I’m very grateful to the site “Feminism and Religion” for posting a piece I wrote titled “Dancing with Kali Gets Us to the Other Side.” To read it, click here!
04 Jul 2012 Leave a comment
Bravo to the 84, ooo young women whose signatures on a Change.org internet petition persuaded Seventeen Magazine to adopt a “Body Peace Treaty” that promises not to change the shapes of the bodies and faces of their models, to “celebrate every kind of beauty,” and to feature “real girls and models who are healthy.”
Two things about this are profound to me: one is that 84,000 young women care enough that they have the right to be happy with themselves as they are that they signed this petition (which was started by a 14-year-old). Clearly, the “maiden generation” is already many steps ahead of where many women of my generation of feminists were at their age. It took me a long time to banish the vicious influence of all those magazine ads from my teen years and I’m thrilled that these women have already done so. And maybe my generation of feminists can be justly proud that what we have done over the decades has made a difference to these young women.
The second deeply important message of this victory is that it begins to undo thousands of years of damage done by narrow and unattainable standards of women’s beauty that can do sometimes irreparable harm to women’s self-confidence and our ability to love ourselves as we are. To realize how important this is, if you are my age – 50+ – consider how your life might have been different if at 14 you not only knew you were great as you were but also felt you had the power to persuade a gigantic corporation to change how they do business with you? What will happen now that there are so many women in this generation who will not stand down, give in, be ruled by society’s boundaries for women?
This is not only important for women in general, but also for the women’s spirituality movement. To me, one of the great transformations that occur when women begin to see and feel the presence of the Divine Feminine is that we understand that there are many ways women are beautiful. Thin was not in to the makers of the ancient statues of women that are robust, healthy, and plump. The faces of goddesses from around the world reflect many, many kinds of beauty from every heritage. When you look at goddess images you see 10,000 ways to be beautiful and it is clear that however you look is yet another. How wonderful that these young women already know this message of women’s spirituality.
So, congratulations to those young women (and, two more young women who have started another petition to get Teen Vogue to adopt similar guidelines). May this victory be one of many for you as you make a new world that is deserving of all you are and all you have to give.
23 Mar 2011 Leave a comment
I tried, I really did. I so wanted to write a light and happy post for spring and went looking for sweet, floral, and effervescent goddesses to welcome in the season. But, it seems that every time I found a good candidate, she ended up having tragedy in her story.
Of course, probably the best known spring goddess is Persephone, the daughter of Demeter. Unfortunately, as we all know, Persephone was kidnapped and taken to Hades, causing Demeter to withdraw her vitality from the Earth, resulting in winter and hunger. Only when Persephone was rescued did spring and summer return, but only for a few months a year.
I find the stories of the Rusalkis, Russian goddesses of spring, to be mesmerizing. They come from rivers and dance to make the rains come so that the crops and flowers will grow all spring and summer long. Then, when it is time for fall, they settle down into their feather nests and sleep till next spring. How sorrowfully mysterious it is that these beautiful creatures are the spirits of women who have drowned or killed themselves.
I’ve just begun to learn more about Scandinavian goddesses and have become captivated by Iduna. She is a goddess of spring who dwells in a place of blossoms and fruit and all good things associated with abundance and life. Her special gift is a treasure box full of golden apples that she gives to the gods and goddesses so that they may remain immortal. But, she, too, is kidnapped and taken to a place of death and barrenness. Without her apples, the goddesses and gods become mortal and begin to age and wither. She is rescued by being turned into a seed and flown back home in the beak of a god in the form of a falcon so that she can once again give away her golden apples.
When I first began to ponder these stories, I remembered that at the time when they were first told, spring would be tinged with the grief of losses of loved ones over the winter with its harsh cold and famine, as it still is in so many places. In fact, this year these stories are particularly poignant as we rejoice in the first bird call and sprouting blooms while being mindful of those who have perished in natural disasters and violence in the past weeks.
