The subject of my first book—homeless women, or more broadly, the role that unattached women living at the margins of society play in relation to the rest of us—came as sort of a surprise. This wasn’t a topic I would have deliberately chosen. And not until after I finished writing the book did I really understood what it’s about.
It began with a chance remark by an elegant woman I knew, comparing herself to a shopping bag lady—one of the homeless who then lived on the streets of New York City, carrying their possessions in bags. The thing was, no one ever looked less like a shopping bag lady than this woman. That contradiction started me thinking: where could this self-image of hers have come from? I decided to write an article about people’s perceptions of the bag ladies. I did a number of interviews and found more contradictions. Some people were convinced the bag ladies were on the street because their children had kicked them out. Others were positive that they had sneaked out without their children knowing, since what child would let a mother live that way?
Just at this time, someone told me about an editor who was looking for a book about homeless women. I called her on a Friday, and she said sure, come in on Monday. So I had the weekend to come up with a book idea. I sat down at my typewriter (it was a long time ago!) and this sentence formed itself in my mind:
- The bag lady is the modern witch.
That publisher didn’t pan out, but I had been wound up and set in motion. I was introduced to a group of Franciscan nuns who were just setting up a shelter for the bag ladies, and became a volunteer there. I started doing research about the history of homeless women, all the way back to the Code of Hammurabi (yes, it’s a problem as old as civilization).
It took over a decade for that book to get published (I signed, then lost, contracts with two commercial publishers before winding up at the University of California Press), and in the interim almost everything about it evolved, except that image of the witch, which remained its central organizing principle.
So where did it come from? I retain a vivid memory of the moment the witch image entered my mind. I retain another memory of sitting thinking about that book, and suddenly having a feeling of larger significance, of some stream of meaning, or of energy, descending into me, from somewhere outside. And it was in working on that book that I first had the remarkable feeling that what I wrote wasn’t coming from my brain (I’d always seen myself as quite cerebral). It was coming up, from my gut. But how did it get into my gut?
I like working with images (more on that in a future post) because they help me reach that “gut” level of insight. There are various descriptions of this state of being, e.g. “flow, ” the “zone.” But from my Buddhist perspective I like thinking of it as those moments when the ego is sidestepped and a channel opens up to the vast interconnectedness that I do believe exists, if we can just see past the constraints of our customary awareness.
Causes Stephanie Golden Supports
Insight Meditation Society, Barre, MA
Brooklyn for Peace
New York Insight Meditation Center
Coalition for the Homeless