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Alice Walker has become famous for her writing, especially for The Color Purple, a novel which tells of the difficult early life of a woman of colour. She was married to civil rights lawyer, Mel Leventhal, for ten years and a daughter, Rebecca, was born of that union. Mother and daughter are now estranged.

Rebecca Walker, the daughter, became a mother when she gave birth to her first child, Tenzin, a boy, in December 2004.  She has published a diary of her pregnancy, which is also an account of her attempt to come to terms with the maternal and paternal ambivalence she experienced as a child, an ambivalence which infused her beliefs until she decided to move from a scarcity model of love to a model of love which presupposes love being present in abundance.

Baby Love, the title of the book, grated, until I realised that this short phrase encompasses her own experience as the child of her mother, as well as her experience of having a child of her own. The book is both about being the baby, and having the baby.

Rebecca Walker’s estrangement from her mother begins towards the end of her pregnancy, at the point where she decides that if her mother is unable to apologise for her maternal neglect then she is “too emotionally dangerous to me and my unborn son”. Alice Walker doesn’t say sorry. Instead she writes that she won’t miss what she doesn’t have , that their relationship has been inconsequential for years, that she is no longer interested in the job of being a mother, and she ends her letter with her name, not her role-title, mother.

Despite the absence of the mother, the mother is everywhere in the pregnancy:

“because mothers make us, map our emotional terrain before we even know we are capable of having an emotional terrain, they know just where to stick the dynamite. Decades of subtle undermining can stunt a daughter, or so monopolize her energy that she in effect stunts herself. Muted, fearful, riddled with self-doubt, she can remain trapped in daughterhood forever, the one place she feels confident she knows the rules”.

In Rebecca’s case, the ambivalence of her mother toward childbearing was sufficiently chronicled in her mother’s writing – specifically in a poem and an essay written around the same time, the former of which compares a child to the calamaties that befell other women writers and impeded their writing.

It appears to have been an ambivalence that Alice Walker was unable to resolve, and which fed through to Rebecca’s sense of who she was:

“Ambivalence itself is rarely positive. Ambivalence about one’s offspring is a horrific kind of torture for all involved. It affects me to this day, stealing my certitude at critical moments. I have sat with others and said, Well, of course my mother loves me. But in the very next moment I will purse my lips and squint my eyes and tilt my head back and remember all of the indices of ambivalence, and the thought will arise with an even greater clarity: or maybe she does not.”

What hope then, that a woman afflicted by such ambivalence could master the role of mother herself? The ambivalence described runs deep and has consequences that spread not in ripples, but like a tidal wave, for it is accompanied by a misguided insistence on independence. The feminist, the womanist, cannot allow herself to depend in her maternity on her male partner with the result that she cannot afford to be a mother at all. For being a mother involves spending time with your child, being invested in your child’s welfare, being dependent for your happiness on your child’s happiness, allowing your partner to play a role in the child-rearing, sharing the parental role. Losing the ambivalence involves abandoning self-sufficiency as a goal. Mothers are not meant to be mothers alone, but alongside fathers.

Rebecca experiences “a letting go into inseparability”, a realisation that “I was not autonomous and never would be”, and she reflects on the self-sufficient career women that she sees around her and how they radiate to their menfolk an emasculating lack of need, as if men can be rendered obsolete by having enough money and a few good girl friends. And she reflects how utterly devastating it would be to be told by the person you love that you are not necessary to them:

“Because the fact is that we do need each other, and we are locked into this dance with the whole frickin’ world whether we like it or not. This lack of separateness is awful and terrifying, amazing and exhilarating, and just plain true. It seems to me that men and women both need to come up to speed on this, instead of competing for the prize of who can do without whom, for longer. There is power in partnership…”

And how she has never felt so dependent as during her pregnancy. She knows that she needs “someone who will show up”, but at the same time she needs to be someone who will open up, and she is worried that the inherited ambivalence will mean that she cannot sustain it forever, which is how long she wants the partnership to endure, but she has never felt so motivated to try.

Except, when it comes to it, it doesn’t need any effort. It just happens. Rebecca’s mother told her that she chose to love her, that the decision could have gone either way. Looking at her baby, Rebecca writes “There is no choice in my love for Tensin, and if there were some secret place where I wondered, and there isn’t, I would never tell him about it.”

The ambivalence is gone, and with it the scarcity model that had governed her relationships. A few days before the expected date of birth she muses on these two sides of the coin – scarcity and abundance:

“For my whole life I have operated as through there isn’t enough love to go around, that love is something that must be stockpiled, hoarded, guarded for fear of losing a few precious drops. But lately, maybe because I’ve been contemplating what life would be like if I had, gasp, two or even three children, I have been thinking about how, while there may never be enough time or money, there will always be enough love. What if everyone could let go of the fear and territoriality that comes from trying to control the love supply? What if everyone realised that love is about giving, not getting? What if everyone realised all of these things before it was too late? What if it is true that when you believe in abundance, what you have multiplies magically?”

The move from the scarcity model to abundance is not one Rebecca could have ever made alone. Glen, her Buddhist rock of a partner, is the foundation of the new model, upon which everything else is built.   Or perhaps their faith underpins it all. 

