Today, the kids and I watched The Wizard of Oz at the local historic movie palace. It’s amazing the details you can see on the big screen, things that go unnoticed when the film is viewed on television. It used to be broadcast on TV every year when I was growing up, and my family always watched it. Today it dawned on me that I was ten years old before I realized that the scenes in Oz are in color, because we didn’t have a color TV until I was ten.
As a child, the tornado that sends Dorothy to Oz was unspeakably terrifying because tornadoes regularly cut swaths of death and destruction through my community. I spent an obscene number of hours huddled under a table in the southwest corner of our basement, waiting for the storm to rip our house from its foundations. For most of my childhood and into early adulthood, tornadoes were powerful and recurring images in my dreams, and they always looked like that horrible, snaky cyclone in the Wizard of Oz. I have to admit that seeing it on the big screen today was a bit unnerving, even now.
I never actually read the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz until a few years ago, when I read it to my own children. (We have now read all but three of the 14 Oz novels L. Frank Baum penned.) When I was in fourth grade, my teacher went on maternity leave in the middle of the year and was replaced by a sub who read Tik-Tok of Oz aloud to us after lunch every day. The following year, I received Ozma of Oz as a Christmas present. It remains to this day my very favorite Oz book.
I never realized how progressive Baum’s vision was until I began reading the books to my children. He wrote empowered female characters who stand up for what is right, lead armies and expeditions, and rule nations. He imagined a world in which animals and non-biological entities are people, too. He created a place in which common sense and quick wit hold their own with magic, sometimes even trumping it. And he envisioned a land in which good and evil aren’t entirely rigid concepts – good people can make poor decisions or do things that harm others, and evil people can have a change of heart.
I believe it is this latter quality, this fundamental belief that things are not always what they appear to be and that change is always possible and nearly always happens, that has inspired others to retell the stories of Oz. From The Wiz to Wicked to Tin Man, Baum’s Oz has been reenvisioned in unexpected ways that remain surprisingly true to the original source material. Oz has become a kind of dreamscape, in which familiar images reveal new layers of meaning to successive generations of readers and writers. I think Mr. Baum would be pleased.
I was writing in a coffee shop the other day and overheard some women sitting at a nearby table. Their conversation must have been about faith and parenting, because one woman said she found it difficult to talk with her children about God the Father when their own father had walked out on all of them. Another woman chimed in, wondering how she could convince her children that their heavenly Father loves them when their earthly father, who also supposedly loved them, had been so abusive.
I heard the struggle in these mothers’ stories, the anguish in their voices, and I wondered why they needed to teach their children that God is a loving heavenly father. Why try to stuff God into a metaphor that has no resonance in their lives? Why not talk about God as a loving heavenly mother who was willing to sacrifice everything, to an even greater extent than the mother whose living example is before her children daily?
Jesus didn’t randomly choose to refer to God as father; he had specific reasons for doing so, both personal and political. They were his reasons, a natural outgrowth of his life experience and the life experiences of those around him. And his doing so was considered quite scandalous at the time – how dare he cast the God of Israel, the Lord of Hosts, in such an intimate, human role! How dare he describe the one, true God in language so similar to that used by the hated, idolatrous Romans (paterfamilias)? I cannot imagine that Jesus would in any way fault us for doing the same scandalous thing in our time, out of our life experiences.
Christians have spoken of God in feminine and maternal terms throughout the ages, though these expressions have been largely overshadowed by the loud shouting of masculine and paternal images that became fossilized in the creeds. Jesus described himself as a mother hen who longed to shelter her chicks beneath her wings; why are we so reluctant to use this imagery ourselves?
I feel sad that those mothers found themselves struggling in the one place they and their children should have been able to find peace and comfort: their faith. I believe that Jesus, who was notorious for meeting people on their own terms, would have sat down at their table and told them marvelous stories of a God who is like a woman that asks a neighbor to watch the rest of her children while she goes out looking for the one who didn’t come home at curfew; a God whose kingdom is like the glitter you keep finding all over the house months after the art project has been turned in; a God who always makes room in bed for the child who has a bad dream, even if it means She has to spend the rest of the night clinging to the edge of the mattress.
While doing dishes with me one evening last week, my SO asked about friends of ours who are going through a divorce. I related what non-confidential information I had, and he turned back to the sink, shaking his head, and said, “Boy, she sure didn’t make things any easier for herself, did she?”
I froze in disbelief and my eyebrows shot up so far that they disappeared into my hairline. The water was running and he had his back to me, so he wasn’t aware of my immediate, unfiltered reaction. I bit my tongue and counted to ten in my head, very, very slowly. Finally I spoke, carefully and evenly: “She didn’t leave him to make things easier for herself, you know. She left because she wasn’t able to live in that situation any longer.” He seemed to consider this for a moment, then nodded agreeably.
That comment has lingered in my mind ever since. In each of the four couples we know who are recently divorced or divorcing, the woman has been at home for six years or more, caring for children who are now in elementary school. In three of the four couples, the woman is the one who initiated the divorce. No woman chooses to leave the only source of financial support she and her children have in order to make her life easier. In truth, the suddenly single woman with young children who has been out of the workforce for several years faces a daunting, uphill ordeal to secure even the most basic living requirements; the fact that she finds this path the lesser of two evils speaks volumes about how difficult she found her marriage to be.
The persistence in our society of this perspective on stay-at-home mothers boggles the mind, and its casual articulation by my own partner is a bit disconcerting. Parenting ain’t for sissies, under any circumstances. Single parenting by agonized choice requires a level of courage and purpose that makes serving in the Marines look like a walk in the park.
According to the story in the book of Genesis, Noah and his wife are the ancestors of all human beings after the flood, with the exception of their three daughters-in-law. Yet Mrs. Noah, as she is often quaintly called, is not named in the canonical scriptures. Nor, for that matter, are the daughters-in-law, though that doesn’t seem as great an omission as the failure to name the woman who is, in a certain sense, another Eve. We know the names of the wives and concubines of the patriarchs, the mothers of nations and tribes, but not the names of the women to whom all humans can trace their ancestry since the flood. Makes me think that there must have been something powerful and dangerous about the identity of those four women. Makes me wonder what it was.