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.
16 Dec 2012 Leave a Comment
Behold, mighty Isis of ancient Egypt soars over the earth, her shining wings softly beating the air, her hair shorn and her robe in tatters, gathering the pieces of her beloved murdered Osiris. She spoke magical words over Osiris’s body and he was made whole and alive. Together they conceived the god Horus who is said to have been born at this time of year, returning in his form as the sun each Solstice.
Millennia later, I find myself feeling as if the world is tearing itself apart. Political conflicts and random violence break hearts and communities while climate change sends chunks of glaciers crashing into the ocean. The Winter Solstice holds many stories of hope and healing, but at this moment I can’t help but think of Isis and her beloved Osiris and their son, Horus.
In fact, it seems to me that Isis’ action of fusing fragments back into a whole and renewing life is a way of looking at the mission of all of us at this moment. We have the means to be one world with a variety of nations, religions and cultures, each being a complementary part of the whole, and we know what we need to do to begin to right the ecological wrongs, but in each case only a global response will work. Like Isis, we need to make a unity out of the jagged shards.
Isis is said to have declared “I will overcome fate,” promising her followers that they would live beyond their allotted time. What made Isis believe that she could conquer death and time itself? Perhaps it came to her as she flew over the world seeking the pieces of Osiris. Maybe it was while she was soaring above our beautiful blue ball of fire, soil, water and life that she began to believe that she could join the pieces and make Osiris whole. As she looked down upon the earth, she was able to see beyond borders, beyond our perceived limitations of our abilities, beyond all that she had been told could never be. She simply saw what needed to be done and did it.
We are told that this time of year is one of miracles. Since the birth of our species, we have gathered in the last days of December to wonder at the return of the light and so many other miracles that we celebrate. There is always that moment before the Solstice when I think, “is this the year when the sun will not return, when we will not be able to say to our children ‘all is well’? Have we gone too far wrong this time?” but yet the days always begin to grow longer and eventually the warmth comes back to the Earth. Like the return of the light, so many miracles surround us every day that we take for granted, whether it is a child growing up to be more amazing than we had ever conceived or rivers becoming clean again after decades of pollution or the tiny baby steps of progress towards justice and equality that add up to what would be considered a miracle to those who began the fight so many years ago.
How many times have you accomplished something because you had not believed the people who told you couldn’t? I bet more than you would imagine if you really think about it. We are all Isis at times, working miracles and bringing back to life that for which part of us had no hope and part of us refused to give up hope. The earth needs us all to be Isis at this season of both wonders and great violence to each other and our planet. What fractured pieces in your part of this world need to be made whole, though you know it’s impossible? Will you strap on your Isis wings, help them come together, and bring them back to life anyway?
30 Jan 2012 Leave a Comment
Celebrate February by honoring Aphrodite. Aphrodite, as she was known to the ancient Greeks (she was also called Venus by the Romans) is best known as the Goddess of romantic love and sensuality, but she can also be so much more. If you are in the Boston area before February 20, be sure to visit Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and their exhibit titled “Aphrodite and the Gods of Love.” Learn more about the exhibit here. The exhibit brings together over 150 pieces of art and everyday objects relating in some way to Aphrodite. Included are not just sacred and sometimes erotic art, but everyday items related to marriage, children, and even Aphrodite’s role as patroness to seafarers.
One of the curators of the exhibit said in her written comments that, as she lived with all these objects over time, she came to see that Aphrodite was really the Goddess who brought people together, who propels us into each other’s lives. This emotional and spiritual gravity is every bit as strong and important as physical gravity which keeps the stars and planets spinning in their orbits. Not everyone will agree, but, to me, that makes her not just a Goddess of love, but an expression of a force that includes love as well as all those emotions, impulses, and desires that pulls us to one another, a recognition that we are not really independent individuals, but part of a web of inter-related beings.
To me, this force has an effect on every moment of our lives, but really has no name. It is so deeply a part of us that we rarely notice it unless we are riven with sorrow when we are without a loved one or in pain when we are forced to live in solitude. As if we didn’t know the importance of being in a unity with others from our everyday experience, research study after research study has shown that being social – connecting and feeling a part of other people’s lives – is essential to physical and mental well being. People who spend time with others in diverse networks creating strong bonds live longer, have stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure, suffer from less memory loss and maintain better cognitive functioning, and are generally happier and less stressed. Condemning prisoners to solitary confinement is one of the cruelest forms of psychological torture.
