Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Consider the Thistle and Find Your Way Home (Book Review)

For nearly three weeks, I've had a copy of Find Your Way Home: Words from the Street, Wisdom from the Heart. The book has been a balm, a burden, and a bounty.

It's been a balm because in the women who present their stories in the book, I see that the universe has not forsaken humanity's spirit to overcome horror. A burden because as I hold these women's words and stare into my soul's mirror, I see that I often lack their courage. And a bounty because their words lift that burden and any other weight that may tether me to self-doubt and despair. This little book of feminine grace has the inspiration and spiritual guidance of a tome.

The Women of Magdalene wrote this book with the founder of the Magdalene community in Nashville, Tenn., Becca Stevens, an Episcopalian priest. You may be aware this organization under the name Thistle Farms through the marketing of its handmade candles and bath and body products.

Thistle Farms is a non-profit business run by women who have survived lives of violence, prostitution, and abuse. Thistle Farms products are hand-made by the very women they benefit. All proceeds go back into Thistle Farms and the residential program, Magdalene. Into every product goes the belief that freedom starts with healing and love can change lives.
... Magdalene is a two-year residential community founded in Nashville Tennessee in 1997 for women with a history of prostitution and drug addiction. Magdalene was founded not just to help a sub-culture of women, but to help change the culture itself. We stand in solidarity with women who are recovering from sexual abuse, violence, and life on the streets, and who have paid dearly for a culture that buys and sells women like commodities. (ThistleFarms.org)
With the current downturn in our economy, Thistle Farms/Magdalene community faces a dip in donations. According to a local news story with video, the organization has had to to cut its budget by 13 percent. One of its houses is in such disrepair, residents can't live in it.

After reading about the women this program helps, I decided to participate in a blogging initiative that Thistle Farms supporters hope will raise awareness of the work of Magdalene community. Through that effort I received its little book of wisdom for review.

The book is broken into 24 sections, 24 rules by which women in the Magdalene community live while in the program. In the book's introduction, Stevens explains that Magdalene community developed guidelines for its communal living in a way similar to St. Benedict of Nursia's development of the Rule of Benedict.

With each rule presented in Find Your Way Home comes personal stories and reflections from Magdalene community residents. Stevens writes:

In the Magdalene community, we start everyday by gathering in a circle where we read a meditation, pray, and make sure everyone is all right. We share stories and wisdom. We tell the truth. In this book, we invite you to share the spiritual principles of Magdalene.
Before I share part of one of its stories, here's a little background from both its website and the postcard that came with my book. It tells why Magdalene community uses the thistle as its symbol.
thistle farmsConsidered a weed, thistles grow on the streets and alleys where the women of Magdalene walked. But, thistles have a deep tap root that can shoot through thick concrete and survive drought. And in spite of their prickly appearance, their royal and soft purple center makes the thistle a mysterious and gorgeous flower.
Like all of the personal reflections in the book, the story under Rule 14 puts flesh and bone on symbolism and the abstract:
Rule 14, Consider the Thistle
I know Dickerson Road all too well. I lived there in abandoned sheds and lots. The smell of urine was everywhere. I kept all my worldly belongings in garbage bags. I spent hours looking for restaurants where I could wash my body off. I spent days going to thrift stores looking for free clothing. All of this so I could hang out at the gas station to panhandle or catch a trick, whichever came first. I had no shoes, no good clothes, nowhere to sleep, no food to eat; and yet I am beautiful and worthy of every good thing. (from Find Your Way Home)
And yet ...

Much of this little book could be called "Psalms of And Yet," and I mean that in the best possible way: I have been sold like an animal, and yet ... I walk in dignity. I have been beaten and raped, and yet ... I can love and trust again. I am broken, and yet ... I heal.

As I read the book, I consider the thistle as well and how we are each stronger than we know, if we would only claim our inner strength and also be strong enough to accept help when we need help, to take our place in the community circle of our family, friends, or other support groups. To do so takes humility.

I also consider that any woman at any moment is akin to the women of Magdalene House. Even some of us secure and comfortable in our suburban homes must learn the same lessons women of Magdalene learn, such as Rule 11, Unite Your Sexuality and Spirituality:

We have been taught that our sexuality is a commodity, and have learned to live in a spirit of mistrust and manipulation.
In community, we claim ourselves again, saying no to people and institutions that are not part of the healing of our bodies, minds, and spirits. (from find Your Way Home)
A writer at Women Day By Day tells how the book resonates with her:
It’s a softcover, small format that fits nicely on a bedside table for an evening revery before bed. The book, called Find Your Way Back Home, is a perfect way to pause for a moment in respect and empathy for our troubled sisters. ... Find Your Way Back Home gives 20/20 insight into the pshyche [sic] of women who have lived lives of terror. What I saw is, they are just like me. They think like me and crave the same things I seek - peace, self-esteem, a successful path. ... It’s a humbling little read, reminding us of what make [sic] women the same rather than exaggerating those things that make us different. (WDBD)
I agree that it is a wonderful bedside book, one to read before bedtime, perhaps to plant in our heads hope for renewal and wisdom whispering in plain English.

If you'd like to know more about Thistle Farms and Magdalene community, please visit the site. I've posted the following video that gives further insight on how the struggle of these women in Nashville, Tenn., is the same as the struggle of women around the world who fight to free themselves and their sisters from violence and sexual abuse.

Also, here's a link to the Thistle Farms store where you can purchase bath and body products or the book Find Your Way Home. You may also visit Becca Stevens's blog.

In addition, a writer at Women's Health News sometimes discusses the organization's work. Through that blog I learned of the documentary Chances, a film about Thistle Farms' work.

Cross-posted at BlogHer.com.

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