Sacred Questioning

To read a new post of mine about asking essential and uncomfortable questions as a spiritual practice on the wonderful site Feminism and Religion, please click here.

Living Between Our Lives: Thriving in Liminal Times

The beginning of November is a “liminal time.” It is a time when the veil between the worlds is thin and it can be easy to feel we are in some mystical realm when we get up early and see the mist rising off the fields or the crimson light of an early sunset when we are used to daylight. It is the new year in some cultures. It is a time when change is in the air and we are putting away our summer routines and remembering our winter ones.  No matter what the month, we all have especially “liminal” times in our lives, when we choose, or have forced upon us, great change and we are no longer fully living in our old lives yet not quite in our new ones.

As I look back over my life, I see that I am someone who has enjoyed “regenerating” myself, each time creating a liminal time as one phase faded and another came into being. I grew up in a university town in the Midwest in the 1960s and 70s and left that comfortable life for the punky, noisy, and art-infested East Village of the 1980s when I was in my 20s.  Then, at 30, I left again to be a spouse and parent in a small town in New England, complete with a Victorian fixer-upper house, herb garden, and professional job.  Each time, I felt both the stress and thrill of, in a way, starting my life over.

I’ve found that these liminal times offer two unique opportunities and November provides a special perspective on each of them. The first is the chance to learn who we really are without the trappings that come with living in a particular place and time so long that we surrender our uniqueness to the convenience of routine. In November in my garden, some plants that only live a season are already on the compost pile waiting to become nutrients for next year. Others are perennials that are withered and need to be cut back. A few are still in flower and as fresh and green as they were in the spring. Yet, they are all on the cusp of change in the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. They teach us that, even as we let one life pass away and another take over our days, we still remain essentially ourselves. Next spring new flowers will emerge from the seeds cast this fall and fresh stalks and blooms will appear out of the ground from the roots of perennials, but there is some essence that will remain the same. Jerusalem artichokes will not arise from the seeds of geraniums and bee balm blooms will not grow out of raspberry canes or grapevines. Just as the plants will be different next spring as they adapt to next year’s environment – some will flourish with abundant rain while others may struggle without adequate sun — there will still be something about them that makes them immediately identifiable, so do we have the chance to see what remains the same in us when our environment changes. Liminal times reintroduce us to our most essential selves, both those aspects we love about ourselves and nurture and those that we may wish not to face and so use the busyness of everyday life to ignore.

Liminal times can also make us aware of the magnificence of everyday life as we explore new routines, places, and people that may soon become so commonplace to us that we forget to appreciate them. For a short time, we have the wonder of living in a world that is fresh and exciting, demanding more of our attention but in return giving us the joy of being engaged in its details and possibilities. Think of the first snowfall, an event that frequently happens here in New England in November. I have seen a first snow for every one of the past 55 winters, and I know that within a month or so I’ll be ready for spring, but I never fail to run outside to experience the beauty of the flakes as they waft down to the ground, or the refreshing taste of their chill on my tongue, or their gentleness as they fall on my hand. After the first heavy snowfall when the ground is covered, I always feel as if I am walking out into a new world, one that has never known the step of humanity before. And so it is with our new circumstance or environment. This new corner of the world has never known us before and we can make of it completely what we choose here and now.

While these liminal times can be a time to revitalize our world, not all of them lead to better life situations than we had before. A health crisis, the loss of a loved one, and other similar changes can be more catastrophes than opportunities. And even preparing for a new phase of life we are looking forward to can be exhausting as we do our usual chores each day while needing to fit in all those extra logistical tasks that come with closing out one part of our lives to move into the next. These liminal times can still be our means to gain strength, wisdom, and power. Consider Inanna, a goddess who chose to visit the Underworld to learn the lessons she could not find anywhere in her bright world above. Before she could enter she had to give up all her symbols of position and wealth, even her clothes, which she did willingly. While in the Underworld she lost even her life until she was rescued. While there she found she was deeper, richer, fiercer, and a better goddess than she ever knew she could be and through the agreement to send her husband down to the Underworld to take her place for six months each year, she set into motion the seasons that make life on Earth possible*. She found who she truly was in her essence and remade the world into one of abundance and vitality.

While we may mark the phases of our lives with great changes, in reality most of the time we are more like the moon that gradually moves through being new, waxing, being full, and then waning, progressing slowly in small incremental steps instead of revolutions.  In fact, every day brings changes, though we may not recognize them. Perhaps by remembering the positive, life-giving ways we have felt during these liminal times, we may find ourselves more alive and joyful every day.  May we bring the blessings of these liminal times to each moment we live.

*To learn more about Inanna and Her descent, see Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer’s Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth, Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer.

Living in the Garden of Time

bridge2When women seek that within themselves that is eternal, when they re-center themselves in their own souls, so often we go to a garden or forest or other natural place. It is there where many of us find our greatest truths. Yet, I find that so often I tend to ignore the wisdom I find in my favorite natural places, continuing to think without question in ways that I have been taught since childhood and that are constantly reinforced by the culture around us.

Lately I have been considering what nature tells us about time, and specifically about the ways we perceive our lives. I have always thought of time using a traditional mathematical model, as a progression from beginning to middle to end, and my own lifespan as a number of years that I constantly spend, like money, and have less of as I get older. I believe that this viewpoint contributes to our society’s perception that youth is to be hoarded and older age something to be hidden, as if by doing so we will be able to hold in our grasp more of our precious years of life.