Aphrodite’s power is, to me, not just the force bringing different individuals together, but also that which calls the many aspects of ourselves to come together to be our whole selves. As I look back on my life, sometimes I see myself not as one being, but as many early versions and shadows of who I am now. Some of these are the child who believed in the endless potential of the future, the teenager who could be silly for days on end, and even the young woman who assumed that humanity is at heart benevolent. Some days these versions of me all seem within reach and other days they seem irretrievably gone. How I would like to gather them back to me, like lovers or children lost. Many of the statues of Aphrodite have a very inward-looking aspect. Perhaps by reflecting a little on Aphrodite we can tap into this power of integrating all our selves into one essential, unfolding being.
To our peril, reverence of this force that Aphrodite evokes seems to be in ruins just like so many of her ancient temples. For all the lip service that the concepts of “community” and “unity” receive, words and behavior that divide people through borders, stereotypes, or social, religious, ethnic, or political boundaries seem to be valued highly in our century. Name-calling in politics is at an all-time high and is rewarded with votes. Officially-sanctioned discrimination and divisions seem to be everywhere. Rarely do we have time in our overly-busy culture to heal the fragmented aspects of our individual selves. What a different world we would have if everyone truly believed and acted on their belief in unity as a real virtue, if Aphrodite and her power to bring together were truly celebrated now as her image was in ancient Greece.
As we join the rest of our culture in sending Valentine’s cards and eating candy hearts in February, maybe we can find our own ways to celebrate Aphrodite and her special power of bringing people together. At one time in ancient Greece, she was worshiped in temples with elaborate rituals. Those of us who can’t travel to Europe to do that can still keep her in our minds and hearts this month in our own ways. Perhaps we might like to contemplate these words from Sappho, who mentions Aphrodite often in her poetry and who seemed to feel her as a presence in her everyday life:
I asked myself
What, Sappho, can
You give one who
What can we give to ourselves and each other besides candy and flowers, what thoughts and actions can we leave on Aphrodite’s altar within ourselves, to honor her and her mighty power to make us one within ourselves and with one another?
01 May 2011 1 Comment
You may have heard that there was a Royal Wedding at Westminster Abbey this week. Some polls showed that not even most people in Britain were that interested in it, but you wouldn’t have gotten that impression from the million people lining the street outside the Abbey or even from the Royal Wedding fervor in my neck of the woods. Members of my family were up at 5 am to take in every moment and just about everyone at my office was DVRing it and bringing in Dunkin’ Donuts Royal Wedding donuts. When I asked them, a bit insensitively, I suppose, “what was the big whoop,” it was hard for people to quite put their fingers on why this wedding made them so happy and fascinated. It was “an inspiration,” “a little bit of fun,” “the stuff fantasies are made of,” they said. There was just something about it…
Which makes me think of the tradition of The Goddess of the Land (and not just me – others have also seen mythic significance in various aspects of the wedding*). In the ancient Celtic tradition, as well as in others, kings married the Goddess of the Land, the spirit of Mother Earth, and without her favor they could not rule. Caitlin Matthews, in her excellent book King Arthur and the Goddess of the Land (Inner Traditions International, 2002) describes this tradition and its relation to such Celtic goddesses and mythic figures as Rhiannon, Epona, and Gwenhwyfar. Could it be that some of the reason people were so drawn to this event was an unconscious remembrance of this idea that a happy marriage of king and queen guaranteed peace and prosperity, two qualities so lacking in our own time?
If that is the case, how much has changed in the past 30 years since the marriage of Charles and Diana! Diana, as I have read this week, was only 19, hardly knew Charles, and was of privileged birth. She became the celebrity of celebrities, far removed from ordinary folk, though people I know who adored her did so because of her good-hearted charity work on behalf of those in need and the fact that her well-publicized family troubles made her both more human and more noble.