The book is a celebration of unambivalent maternity, but it is equally a celebration of fathers, of how they are essential, and how the success of the two parents is contigent upon their mutual dependence and, ultimately, their love for each other and their lack of ambivalence about what matters most. The baby, not the career.


[Thanks to C Jones of Malepositive whose comment on this blog a while ago pointed me in the direction of this book.]

Baby Love: Rebecca Walker

As for the Wisdom who is called “the barren,” she is the mother of the angels. And the companion of the […] Mary Magdalene. […] loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples […]. They said to him “Why do you love her more than all of us?” The Savior answered and said to them,”Why do I not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness.”

My husband brought home for me Joan Baez’s new Day After Tomorrow, knowing that I love her music.  This is a quiet, contemplative, folksy, deeply religious collection of tracks that does not leave me feeling happy.  Sad is good sometimes, otherwise you don’t notice happiness when it creeps up on you. 

I like the compelling title song “The Day After Tomorrow” that looks forward to the day after tomorrow when the soldier will be home with loved ones, no longer fighting for life in a war where both sides cry to God to save them.  Now it doesn’t seem surprising that the song hits home since it was written by Tom Waits who has accompanied me many a late evening since I was sixteen or so.  Here you can choose between Joan Baez’s voice and that of Tom Waits, but the lyrics are the same affecting stuff whichever.

I got your letter today
And I miss you all so much, here
I can’t wait to see you all
And I’m counting the days, dear
I still believe that there’s gold
At the end of the world
And I’ll come home
To Illinois
On the day after tomorrow

It is so hard
And it’s cold here
And I’m tired of taking orders
And I miss old Rockford town
Up by the Wisconsin border
But I miss you won’t believe
Shoveling snow and raking leaves
And my plane will touch tomorrow
On the day after tomorrow

I close my eyes
Every night
And I dream that I can hold you
They fill us full of lies
Everyone buys
About what it means to be a soldier
I still don’t know how I’m supposed to feel
About all the blood that’s been spilled
Look out on the street
Get me back home
On the day after tomorrow

You can’t deny
The other side
Don’t want to die
Any more than we do
What I’m trying to say,
Is don’t they pray
To the same God that we do?
Tell me, how does God choose?
Whose prayers does he refuse?
Who turns the wheel?
And who throws the dice
On the day after tomorrow?

I’m not fighting
For justice
I am not fighting
For freedom
I am fighting
For my life
And another day
In the world here
I just do what I’ve been told
You’re just the gravel on the road
And the one’s that are lucky
One’s come home
On the day after tomorrow

And the summer
It too will fade
And with it comes the winter’s frost, dear
And I know we too are made
Of all the things that we have lost here
I’ll be twenty-one today
I’ve been saving all my pay
And my plane will touch down
On the day after tomorrow
And my plane it will touch down
On the day after tomorrow


My life in art: The day Bourgeois moved me to tears

The rage, fear and frustration in Louise Bourgeois’ autobiographical art shocked me into understanding what it must be like to be a woman

Will Gompertz, The Guardian, October 8th 2008

Femme Maison by Louise Bourgeois, Tate Modern

The female of the species … view of a series of paintings entitled Femme Maison by Louise Bourgeois, at Tate Modern. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi

I have been married for 15 years and I think things have gone pretty well. We have four perfectly acceptable children, we all get along OK, and as husbands go, I’m not a bad lot. I’m loyal, I recognise my wife as a superior human being and I even have the odd moment of unselfishness. (I expect such moments to be verbally recognised and physically rewarded.) My wife stays at home to look after the children because returning to the teaching job she loved was made impossible by the incompatibility of teacher’s pay and the cost of childcare. The other option – of me becoming a househusband – was categorically not on the table. I don’t mind a bit of gentle hoovering, but I do mind babies. They’re like drunks: incomprehensible, unreasonable and prone to vomit on you. Anyway she loves it, doesn’t she? Well, that’s what I had assumed, until an incident a couple of weeks ago that shocked my smug, complacent, delusional self to the core.

I see a lot of modern and contemporary art; it’s a pretty fundamental part of my job. The vast majority of work I see I like on some level or another. Even the stuff I don’t like, I find interesting simply by dint of it existing and being revered enough to find itself in a museum or gallery; a sort of sign of the times. On the whole though, most art doesn’t have an immediate emotional impact on me in the same way as, say, a David Lynch movie or an Arsenal football match does.

Art and emotion tends to be a slow burn, built up over a period of time as I get to know and really appreciate the artist and their work. In fact, I would go as far to say that the only time I have been knocked sideways by a piece of art was when I first encountered the work of Willem de Kooning in my early 20s. Of course, when I saw Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I was completely blown away, but I already knew what to expect and the sensation was more like meeting your hero in the flesh. So when I strolled along to see a retrospective of the work of the 96-year-old French/American sculptor Louise Bourgeois, I was looking forward to a cerebral hour of gentle perusing and mulling on her Femme Maison that were made by Bourgeois from 1945–47, six years after moving to New York from her native France. By this time, she was married to an American art historian called Robert Goldwater and had three children (the first of which was adopted). Goldwater was a good bloke – a loving husband and a source of intellectual companionship for Bourgeois – and she adored her children. But that didn’t stop her from making a set of paintings that are so filled with rage, fear and frustration that, for the first time in my life, I began to understand what it must be like to be a woman. To have to accept that the world’s view is male and all the assumptions that come with it, such as: everything you do and say is seen and judged through the prism of your sexuality, that the expectation is you will fulfil the multiple roles of mother, housekeeper, companion, worker and lover with deference and gratitude, and that men – lazy, selfish, conceited men – are not forced to wear the same, or any other straightjacket. Bourgeois’s genius is that she is able to put all this across with some small paintings that are so simple they are almost naive.