But, what if I were to think of my life not as a time-bound progression from coming into being to no longer existing, but as a garden or other natural place? What if I do not think of myself as moving along a pre-formed, perhaps even pre-destined, path, from birth to death, but rather as the center of my own garden with time happening around me and as part of me? What if the past is not lost and the future is not simply a non-existent wish, but if past, present, and future were all part of my life right now, like a bunch of blossoms with some still in the bud, others in full bloom, and yet others fading?

In such a place, the flowers that had dropped their petals to the ground would not be lost, garden8but would rather be starting at a new beginning of their journey as they decompose into the soil that nourishes and becomes part of next year’s blooms. The past would be all around me in every leaf, blossom, and root that is made up of plants from past seasons. I have, at times, wondered what it would be like to live in one of the times and places in the past when women’s spiritual power was recognized and encouraged (for wonderful explorations of these see either of Max Dashu’s amazing DVDs, Women’s Power and Woman Shaman: The Ancients). Who would I be if I had lived my life in such a time? What if that time were not gone, was not dust under our feet, but alive within us, still infused in the soil of our souls? What if our time with all those family and friends who have given us love and inspiration, but who are no longer on earth, was not over, but was still present in some deep way? Instead of feeling as if we, as individuals and as a generation of women, were on our own as we try to make our world not just sustainable but a garden that nourishes all living beings on it, perhaps we would feel the strength, love, guidance, and wisdom of all those who lived in the past and ourselves as part of a circle that has been a presence in the world for a very, very long time.

magnoliaIn such a place, the flowers that were still in bud, or not even emerged, would not be yet to come and therefore not to be considered as important as ourselves, but rather a part of us and as alive now as we are. Just as I think about the past, I also contemplate the future and wonder how generations after us will live in this world we have created as well as what amazing progress they will make on the foundation of the good things we have done. Considering their well being is not just a kindness to those who will come after us, but an essential aspect of taking care of both ourselves, for we are part of them, and being good stewards of the garden while we are alive in it. And they, too, are part of the circle of all those from both the past and present and, in their own way, contribute to our wisdom and well being by the promise of all they will do and be in their own time.

Envisioning myself as being at the center of a garden of time has become essential to the way I view myself and the world. I find I enjoy my life more because I am no longer fretting about how large a store of years I have left, but rather I see my life as a whole. I no longer long for times and loved ones I have lost, for I recognize that once I have had an experience or come to love someone, they are as with me now as ever. Perhaps most importantly, I feel more like a part of a human community with a deep past and, hopefully, a long future. Not everything needs to happen in my lifetime to count as an accomplishment. If something I say or do now bears fruit in someone’s life decades from now when my petals have gone into the soil, that’s the way things are supposed to be.

As I am nourished by the past, may I be a bloom that adds beauty and joy to the future.

Persephone’s Bower: Chapter One

As some of you may remember, last summer I posted the prologue of a new novel I’m writing and promised to post each chapter as a draft as it is finished. The idea is that you can comment on each chapter if you like — tell me what’s unclear or that you think needs to be changed, what do you like, what really irritates you, etc.  I want to know so I can make the novel the best it can be! And hopefully you’ll find it fun to read it as it’s being created. I promise to try to be more prompt with upcoming chapters. If you didn’t read the Prologue you might want to read that first by clicking here.

CHAPTER ONE: THE TEA AT THE BACK OF THE PANTRY

The natural granite menhir stood as immovable witness to the island’s birth, the timeless center around which endless sunrises chased sunsets. As the mainland retreated with the rising waters, the menhir saw flora and fauna evolve and burgeon instead of being driven to extinction by plants and animals from other continents that found their way to the mainland. Later the menhir watched as the humans came in waves. The first peoples stayed only a few days each year to harvest the island’s unique bounty. Then others came, one or handful at a time, to hike or climb, to find refuge for a while, to picnic and watch the ships pass by. Finally, ferries full of summer vacationers built cottages near the shore, then established a small year-round community in the cove nearest the mainland. Occasionally one of the humans would discover the menhir, invisible to all but those who ventured deep into the forest at the navel of the island, but they could never find it a second time.

Diana Blakely had believed from the time she was five that Earth’s sky had been red at our planet’s birth and that its apparent blue hue was due to some unknown, very ancient catastrophe. Her adult mind knew this was untrue, but yet in that deeper well within she never doubted it because she had come to know it when she was very young and truth was what the people you loved told you.

During her childhood, her knowledge about the red sky was more than a belief. To her, it always set her apart and a bit above all the other children she knew. She had friends and toys and dance classes like all the other girls, and she did well enough in school, but everything she perceived had the tinge of the red sky world to which she perceived she really belonged. She found that much of the blue sky world, especially the rules and expectations, made no sense. When she was particularly irritated by some nonsense, she would say to herself “those are blue sky ways,” as if someday she would no longer have to endure them.

As the years passed, the soul-deep friendships and everyday new adventures of young womanhood overshadowed the red sky world. Diana’s red sky thoughts retreated to the margins of memory, flickering in and out like a candle flame. Finally, after college, Diana moved from her family’s New England homestead to California, leaving behind all memories and artifacts of the red sky world. Her job with a high tech start-up, her small apartment on a café-laden inner city street, and her work colleague friends were the life she had set out to have and for five years she was content. As so often happens, two seemingly-unrelated events that were actually two halves of an unexpected whole came to pass on the day that she received both an email telling her that the company she worked for was being sold and her position eliminated and a letter outlining the details of her grandmother’s estate, making her the new owner of a cottage on an isolated cove across the country in Massachusetts.