Kate is, as her fans have told me, a new kind of princess. They tell me she is 29 and the first woman who is or could become queen who is university-educated, she has held a job, and she a commoner. Reporters have noted her “normal” family and how comforting that must be to William. The number of people at the wedding that Kate and William knew through their charity work far outnumbered the celebrities. If rumors are true, she and William will do their own shopping and live as much like regular people as you can while waiting to be king and queen. One of my favorite details is that Kate’s sister Pippa hung disco balls at the Royal Ball to make the Throne Room at Buckingham Palace a bit snazzier.
Maybe a Royal Wedding is really just a Royal Wedding, but I cannot help but wonder if the difference between the popularity of Diana 30 years ago and that of Kate today is not also related to the Goddess of the Land and how she is re-emerging in the everyday lives of women as the Sacred Feminine within each of us. Could it be that women love Kate because she is not so far removed from them? She shows that the royal/sacred is now not outside their world, but is inside them. Their sense of the sacredness of their daily lives is reinforced by Kate and William’s choosing of normal over royal.
My favorite poster handmade by a spectator along the wedding route said “It should have been me!” More important than ”It should have been me!” is “It could have been me!” because we all could be, and are, the Goddess of the Land and are responsible for the Earth’s protection and the creation of peace and prosperity. Every way that women from all walks of life discover and demonstrate that is a big whoop indeed.
* I found these two commentaries and I’m sure there must have been others: http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Royal-Wedding-Marrying-the-Land-Star-Foster-04-28-2011 and http://planetaryenergies.net/2011/04/28/astrology-of-the-royal-wedding/
24 Apr 2011 Leave a Comment
Every Spring Equinox, I join a circle of women who gather and celebrate the coming spring by telling the story of Ostara, a goddess from Europe from whose name the word “Easter” comes. Since elements of her story are part of the Easter tradition being observed today all over the world, I thought I would tell her story and how I think it is as meaningful for today’s world as it was hundreds of years ago.
Ostara was a gentle and compassionate goddess who loved to take walks through the forest, reveling in the chirps of the birds, the blooms of the delicate woodland flowers, and the romping of the animals who made the forest their home. One day in very early spring, just about the time of the Spring Equinox, she was walking and shivering because the season had been especially cold this year. She came upon a small bird, frozen and close to dying, unable to fly away to someplace where it could be warm and live. She quickly transformed the bird into a rabbit so it could hop away to a nice, cozy hutch to recover. She had to work so fast, however, that the transformation was not complete, and from that time on, the bird-made-rabbit still lay eggs. Every year, at about the time of its rescue, the grateful rabbit would hop through the forest, placing beautifully decorated eggs along Ostara’s path for her enjoyment.
I love so many elements of this story. I am moved by Ostara’s deep love for each being of the forest, that a goddess would stop to save one small bird. To me, this is an important message of spring, when each small spring bloom seems so precious because it has been so long since we have seen flowers. Each baby animal and bird needs nurturing by its parents as well as by all of us, even if this means not disturbing a nest, no matter how much we would like to look at the babies. So many hearts need healing after this past long winter that has held so much sorrow all over the world. When so many deaths have been counted in the thousands from both natural and human-made disasters, focusing our loving attention on each small being is an affirmation of the sacredness of every life and the spectacular wonder of our planet.
I love that Ostara turns her focus so quickly from enjoying her forest walk to compassionate service. She reminds me of Tara, who sometimes is shown sitting in a lotus position with one leg extended, ready to spring into action whenever she “hears the cries of the world.” Ostara reminds me that when I need help, it is okay to peep that I need a little transformation and that help will come. Assistance may not come in the form I expect and life may never be the same as it once was, but assistance will appear, even if it is just me identifying the problem so that I can find again my own inner power to solve it.
Like everyone else, I sometimes hesitate to help because I do not feel that I am the best for the job; that maybe if I stay behind, someone else who is more perfect will come along to do the job better. I sometimes doubt my own abilities to do even those things I feel called as a sacred mission to do. Ostara reminds us that we do not need to be perfect to help. A half a rabbit is better than a dead bird. And sometimes our imperfect help makes an even more perfect outcome – without Ostara’s almost-but-not-quite transformation, our Easter baskets would be much less beautiful, just as sometimes the help that isn’t quite what we had planned causes us to be more resilient, with a wider experience, and sometimes leads us in a direction we hadn’t mapped for ourselves but turns out to be just the right way to go.
