and then disappeared into the woods.

Once we’d assembled in the kitchen, Cynthia poured our tea. It was made with loose leaves, and as we drank, their wet remains lay in the bottom of our china cups, ready for Violet to work her skills as a seer. It would surely be a cozy, friendly fortune telling, I thought, filled with lots of healthy guesses after five days of overhearing our conversations at breakfast. Happy, successful children, glorious careers and men of mystery… We each took a turn in the living room on a footstool at Violet’s knees while the others gabbed and ate crumble in the kitchen. The rhubarb was tart and sweet at the same time.

On my turn with the fortune-teller, she looked for a long time into the tea leaves on the bottom of my cup and asked me if there was anything I was upset about. I told her I had left my job, but kept starting books and not finishing them and so had gone back to work. I had started three books so far, a business advice book for women, an autobiography, and a long essay about women and religion.

“Well, perhaps they’re the same book,” she said, pausing to think that over. I made a face. “Well, at any rate, that procrastinating is all done for. You’ll start back as soon as you get home. Start the first one, and finish it. Then the next, and so on. You’ll have at least one of them finished in three years.”

“Is there anything else you’re wondering about?” she prodded, patting my hand as she alternated looking into the cup and back at my face. “I feel there’s something.”

Our eyes locked gaze.

I thought of how little I saw my daughters anymore and wondered if there was any way for us to become closer now that they had already left home. I wondered if I had made the right choice to leave my job at the bank and take this philosophical journey. I wondered how much longer I would live, and if I would use the time well. All my good intentions back in high school and business school about making the world a better place, but what had I done?

My friends were chattering in the kitchen. I looked up at the old woman and said, “No, nothing else.”

Violet paused, then tilted the tea cup for another look. Perhaps knowing I had two unmarried adult daughters, she added that there was an engagement and a new baby in the near future, and patted my hand.

“I hope they come in that order,” I laughed.

I did finish one book after I came back home, though it took five years, not three. And I am now nearing completion of my next, with two more sketched out and waiting their turn.  And though I was a bit skeptical about the fortune telling that evening–let’s face it, this was mostly a harmless evenings pastime–in the years since I have come to appreciate the role women like Violet have played in men’s and women’s lives over the centuries. The tradition of the wise forest woman who speaks to the animals is part of the Irish and British heritage. Celtic traditions contained many myths about a divine Old Woman. Part Leprechaun, part seer, our Violet enjoyed multiple connections to the spirit world.

In Joseph Campbell’ s classic work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the first encounter of the hero on his journey is with a protective figure who provides him with amulets or magic devices against the dangers he will face. The crone is one of the most common of these protective figures, from the fairy godmother in fairy tales to the Oracle at Delphi.

I find it ironic that we all accept the wisdom of these women in magical old stories, while in real life, older women often become invisible. I’ve come to believe this marginalization is due to our Judeo Christian heritage, which places the woman in a subordinate and undesirable position, starting with Eve being blamed for the Fall. She is assumed to have no knowledge beyond childrearing. (Even a woman’s knowledge of herbal remedies may be turned against her and earn her condemnation as a witch.) The real story is always some battle men are waging with each other.  Woman’s role is reduced to that of temptress or baby incubator. Once past reproduction, we are unnecessary.  And the lessons of Genesis, Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Timothy give men – both the young and mature – license to ignore the Violets of the world.

But the old fairy tales and myths that are the foundation for the Wise Forest Woman are the stories handed down from our pre-Christian heritage. They speak the truths that come from our human collective unconscious. We know in our hearts that old women have seen much and can teach us much.

On this visit to Crom, I found myself traveling with women who were attuned to their inner spirituality.  Our companionship helped give mutual validity to our yearning for a continued place in this world. And I have found that when we throw off the insulting and demoralizing messages of the Abrahamic religions, we become open to the affirmation that there are wise women with wisdom to share.  I find comfort in their company.

—-

The above is an excerpt from my book in progress.