With no savings and no immediate employment prospects, Diana gave up her apartment lease, sold what she could of her possessions, and packed the rest into the back of her compact hatchback to set out across the continent. On her 30th birthday, the ferry landed her and her car on the bustling side of the island and, after driving across the island on dirt roads, she finally arrived at the cottage she had not seen in years. “Happy birthday to me,” she said as she crossed the threshold.

No one had ever entered her grandmother’s cottage by the front door. In fact, the key to it had been lost decades before. Diana only knew to come in by the kitchen door. When she bent over to put her key in that door, she found that the lock had been removed, an unneeded hindrance to a home on a cove visited by almost no one but those who lived in the two cottages on the shore. Once inside, Diana pulled the chain on the ceiling light and the kitchen once again lit up. Diana remembered the room as bright, clean, and full of warmth and cooking smells, but now the room and all the furnishings were shabby and its air was musty and stifling. The dust had turned to brown grime on the counters and in the sink.

She left the door open a while to let in the breeze. Diana would not begin cleaning the cottage in earnest till the next day, but she wanted at least one place to be as she remembered it as a child right then. First, she circled the room taking down the signs – “winter,” “January,” “2013,” “pantry,” – that had helped her grandmother stay oriented once she had fallen into the chasm of dementia. She found the plug for the stove that had been hidden when her grandmother had repeatedly left it on, nearly burning the house down, and plugged it in again. She wiped the counters and mopped the old stone floor. The kitchen had originally been a one-room cottage, built when and by whom unknown, and its nine-foot fireplace and hearth still held soot from decades, maybe even centuries, before. She swept the stray cinders into her dustpan and cast them out the kitchen door. She tossed away the pill boxes and old newspapers on the kitchen counter where her grandmother’s home health aide had left them.

Finally, she was tired and, looking at her grandmother’s tea kettle on the stove, the imagined taste of refreshing tea bid her to sit down and rest. She crumpled the sign that said “sink” as she filled the kettle and looked out the window, the pink clouds tinged with black that were bringing in thunder and lightning to conquer the concord of the summer day.

She searched the pantry, finally finding a canister labeled “Island Tea.” She remembered that her grandmother and her friends had spent hours sitting at this same kitchen table drinking tea from this canister and laughing. Island Tea was the one treat that her grandmother would not share with Diana and her younger sister. Inside, the tea was both leaves and flowers. Diana spooned four scoops of tea into the pot and, when the whistle blew, let the water cool below boiling, as her grandmother had taught her, and poured it over the tea.

Diana drank two sips. Perhaps it was the aroma of the tea. Maybe it was sitting in her grandmother’s chair. It could have been the sound of a sudden downpour of rain on her roof. Diana said, “I remember” as memories of one particular day, long forgotten, infused her consciousness.

Diana, six years old, was lying on the cold stones, staring up at the crimson painted ceiling. She could feel the bite of the floor’s hard chill on the back of her legs and the gentle steam of the radiator warming her face. Her grandmother lay next to her, asking her what pictures she saw in the fading weathered patches of the old paint. “Sky?” Diana asked.

“However you know it should be,” her grandmother said. And so they began with the sky, her grandmother asking questions and Diana answering them.

“What is in the sky?”

“Lots of planets made all of daisies so close you can see the blossoms. Stars, but each a different color. Clouds that only rain cool water when you are thirsty.”

“Are there people on the planet below the red sky?”

“Of course. Who would take care of plants and animals if there weren’t?”

“What do they look like?”

“Whatever they want to. Every night they put all their clothes in a great big pile in the middle of the street and in the morning everyone can choose new clothes. That way everyone gets to try looking different every day and no one feels badly if their clothes aren’t as nice as someone else’s.”

“What are their names?”

“Everyone names themselves. You can have as many names as you want, even a new one every day.”

“Do they have a religion?”

“Everyone likes to go to church to listen to the music and hear the stories once a week, but no one has to remember any lessons.”

And so the answers followed the questions, adding structure and detail to the portrait of the red sky world as created from the mind and spirit of a young girl, the way she knew it must be. By nightfall, her sky burgeoned with planets full of castles and princesses, gardens, forests, and wild animals. Magic wheels in colors no one has ever seen before raced from one side of the universe to the other. Stars shone as goddesses who loved making the worlds of their planets just as Diana did. Below, villages and cities grew with cozy underground houses and above ground temples, theaters, and marketplaces. The sidewalks were fuschia and leaves flew into the heavens rather than onto the soil in the fall, growing wings and eyes as soon as they were liberated from the tree. Diana and her grandmother created words of a red sky language only they knew, and made up rules for games played in the palace pavilion that the red sky world team always won. When it began to rain, they told each other that the red sky goddess was sad and they would make up more red sky stories to cheer Her up. The next morning, Diana’s mother came to take her back to the mainland to start first grade.

Diana awoke from her musings and realized she was hungry. She looked again in the pantry where she found a can of chunky vegetable soup that was only two months out of date. She opened it and poured it into a pan, then turned on the stove for the first time in two years. The gas ring lit up and began heating her dinner. Her grandmother had always played the radio softly while she worked in the kitchen, so Diana, too, turned it on and was comforted by the sound of human existence. “I wonder how I’ll survive here all by myself until I can clean up and sell this place if I have to turn the radio on after only an hour?” she wondered.

When she came back to the pot, it had red and white curls floating in it. She looked up at the ceiling and saw that the red paint with white plaster where it had been repaired was flaking off and floating down onto the floor, counters, table, and food.

Diana’s grandfather had been a carpenter by hobby and so during the summer, when she came to stay with her grandparents, she was used to the sound of hammering as he tried to keep the ancient structure upright and in one piece. She realized she had been hearing sharp, harsh bangs for ten or fifteen minutes, but had not noticed them because they had been so familiar in this place. No one else was in the house. Someone, human or ghostly, was pounding on the ceiling, causing the paint to crumble and making a racket.