Finally, I love that the rabbit expresses its gratitude in such a tangible way – those beautiful eggs along the forest path. It is so easy to feel gratitude without expressing it. I find that so many times people do for others and never know how much their help is appreciated. I’m sure that there have been years when Ostara was sorrowful during her Spring Equinox walks for one reason or another and was cheered by seeing those lovely eggs and being reminded that what she does makes a difference.
I think that this year I will celebrate this day by finding one person who has helped me without being asked, who always springs into action at the first sign that someone is having trouble, and who does what she or he can without worrying that what is done is perfect, and find a “colorful egg” way to say thanks. Maybe I will write a check their favorite foundation. Maybe I will bake a cake and leave it on their doorstep. Maybe I will write a note of gratitude and ask how I can make their next difficult task a little easier. Maybe I will simply take a walk through the forest and thank the Earth by looking for small beings who need help – a plant that is growing on the path and needs to be moved out of the way of hiking feet perhaps – and being Ostara for the day.
03 Sep 2010 Leave a Comment
Once upon our time, a woman lived in a room of twisted mirrors. Though she was courageous, strong, and wise, she saw a cowardly, weak, silly, and useless woman reflected in the mirrors. So, that’s what she believed about herself. One day she could stand to look at the empty, distorted being in the mirrors no more, and she shattered them with one blow, revealing a window that had been hidden. When the woman peeked outside, she finally saw her real reflection in a pool of water. She climbed out the window carrying a flat, smooth mirror shard and then visited each house along the nearby road. Inside each house dwelled another trapped soul, imprisoned in a mirrored room. The first woman shattered all the other women’s mirrors and then using the flat mirror shard she’d saved, she let each inhabitant gaze upon her true face so she too could leave her captivity. As the growing band of women walked down the road, they realized that, while they had been held inside, the land outside had been laid to waste by neglect. So, they set to nourishing and reseeding the land until it was verdant and lush. Then the original woman flung the flat shard into the sky where it found its place as our moon so that we might always see ourselves as we really are.
I invite you to gather this story into your hands. Cradle it gently and raise it to your eyes. Peer at it from all angles. See where it shines and glimmers and also where the light only glances off it, giving up only fertile darkness. Feel its pulse against your own flesh and blood; let its spirit breathe onto you. Look bravely into its heart. Do you see yourself there?
I created this story; storytelling comes naturally to me. Like many women, I am my family’s storyteller, or “Keeper of Eternity.” I take vacation, holiday, and birthday photos and put them into albums, copy and organize the video archive, and pack boxes of keepsakes to be opened at some undetermined time in the far future. I created my family biologically, but I also shape moments and memories into an entity, a vessel, a story where our vision of our family resides and to which we can return when we want to remember who we are and from where we came.
Of course, since I take the pictures and videos, I’m almost never in them. Being rarely “in the picture”—both literally and symbolically as I focus on others instead of myself—means that my memories often are not quickened into stories that can reflect our lives and nobility back to us. Perhaps because so often we are taught not to trumpet our own achievements and are surrounded by stories women as dependent and incapable, we rarely see ourselves as worthy of stories, and definitely not as heroines.
Recently a young woman who overcame years of abuse by her stepfather and now helps other teens could not understand why I called her “strong.” Her life was, to her, a jumble of memories of being victimized and, in her mind, weak. She was quite eloquent, however, when she told others’ stories. Only when I told her story to her through a storyteller’s eyes—as an arc of devastation, courage, and rebirth—did she recognize herself as others saw her.
Women from other times and cultures grew up with stories of goddesses and queens who modeled women of power and achievement. How might my life have been easier if the story I most often heard as a child was that of Inanna, the courageous and passionate Queen of Heaven who descended to the Underworld and reemerged mighty and wise? Might I have, from childhood, made unwavering career and personal choices toward being more Inanna-like myself rather than wondering at each step if I was strong or intelligent enough to succeed?