All the Femme Maison (literally house woman/housewife) paintings share the same idea. In each one, a woman has a house covering her head, below which her naked body protrudes. She thinks she is safe and secure in her domestic prison, because that is all she can see around her. She has no idea that she is flashing her genitals to all and sundry, more vulnerable than ever. It’s the stuff of nightmares where you are publicly exposed and shamed. These paintings succinctly sum up the struggle of every woman and their destiny to live with the responsibilities and constrictions of trying to maintain the balance of wife, mother and housekeeper while trying to retain a semblance of individuality in such sapping domestic circumstances. The simplicity of the paintings adds to the sense of entrapment; there wasn’t the time for anything more studied or crafted.

Artwork by Louise Bourgeois, Tate Modern Struggle within … an artwork by Louise Bourgeois, Tate Modern. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi These works have been related back to the surrealist movement that began in the 1920s with artists such as René Magritte, where he juxtaposed two seemingly incongruous objects or situations in order to make a point. Maybe they are, she certainly knew Marcel Duchamp and André Breton, the leaders of the movement, very well. But I’m not so sure. I think her work is much more closely aligned to the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, another woman who found out early what a letdown men can be. Both Bourgeois and Kahlo created warts-and-all autobiographical art, something that had never been done by women before. They exposed themselves to expose the truth, a daunting and dangerous thing to do, which requires immense courage. An approach to making art that can be seen most obviously today in the work of Tracey Emin, another person whose art, I suspect, will prove to be just as important in years to come.

Bourgeois’ Femme Maison paintings scream that women are put upon, jailed, abused and patronised. Up until seeing them I had thought I was a decent, caring husband – now I know I’m just like the rest, a chauvinistic bore. I rang my wife and mumbled some inadequate apology. She was a little taken aback, but not half as taken aback as I had been. Bourgeois made a note in her diary in 1980 that read: “The only access we have to our volcanic unconscious and to the profound motives for our actions and reactions is through shocks of our encounters with specific people.” I should coco, Louise. Game, set and match to you.


The pattern that women are presented with in the Christian church, and which they are encouraged to follow, is of a woman – Mary, the Mother of Jesus – who is relentlessly kind, understanding, empathetic, good at listening, forgiving, sacrificing, protecting. She turns the other cheek, remains calm in the face of provocation, never loses her temper, is never unfair. She is content to be overlooked, to take second place, to meet aggression passively.

“… she has become a stereotype of passivity in the face of challenge, of self-sacrifice at the expense of one’s soul care, and of quietude to the point of hiding in the shadow of others.”

The Real Mary, Scot McKnight

I struggle with this vision of what a woman should aspire to be. In the past a desire to live up to these standards has made me feel I have no option but to keep quiet, forgive without an apology, smooth over other people’s angry outbursts, put up with damaging and abusive situations and take the fault on myself, absorb my own anger and turn it inwards on myself.

We do not live in a ideal world, and in our real, fallen, world we have to deal with people who do not wish us well. We have to deal with people who would love to see us trip up and fall, who would delight in our mistakes, who would rather we disappeared, for whom we are the impediment that prevents them from achieving a relationship they desire or a position they covet.

I used to believe that, if I was relentlessly nice and kind, everything would turn out alright in the end. But I no longer believe that. No amount of love will necessarily change a person bent on someone else’s destruction. In fact, their destruction is often so essential to the psychic survival of the other person, that the perpetrator is unlikely to be aware that they even have a choice of how to behave. The nicer I am, the more irritating I am to my foe, and the more they want to destroy me. So they turn the aggression up. The hotter it becomes, the harder I try to absorb it all, until finally I give up. Rather than fight back (which I see as a victory for them) I turn my back and walk away. I cannot see that fighting back is going to solve anything except to increase the aggression. Besides, I will feel bad about my behaviour judged against my perfect pattern.

There have been many occasions in the past and recently when every fibre of my being was screaming “F**K OFF!”. But I didn’t, because my moral code told me that it was neither good nor Christian to do so.

I do not have an answer. I wish I did.

Assert Yourself!
by Lynette J. Hoy, NCC, LCPC as published in The Godly Business Woman magazine’s November/December, 2000 issue.

As a Christian it’s difficult to decide when to stand up for your “reasonable rights” and state your opinion, or when to go the extra mile considering others’ interests. You may end up apologizing for someone else’s mistakes. When someone spills their coffee on you- do you say you’re sorry for being in the wrong place? When someone puts you down- do you pretend you’re deaf? When others openly state their values and beliefs- you keep quiet rationalizing that “the Holy spirit didn’t lead you to say anything”?

If you’re lucky and happen to have a very attentive listener, he or she may understand your thoughts and feelings and draw them out of you. If you’re not lucky, you and your opinion will be overlooked because you kept quiet. Whether you tend to be indirect, aggressive or passive your relationships aren’t satisfying and issues aren’t resolved. Assertiveness doesn’t leave communication or issues in relationships up to chance.