“What do you want?” she shouted to the intruder or the ghost.

“I’m trying to keep your house from burning down,” called down a friendly but determined older woman’s voice that sounded not at all ethereal. “I’m attaching a lightning rod. Did you know that your house has had at least ten lightning strikes all around it just in the past week?”

“Who are you?” Diana yelled.

“I’m your neighbor. One of your two neighbors. I’m not being entirely unselfish. We are concerned that if your house goes up in flames, ours will, too. The lightning rod is also feeding the lightning that hits it into a generator so you can have some light and heat when the lights go out, as they frequently do. You must be the granddaughter.”

“Yes, I am,” Diana said. “Well, thank you, and please stop in when you are done,” Diana went back into the house.

When Diana went back into her kitchen and opened the Island Tea tin, but she had used the last of it. She looked in the pantry for supermarket tea, but there was none of that either. So, she stepped outside her door, remembering that her grandmother kept a tea garden by her back steps.

There, growing in a clump, was a wildflower that she had never seen before, its flowers almost fading into invisibility in the waning afternoon light. She leaned into the plants and smelled and knew she had found the source of “Island Tea.”

Since being told as a child that she could not have “Island Tea,” she had searched in grocery stores and specialty tea shops for years looking for it and not finding it, when all the time “Island Tea” referred to a tea that was made with flowers that grew on the island, next to the kitchen door. Diana picked some of the still blooming flowers and tiniest, most flavorful leaves and went back into the kitchen. She placed the leaves and flowers into a teapot, then put the kettle on to boil and sat and waited as the sky outside grew black and the hammering slowly stopped.

The door opened and a woman peeked in. She was about sixty, with long gray hair that fell to her shoulders, a red velvet blouse, and jeans. “Come and listen!” she said. Diana made tea in two cups and followed her out into the deep, rich blackness that was night on the island.

“I don’t hear anything,” Diana said, handing her a cup.

“That’s because you’re listening with city ears. You think that if you can’t hear cars and chatter, there is no sound, but listen!” Doris took the cup and began to sip, nodding approval.

Diana stood still and closed her eyes. Soon the sounds of the land surrounded her, breaking into a symphony that had been all around her each summer, but that she had never before heard. Then, far off in the distance, came the sound of one fiddle playing a very old, very melancholy melody.

“That’s someone who lives all the way across the island. I hear it every night. I don’t know who it is, but I always marvel that I can hear so far,” the woman said. “I used to think I was losing my hearing in my old age, but no, I can hear a fiddle all the way across the island. My name is Doris, by the way.”

“I’m pleased to meet you, Doris” Diana said and held out her hand.

The two women stood and listened until a tremendous crack was heard overhead. Clouds had gathered above their heads as they had listened, and a bolt of lightning hit the lightning rod, making blazes of orange, red, purple, blue and green, all arranged in the shape of a circle with interlacing knots.

“I not only make lightning rods, I make art,” Doris said. “Let’s go inside and have some more of your tea.”

“Tea? Would that by any chance be Island Tea?” a third woman’s voice came from the darkness. A moment later, just as a gentle rain was beginning to fall, Helen stepped from the shadows. A slight woman, a few years younger than Doris, with her hair tied back in a bun, Helen held out her hand to Diana.

“You must be the granddaughter,” Helen said.

“Yes she is. What is this about Island Tea?” Doris asked.

“It’s a long story after a long day. I heard you mention tea – whatever kind it is, may I come in and have some, too?” Helen said.

When Doris and Helen were seated at the table, Diana brought another tea cup and teapot to the table and said, “This is Island Tea as a matter of fact. I realized after I offered you tea that I didn’t have any store-bought tea, but I recognized that the flowers outside were a kind of tea my grandmother called ‘Island Tea’ so I made some of that. Why do you ask?”

“I’m a nurse,” Helen explained. “All day I have been on the mainland going from house to house and everywhere it’s the same story. No one got any sleep last night except for my hospice patients, who slept like babies. Everyone else had bad dreams, dreams that drew on their memories of some catastrophic event that had taken place in their lives. For one person it was a terrorist bombing in which she got shrapnel in her leg. Another man had his decades-old war memories suddenly reappear. A woman went back in her dream to her childhood when she was always hungry and cold because her family didn’t have enough money to take care of her. The only people who seemed immune were my patients who are dying. They aren’t all men or women, or very old, or even all from around here, yet they are the only ones who didn’t have the dreams.”

Helen paused to take a sip of tea. “When I mentioned this all to one of my patients, she said she wondered if I had been giving my hospice patients Island Tea. She said that it’s a tea that all the women in these parts drank generations ago. For some reason they never told their husbands about it. It comes only from this island and it makes people happy if they are distraught. I asked her to define what she meant by ‘happy’ and she said ‘just happy.’ I’m not sure even she knew.”

A brilliant and powerful lightning bolt lit up the sky and was drawn right to Doris’s structure, sending volts into her battery and making the art spin around, spreading sparks of many colors into the night. The three women came outside to watch the lightning rod and, as they looked across the water, they could see the lights go out on the mainland.

“That happens a couple of times a month on the mainland. Not so much here on the island because we have our own little electric plant,” Doris said.

