Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Binding the Feet of Our Instinctual Selves

In Clarissa Pinkola Estes' Women Who Run With the Wolves, she talks about the "Wild Woman" who is not "wild" in the sense that we'd call a teenager who is running around doing reckless behavior and is a whirlwind of excess and has no sense of self-control. No, this is a "wild" nature that is closer to the word, "natural," "instinctual" or "original." The best way to understand the nature of this "wildness" is to think about another example that is a little further away from ourselves before we turn and look at our own natures.

In early Chinese culture there was an insidious practice called foot-binding. When a girl was born to middle or upper-class parents, they would break her toes, bend her feet backward, wrap her feet with cloth, wrapping it around and around, her toes tucked under. This process began in early girlhood. By the time she was a woman, her feet would be actually folded in half; the bones grew bent back and up. A woman with a "lotus foot" was one whose feet were 3" long. The tinier the foot, the more desirable she was. The more desirable she was, the more hope she had of being married to a rich man. Of course this is eerily like the practice in our culture of starving women until they are thin as possible, but this isn't that discussion.

Besides the obvious discomfort that women endured as their feet were taught to bend backward, wrapped tightly in a position they were not meant to be in, there was the awful reality that this practice essentially crippled women. They could totter around but not walk fast or run. They moved around with tiny steps on their little nubs, but this was o.k. because if they were married to rich men, they wouldn't need to work or do anything physical anyway, except of course sit there and lie there and be the objects they were born and raised to be. They were simply ornaments and ornaments can be changed, revised, cut in pieces, tied up or any number of methods for making it into something that a man will want to consume, have, own and control.

When you imagine these women with their little nubs that they had to totter around on, you can picture them sitting in richly-decorated rooms, sipping tea with other nub-footed rich women, their every whim being indulged and no work required of them. It becomes a different story altogether when you imagine these women as young girls who wanted to run and play like their male contemporaries but physically couldn't. It becomes heartbreaking when you imagine a nub-footed young woman who is being physically victimized but can not outrun her attacker. Perhaps the worst image is one of a woman with bound feet, who knows the pain that it means, tearfully binding her own daughter's feet, knowing it is the only way she will find a husband.

It is easier to imagine that this happened in the early centuries and that the practice was obliterated long before modern culture. The awful truth is that foot-binding was finally outlawed in 1912 but couldn't be enforced in all cases. Lots of things are outlawed, but when women are the property of their fathers or husbands, the law takes a back seat to things like cultural traditions or financial gain. This story explains why a woman today, in her 60's has the tiny "golden lotuses" even now.

This movie is nauseating, sobering but imperative that we watch it:

*The narrator has the date when it was outlawed wrong, or at least it sounded like she said it was outlawed in the 1600's. In fact it was outlawed in the early 1900's.

This video is a woman's direct memory and narrative of having endured this practice as a young girl. These are very painful to watch, but that is why we must.

Contemplating the concept of the "Wild Woman" after the thoughts and feelings we have while watching and reading about the Chinese foot-binding process, the reality of the "cobbled feet" of our own wild/natural selves springs into stark relief. Modern woman don't have our feet bound, but we are bound, nonetheless. We come into the world with instincts intact, possibilities and potential as wide open as the ocean. We aren't repressed the way women used to be. That does not mean we aren't cobbled. This cobbling happens first when our instincts are repressed, bound up and allowed to rot away inside beautiful shoes.

Estes writes: "Sometimes it is difficult for us to realize when we are losing our instincts, for it is often an insidious process that does not occur all in one day, but rather over a long period of time. Too, the loss or deadening of instinct is often entirely supported by the surrounding culture, and sometimes even by other women who endure the loss of instinct as a way of achieving belonging in a culture that keeps no habitat for the natural woman....Most women have been captured at least for a brief time, and some for interminably long period. Some were free only in utero. All lose varying amounts of instinct for the duration." (p. 269)

The good news is that the feet of our instinctual, wild nature are not impossible to un-bind.