But, when I change my thinking, and consider them not as stories about spring, but as stories about coping with the tragedies and challenges of life, they take on a new meaning. Winter’s sorrows come to all of us at times in our lives and, at any time, there are others suffering somewhere in the world. How can we respond in a way that is both compassionate and effective?
Perhaps these stories hold one key. These goddesses not only experience loss, but also rebirth. In each case, the goddesses come back from some deep place with the hope of spring and the re-creation of a world of happiness and peace. They are kidnapped, or lost through death, but they return with the message that there is an innate joy and beauty in the world, one that does not disappear even when all seems to be lost, and that it is worthwhile to keep striving to make that vision manifest in daily life. And, not only do they bring a message, but they also use their gifts to bring spring back to the earth.
This remembrance that the earth could be a place of paradise is powerful and not to be wielded by the faint of heart. Nothing can spark a revolution, or bring someone lost in grief into life again, or be the push to get moving on a piece of art or a project or a new enterprise, faster than the conviction that joy is within reach if we will only keep on going and then work to make it happen. Suddenly, these spring goddesses seem to be no longer victims of suicide or death or kidnapping, but gatekeepers to all that makes life worth living.
How do we become Persephone, a Rusalki, Iduna? How can we a goddess of spring on the threshold of this most joyful season? By doing what they did and going deep inside ourselves to find that certainty, those memories of those moments when we just knew that love and happiness are the hallmarks of our true realm and then bringing our golden apples, or rain, or harvest, to those who need them. This year, find your own treasure box of manifestations of spring – whether it is acts of kindness, or poetry or song or dance, or whatever else is an expression of your unique talents – and give them away.
13 Feb 2011 Leave a comment
It has been awhile since I have posted. The past year has been spent doing important but time-and-mind consuming day-to-day tasks. I wanted the first post in a few months to be humorous and uplifting. What came out of my fingers isn’t really – it has been snowing in New England. A lot. These are the snowshoes I have needed to get to work for the first time ever. After about the fifty millionth person said to me “Hey! Where’s that global warming when you need it???” not realizing that climate change is what we are shoveling, I ended up writing about apocalypse. Not so uplifting, but maybe thought-provoking. And I promise to post more often and with a lighter touch soon. But, for now, here‘s what I’ve been thinking about …
I have spent the past six weeks shoveling snow. Here in New England we have had snowstorm after snowstorm and, for the first time since I moved here 20 years ago, the snow is now piled over my head almost everywhere I walk. As my son was helping to shovel, he said “These giant piles of snow no longer have wintry charm but are instead just apocalyptic.” Later, our neighbor pointed to an icicle about six feet long hanging from his house and called it “The Icicle of Doom.” We went inside and watched his favorite tv show, Torchwood, a BBC series in which an alien species demands that humans give up ten percent of our children or face species-wide death. It reminded me of one of my favorite movies, Independence Day, about another alien attack that threatens to decimate the planet. Clearly, we live in a culture that views just about everything through the prism of apocalypse, from very bad weather that truly is likely caused by catastrophic climate change to the best way to boost tv and movie ratings.
The fact that we are the first generation of all humanity to live under the threat of actual apocalypse of our own doing – from first the atomic bomb and then global climate change — is one of those astounding facts that are so much a part of our daily lives that we do not realize its profundity. We are the first generation of humanity in which each of us does not know if our children will be the last generation of humanity. We are the only generation that can truly save or destroy the world. Perhaps figuring out how to respond effectively to this new truth is the underlying mission of our times.
While apocalypse has not always been in our hands, concern about it has certainly been in our consciousness since the earliest times. In fact, ancient goddesses from around the world seem almost to be the anti-apocalypse, focusing on preserving or renewing the world when its end is threatened. When the demon Hindu Mahisa battled the gods for control of the world, Durga appeared and she alone was able to rescue all we know for mortals and immortals alike. Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and destruction, dances the end of creation, but then all comes to life again under her feet. Chalchiuhtlicue, an Aztec goddess, destroyed the world by a flood for humanity’s wicked behavior, but then built a bridge to a Fifth World, a renewed universe, for the deserving to cross over. Even the more humble Russian goddess Koliada creates embroiders a new world as the old one disappears each winter solstice.