What is assertiveness?

Assertiveness is a way of confronting the unpleasant or difficult without getting squashed or squashing others in the process. When you use assertiveness you can negotiate reasonable changes by stating directly what you think, feel and want. Assertiveness builds intimacy, solves interpersonal problems and increases honesty, requests and refusals in your relationships.

Assertiveness is biblical! Paul writes about the importance of “speaking the truth in love” and “speaking truthfully to your neighbor” in Ephesians 4, verses15 and 29. In John 4:17-18 Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband”. (NIV) Pretty direct, huh?

Of course, you can choose any number of alternatives to assertiveness. You can fake your feelings, suffer silently, retreat from others, manipulate them or demand your way. Ultimately these options are self-defeating and harmful to relationships.


One of the keys to making assertiveness work for you while making it palatable for others is to combine it with active listening. Active listening involves hearing and paraphrasing back what someone says to you. Make certain that your paraphrase is brief and includes the facts and feelings the person is expressing. It gives you the opportunity to pick up on their viewpoints and continue the dialogue. You don’t have to agree with their opinions, but active listening will show that you value and respect them. This will increase the odds that others will take time to listen to you.

Begin summarizing what people say to you with these phrases:

“In other words”
“Let me get this straight”
“So you felt that”
“What I hear you saying is”
“If I understand you correctly”
“Would you say that?”
“Do I understand you to mean?”

Assertiveness Skills

The most difficult aspect of communication comes when you take the risk to talk about your opinions, feelings and needs. Don’t let fear hold you back! Pray and ask the Lord to give you the courage to “speak the truth in love.” St. Paul wrote in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Him (Christ) Who strengthens me”. (NIV) As a Christian, you have the greatest spiritual power in the world residing within you to help you speak up within the bounds of love.

Learning assertive communication skills is the next step. Here are some examples of assertiveness which will help you express your opinions, confront others, state your feelings or make requests:

Stating your preference or opinion; “My preference is______.””What I’d like is______”
Expressing you feelings; “I feel_______when ______________”
Making requests: “This movie is not what I hoped it would be. I would like to leave.”
Disagreeing with someone; “I disagree with you when you say _____________.”
Saying yes or no without making excuses; “I am unable to come to lunch (or that church function).”
“I” statements for confronting: “I feel______when you_______ because__________.”

The A-S-E-R-T model

Ask for God’s Help: Pray for God to guide you through scripture and His Spirit.
State the Problem: Think over and state the facts of the problem. .
Express yourself: State your feelings. Do not judge.
Request change & feedback: Specify one behavior change. Then listen to the other person’s thoughts and opinions.
Talk-it- out: Paraphrase their ideas. Discuss the consequences, considerations & options.

Write out recent interactions you have had with people in which you could have been less demanding or passive. Then, using the ASERT model, rewrite the scenario using the paraphrasing and assertiveness skills. Resolve to start trying your newly acquired skills this week.

Assertiveness need not be a painful exercise of skills.

You can get something out of communicating more directly. Aristotle wrote, “many a friendship is lost for lack of speaking.” Speaking up will help you build closer relationships with others and gain more confidence in yourself! Just think, no more hinting, raging, manipulating or demanding your way! Instead, you can state your ideas, thoughts and feelings confidently, not leaving communication up to chance!

© copyright 2000 by Lynette J. Hoy, NCC, LCPC

~ Lynette J. Hoy , NCC, LCPC, is a Marriage and Family Counselor and National Certified Counselor, author and speaker. She is the Executive Chair of the Chicagoland CBWC: Connecting Business Women to Christ organization. Lynette is co-founder of CounselCare Connection, P.C. providing online & office counseling for individuals, couples and families. Lynette regularly presents marriage, assertiveness, grief and divorce recovery, anger and stress management seminars.

©2004 by Lynette J. Hoy, NCC, LCPC

Feelings when your needs are satisfied


open hearted













clear headed





Feelings when your needs are not satisfied











burnt out
worn out







heavy hearted

stressed out



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I’ve created a new category for posts with some connection to Asperger’s.  I wanted to include this unusual article from the Guardian G2 today, which takes Asperger’s Girls as its subject.

Here’s a small piece of the article, about the experience of Robyn Steward, one young woman with Asperger’s:

“Steward, though, is full of hope for the future. She understands her condition and is adamant that it gives her some advantages. Some women, she says, are just too focused on contact with other people and on the ins and outs of human relationships. “Relationships are important, but to be a really self-reliant individual you need to be the sort of person who can cope alone. I think autism gives you that self-reliance, and I think it makes me strong – it helps you know your own limits.””

“Some women, she says, are just too focused on contact with other people and on the ins and outs of human relationships” … Mmm.  I think I know what she means… I wish I didn’t sometimes.


I had a few peaceful moments yesterday in a Christian bookshop in the Strand.  I bought a couple of books, one of which pointed to this passage in Matthew Henry’s Commentary of the Bible, first published in 1708.  Matthew Henry was the son of the dissenting Scottish clergyman who refused to agree to the Act of Uniformity acknowledging the supremacy of the (then) corrupt Catholic church.   Matthew was sent to finish his education not at Oxford or Cambridge, but at one of the Dissenting academies set up in Islington, London.   The Academy was forced by persecution to move five times in the time that he was studying there, and eventually he returned home.  Later he studied law before becoming a Presbyterian minister.  His sermons were “expository but never political” and he taught catechism classes for children and visited all those who were in need irrespective of their faith.  He was constantly troubled by the poor quality of religious life in England, and died when he was only 52.  The passage relates to the creation story in Genesis Chapter 2, and to verses 21-25.