Helen and Doris went home and Diana finished cleaning up the kitchen. She was about to go to bed when she looked at the ceiling and then at the floor. The stones were littered again with white curls. Another lightning strike made the electricity finally go out on the island and in Diana’s cottage, but then, after a moment, Helen’s generator once again lit up the kitchen. Diana lit a fire in the fireplace for heat and light, and then turned off the electric lights to save the generator’s energy in case the power outage was long-lasting. She was no longer sleepy and she knew the paint curls on the floor would bother her till she knew that no more would fall and remind her of the kitchen she had found when she had first arrived.

She covered the floor with newspapers, pulled a chair over the middle of the room, and began scraping the ceiling with a spatula she had found in one of the drawers. Within a couple of hours she had most of the new paint off the ceiling and the original paint began to emerge. It was vermilion, the red sky she remembered from her childhood. But yet, it was different. This ceiling seemed as if it had been painted to be a sky. The red sky Diana and her grandmother saw in the ceiling was the result of modern paint fading. That paint had come off with the white curls. What Diana found below was a painting of sky with clouds and stars in white.

Once again she lay on the floor to stare at it. Every layer of paint had been red except for the most recent white paint. As the fire burned and the storm bellowed outside, a faint sound of women singing a capella filled the kitchen like smoke. “It must be the radio, “ Diana thought. “I must have left it on from earlier.” But when she turn the knob on the radio, it was already off.

“I in my meditation do make a noise and mourn
Because the wicked have oppressed
For they injustice on me cast
And in wrath me detest
My heart in me is pained
On me death’s terrors fallen be…”

Thinking that the voices must be coming from across the island like the fiddle, she only thought “That song is kind of depressing.” Again, she heard a knock at the door.

“It’s me, Helen. We forgot to tell you about the women singing. I just heard it and thought I’d pop over. Everyone hears it in your house. There’s never any other kind of ghostly activity, so don’t worry about it. Your grandmother used to tell me that she found it kind of comforting when she was alone. I was her hospice nurse. Did I tell you that?”

“No, you didn’t mention that.” Diana said. “I’m not scared of the voices. Maybe I heard them so often here as a child that my unconscious didn’t mind hearing them again. Since you knew my grandmother in her last years, may I ask you a question? Who painted the ceiling white? I’ve been scraping and it looks like the white was put on recently. I remember it being red when I was a child.”

“Your father painted it over white right before your grandmother died. You know that she had dementia. The sicker she got, the more she thought she was in this other world, this world where the sky was red, and she would look at the ceiling when she would talk about the red sky. Her doctor said that it would keep her oriented if she couldn’t see the red sky and so to paint it over. I told them not to. I told them that when people are ready to die it isn’t like a light switch – you’re alive, then you’re not. It’s like a journey. You transition to another place. She was seeing that dimension where we go when we die and thinking it was this red sky world. She needed to be there. A few days after the ceiling was painted over, she lay down on the stone floor and stared up at it. I came to see her and found her there. I thought she had fallen, but she hadn’t. She was lying there, happy enough, just staring. She said to me ‘It’s time now. It’s time for Diana to make her red sky world and paint the ceiling the way she wants.’ Then she fell silent and a few hours later she died. That’s how I knew she was giving you this house and why we recognized you when you came.”

Doris had let herself in. “Your father wasn’t the best handyman. He didn’t know you can’t put latex paint over oil paint. That’s why it’s peeling. I’m glad you scraped it off. The ceiling should be red. It always has been.”

“Well,” Helen said. “It’s late. We’ll see you tomorrow” and they let themselves out the door to go back to their cottage next door.

Diana lay on the stone floor and stared up at the ceiling, again newly red. She looked carefully at all of it and noticed that she had missed removing the paint off one corner. She pulled the chair over again and got her spatula out and began scraping. As the paint fell to the floor, another image, this time in blue, emerged. It was fish, five blue fish swimming towards to the red sky.

The Woman with Bountiful Bowls: A Collaboration of Art and Writing

teapotspirit

Illustration by:

Nancy Richardot Tenney
Aka Nanri

A few days ago, my friend and extraordinarily talented artist Nanri Tenney gave me a drawing she had made of a teapot that was rich with many layers of meaning. Since I also find the symbolism of teapots to be so extraordinarily abundant that I named this blog Goddess in a Teapot, we have decided to collaborate on this post. Nanri has contributed the beautiful drawing and an explanation of what it means to her. I have written a short story using some of the symbols relating to women’s creativity and spirituality and teapots that gave this blog its name.

ARTIST’S INTERPRETATION

By Nanri Tenney

Woman with Bountiful Bowls, a symbol for forward movement and positive feminine energy in our times.

This spiritual woman on a teapot lid is offering bowls of food to all. She is holding the world in balance with her nurturing creativity and sustainability.

The round teapot represents the world  in the process of returning to a healthy state. The spout and handle morphs the globe into a peaceful serpent dragon, a vehicle for positive transformation. The cut-up dead snake below the teapot is the shadow world and represents the transgressions that are done to the earth and its just peoples.

The woman’s generous, wholesome work is victorious over these dishonorable exploits. May this creative endeavor of words and image bring kindly awareness to all who read it for the benefit of all sentient beings.

THE SPIRIT IN THE TEAPOT

by Carolyn Lee Boyd

Lucia poured water into the tea kettle and set it on the stove. She then measured two scoops of tea leaves into her grandmother’s century-old teapot, not noticing their tangy aroma or curling beauty, before replacing the lid. Only rarely did the teapot leave the battered, heirloom cabinet where Lucia kept her most precious family mementos, but today she hankered to touch its round and inviting belly, admire the delicate designs winding around in a never-ending circle, and savor again the hours that she and her grandmother had spent chatting while drinking tea from the pot when she was a little girl. It was a simple teapot just like hundreds of others that must have been made by the same factory in 1912, but to Lucia it was a gateway to all she had lost and did not know how to regain.