See also http://www.shotintheheadbook.com

On Contraception and Churches

In the recent uproar about health care and insurance coverage and religion, people seem to have forgotten: One- Birth control is legal in this country.  Two- We are not a theocracy.  And three- The ACA makes coverage of contraception by insurance companies mandatory.  Allowing religious organizations and companies owned by people who practice fundamentalist religions to shamelessly opt out of coverage for their employees is unconstitutional, contrary to laws on the separation of church and state.  It is also a civil rights violation against women.  So how can we possibly be talking about whether insurance companies should cover contraception?

People who don’t believe in contraception are certainly free to have unprotected sex.  Or they may choose to abstain from intercourse.  At the same time, it is a right in this country for people to follow their own conscience and to follow a lawful practice of using certain medications or physical impediments to prevent pregnancy.

The problem is that our churches are controlled by men–many of them, fundamentalists, still lost in the morass of misogynist “holy books.” Picking and choosing which bible verses to follow, they choose the ones which give men power over women.  There is little downside risk to men, except for sexually transmitted diseases, to having sex.  It is women who face the difficult consequences of unprotected sex, facing possible medical complications and social censure with an unwanted pregnancy.  Men can — and do — just walk away if they want to.

Women know they need birth control. They don’t want to refuse their man if he wants intercourse. Besides, women have a biological urge to have sex the same as men do. But she may not want a baby right now.  If married, her husband may be out of work and the family may depend on the woman’s income.  And it is an uncomfortable fact that employers often find reasons to fire pregnant employees.  So if a woman gets pregnant, it might jeopardize not only her own, but the whole family’s financial security.  The children she already has may face deprivation and perhaps homelessness.  Using birth control makes sense.

But for those in the lower economic demographics, the cost of birth control may be prohibitive. They are vulnerable financially at all times, one paycheck away from catastrophe. If it’s a choice between buying birth control or buying groceries, groceries win. So what is a woman to do?

Many, many Catholics practice birth control.  Recklessly defiant to the proscriptions of their celibate hierarchy, witness the smaller family size of church-going Catholics compared to the 8, 9 and 10 children in Catholic families in the  50’s and 60’s.

The Catholic Church is a gargantuan employer. Holly Hobby is a big company.  They employ many people who want to plan their family size.  These companies should have to comply with the laws that exist already in most states.  Health insurance policies that cover birth control and tubal ligations are, in the long run, cost effective ways to manage the healthcare costs of the female population of this country.

I’ll bet those health insurance plans in question cover Viagra.  But when the newly horny men approach their mate, will she be interested if she’s afraid of pregnancy?  All this current practice does is make birth control expensive.  Because women WILL use birth control if it fits their circumstances and they can afford it.  The Church just doesn’t want to have to pay for it. And maybe these men kind of like the idea of women being pregnant and dependent on them.

With their tired, smug judgements and blatant gender bias, our churches have been at war with women – a war of domination and subjugation – for centuries.  It’s time for it to stop.

children_cometoJesus

On Writing a Memoir

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“I should really write a memoir some day.”  Have you ever said that?  Many people tell me this when they read my memoir.  Most of us seldom write anything longer than a five sentence email or a ten word comment on someone’s Facebook page, and then suddenly we’re thinking about writing our life story.  Other people have played with the idea of writing for a long time.  Whether we are still in our thirties or into our sixties and retired, the idea calls to us.

We humans are story tellers, going back to the days of the hunting scenes painted on cave walls, and continuing through to our Facebook posts about the baby’s first birthday party.  The memoir is heir to that tradition.  “I need to tell somebody about this.”

Maybe, like me, you’ve just been through nursing someone through their final illness, and you feel like you are going to burst with all you’ve been through. How that last afternoon you spent with your brother, eating ice-cream and listening to Stevie Wonder stretched, out like a glorious bouquet.  Or the rainy October afternoon when your mother lay back on her pillow and told you about the pony she had when she was a girl in Slovakia, before she came to the United States.  “I had a pony once,” she says. “I never told you about my pony.” She slips into Slovak and doesn’t know it. Her wan face lights up with that last day with the pony and her hand moves faintly, brushing it and feeding it an apple. “So sweet,” she murmurs over and over, her eyes closed, a smile on her lips.

