This is an excerpt from the section of my book that I'm working on at present.
I prepared my body for viewing the morning of my speech.
I wore a tartan skirt of dark blue and evergreen, I remember–knee-length, appropriate–and a black V-neck sweater that was not too loose and not too tight.
“V-necks draw attention to the face.”
It was one of my mother’s few fashion tips, and it served me well over the years. Round necklines had a way of making my already very ample bosom seem ampler still. I felt top heavy and frumpy whenever I wore them.
But today in my dark ensemble, skirt accented by black stockings and black pumps, I felt very chic. If Netflix’s House of Cards had existed then, no doubt the image of Claire Underwood would have hovered in my subconscious despite the protests of my conscious self, hoping I mirrored Claire’s calculated sensuality and powerful command of her own body.
The Provost introduced me to the expectant crowd of university alumni sitting in the chapel auditorium, and I walked across the stage to the lectern, the hem of my tartan plaid swishing gently against my modest knees.
I welcomed the glare of the stage lights and the sound of applause that gave me a moment to spread out my typed speech, take a deep breath, and place my trembling fingers calmly at the base of the lectern.
When the room was quiet, I looked out into the darkness, smiled at the obscured sea of faces waiting for a divine word, and with another deep breath, launched into my speech.
As I heard my own voicing speaking with authority, I felt a surge that both thrilled and calmed me. My heart was racing, but it steadied as I moved through the delivery.
I was at the peak of a small world, and it enlivened, enthralled me. To call it a sense of power is honest, but imprecise–it was more than that. There is a kind of recognition, a joy, when you believe something and proclaim it: deep calls to deep and it answers back. Through writing, I had taken a tiny fragment of the world’s chaos and shaped it into intelligible thought.
“As human beings created in the image of our Creator,” I said, “we are sub-creators, little ‘artists,’ so to speak, whose choices sculpt the world in which we live. Our calling is to submit ourselves to God, the Divine Artist, as He shapes the world in accordance with His will.”
My speech was freighted down with nascent god-language, boulders that obscured so much of what I was trying to say. But it didn’t matter. I was saying more than what came out of my mouth: I myself was the message.
I was the radiance of this Christian university’s vision, the exact imprint of the image it wanted to present to the alumni. I was the modern conservative ideal: traditional with just a hint of the progressive, a creative rule-follower. I was majoring in Biblical Studies–not to become a pastor’s wife or to go into women’s ministry, but to excel in the academy (for the glory of God).
My body in that space was as political as it was personal. That’s the strange thing about being a body. Your body is doing things you don’t understand. It’s saying thing, meaning things. Looking back, I see the signs. My skin, my gender, my dress–all had social meanings I didn’t understand (and maybe hadn’t even asked for). I muddled my way through the world, not knowing the significance of my body.
The university wanted to parade me before its alumni as the way of the future, and I was glad to oblige. I fit the role. Playing it wasn’t a burden and it wasn’t dishonest.
But if the university expected that I or any of its model graduates would fit this image into perpetuity, it was setting itself (and us) for failure. You can’t have your cake and eat it to. You can’t teach your students to be artists and expect suppliants. You can’t liberate them and expect them to keep dancing to your tune. The university committed a grave error. It gave me teachers that were less concerned with God’s will, and more about my liberation.
I like to think that there was something prophetic, transgressive, about my woman’s body in that conservative evangelical space. I both belonged there and didn’t.
I was studying Bible, but there were no women faculty in the School of Biblical Studies. The closest a woman had come to teaching the Bible at that school was a now-aged woman named Mavis Buchanan who had taught Biblical Greek back in the day, and for years ran the administrative operations of the university. A few of the Bible faculty had left when she started teaching Greek. And yet Mavis was against women teaching the Bible. I guess Greek didn’t count in her mind. She would never have called herself a feminist.
Was Mavis a progressive fighting for women’s rights or a role-keeping traditionalist?
I don’t like the answer because it isn’t clean or simple. She was both, and it doesn’t make sense. Her body was serving the status quo and disrupting the given order to make way for new structures.
Our bodies say more than we comprehend. Our skin carries more meaning than know, for better and for worse. And we prophesy in many portions and in many ways.