That the woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.

Adam lost a rib, and without any diminution to his strength or comeliness (for, doubtless, the flesh was closed without a scar); but in lieu thereof he had a help meet for him, which abundantly made up his loss: what God takes away from his people he will, one way or other, restore with advantage. In this (as in many other things) Adam was a figure of him that was to come; for out of the side of Christ, the second Adam, his spouse the church was formed, when he slept the sleep, the deep sleep, of death upon the cross, in order to which his side was opened, and there came out blood and water, blood to purchase his church and water to purify it to himself. See Eph. v. 25, 26.

II. The marriage of the woman to Adam. Marriage is honourable, but this surely was the most honourable marriage that ever was, in which God himself had all along an immediate hand. Marriages (they say) are made in heaven: we are sure this was, for the man, the woman, the match, were all God’s own work; he, by his power, made them both, and now, by his ordinance, made them one. This was a marriage made in perfect innocency, and so was never any marriage since, 1. God, as her Father, brought the woman to the man, as his second self, and a help-meet for him. When he had made her, he did not leave her to her own disposal; no, she was his child, and she must not marry without his consent. Those are likely to settle to their comfort who by faith and prayer, and a humble dependence upon providence, put themselves under a divine conduct. That wife that is of God’s making by special grace, and of God’s bringing by special providence, is likely to prove a help-meet for a man. 2. From God, as his Father, Adam received her (v. 23): “This is now bone of my bone. Now I have what I wanted, and which all the creatures could not furnish me with, a help meet for me.” God’s gifts to us are to be received with a humble thankful acknowledgment of his wisdom in suiting them to us, and his favour in bestowing them on us. Probably it was revealed to Adam in a vision, when he was asleep, that this lovely creature, now presented to him, was a piece of himself, and was to be his companion and the wife of his covenant. Hence some have fetched an argument to prove that glorified saints in the heavenly paradise shall know one another. Further, in token of his acceptance of her, he gave her a name, not peculiar to her, but common to her sex: She shall be called woman, Isha, a she-man, differing from man in sex only, not in nature—made of man, and joined to man.

III. The institution of the ordinance of marriage, and the settling of the law of it, v. 24. The sabbath and marriage were two ordinances instituted in innocency, the former for the preservation of the church, the latter for the preservation of the world of mankind. It appears (by Matt. xix. 4, 5) that it was God himself who said here, “A man must leave all his relations, to cleave to his wife;” but whether he spoke it by Moses, the penman, or by Adam (who spoke, v. 23), is uncertain. It should seem, they are the words of Adam, in God’s name, laying down this law to all his posterity. 1. See here how great the virtue of a divine ordinance is; the bonds of it are stronger even than those of nature. To whom can we be more firmly bound than the fathers that begat us and the mothers that bore us? Yet the son must quit them, to be joined to his wife, and the daughter forget them, to cleave to her husband, Ps. xlv. 10, 11. 2. See how necessary it is that children should take their parents’ consent along with them in their marriage, and how unjust those are to their parents, as well as undutiful, who marry without it; for they rob them of their right to them, and interest in them, and alienate it to another, fraudulently and unnaturally. 3. See what need there is both of prudence and prayer in the choice of this relation, which is so near and so lasting. That had need be well done which is to be done for life. 4. See how firm the bond of marriage is, not to be divided and weakened by having many wives (Mal. ii. 15) nor to be broken or cut off by divorce, for any cause but fornication, or voluntary desertion. 5. See how dear the affection ought to be between husband and wife, such as there is to our own bodies, Eph. v. 28. These two are one flesh; let them then be one soul.

IV. An evidence of the purity and innocency of that state wherein our first parents 21 were created, v. 25. They were both naked. They needed no clothes for defense against cold nor heat, for neither could be injurious to them. They needed none for ornament. Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Nay, they needed none for decency; they were naked, and had no reason to be ashamed. They knew not what shame was, so the Chaldee reads it. Blushing is now the colour of virtue, but it was not then the colour of innocency. Those that had no sin in their conscience might well have no shame in their faces, though they had no clothes to their backs.

I have another commentary as well, first published a hundred years later in 1810, and written by Anglo-Irish Methodist, Adam Clarke.  He caught the attention of John Wesley who ensured he was brought to Kingswood School near Bath to finish his education, and he was appointed a Methodist minister when he was only 20.  This is his commentary on the same passage:

And he took one of his ribs.  It is immaterial whether we render tsela a rib or part of his side, for it may mean either: some part of man was to be used on the occasion, whether bone or flesh it matters not, though it is likely, from v23 that a part of both was taken; for Adam, knowing how woman was formed, said “This is flesh of my flesh, and bone of my bones.”  As God formed her out of part of the man himself, he saw she was of the same nature, the same identical flesh and blood, and of the same constitution in all respects, and consequently having equal powers, faculties, and rights.  This at once ensured his affection, and excited his esteem.”