Or you want to tell everyone about the day back in 1973 when your newborn baby wouldn’t stop crying. Your husband has gone back to work and you and the baby are alone for the first time. You pick the baby up and walk from the nursery into the living area, do a loop around the kitchen table, bathrobe sash dragging through the crumb-littered floor, and you look down and see her little face finally relaxing into sleep. Little half sobs, then quiet, slow breaths. You keep pacing slowly around the apartment, afraid to stop, almost asleep on your feet, until you are crying softly with a mixture of love and exhaustion.  A neighbor women you don’t know very well knocks on the door and insists on holding the baby while you take your first hot shower in two or three days.  When you emerge from the steamy bathroom, the baby is asleep in the bassinet, and your new friend has swept the kitchen and made a pot of coffee. That story needs to be told, you have said many times.  I love that woman.

The time your purse was stolen while you were asleep on a train in Germany and the old couple in the American Express office insisted on loaning you some money.  The summer you were a camp counselor and that tall, dark-eyed older boy tried to force you and you almost agreed. That horrible, sexist boss you had.

The stories are good.  Now to transform them into a good memoir.

For this we need to merge them with another tradition, that of the diary or personal journal.  Like Anne Frank, we sometimes feel the urge to pour out our souls on paper, thrashing through the disappointments and confusions of daily life with a twist–not just reciting the facts, but considering how it makes us feel.  We wonder, pen in hand, how to make sense of the non-sensical.  We relive the unfulfilled longing, the fear of death, the anguish of loss. Special moments call to us, and we return to them in our heads, finding solace, anger or melancholy in our repeated visits.

And this is what makes a memoir worth the incredible hours and hours of work to write and rewrite: finding that special story arc that zings, that blend of incident and truth-telling, humanity and spirituality.  A group of anecdotes may just sit there.  But when they distill a story of growth and change, when your heart and soul bleed onto the page along with a compelling narrative, that’s a story worth telling.

That’s what happened to me when I found myself caring for my mentally ill brother after my parents died.  And I couldn’t stop writing.  “I was shot in the head,” my brother Paul said to the daughter of his elderly roommate at the nursing home. “How awful,” she said to me when I arrived later that day.  I shook my head.  “Well, not really,” I began.…

When you find this story, keep writing.

noname

Katherine Flannery Dering earned an MFA from Manhattanville College in 2012 and also holds an MA in Spanish Literature from SUNY at Buffalo and a BA from Le Moyne College, in Syracuse, New York, as well as an MBA from the U of Minnesota at Duluth.  Her memoir, Shot in the Head, a Sister’s Memoir, a Brother’s Struggle,” was published in 2014, and is available on Amazon ( http://tinyurl.com/pakb5ga ) and at Barnes & Noble ( http://tinyurl.com/mkdnh5o ).  She is working on some new stories in her book currently in progress.

Gender Bias Goes Deep

 

Word from the Trenches tells what is really happening in the ground war.  Like the doughboys of World War I who dug trenches and vowed to fight to the finish, we women need to dig in to some of the nitty gritty details of our lives in order to improve our world. In this blog I will deal mostly with the feminist issues of serious mental illness and gender bias in religion.

       We women must fight back the constant efforts of religious fundamentalists to restrict our civil rights.  The United States is not a theocracy.  While we respect everyone’s right to believe whatever they want about God and an afterlife, only our civil laws govern our conduct.  Our laws assert the rights of women to equal opportunity, justice and self-determination.  We must fight off the fundamentalists before they turn back the clock on women the way women were treated in Iran and Afghanistan.  And then we must move forward to true equality, including in our places of worship.    

       We women are also greatly impacted by mental illness.  Families of people who suffer from severe mental illnesses face terrible burdens.  We must fight 24/7 to improve the current non-system of care available in our country for our loved ones.  My brother suffered with schizophrenia, and our patched together mishmash of what is supposed to be community-based care failed him.  Our jails and homeless shelters are filled with people who, through no fault of their own, suffer from a brain malfunction that makes it almost impossible for them to take care of themselves. They need help.  

Since the onset of mental illness generally comes in late adolescence or early adulthood, the burden of care falls disproportionately on mothers.  Thus mental illness is a feminist issue. Because our society is used to seeing mothers struggle to care for their children, the sacrifices made by mothers (and also fathers and siblings) of people with smi also go almost unnoticed.