Lucia’s grandmother had passed away a week before. Now Lucia was contemplating her own life compared to that of her grandmother at her age. As sales manager of a busy advertising agency, for years Lucia had spent ten or more hours a day poring over client lists and sales statistics. Friendships made earlier  in life had dimmed and she had never had time to make new ones. At her grandmother’s funeral Lucia had met women of all ages and backgrounds — some lifelong friends of her grandmother, some acquaintances who had been touched by her kindness in some way – there to comfort each other in their loss of someone who had inspired, encouraged, and been there for them in times of need. Lucia’s grandmother had lived an everyday faith in which she cherished every flower in her garden, every human being she met, every day as being made up of moments of grace while Lucia had increasingly had come to see her hours and all she experienced in the world as tools for improving each month’s sales report. Her grandmother had always seemed content and where she knew was supposed to be, doing what she was meant to do, even if she were just washing dishes, or, in her last months, sitting quietly in the dayroom of her nursing home. Lucia realized that she never felt happy anymore and that each sales report seemed less important even as she spent more time improving the figures on it.

Lucia’s reverie was interrupted by the whistle of the tea kettle, so she waited a moment for the water to stop boiling, then poured it into the teapot and the tea began to steep.

The faint whistle awoke one of Spirits Goddess had assigned to Earth as a caretaker of the world’s women and their component of human spirituality. The Spirit had taken a short nap, only a few thousand years, merely the wink of an eye in terms of human history. Other sister Spirits had continued on during her rest, answering the cries of those in despair, gazing down with compassionate eyes, always offering just what was needed even if the humans thought they wanted something else. The whistle reminded her of the delightful hums, chants, and music that had come from all the Goddess sacred sites around the world when she had first fallen asleep. She wiped the mist of time from her eyes and looked around the see where the sound could be coming from. She wanted fly down there immediately and perform some miracle in appreciation.

Instead of a globe full of caves, temples, shrines, groves and other sites sacred to the Goddess, the Spirit found that so many had been abandoned and razed that entire communities existed without a single image  of the female aspect of the Divine. The places that had once been so holy were now silent, bereft of human hearts and minds. The Spirit, first puzzled, then troubled, sought out the humans who were so dear to Her and searched their souls. She found that in many places, the names and images of the Goddess were now reviled or forgotten. Her hymns and stories were no longer told and her music no longer filled the air. Women, who once saw themselves as the sacred givers of life and served as shamans and priestesses, now no longer knew that Goddess was within them and their voices were banished from holy places.

As a Spirit, she could see both what was manifest in the outer world of physical reality, and what was also true within the people expressed in the language of symbols. All over the world she saw the sacred snakes cut into pieces, made into objects of fear and revulsion. For millennia, snakes had been symbols of the renewal of life and transformation and had accompanied the priestesses in their ceremonies. Many names of Goddess called her a serpent. In some places, the serpent was the symbol of wisdom and enlightenment. In others, it was the life energy within all humans, ascending upwards when awakened. Could the sacred serpents be made whole and once again bring their life-giving power to humans, the Spirit wondered? Could women as isolated from one another as the pieces of the serpent find each other and their own sacredness within themselves?

A voice, that of Goddess Herself, whispered to Spirit, “look again.” Spirit looked not only at the sacred sites and practices that were no longer, but into the homes and hearts of women and saw where Goddess had hidden Herself. Spirit saw tea parties, beauty salons, and quilting bees where women had gathered and shared themselves with one another for generations. She stood by women all over the world who were risking their lives to educate girls and delighted in the young ones devouring the knowledge. She smiled at dance teachers showing young women how to love their bodies and to be strong and expressive with them. She experienced billions of acts of kindness in which one woman helped another woman in need feed herself and her children, leave an abusive home, or find a caring space to grieve. She saw women gather to heal the Earth Herself. It was not in the palaces and processions, but in the ordinary days in which Goddess still dwelled.

It was time for Spirit to act, to rise from her slumber and once again serve the women of the Earth. But, how to manifest herself? What door could she find to enter their world? She followed the whistle to the kitchen of one woman and spotted the teapot. She noted the Earth that had grown the tea leaves, the water that would make them into tea, the fire that heated the water, and the air that made the tea kettle sing as it boiled. She witnessed how the teapot was transforming the woman who drank the tea by its memories of the grandmother who had been the embodiment of Goddess on Earth. She saw how teapots and tea had been the center of so many gatherings of women and how tea-drinking is something that women all over the globe have in common, and she knew what she must do.

Spirit entered the teapot and it immediately transformed. It glowed with light and the spout became the snake, ready to do its part to bring about the needed changes. The Spirit popped out of the teapot, the blooming top her new headdress, and she made a transforming tea that she handed out to every woman on Earth. Whether it magically appeared in a cup of tea they were holding, or it rained down on them as part of a monsoon, or became part of their bodies in some other way, each woman received her share.

Lucia suddenly tasted the warmth and sweetness of the tea. She began to think not of her own sadness and loss, but of those women who had made the tea she was drinking. She thought of those who had grown the tea, those who had picked it and packed it for shipping, those who had worked in offices selling it to the tea company, and the cashier who had sold it to her at the supermarket. She realized that each of those women had lives and cares just as she had, they had families who they were working to feed, and, like her, they wished to live long and healthy lives. As soon as Lucia thought of those people, they thought of her and they realized that she was just the same as they were. Lucia, and all the other women, began to live in community with all the women of the world. Her decisions — whether she walked to work to avoid contributing to the global warming that harmed women in lands far away, or choose a small women-owned business as a vendor at work, or buy a dress that was fairly traded — were all made with the women of the world in mind.