In fact, the worldview that the time and existence will continue eternally, though transformed, in a constant round of being seems to be an intrinsic part of goddess divinity. Life-Death-Rebirth, these we see over again, whether in the triple goddesses of maiden-mother-crone, or Changing Woman’s endless circumambulations around the earth as she goes from young to older and back again or any of other goddesses who are vehicles transporting all creation from one era or state of being to another. Of course, women’s life-giving ability is the greatest anti-apocalyspe of all because what could be a greater statement of faith in the continued existence of creation than giving birth?
I have found over the years that sometimes the most significant changes happen by simply consciously altering how we think. What if we had not grown up in a apocalypse-obsessed society in which the end of time was virtually assumed? What if we truly believed that solutions to environmental disaster and non-violent answers to conflict would be found because they must be found in order for life to continue, as it inevitably must? What if apocalypse was not an option? What would that world look like?
The springtime brings us a story that holds, for me, an answer. Perhaps you know the story of Demeter and Persephone. Demeter, the Greek goddess of earth’s life-giving fertility, had a daughter, Persephone, who was kidnapped and taken to Hades, the underworld. Did Demeter, in apocalyptical fashion, strap on a world-destroying death ray gun and storm Hades to seek revenge even if all the universe was destroyed in the process as might happen if her story were made into a feature film of today? No she did not. She wandered the earth in mourning until the Olympian gods demanded Persephone’s return, though only for nine months of the year because Persephone had eaten of the pomegranate. During the time of her sojourn underground, the world would become the winter wonderland with which this blog post began. And, as a result, we now have four seasons. This compassionate and creative solution resulted in even greater abundance since so many of the earth’s plants, beasts, and birds depend on the cold season for survival, germination, and reproduction. In fact, as we know now that the earth is warming, our world’s survival as we know it depends on Demeter’s cold winters.
Demeter’s response went beyond simply retrieving her daughter and then continuing with life as it had been before, with the continual separation of the upper and lower realms and the potential for conflict between them. Demeter’s vision created an entirely new world, one with seasons and winter, one in which Persephone was the bridge between Earth and Hades.
If we are to avoid our own self-destruction, assuming we are not too late, we must create an equally powerful and compelling vision of a world, one that does not simply lack annihilation, but one that is as transcendently beautiful and powerful and life-giving as Demeter and Persephone’s creation of winter. Even if we are able to solve this environmental problem and find a way to control nuclear arms, if we continue to think in terms of an apocalyptic future, how long will it be before the next catastrophe? Just as Demeter created the seasons by redeeming Persephone in a creative and compassionate, way, so must we work diligently on the issues before us, but also with a view to a future that does not include an end to all we know from our own hands.
The next time an apocalyptic worldview creeps into my consciousness, I think I will say “not on my watch.” Let our generation’s solutions to climate change and violent conflict become models for future generations faced with global challenges. Let us turn our realization of our unique place in history into commitment to the art of vision-making, working collectively to create a response to our problems that are, in their own way, as spectacular as Demeter’s winter.
04 Sep 2010 Leave a comment
Where I live in New England winter’s snow cover makes the land seem frozen into eternal barrenness. Yet, during this cold season, nature labors below the surface to recreate the earth; the buds of early spring are only the outward manifestation of her weeks of unheralded toil. Later, summer will parade her own glories, as grand as any majestic empress, and her winter sister’s accomplishment of beginning the process of new life will be forgotten.
A Winter Queen’s silent, hopeful work of giving plants and animals the chance to live makes me think of Jennie who sat sewing late into the night in the first years of the last century. Because of her, you are reading this column, generations of her female descendants savor their lives of the mind, and women all over the world are going to school and educating their daughters. Jennie was my great-grandmother.