Overall, I hope this blog will strengthen women’s rights by providing a sounding board on these and other current and past events.

Wishing Stones and Tea Leaves, Part I

Ireland_2006_050

I’d spent six days at Crom Castle, just outside of Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, with a group of women artists. We’d enjoyed our week and we lingered over our dinner our last night in the slanting evening light, not wanting the evening to end. Violet, our 70-something year-old breakfast cook, joined us as we were finishing the main course. It was almost eight o’clock, but the sun still illuminated our conservatory-dining room like late afternoon. The fountain tinkled and splashed.
“You’ll be wanting to join me for tea at my house?” Violet asked. Her eyes seemed to sparkle as she spoke.  We hesitated, eying the rhubarb crumble. “Cynthia will fetch along the crumble,” she assured us. “Come, while the summer evening lasts. I’ve something you must do before you leave.”
As the nine of us stepped out onto the crushed stone patio, someone lit a cigarette; the smoke wafted around us in thin tendrils. Stones crunched underfoot. I stood and drank in the evening air before following Violet’s lead toward the ruins of the earlier, medieval castle, closer to the lake.
Brenda, our guide, whispered, “We are lucky; violet doesn’tdo this for everyone.”     The sky began to take on an orange tinge. I felt a cool breeze and buttoned my sweater.
“My mother, and her mother before her knew about this spot, and the grand ladies as well,” Violet said as we walked. “Come along,” she urged us. “We must catch the light.”
We followed her in a line, gawky goslings following a mother goose in floral housedress and crocheted shawl. Lough Erne was a silver pool stretching off to our right.
About halfway to the ruins, we stopped at a small thorn tree, like the ones I had seen on the tor in Glastonbury the previous summer. Remnants of this morning’s rain glistened on tall stalks of grass, brown and burnt from the previous days of sun. Violet waded through the waist-high fronds, then parted them so we could see, at the foot of the old thorn tree, a grayish rock outcropping, roughly two feet across.
“This is the wishing stone,” she said, tromping down the errant grass stalks as we all caught up with her and formed a rough circle. “Come, take a look. Every lady who comes to this place must come here and make a wish, and it will come true.”
We approached the stone one at a time, the remains of the day’s shower brushing off onto our shoes and slacks. I looked down – my shoes and long skirt were all wet. “Come,” Violet entreated us. “Each of you must place all of you on the stone.” Someone was nominated to go first. “Sit on it. Pull your feet up to place them on it, as well,” she coached her.
The sky, still light, was fading to pale purple. Shadows grew. Mid-lake, the water’s mirror broke—a fish coming to the surface. The grass at the water’s edge rustled with some small animal’s movement. A woman ducked and shrieked as the evening’s first bats squeaked and flapped by through the tree branches above us.
And then it was my turn. “Touch your hands to it. Feel it,” she advised. “Don’t be shy. The grand ladies don’t mind mussing their skirts.”

The stone was hard and rough; my rear end took a few seconds to adjust to it. I pulled my knees up to my chin, wrapping my long skirt around my legs, so both feet could be fully on the stone. My calves felt cool against my thighs. “Touch your hands to it, as well,” Violet reminded me. It was rough and damp.
And there I was, bunched up onto the stone, like who knows how many other women over the centuries. Eyes closed. Hands touching the stone.
“Go on. Wish!” she urged me. The other women stood back, giving me space, like people standing back from a confessional. A bat squeaked.
“I wish that my daughters find contentment in their lives,” I whispered.
To whom, I don’t know.

Violet, our morning cook that week, is one of a long line of wise old crones, a tradition cherished in Ireland and Britain. The women artists in the group with me were from California and Kentucky, New York and Illinois. We were college educated and sophisticated people, and we found ourselves drawn to Violet and her ancient lore. Though ostensibly Christian, Jewish or agnostic, we felt a connection to this feminine seer. She was a link to a time when older women were revered, not thought of as batty and useless.  Her little traditions, part counseling, part meditation and some other part spirit, were something we had need of. An agnostic myself, at first I participated just to be polite, but as I sat on that rock I was drawn in.

This story is part of a book in progress.

See also my memoir, http://tinyurl.com/oxynw5c