All of us have symbols and images that define us or, at the very least, help us make meaning of life. For some of us, these symbols are striking like thick, shiny strands woven into every piece and pattern of our lives, which we cannot ignore. For others, these symbols are like subtle undercurrents, they are felt, they make an impact, but they are below the surface, never acknowledged.
In graduate school I took a seminar course called Women’s Voices: Issues in Faith and Development. Our first assignment, and perhaps our best, was to think about an image or symbol that represents what we were taught it means to be a woman. The next week we had to bring that image or symbol and present it to the class. Eventually I stumbled across an old memory of a conversation I had with my mother the summer before I went to high school.
Mom: “Honey, we need to go to the mall. We need to get you some clothes and school supplies and things.”
Mom: “Oh, and while we are there maybe you can find a purse that you like.”
Daughter: (typical teenage silence that is so stuffed with thoughts it is indiscernible to both parent and child)
Mom: (typical parent-of-a-teenage silence that expects a rational answer)
Daughter: “I don’t need a purse.”
Mom: “Yes you do.”
Daughter: “No I don’t.”
Mom: “Yes you do. You are a woman now. It’s time to get a purse.”
Daughter: “Mom, I have a backpack with like a trillion zipper pockets. It even has special slots for my pencils. It has so much room you could probably fit a car in there. I don’t need a purse.”
Mom: “Oh, yes you do. You need a purse.”
Mom: “It’s how we carry things around.”
Daughter: “But mom, the backpack thing, remember?”
Mom: “But don’t you want a purse?”
Mom: (stunned silence) “Well don’t you want to carry things around in a purse?”
Daughter: “What things would I carry around in a purse that I can’t carry around in a backpack?”
Mom: “But what about after school and on the weekends? You’re not going to carry around a backpack to the movies or to a friend’s house.”
Daughter: “What would I need to take to a friend’s house or to the movies that I couldn’t fit in my pocket?”
Mom: “You need a purse.”
Daughter: “No, I don’t.”
And so it went. Mom and I must have had this conversation a handful of times, but it seemed like we went forty rounds everyday about needing to carry a purse. My mother was adamant that I needed one because I was a woman and women carry things around in purses. I was adamant that a purse was unnecessary, just another thing to lug through the day and potentially lose. Ten years after my initial argument with my mother, I took a purse to my seminar course, (a purse my mother had bought me) and talked about receiving this startling message as an adolescent: to be a woman means you have to carry a purse.
My mother loves purses. She always has and always will. At any given time she might own a fabric and a leather purse for every season of the year, purses for special occasions, a purse that is a memento of foreign travel, a purse for Easter or the Christmas season, and a purse my father bought her as a gift. She knows the brands, the designers, the materials, what’s in season and what’s out. You might consider her a purse connoisseur.
I, on the other hand, have never quite understood the mystique of the purse. Why do women always have these things dangling from their shoulders, elbows and hands? Why do they carry so many things around all the time and to all places? What are these “things” we have to carry around, why do we have to carry them and why are they essential to womanhood?
If we had a national dump-out-your-purse day, and every woman simultaneously dumped the contents of their purses out on the sidewalk, what would we find in common? I’d guess keys, a wallet, check book, tissues, chapstick, makeup, a small mirror, and any kind or number of “feminine products.” That’s a heavy list. I’ve always prided myself on being low maintenance. I can get ready for the day in forty minutes and that includes showering, blow drying my hair and eating breakfast. I wear makeup once or twice a year. When I go out, I only carry what I absolutely need. My first “purse” was a 2 x 4 inch fabric bag with two zipper pockets – large enough for keys, cash, eye drops, my license and a tampon. My mother never considered this bag a purse. I don’t know why. Maybe it wasn’t big enough, or because it wasn’t leather, or I didn’t carry enough stuff, or what I carried wasn’t the right stuff. I never really asked why my purse wasn’t sufficient.
I don’t know how many purses the average woman has…two, four? I currently have eight, six of which were purchased by my mother over the last ten years. A few of them are pretty worn, others are like new. Even those that I hardly use still hang in my closet. I can’t bring myself to get rid of them. (Once, when a male guest opened my coat closet, he jumped and let out a little shriek as a rack full of swinging purses threatened to bludgeon him.)
No matter how many conversations my mother and I had, no matter how many disagreements, no matter how many purses she has bought me, I have never latched on to the idea that the purse is essential to womanhood. I am not less than a woman because I don’t always carry a purse. I am no less a woman because I do not wear makeup. I don’t like chocolate or wear pearls and I am categorically opposed to panty hose, but I am a woman.
Recently, my mother and I discussed this purse disagreement and had a good laugh. Then I got to thinking. I do resonate with the symbol of the purse in the sense that as a woman, as a person, as Corrie, I do hold many things close to me. If a purse did symbolize my life, what would make the “essentials list” to who I am? Whether out of a sense of love, obligation or burden, what do I carry around with me everywhere I go? What things, whether symbols or ideas or images, help define my life and identity?
The Purse will be about who I am, how I understand myself, or God, or the world, and what essentials I carry with me through the everyday.