We were like a gossamer spider’s web around the birthday girl, threads of connection linking each of us to the other.  Synapses waiting to fire, links waiting to be discovered.  One woman was a child psychotherapist, who lived very near to us, and who was happy to chat about some of my favourite subjects, and whom I would like to be a kindred spirit – so much did I like her spirit.  Another had been hiking with my parents-in-law when they visited Hong Kong many years ago, and breathed the same rarefied public school air as them.  Another outdid my passion for food and horses, raised pigs and kept chickens.  Another had taken her children to the small church primary school opposite our house, and had recently buried her husband in a beautiful village church high up, overlooking the river.  It was the church of my mother’s native village, and a recently discovered favourite haunt of mine.  She was generous enough to share her disappointment and her frustations.  Others I had known longer, from church or from my daughter’s school.  As as I knew some women already, others knew each other from another school, from a choir, as neighbours.

At the centre of the web was a friend to all of us, though we were, some of us, strangers to each other.  Ruth had assembled a group of women which whom she wanted to celebrate her birthday, and God had blessed us with glorious sunshine and a cool breeze.  A clutch of us were the same age as her, with children the same ages.  The others were smiling older, wiser, women whose children had flown the nest and who were enjoying their retirement or about to retire.

We began our walk at a small hamlet on a promontory in a wide shallow river fringed with reeds.  An old church surrounded by freshly mown grass and cherry blossom offered a cool, damp refuge from the heat of the afternoon.  Here, at Ikenhoe, more than a thousand years ago St Botolph almost certainly founded a monastery from which he evangelised the pagans. We poked around a bit, feeling the ancient carving on the 9th century Saxon cross discovered underneath the tower when it was being repaired.   At home we have two small watercolours of this church painted from shore of the river that we bought each other, and it is the backdrop to a portrait of my husband that hangs in our house.  Next to the church is a house.  The house that belonged to the great grandfather of the man who was renting us a house in Tuscany for the Whitsun holiday.  We knew that because we had been to collect the key to the Italian house only that morning, and he had told us, and the spider’s spun thread travelled back from there and wound round the places and the people.

  As the path leaves the church it winds down to the river.  We walked along the sand, next to the reeds until a bay appeared in which a small barge was moored.  The bay is enclosed in sandy cliffs up which I clambered in my wedding dress on my wedding day.  We had celebrated our marriage further upstream and had been taken away by a clinker-built fishing boat dressed overall.  Our boatman had landed us at the base of the cliff and our getaway car was parked in the yard of the pig farm at the top.  Nowadays there are steps cut into the cliff; then there was just a helping hand from my husband.  My own threads of history, glistening in the sunshine, pulled me backwards.

We walked on, each of us moving backwards and forwards through the group of women like bees going from flower to flower, alighting, tasting the honey and moving on, pollinating each other as we went.  Now flowers and bees in turn. 

Eventually we arrived at the red brick maltings that grew to fulfil Benjamin Britten’s dream of an international concert hall.  Here, in summer, we come almost nightly to sit on cushions with our children or our friends and listen to the best music in the world.  The concert hall restaurant looks over the river and it was from here that the two of us watched the little boat winding it way through the withies to come and take us away, whilst all our wedding guests knew nothing of our plans.

We all magicked books out of our rucksacks for our friend – The Time Traveller’s Wife, Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father, 1000 places to visit before you die, a audio-book of Middlemarch, a book of Italian recipes and food stories, and a crime novel. We had been wonderfully fed by the conversations as we walked, but we ended a beautiful afternoon with a meal altogether sitting in a cosy pub inside a wooden cocoon.  Ruth asked us to name one thing that we would take to a desert island and between us we furnished our island with a man (the widow), a pocket sprung bed, an armoire, a bottle of champagne, a pair of binoculars, a boat, a large bottle of olive oil, and an endless supply of anti-histamine cream.    I’m glad that Ruth allowed us to enjoy her birthday with her, to explore her friendship web.


This week is Nettle Awareness Week in the UK.  Only in the UK could a week be devoted to the glory of the weed that has caused more children to cry than any other, that has caused more adults to curse.  I liked the darker side that celebrity cook and food writer and herb specialist, Sophie Grigson, gave to the celebration.  She sees it as a clarion call to take our revenge on the nettle by reducing it to soup and, as we sup, to cry “Got you, you bastard!”

So, here are three recipes for nettle soup that take the sting out of the weed.  The first is one for all those aristocratic nettles that refuse to be cowed.  The second is a common or garden recipe that will work for all nettles, and the third is the recipe that I concocted this morning out of ingredients in my store cupboard.  All recipes are gluten free, and mine is dairy free.

All recipes begin with the instruction “First pick your nettles” …  In my case this involved the poignant use of Twiglet’s basket, lined with a tea towel, and an odd pair of industrial gloves that had at various times been used whilst painting the fence and tending the bonfire if the residue on the gloves was anything to go by.  One is supposed to pick only the freshest, juiciest leaves from the top of the plant.  The aristocratic version of the nettle soup recipe requires you to remove the leaves from the stalk, but I did not do this and can vouch for it not being necessary.  I filled half a basket with the nettle tips, then rinsed them (having substituted my dirty gloves for a pair of plastic bags since I do not possess washing up gloves).  Now my nettles were ready to use.