Jennie’s husband died when my grandmother, Gladys, was six. Jennie supported herself and her child by sewing dresses and quilts for neighbors in her small mid-western town. She wanted her daughter to have more opportunity than she’d had and she wanted her to go to college. After saving money that she earned by her needle, Jennie moved to a college town and paid Gladys’ tuition. Gladys eventually left school to marry and have children, as was common at the time.
Years later, when her sons were in high school, Gladys enrolled in a university to finish her degree even though her neighbors laughed at her from behind their drapes. “There goes the coed!” they taunted. She was also well known for voicing her thoughts, once even bursting out of the kitchen during a business party with my grandfather’s conservative clients to declare, “But, of course, we all know that socialism is the perfect system!”
Gladys’ love of learning, in turn, inspired her three granddaughters. One is now an MD/PhD biomedical researcher, another edits an online edition of early English literature, and I write. My grandmother never preached to us about education, but her library of philosophy and literature and the way her conversation evoked our ideas molded how I viewed myself from an early age. Jennie’s great-granddaughters also have created a small scholarship that benefits women at a community college and they contribute to a number of organizations that support women’s education around the world.
Jennie’s kind of “Winter Queen” sovereignty is not noteworthy because she rules what has already been created—nations, parliaments, society—as traditional queens do. Instead, she creates that which gives others the power to rule themselves through such means as education, health, self-confidence, economic independence, and safety. The fruits of their reign do not last only a few years, until the battlefields are once again farmland and the borders redrawn, but for generations.
Who are these women? They are the unremembered abbesses who maintained convents where centuries of women could make a choice other than marriage and endless children. Others are now teachers in Middle Eastern countries who conduct secret outlawed schools for girls. Thousands of Winter Queens sew, like my great-grandmother, as part of micro-economic fair trade projects to send their daughters to school and earn independence for themselves. They are the midwives all over the world who for millennia have cared for the poor and isolated, made childbirth safer, and have been models of diligence and service to community.
At some time in her life, I believe that most every woman has had her choices expanded, been inspired by, or received strength from a Winter Queen, as I did from my grandmother and great-grandmother. In fact, I would say that most women also have been Winter Queens. But, when I think about the women in my life who have been Winter Queens, I think that most of them would have said, “Oh, I didn’t do so much, just what anyone would have done.” I know that I, for the most part, take for granted the Winter Queens whose gifts made my everyday life more livable.
In fact, being a Winter Queen is an act of extraordinary creativity, one worthy of a place of honor in a museum. My Winter Queen work—like encouraging a friend’s teenaged daughter or writing for women’s publications—comes from the depths of myself. I am not just putting words together, but bringing to reality one small piece of a global future I am helping to create. Winter Queens, instead of controlling their art as other artists do, give up dominion over end results of their masterpieces—the women and girls they inspire and enable—by giving others what they need to create themselves and pass along their gifts to others.
Over the millennia, women’s leadership and creativity have not been valued. Most women did not have access to wealth and armies to transform their world. Instead they offered what they found within themselves through the work that they were allowed to do. Is this a way women naturally rule? Maybe it is and maybe it is only the fruit of necessity. However, it is winter’s way, nature’s way, and one that is deeply powerful and should be celebrated.
Perhaps in this time between the hustle of the holidays and the activity of the spring, we can take a few moments to remember the Winter Queens of our lives, including those whose toil for our benefit goes back generations. We must not forget also to honor ourselves. Many of the things that we think of as just our day’s work are really the acts of a Winter Queen. What you do this afternoon may transform the life of someone a hundred years from now in ways you could never know. Truly, we are all Winter Queens of the soul.
Photos: Jennie’s high school graduation photo and a quilt she made.
