Thursday, December 2, 2010

Eight Cow Woman

Mrs. Else taught a course at Nevada Union High School called World Cultures. It was a required course at the time and probably should have been one of my favorites. Sadly, I don’t remember much about the class, only an exercise where we learned about a tribe in North America called the ASU who revered a beast called the Rac and a film about a guy who paid eight cows for his wife. I guess that class must have taught me something because both lessons have stayed with me, for better or worse.

The story of the eight cow woman depicts a couple of conflicting ideas – about the edifying power of the truest love and also about the commercialization of women. If you did not grow up in a fairly conservative or fundamentalist community, you may have missed the story… Johnny Lingo travels to a nearby village and offers the unheard of bride price of eight cows for the homely Sarita. The villagers laugh at him, because as homely as she is, he surely could have made her his wife for one cow and her elderly father would have been grateful. Less than a year after their wedding, Sarita has become a poised and beautiful woman because she is finally aware of her worth and her value as a woman.

I had incredibly ambivalent feelings about Johnny Lingo and his eight cow wife. I recognized that with self-confidence even homely women can become beautiful, which was hugely encouraging to my 13-year-old braces-wearing self. But I also had the vague feeling that the only reason she felt confident was because a man chose her. Johnny’s wife became an eight cow woman because he made her one. And he made her one because he wanted an eight cow wife – her beauty was a reflection of his virility – or something like that.

Thirty years later I am contemplating marriage and the ambivalence is back. I am middle aged, I have children, I have an established career – the only reason I would get married again could only be for the truest love. When I was a young woman, before I was ever married, I used to claim that when I married what I wanted was a simple gold band. I wanted the world to see that I married for love, not for money (one cow). But I always hoped that someone would ultimately spring for the big rock (eight cows). I knew that spending money on a diamond was silly and I wasn’t worth it. I got the plain, gold band and quickie courthouse wedding, exactly what I asked for.

Over the ensuing ten years, I tried to convince myself that what was important was the marriage, not the wedding. But every wedding I attended left me a hot mess, surreptitiously wiping away the tears and the snot, feeling somewhat bewildered by the intensity of my reaction. I look forward to weddings because along with funerals, they tend to be when families and friends come together to celebrate life. We raise glasses, we dance, we talk - weaving the basket that holds our lives and makes us a tribe. I came to realize that part of my sadness came from never truly joining my tribe to my husband’s tribe and for that reason we were always a little bit apart.

When our marriage began to unravel, we didn’t have our unified tribe to help keep us together. And above all, from the very beginning he chose to please his parents and not me. The reason we couldn’t have a wedding was because his parents didn’t approve and wouldn’t attend. But it would be hurtful to them if we celebrated our wedding without them – so out of respect we never celebrated. In the process I learned that if a couple can’t figure out how to bring their families together for a wedding, then the families certainly won’t come together to support a marriage. What you compromise in your wedding is indicative of what you’ll compromise in your marriage, and compromise is essential in a marriage so you’d better figure it out.

When our marriage was over, I looked back on that beginning. Was it really that important that I had no white gown, no veil, no diamond engagement ring and above all, no laughing children running through the legs of dancing couples slightly tipsy from wedding champagne? YES! It was really that important because from the very first he displayed to me that in his eyes I wasn’t worth it. I wasn’t worth the expense of the ring and I wasn’t worth the hassle of the guests and I really wasn’t worth standing up for to his parents. And from the very first I displayed that I didn’t think I was worth it, either. I accepted the wedding band bought on the spur of the moment at the mall, I accepted that my parents wouldn’t be celebrating with us; I accepted that his parents could be excused from being part of our tribe.

Contemplating marriage, for the last and best time, it is important to me that we bring our families together and join them as one family. I trust the ritual to contribute to our foundation. At the same time I have the nagging fear that I want this only because I’ve been trained to fetishize weddings and somehow I believe that like Sarita, only being picked by a man makes me a valuable woman. I’ve started to feel weirdly guilty and ashamed when coveting other women’s beautiful diamond engagement rings and looking up destination weddings online.

I am reliving my 13-year-old proto-post-feminist dialectic: I am a creature of my culture where I long to have my worth validated by the love of a man, but angered by a tradition that commercializes me. I resent the bride price that a beautiful diamond ring implies, but I want the diamond resting on my left hand to signal my worth to the world. I want a public declaration of love - a wedding where we stand at the altar and make our promises, and our friends and family make promises, too. I want to be an eight cow wife.