To amuse you whilst you consider whether you wish to go and harvest your own nettles, I thought I would tell you some of the more positive attributes of the dastardly plants.

First, they are a haven for insects, and butterflies in particular.  It is the stinging hairs that account for the nettle’s attraction because these prevent almost all grazing animals from venturing to eat them and leaves the insect larvae safe from harm.  Small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies are some of its most ardent fans.  These butterflies belong to the Nymphalidae or Brush-footed group of butterflies whose shortened front pair of legs are covered in hairs like scales.  Aphids overwinter in the nettlepatch and provide springtime food for ladybirds.  Nettleseeds are late summer food for birds.  One gardening tip is to plant nettles in a tub or pot, much like mint, and to position it, or sink it, into your border.  That way the nettles do not spread, but they can attract to your garden the butterflies that love them.

Secondly, nettles are supposedly very good for you.  In particular research has shown them to have effective anti-rheumatic/arthritic properties.  Research carried out by the Plymouth Nettles Research Group (I joke not) of the University of Plymouth post-graduate Peninsula Medical School has shown that nettles can help relieve arthritis symptoms.  They contain silica, particularly in the stringy stems, and it is this element that apparently helps joints.  Research was reported in The Lancet, the journal of the British Medical Association (vol 355 of 2000). Dr. Colin Randall, of Plymouth University, studied 27 patients who had osteoarthritis, none of whom had used nettles before. They applied stinging nettle leaf for one week, then white deadnettle (which doesn’t sting) as a placebo. They reported that pain and disability were significantly lower after one week of treatment with the stinging nettle, and there was a reduction in their use of drugs.

Other medicinal claims include treatment of internal kidney, liver and bladder problems and to treat diabetes.  Once you’ve read this you will never want to be without the nettle again:

Despite the unpleasantness of its sting, the nettle has been highly regarded in Europe since at least antiquity as both a food and a medicine, with both the Greeks and the Romans using it for a wide variety of medicinal purposes. In the first century, Greek physicians Dioscorides and Galen reported the leaf of the nettle had diuretic and laxative properties and was useful for asthma, pleurisy and spleen illnesses. By medieval times the stinging nettle was in common use throughout the continent, being used for treating rheumatism, arthritis, allergies and eczema, baldness, bladder infections, cough, bronchitis, bursitis, anemia, gingivitis, hives, laryngitis, gout, multiple sclerosis, tendonitis, premenstrual syndrome, prostate enlargement and sciatica. According to Nicolas Culpeper in the seventeenth century, the seeds of the nettle were thought to be beneficial in the treatment of bites from “mad dogs” or the stinging of “venomous creatures.”

Seeds were also used at that time as an antidote to poisonous herbs such as nightshade and henbane. In early American medicine, bandages soaked in a leaf and stem infusion were used to stop the bleeding of wounds. An account of this use was recorded by Dr. Francis P. Procher, a physician in the Confederacy during the Civil War. Nettle leaves were also recommended as a nutritious food and as a weight loss aid by the famous American plant forager and naturalist, Euell Gibbons.

For some purposes the leaf of the nettle was recommended, for some purposes the stem, for some purposes the seed, and for others the root, and accordingly the whole of the plant was utilised in traditional medicine and revered for its healing properties. It was also popular as a food in many countries and we know today that nettle is highly nutritive, being rich in chlorophyll, beta carotene, vitamins A, C, E and K, several of the B vitamins, tannins, volatile oils, flavonoids, iron, calcium, potassium, phosphates, and various other minerals, especially silica. The stinging nettle is a remarkable nutritional treasure and has often been compared very favourably to spinach.

Today nettle is recognised as having astringent, expectorant, galactagogue, tonic, anti-inflammatory, hemostatic, and diuretic properties, and is recommended for treating bone and joint conditions, inflammation and irritation of the urinary tract and for preventing urinary system gravel, whilst the diuretic action of the plant has been shown to significantly increase urine volume and can help to alleviate bladder infections. However, the most popular application of stinging nettle today is the use of the root for treating the symptoms of prostate enlargement or benign prostate hyperplasia (BPH). This condition is hormonal in nature, caused by testosterone and the conversion of testosterone to the extremely potent dihydrotestosterone, a conversion which increases as men age. An excess of dihydrotestosterone causes pathological prostate growth. Estrogens also play a part as they too increase as men age and also stimulate prostate growth. These hormones travel around the body in a free state, as well as bound to proteins. One such protein is called sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG) and its role is to maintain a dynamic hormonal balance in the body. SHBG binds or attaches to hormones and carries them to different receptor sites on cell membranes throughout the body where they can be utilised in different ways. The effect it has depends on which hormone it binds to and which receptor site it is carried to. In the men estrogen and dihydrotestosterone bound to SHBG are usually carried to the receptor sites on the prostate gland and once there in excessive amounts it stimulates prostate tissue cells to divide and grow rapidly – resulting in BPH.