As soon as she felt herself a part of a worldwide gathering of women, she realized that she was more than she had believed herself to be and the light of the sacred within herself was relit. She knew that she, too, was a manifestation of Goddess on Earth and the she had a divine place that only she could fill, and so it began to be with all the women of the world.

In time, a millionth of an instant to the Spirit, she looked again through the eyes of the soul and saw the pieces of the snake beginning to come together again, shining, powerful, and joyful. The Spirit, her work done for just that moment, poured herself a sip of tea from Lucia’s pot, surveyed the world, and smiled.

Our Souls Between Earth and Sea: A Short Story

I am so grateful to The Goddess Pages for publishing a new short story of mine, Our Souls Between Earth and Sea, about selkies and women and the true home of us all in the water. If you would like to read it, please click here.

Persephone’s Bower: Prologue

I’ve begun to write a second novel titled “Persephone’s Bower.”  Since it is written for all of you, I would like to share it with you as it’s written as well as have any of you who wish help me with it (and thank you for the idea, Clarissa!)! I will be posting drafts of each chapter as they are finished and I welcome any comments you have — suggestions, responses, what you especially like or not, what I need to clarify, whatever you would like to say — to help me write the final version. I hope this will be a fun and rewarding journey for all of us!

Here’s the Prologue. It is based on a story I once heard about five women who walked together into the sea rather than be arrested during the Witch Hunts.

The Women Who Walked Into the Sea

When the rain pooled on the floor through the hole in the roof, Esther only dipped her toe into the cool water to feel its softness. She would let the water creep in and break apart the stones so that maybe the walls would fall to earth. The men in the fine clothes with their books of strange incantations and macabre pictures wanted the gabled house she had inherited. If they craved the money the sale of it would bring so much, they could have it in ruins.

Esther slipped out of the kitchen door into a small herb garden and let the rain wash the dirt and soot from her daily work off her face. The water soaked through the layers of her clothes, awakening her skin. She would hide from it no more, never again rushing inside at the first drops from the sky as if they were poison, as if the dusky, smoky rooms of her small house were a place of safety. Sanctuary anywhere was no more.

No one would be on the road at this hour to be drenched and blown by the storm, so she knew she could travel without being seen. She visited her four friends, all women alone like she and therefore almost surely on the list of those to be taken. Each woman joined the journey to the next, and at the last stop, the five women agreed to make themselves ready for the next moonless night.

Those who were widows with children, like Esther, brought them far from their village and left them with distant relatives who needed farmhands, or they apprenticed them to weavers or blacksmiths miles away. They set their animals free into the hills and forests to find food, water, and shelter. They cleaned their homes and then buried anything that named or belonged to another person so as not to incriminate dear friends. Then, they closed the doors of their dwellings one last time and met at the edge of the ocean.

They were five women, five like the fingers of a hand that caresses and encloses, five like the points on a starfish, five like the seeds in an apple, five like the elements combined with the soul. They gathered at the edge of the ocean to steal back their only possession, which was themselves, from the men who came knocking on doors to take their bodies, minds, and spirits which the men did not understand could never be theirs.

The women stood for a moment on the beach, imagining themselves walking together, hand in hand, until the water choked and silenced them. Their bodies would wash up on the shore to the curses of their pursuers and they would finally be no more and forgotten. All their lives, they had known coldness and anger and fear and hunger and pain. They had known blows from fists or words or looks and waited for the ocean to assault them, too.

Instead the waters embraced them. For a moment they could not breathe and as they struggled against the tide that kept washing them towards shore, they took the salty water into their lungs and choked. Finally, they had no more strength and relaxed into the waves. Suddenly they were breathing. They were far beneath the surface, but somehow they were breathing. And swimming, though none of them had ever learned. Around each of them swam four giant fish whose gills shown as blue, purple, crimson as they turned and glided through the water. Each believed that the other women had died, their carcasses likely sunk to the bottom of the sea out of sight, and that they had swum into a school of these magnificent never-before-seen fish.

Finally, as their bodies danced through the water and they caught a glimpse of their own tails, each woman realized she had transformed into one of the fish. At times when they would see a battered body sinking, tossed overboard, or find some anchor or pot of spices or grains on the sea floor, they would remember their old lives and wonder. Was this all a very long dream, such as might be had by women in the last moments of drowning? Perhaps they were always the fish and had only had a nightmare about being human. Maybe this is the way it always was, humans dying and becoming fish or birds or tigers or deer. Whatever the truth, they never wanted to return to the land.

In their village, almost no one noticed that the women had disappeared, for, as middle-aged widows and spinsters, they were of little value. The witch-hunters thought that perhaps wolves had eaten them when they were on some devilish romp in the deep forest and mumbled good riddance to them, moving on to the next names on their list. A rumor had it that their clothes had been found by the shore and slowly the speculation grew in the village that they had escaped into the sea.

As the bands of fear constricted tighter around the village, as more houses were emptied and more children were orphaned, one by one, the people found themselves walking the path that ran by the sea whenever they could. They stood on the shore gazing into the horizon and wondered if the women had really walked into the waves. As they looked into the distance, they began to see a new species of fish playing in the water, almost out of sight. The creatures jumped and twisted and let their scales shine in the sun before slapping down with a great noise back into the ocean.