If we wish to give ourselves and other women the gift of these kinds of heroines, where are we to find them? The ancient world and many current cultures are full of them, but perhaps we do not need to go so far. Maybe, in fact, we can look to our own lives for stories of heroines—stories that we know will have meaning in our own time and place.
My stories may seem to be those of an ordinary woman, but all our stories are extraordinary and need to be heard. We are of the cusp generation, between the world of the present and the future and one of the past, when our youth was much more restricting of life choices, belittling in its image of women, and often isolating. When I was ten, I could only wear dresses and skirts to school. I believed marriage and children were my only life choice. Domestic violence was rampant but never spoken of and abortion happened with coat hangers. Only when I look at my world objectively, like a storyteller, do I realize how far women of the twenty-first century have brought ourselves, however far we still may have to go.
I also have been blessed to have unique opportunities that future generations who will grow up in a less oppressive world may not. I’ve sat in circles with women where we’ve experienced the thrill of believing that what we do—from protests to ceremonies to creating art—can profoundly affect a world in desperate need of changed attitudes, laws, and customs. I have had the joy of discovery as I gathered with other women and looked at artifacts of ancient goddesses and queens, knowing that we may be the first to perceive their power in thousands of years.
Our stories are our gifts, not only to ourselves and to our contemporaries, but they are our best legacies to the women of generations to come, our way of making the desolate land fertile again. In fact, the farther in time women are from another, the more stories are the sole carriers of messages between them. We have some artifacts from the ancient Sumerian followers of Inanna, but it is in Inanna’s stories that we hear their thoughts, their desires, and most deeply held faiths. What we have to say to our granddaughter’s granddaughters will travel best in our own stories.
May my granddaughters know the world I grew up in through stories, but be wary of its return by knowing what it was like to live in it. May they look at how far my generation has come in a short time and be inspired to move farther in an even shorter time. May my granddaughters catch my generation’s adventurous, world-changing spirit in their hands and bask in it, loving themselves and their lives and their time with fierceness.
Our own stories are perhaps the most magical force for transformation we will ever know because they are how we bring our truths to life. This summer, as you lift your eyes skyward to the sun’s light, remember to gaze also at the night moon, and let your story show your true face to you and to all those on whom it shines its light.
03 Sep 2010 Leave a Comment
During winter, home is the sun around which an ever-tightening orbit of my life revolves. As the first snow falls, I retreat into the cocooning sanctuary of my four walls, saving myself from a frozen environment that no longer offers the food, water, and warmth necessary for life. Yet, the knowledge that eventually the rivers will thaw and rise, that green vitamin-filled shoots will emerge from the ground, and that the air will be sometimes mild, sometimes be steamy tempers my anxiety about winter. The circle of the year will always turn, and all I need to do is jump on board and wait ’til spring; then all will be well.
This year, however, my home in nature has had an alien face and I am not sure that I can be confident of the seasons’ constancy. The rivers that always dried up in summer raged from March through August with the surges breaking down retaining walls and flooding streets and homes. Orange and brown leaves began wafting from the tops of trees in July instead of October. By the end of September, there had been only a handful of truly hot days and winter was calling weeks early. What had happened to my four familiar New England seasons?
Not only was my environmental “home” changing, I also noticed upheaval in other types of “homes” in my life. Last month, I decided to leave the job I held for fourteen years and moved on to another one. My family has progressed from being two parents and a child to three independent adults as my son has matured. We’ve had three car breakdowns.
More monumentally, across the globe, thousands have died due to a tsunami or floods and other natural disasters. Millions are homeless. The grinding edge between oppression and freedom has become sharper and hotter in many places of the world. More families have sent loved ones off to war or welcomed them home knowing that their lives will never be the same. Clearly, the “homes” we once took for granted may be falling apart and no longer offer us shelter from nature or life.
When I feel as if my “home” is no longer safe and where I wish to be, my natural tendency is to move into a smaller sphere that I can control, where I can pretend that I know what will happen next. When the first hostile winter winds blow away fall’s brilliant and expected symphony of leaves, literally or metaphorically, I hole up with family and long-time, trusted friends, closing the doors and windows on fresh ideas and opportunities that may also come in on chilly gusts.