Some of the more recent research on BPH and stinging nettle indicates that the nettle root can interfere with or block a number these hormone-related chemical processes in the body that are implicated in the development of BPH. In clinical research, nettle has demonstrated the ability to stop the conversion of testosterone to dihydrotestosterone (by inhibiting aromatase, an enzyme required for the conversion), as well as to directly bind to SHBG itself – thereby preventing SHBG from binding to other hormones. Other research also reveals that nettles can prevent SHBG that has already bound to a hormone from attaching to the receptor sites on the prostate, as well as to decrease the production of estrogens (estradiol and estrone) by inhibiting an enzyme required for their production. In summary, most of the intercellular processes required to trigger the prostate to grow new cells and enlarge seems to be inhibited by nettle root. Human and animal clinical studies have confirmed these effects and also demonstrated that nettle root works as well as the drug finasteride which is prescribed for BPH and is also better tolerated than the drug.

The effect of nettle root on dihydrotestosterone (DHT) levels has also made it a treatment for hair loss, as male pattern balding has often been linked to an excess of DHT, as has hair loss in women too. In folklore it was always believed that nettles were an effective treatment for baldness and modern science appears to validate this belief. Nettle root is also valuable as a source of lignans, a type of phytoestrogens, which have become more and more valued in recent years, and which accounts for its galactogogue property. Nettle root also contains a number of chemical compounds which appear to significantly stimulate the immune system.

(from Vortex Health)

Finally, when you are the only family left on this planet, you can use nettles to produce fibres that you can weave for clothes.  The fibres are currently only used on a industrial scale in Japan, but they are capable of producing a linen-like fabric, albeit coarser.  Hans Andersen’s fairytale, The Wild Swans, tells of the mute princess, Elisa, knitting nettle shirts to help her eleven brothers regain their human form after they have been turned into swans by the evil stepmother. But apparently nettle fibres were used for centuries in Scotland to produce fabric for tablecloths, and nettle fibres were even woven in Germany to produce uniforms for the army during the Second World War when cotton was hard to come by.


1 lb potatoes
½ lb young nettles
2 oz butter
1½ pts chicken or vegetable stock
sea salt & black pepper
4 tablespoons sour cream


Cook the peeled, chopped potatoes for 10 mins in salted water. Drain.

Wash & chop coarsely the nettles (Only pick the new, young tops,using gloves!)

Melt the butter in a saucepan, add the nettles and stew gently for a few minutes. Add the potatoes and heated stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes or until tender.

When all is soft, cool slightly & purée in a blender, adding seasoning and the sour cream.


½ carrier bag full of nettles, tops or young leaves
55g butter
1 large or 2 medium onions, finely sliced
1 large carrot, chopped (optional)
2 celery sticks, chopped (optional)
1 large garlic clove, crushed (optional)
1 litre good chicken, fish or vegetable stock
a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
3 tablespoons cooked rice or 3 rice cakes
2 tablespoons thick cream or crème fraiche
salt and freshly ground black pepperTo Garnish:
A little extra cream or crème fraiche
A small bunch of chives, chopped
A few sprigs of wild chervil or parsley, chopped 


Pick over the nettles and wash them thoroughly. Discard only the tougher stalks, as the soup will be liquidised. Melt the butter in a large pan and sweat the onion, plus the carrot, celery and garlic if using, until soft but not brown. Add the stock and pile in the nettles. Bring to the boil and simmer for 5-10 minutes, until the nettles are tender. Season with salt and pepper, and with nutmeg if you wish. Puree the soup in a liquidiser with the cooked rice or rice cakes (you will probably have to do this in 2 batches). Return to a clean pan, stir in the cream and reheat, but do not let it boil. Check the seasoning, then serve, garnishing each bowl with a swirl of cream and a generous sprinkling of chopped herbs.

To serve cold:
An alternative is to serve this soup cold. After liquidising and adding the cream, pour the soup into a bowl and leave to cool, then transfer to the fridge for a couple of hours before serving. For accelerated cooling, fill a large basin or saucepan with ice cubes and water and place the bowl of soup in the iced water. Stir to chill, adding more ice cubes if the first batch melts. Stir well just before serving and ladle the soup out into bowls. Garnish each with a swirl of cream and a sprinkling of chopped chives and wild chervil.

Serves 6

Additional notes:
This is the basic recipe for nettle and other ‘wild greens’ soups, including fat hen and chickweed. It will also freeze extremely well. For a variation mix the nettle leaves with watercress or Cos lettuce. The carrot and celery are optional but make the soup more robust and full-flavoured. You can also add a few fresh or frozen peas, to give sweetness and improve the texture. Using fish stock will give a more unusual taste. If using a stock cube the best ones are monosodium glutamate free. If you prefer you can use a medium potato to thicken the soup instead of the cooked rice (or cakes) – peel and dice it fairly small and add it just before adding the stock.

Nettle Soup is featured in Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s ‘River Cottage Cookbook’, published by Harper Collins, ISBN: 0002202042, price: 19.99

3. Nettle and Coconut Soup


A washing-up bowl of nettle tops
1 onion, chopped
250ml of orange juice
1 tin of coconut milk
1 tsp Marigold swiss vegetable bouillon powder (or clear vegetable or meat stock)
Olive oil for frying onion


In a large deep saucepan, fry the chopped onion on a medium heat until transparent and just beginning to brown. Add the rinsed nettles and cover saucepan. Sweat the nettles and onions together until the nettles have wilted and started to give out their juices. This will take about 10-15 minutes. Add the orange juice and the bouillon powder and bring to the boil. Add the coconut milk and some water (about 1/2 litre) and continue simmering for a further 10-15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Liquidize the soup and serve hot or chilled.