The witch-hunters were afraid of the fish, whispering to each other that maybe the lies they had made other victims tell about the women were true and they were able to shapeshift into other forms. To some of the villagers, the fish were just an oddity to be stared at and gossiped about. Others saw them as prey and went out in boats to capture them, thinking that the flesh of such an exotic creature would bring in enough to feed their families for the winter. As soon as they got close enough to catch one, the fish would dive under the surface, too far for the fishermen to grab them. Finally the boats stopped pursuing them to go after easier game.
To a very few who watched them from the shore, witnessing the fish’s freedom made them feel that perhaps they had also been created to be beautiful and blessed.

In time, the witch-hunters’ babbling was forgotten, but the stories of the fish and the women grew. Somehow, without reason, the fish and the women were united in the minds of the people from the village. Every time one of the species of fish was spotted swimming in the sea, someone would remember the story of the women, and so it was passed on from generation to generation.

Joanne Shenandoah: A Voice for Lifegivers and an Artist You Should Know About

Joanne Shenandoah, Ph.D., is a unique American voice who will inspire and strengthen your spirit while delighting your soul. She is a composer, singer, actress, and author who has recorded numerous CDs and is a Grammy Award winner as well as the winner of over 40 music awards, including 13 Native American Music awards. She has performed at the White House, Carnegie Hall, the Parliament of World Religions and many other places globally. In 2012 she won the Atlas Award for her work with the climate movement in the US and worldwide.

Her discography includes music in a variety of styles and covering  many areas of life. Two of her CDs are my favorites, though. Matriarch is an album of Iroquois Women’s Songs issued in 1996 including traditional chants and melodies. Joanne honors a particular woman with each song, revealing how the song relates to the woman’s life and spirit.

My most favorite album of hers, though, is her most recent, titled Lifegivers. This is what she herself has to say about it:

Lifegivers is a tribute to the life cycles of women from the first beating of the heart to when her spirit leaves to walk across the stars along the Milky Way as she returns home to the Skyworld where she will be welcomed by her loved ones. Each song is meant to bring the listener to a place of celebration for every cycle of life. As I asked for these melodies to flow, I realized I was inspired by different aspects of rhythm and music from different cultures of the planet. It has been my great honor to be able to be embraced by many lifegivers of the world; new borns, young women, pregnant women, women in love, women who sing, women who teach, and women of wisdom.

Joanne’s voice on both these albums is deep, rich, and lyrical.  I hear something more, however, a power,  a strength and healing, a call to all beings to be our best selves, a vision of what it is to be a woman that is a high standard to live up to, but one worth striving for. When I listen to her music, no matter how far away from myself I may have strayed in the deluge of the day, I am drawn back to a place of grounding in my own essential being that reminds me of who I am and what is important for me to do with my life.

To learn more about Joanne Shenandoah, go to her website , where you can also hear samples of and purchase her music.

Celebrate the Mystery of the Summer Solstice

dark matterMystery is one of the Universe’s greatest gifts to us.  Mystery reminds us that we are more than we can see and that endless adventures await us if we will only open ourselves up to the possibilities that come from living in universe with realms that are beyond what we perceive with our senses in our day to day lives.

Unfortunately, Mystery is not much valued in our society that feels most comfortable when all the fundamentals of our world are understood and neatly fit into categories and niches, whether of science or religion. Mystery is found in abundance in ancient stories of the creation of the universe and of the bringing into being of life, and seems to have been a part of daily spiritual life when they were created. What are we missing by not celebrating more the joy we feel when we gaze up at the stars and wonder what is out there or into a baby’s eyes and think of the infinite possibilities of her future?

As it happens, we are actually surrounded by Mystery.  Dark energy and dark matter make up 95% of the universe (you can see it in the darkness of the ring in the photo above). We  do not understand what these are. You can read more from NASA by clicking here. We only know they exist because of their effect on such things as the rate of expansion of the universe, as I understand it. In other words, all the galaxies, stars, planets, and everything that makes up what we think of as the universe is only 5% of what exists. Someday dark energy and dark matter may be understood, but, for me, it is a visible symbol of Mystery’s delights brought to light.

When I think of Mystery, I think of winter, the dark time of year, when so much of life’s creation goes underground and makes ready for the emergence of spring, when we are more apt to go deep into the Mystery within ourselves and make ourselves ready for our own rebirth. The Summer Solstice can be thought of as the coming of the Dark, of the time of Mystery, just as the Winter Solstice is celebrated as the coming of the Light. The time of light has grown longer and longer and, the day after the Solstice, will begin to recede to make room for the now lengthening nights and all that they bring.

IMG_1124So, the Summer Solstice is the time to welcome the burgeoning of Mystery back into our world. But, at the same time, the hot, abundant days of summer also have their own Mystery. The succulence of the raspberry, the beauty of a peony or a rose, the wild exuberance of the grape vine – all these have an element of Mystery in the vitality of life within them.

This week of the Summer Solstice, as you plan how you will mark the day that has been of such importance all throughout human history, think of Mystery’s great part in this moment of the year. What is Mystery to you – both the Great Mysteries and the small every day ones? How can you add these into your observance, whether that is a formal ceremony or just a moment spent during the day looking up at the sky and feeling gratitude for the sun’s warmth? How can you remind yourself and others that, however much our daily lives may take up almost all our thoughts and time, Mystery surrounds us and is to be celebrated?

Image credit: NASA, ESA, M. J. Jee and H. Ford et al. (Johns Hopkins Univ.)

A Mother’s Day Gift from the Garden of Dreams

Mary Sharrat has kindly posted a guest blog from me on her blog Viriditas.  It is titled “A Mother’s Day Gift from the Garden of Dreams” and you can read it by clicking  here.

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