Still, stories about women and their homes suggest another response. Fictional, nonfictional, and even spiritual or mythological tales often begin with unhappy, insecure, and uncertain women in their old homes and end only when the women make their own homes to suit their new, transformed, wise, and impassioned selves. Sedna, an Inuit goddess, marries a bird god and leaves her father’s house. Unhappy in her new nest, she flees again to create her own solitary queendom under the ocean, providing food for all the people as long as they obey her wise laws. Selkies, in Celtic lore, are seals that can take human form; some believe that if a man steals a female Selkie’s skin, she can become his wife, made to live in his home, forced into his life on land. However, Selkies always find a way to return to the sea sanctuaries that suit their watery nature. Even Cinderella leaves her stepmother’s house to fulfill her destiny in a castle she shares with her Prince Charming.
So, how do those who are not goddesses, otherworldly beings, or queens-in-waiting make special homes for themselves where anxiety and change can be handled with creativity and determination? This task is especially difficult for those of us who long for home’s comfort, but who know that for many, home may be a place to be stowed away, expected to labor to make life pleasant for others instead of following their own paths. We must begin by creating from scratch a concept of “home.”
When we remake our environments with these criteria in mind, almost anywhere can become an invigorating and empowering “home,” whether it is my new office, or the values and personality that I plan to infuse into my new workplace with my confidence and sense of mission. Then there is our actual house where we all treat each other more as equals, or our new hybrid car that reflects a greater sense of ecological responsibility as our “home.”
It is important to remember that when we are mindful of how to create true women’s “homes,” we can use our talents to make bigger “homes” for other women. The first women’s “home” I experienced was decades ago at an early women’s music festival born of the turbulence of the feminist movement. Only women were allowed on the grounds and they performed all the tasks. For a weekend, I lived in a community where automatically it was assumed that women were smart, artistic, wise, and did valuable work. I felt completely accepted for who I was, free, and encouraged to express myself. For the first time in many years, I felt completely safe outdoors.
More recently, I worked with women who have created a small space where women can gather to and talk about everyday things, but more often about significant revolutions in their lives like divorce, the deaths of loved ones, births, and more. I have seen so many life-changing transformations take place during these talks that seem to have come about from the power of women knowing that they are being listened to and that their destinies and life missions are important. If we look through the eyes of our new definition of “home,” women’s homes are everywhere, from the millions of individual houses, where women cherish their friends and family to communities like Umoja in Kenya, where women have formed their own economically self-sustaining village as a safe haven for women fleeing domestic abuse and forced marriage.
Sometimes upheaval brings otherwise unheard and unconsidered ideas and opportunities. When women are forced from their “homes,” they make new ones that nurture and encourage themselves and others. From these new homes emerge stronger, more confident, more creative and compassionate women. At other times, rapid change is a signal of ecological disaster and threatens lives. Yet, what is needed more at just these moments than the transformed women who emerge when they find their true “home”? What home are you being called to create this winter?
03 Sep 2010 Leave a Comment
This time of year always makes me think of the day almost twenty years ago when I was wheeled into a community hospital during a blizzard to give birth. After three days of labor, a delivery, and the amazement that I had brought an entire human being into existence, I emerged into the resurrecting embrace of springtime to go home. As ten-foot piles of snow melted, the roads were finally clear of ice, and the gentle sun sent rays to the slowly warming earth. When I think of that day, I most clearly remember crossing the threshold between the hospital’s boxy, dim interior and the boundless blue of the sky outside. At that instant, I was transformed from my childless, self-focused and contemplative self into one side of a family triangle, a bond between endless generations, and fierce mover on my child’s behalf in the outer world. In all my months of planning everything I needed to care for a newborn, never once did I think of how to prepare for this exquisitely personal and powerful rite of initiation in my own life.
Those moments, those times when we shed the mantle of an old way of being and step into a new one, are so powerful that they are often the focus of stories and myths retold for millennia. In one of my favorites, the Shinto Sun Goddess Amaterasu shuts herself away in a cave when her brother ravishes her land. She lives like a hermit, while outside winter descends. Amaterasu eventually looks into a mirror and is delighted by her transcendent, shining reflection. Unable to hide herself away anymore, she steps back into the light and responsibility of the revitalized world outside. This story is echoed in rituals from around the world in which the participant is shown herself in a mirror to recognize her own divinity.