04 Sep 2010 Leave a comment
Lately it seems as if a chaos-making sludge has seeped into the inner mechanics of the world. Each morning when I wake up, one more thing I took for granted is gone or changed. A job and funds saved for my family’s future have vanished. Predictable, safe weather patterns have turned to floods, avalanches, and tornadoes. The loyalty and affection of longtime close friends have dissipated as turmoil brought fundamental disagreements to the surface. Some days it seems as if my footholds are washing away in a muddy landslide of uncertainty.
My first instinct is to burrow deeper into the soil of everyday life, to busy myself with details of what absolutely must be done each day. I focus my attention on the ground to find nurture and comfort from Mother Earth. I grasp at seeds of what I know I can accomplish and plant them in hopes of re-growing some kind of stability-like cleaning out a closet or preparing for a visit from my sister who I know will always be true.
Still, the very tumult that sent me deeper into daily life now shakes me out of my Earth-bound self-image. Earth may be my home, but when my eyes rise to the heavens, I wonder if this, perhaps, could be the time to fly?
In my mind, I go to my outside garden, to the place where I feel closest to that which is eternal. Then I imagine myself slowly rising into the air. Soon I envision my house, my neighborhood, and my town. I go higher and pick up speed until mountains, oceans, and tidy squares of farmland appear below me. I soar over cities of people making art, villages building clean water wells, and families walking together, hand in hand. I breathe easy again.
My imaginary flight has left me feeling renewed. But why? My mother, who became a pilot in her forties, spent her middle and later years zipping around the clouds in her little plane whenever she had the time. Flying was her way to cope with a childhood of poverty and years as a Navy nurse during wartime. In her airplane, she could forget the upheavals she had witnessed and just be herself as her Creator had made her. When she looked down, the Earth became a place of peace without human-made suffering and conflict.
As Earth-bound as women may see themselves today, they have always flown. Some of the oldest paintings from Neolithic times depict women emerging from walls with wings. While no one can know what was in the minds of these cave painters, it could be that the women were emissaries sent to the world of spirits during times of distress to beg or bargain for a good hunt or harvest, or a mild winter, or an end to epidemics.
Closer to our own time, ancient Europe is full of statues of goddesses who are part woman and part bird. Goddesses from all over the world and from many eras are associated with the sky, the sun, the moon, and the stars. And who can deny the mystique of the greatest woman pilot of all time, Amelia Earhart? Flying is not something unusual for women to do; we have stretched our wings almost since time began.
I understand why winged women are needed now just as much as in Neolithic and ancient times, maybe more. When I fly, I see the bigger landscape beyond whatever is troubling me. An aviatrix knows the beauty and abundance of all the earth as well as the galaxies above her, too. When I am part of the sky and the constellations, I feel time moving slowly across eons instead of slipping away too quickly. I understand that I am not one person trying to cope, but am part of one generation among many that has overcome other challenges just as great. I see that the world, as bad as it may seem at times, has made immense progress toward peace, justice, and respect for all beings.
While finding my place in the sky, I also gain my rightful niche on Earth. I see that I am part of the great cosmic adventure unfolding on the ground. My dedication to the continuation of life on Earth is strengthened because I have had a hand in creating and nurturing it. I know that I must turn inspiration into action. I am able not only to take in the totality of life on Earth, but also to help life move ahead by walking into my house and making dinner without worrying so much about the future.
Women who can be both intimate and visionary are the true “wise women” of our time. They are the corporate executives who not only provide for the material needs of their employees and customers, but also understand that their business affects those who supply the raw materials or stitch the seams. They are the mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and teachers who show children how to look beyond and rewrite society’s outdated and unjust rules. They are the stateswomen and public servants who demand compassion and justice in our local and national policies. As our world tumbles toward change for worse or better, could it be time for more of us to take flight?
04 Sep 2010 Leave a comment
I have now lived fifty years on the one planet in the universe that we know has life on it. In that time, the sun has dawned and set 18,262 times; I have slept under 650 full moons and under the same number of new moons; I have seen the first crocus of the spring and winter’s first snowflake fall on green, autumn grass fifty times. I gave birth to an entire human being; danced in my kitchen, onstage, and in more rock-and-roll clubs than I can recall; and I have tasted fruits from Tibet, Australia, and my own backyard.
