"The Warm Embrace of Women's Empathy"
By: Susan Phillips Plese

Hartford Courant

November 2002



     A few weeks ago a friend who came to a party dropped off a large wrapped parcel on the desk in my office. She said I would understand when I opened it.

     I didn’t get around to it until after the guests had left and the house cleaned up. Everyone was in bed; I suddenly remembered the package.

     Inside the tissue-lined box I unfolded a fringed shawl, hand knitted with a marled yarn in creamy pastels.

     My friend wrote:

     “This is a prayer shawl knitted by members of our congregation. They say prayers of comfort as they work.

     “The purpose of the prayer is to let the owner know that others care for {her} in difficult times and are thinking of you.”

     Of course I started to cry. Women are like that. I wrapped the shawl around my shoulders and imagined a circle of women softly chanting as their needles clicked and the garments grew.

     I wondered about the woman who made my shawl, the pain in her own life that may have induced her to love a stranger with a gift of comfort.

     Who is she? Young, middle age, old? Does she have a family? What does she look like? I picture her with gray wavy hair, chin length, with a round, cherubic face, a kind face and a comfortable lap for children.

      Her hands that created such a piece: Are they lined and aged or young and firm? She is simple I think, with short unpolished nails. I look at my own hands, those of a middle-age woman, and remember the days and nights I sat silently crocheting a sweater for one of my children, then sewed in a cloth tag that said, “Made with love by Mommy.”

     I haven’t crocheted since the children realized it was not cool to wear a handmade sweater by Mommy to school.

     So I enter a different phase: the realization of a nurturing spirit that binds all women. We have the sole privilege of giving birth. It is natural that we would work to sustain life. Anyone who has carried a child in her body or held a newborn realizes the sacred power of women.

     The shawl came with a few papers, prayers for healing, as well as a simple explanation:

     “Shawls, made for centuries, are universal and embracing. They enfold, comfort, cover, wrap, give solace, warmth, mother, hug, shelter, and beautify.”

     They are symbolic of inclusive and unconditional loving. Those who have received these shawls have been uplifted and affirmed.”

     I went to bed that night, the shawl wrapped around me. It smelled like a woman, clean and as fresh as laundry dried on a clothesline in the sun. It is hard for me to describe the emotions as I lay in my bed, thinking about the bond women have that is beyond the physical.

     I think women feel things that men do not. We have another sense. We know when a friend is in trouble long before she says it. We respond to almost unconscious clues, a look, a touch, just an ephemeral notion.

    We have “mother’s ears” that cause us to wake suddenly in the night at the muffled sound of a child turning in his sleep. We trust instinct:  I often took one of the kids to the doctor because I just knew something was wrong, even in the absence of symptoms.  I was wrong in my feeling only once over a span of more than 20 years and three children.

     Sometimes women don’t realize the web of caring that connects us – until we are the recipients. My friend Karen reaffirmed the encompassing web of women. I don’t think she really understands how it feels – unless someone gave her a prayer shawl.

     My daughter gave me the book  “The Red Tent” as a gift about a year ago. She inscribed it with the words that it was an “affirmation of womanhood.”

     I cried then, too, knowing that my beautiful little girl had entered a new phase: the realization that she was part of the complex structure women weave for themselves in order to hold our worlds together.

     We have an awesome responsibility. We also have an awesome source of energy and spirituality that comes from our collective experience.

     My husband asked what the thing was that I took to bed. I told him about the prayer shawl. He said it was nice.

     For me, it was manna in the wilderness.

     I love being a woman.


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