Estes goes on to explain, "Whether the injuries be to your art, words, lifestyles, thoughts or ideas, and if you have knitted yourself up into a many-sleeved sweater, cut through the tangle now and get on with it. Beyond desire and wishing, beyond the carefully reasoned methods we love to talk and scheme over, there is a simple door waiting for us to walk through. On the other side are new feet. Go there. Crawl there if  need be. Stop talking and obsessing. Just do it...." (p. 272)

A bit further on she tells the reader, "If our own wild natures have been wounded by something or someone, we refuse to lie down and die. We refuse to normalize this wound. We call up our instincts and do what we have to do." (p. 273)

Estes talks about how we can not wait for ourselves to heal completely before beginning this reclamation of our wildish nature. She says,  "The real miracle of individuation and reclamation of Wild Woman is that we all begin the process before we are ready, before we are strong enough, before we know enough; we begin a dialogue with thoughts and feelings that both tickle and thunder within us. We respond before we know how to speak the language, before we know all the answer, and before we know exactly to whom we are speaking." (p. 274)

There is a song that we all hear that our feet long to dance to. We may hear it only faintly. But we all hear it. It is that song that gives us the motivation to unbind our feet, hoping that someday we will be able to hear that song clearly and that when that time comes, we will have feet that can dance. Perhaps we don't know how to dance yet. We may not know another soul that dances. But there is still a kind of "muscle memory" of dancing; we KNOW deep, deep down in the knowing part of us that we hear the song. Just because the old woman with bound feet in the second video could never dance doesn't mean she wasn't made to. Her feet "know" they are meant to dance, not hobble around. We can plug our ears and tuck our feet under our chairs but we can always hear a note now and then, reminding us that there is "something more than this." 

For each woman (and man, for that matter), the binding of the instinctual, wildish nature is slightly different. Of course that means that the un-binding process is a unique one for each one of us. Our un-bound feet will propel us to dance different songs. We will each dance into a different reality. We may not know exactly what that is, this side of it. But we all know the edges of it. Why do I know that? Let's start with this...

*What would you do if you could do anything, no one would be hurt by it and no one would reject you?

*When you imagine a little, free-as-a-bird child "you" inside, playing as children do with utter lack of self-consciousness, stopping only when a hungry tummy growls, what is that little self doing?

*When you imagine finding that little "you," her chubby cheeks glowing from whatever busy-ness she was involved in, her bright eyes lit up with fun and pleasure and you imagine pulling her sweet little self up on your lap and telling her, "You are so good at _______" (whatever she was doing just then) do tears spring to your eyes? Do you feel a tightening in your chest? The song grows just a bit louder, doesn't it?

Our grown-up minds rush in with cautionary words about how we must be mature, we must be adults and how we don't have the luxury of doing what we want. If there is a stern, religious voice inside of us, it may say, "Your heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. You can not trust that little you or that 'knowing.' That is your sin nature and doing what you want is going to always end with you in wreckage. Your true nature is bad and must be redeemed."

But there is still that still, small voice. There is still the haunting notes of that song. Your feet tap a little, however hard you may try not to let them.

What would happen, if you unbound your feet? What would happen if you followed that song right into vibrant, soulful, rich-as-chocolate, thick-as-mud life? What if you danced right into the middle of that life, let your feet take over and your heart lead?


Kristin T. (@kt_writes) said...

Cheryl, this is such an important—and yes, sobering—post. We don't nurture or trust our instincts nearly enough in today's world (especially in the US, it seems). I have three daughters, so I'm going to be thinking about this for a long time, from many angles. Thank you.

Cheryl Ensom said...

I's one thing to think about this stuff and even apply it to my own life, but to think about HOW to do that for my daughters....wince. I think we model doing it. But I think there are probably actual things we could do that would let them experience them voicing that "knowing," have it validated by us, put it into practice and then experience us valuing that expression.

Maybe we need to brainstorm some ideas for how to do this with our girls, Kristin...

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