Rather than mark my birthday in a way that is expected, it is time to truly celebrate that I am a living being on this Earth, gifted with the past and a creator of the future.
This revelation came upon me when I found a burgundy velvet jacket in a consignment store. It is the color of blood, the most sacred substance in human history. While our violent society relegates blood to the realm of death, our earliest ancestors revered it for its role in carrying the soul into life.
The jacket is my ticket off the straight road from birth to death, with each age delineated by what I should do, wear, and how I should behave, into the wild landscape beyond. The shocks and the poetry of everyday life have loosened gravity’s hold on my assumptions about who I am. I have become a spiral, circling around a center that is “me,” both eternal and changing. I am always moving higher into the future but also returning to my beginnings, time and again. I have decided that, no matter when they may fall on the calendar, my birthdays will be when I am again in alignment with who I was in the past, times when I feel connected to elements of my younger self that express something I need to understand.
I will spend time around this year’s actual birth anniversary in New York City, where I lived in my twenties. It was there that my life was most mythical, where I most felt that I belonged. I often walked alone in the most dangerous neighborhoods at four a.m., sure of my safety because I knew that I was meant to be there at that moment in my life. When I left, at age thirty, I was newly married, with thoughts of starting the family, education, and career I had planned.
I had crossed a threshold between the first quarter-century of my life, years spent unfolding my self as a strong, smart, energetic, brilliant woman, and the second quarter-century of my life that, like that of many women, was an exhausting and often disheartening time spent in service to family and an increasingly demanding job.
For this birthday, I will be my own magician, holding in one hand the woman I am now, with more realistic expectations of life and myself, while gathering the fragments of the woman I was, with her spirited self-confidence, endless creativity, and infectious, easy laughter. I will put all these into an alchemical crucible and meld them together so that I can enter the third quarter-century of my life with the wisdom and enthusiasm I will need as I offer up to myself, my family, and my community the fruits of my experience and deep understanding as an “elder.”
I will walk on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village, a street I trod at least once a day for eight years. Maybe it has an outdoor café now where, while wearing the Jacket, I can have a cappuccino and pretend I see myself as I was when I lived there. I will look closely at my imaginary, younger self, at her expressions and facial lines and the way she holds her hands. What will I see in her eyes that I need for myself now? What things will be better left behind? Perhaps I will beckon some of her back inside and fondly kiss the rest goodbye.
I will enjoy doing nothing for the afternoon and remember that many poems and stories were born on similar afternoons. Then I will wander into Soho, into the art galleries, go back uptown and see a play or ballet, stroll down a dark street just to see who lives there. I will stay out later than ten and will forget how tired I am. I will capture every moment of each of these experiences so that I can remember what it is to simply “be” rather than always progressing down a “to do list.”
I will choose one object to bring back as a talisman, to make my two selves—younger and older—into one again. It might be a piece of clothing like I used to wear, or some music I once loved, or maybe a leaf or a stone to hold the voice of the land where I once belonged so that I will now belong wherever I am.
Even more, now that I have begun, I believe that every year all human beings on Earth should gather and celebrate our communal birthday. What if we took one day when we cast aside assumptions and expectations about who we should be, and instead pondered our lives, our world and ourselves as if we were making it anew? We could gaze back at those ancient cultures with the thousands of goddess figures in grain bins and no weapons in their graves, and millennia after millennia of beautiful, reverent art made in the midst of both joy and catastrophe. We could remember the many, many everyday and renowned people who have envisioned a peaceful, kind world and spent their lives to bring it into being. We could invite them into our midst to join with the best of who we are now. If each of us did this individually, then as families, communities, and nations, what kind of a future could we create? Perhaps it would truly be our “birth day.”
Note on photo: When I got to NYC, it was too hot to wear the jacket. But, here I am at my old apartment!