Too often I find I quickly pass through moments of transition in order to rush into some overly anticipated new phase of life. Yet it is at these instants between one season and another, or when one life task—such as a job or raising a child—is over and the next not yet begun, that I have the time and perspective to look into both the past and the future to see clearly if I am where I truly want to be. These can be times of great peace, well being, and understanding. I just need to take the time to savor them.
Perhaps I overlook the value of transitional moments. Too often I perceive that I can only be remade by some life experience, destined person, or divine intervention outside myself, sometimes sought but many times unexpected. Too often I think of myself as a river, flowing toward a far-off ideal, zigging and zagging without control. A chance meeting means I no longer will be lonely, or a book with just the right information or ideas falls into my hands, improving my live at just the right moment.
However, what if I am not a river, but am, instead, a sun that can shine brightly on myself, bringing into consciousness aspects that had been hidden, waiting to burst through into being? What if I am like Amaterasu who brought herself from the darkness of the cave into the light of the world by seeing herself reflected by her own sunlight? Maybe falling in love or being inspired is just a mirror that reveals one of my own treasured selves that I had never seen.
As I think about it, every lasting transformation in my life has led to my feeling more like myself, not as if I had become someone I had not been before. Opportunities have come to me by catching a glimpse of myself as someone I would like to be and taking steps to become her. First, I was a mid-western college student who turned into an East Village punk poetess. Then I became a New England small town mom and herb gardener. Each was me, but none defined me forever. I think, maybe, that all the women I am could never be contained in the small life I imagine for myself most of the time.
Early spring is a perfect time to change from our old winter selves to new spring beings; the glistening snow that turned to brown slush is ready to melt into groundwater the quenches the seeds of blossoming selves. When, like Amaterasu, I turn my face from winter to spring, I can make a conscious and free decision to bring a piece of myself that I have been nurturing into the bright light of reality. Instead of waiting for an invitation from someone else, we can all take this season to step confidently into life’s chaotic bustle because that is where our voices are needed: in the workplace where we finally speak our minds in meetings: or on an art gallery wall where we exhibit the works we have been painting in secret for thirty years: or at a City Council meeting where we speak out loud what we have been whispering in private.
We can also be mirrors for others in their springtime self-turning. In my work at a community center, people tell me that I most benefit them when I encourage them to express themselves and to use their life experiences to achieve what they have always wanted. One person, having always yearned to teach, now tutors young children. Another restarted an acting career in her seventies by doing commercials. Perhaps we also should consider how we can be mirrors to women near and far, finding ways to support and celebrate their talents, persistent hopes, and hard labors. We can do this by buying their work or listening to the words of their hearts in their poetry, music, art, or any other expression.
15 Apr 2009 7 Comments
This week I am 51 years old. Last year on my birthday I began what I imagined would be a yearlong adventure gathering up those elements of my younger self that I had left behind but which I wanted back in my life. Much of my meandering took place in New York City, where I had lived in my 20s. I took two trips back there, and you can read about how I imagined the first trip would be before I took it in a piece I wrote for Moondance by clicking here. As it happened, the trip turned out to be almost exactly like that (without the red velvet jacket since NYC had a heat wave the April weekend I was there). The year culminated in the very recent publication of a novel I wrote, The Temple of the Subway Goddess, that has within it elements of my time in NYC.
In any case, the year has ended and it is time for me to leave that task behind me and move ahead into the second (or so) fifty years of my life. As I was thinking today about what that meant, I remembered one of my favorite stories, the Inuit story of the Goddess Sedna. Here is the story as it was told to me:
Sedna was a beautiful maiden who lived with her father in the Arctic. She married a Bird God and flew away with him to his nest, where she was very unhappy. So, her father came to take her home. As they were riding on the water home, the Bird God and his followers came after the boat. Sedna’s father knew that if they attacked, they would sink the boat and all would die, so he threw Sedna overboard. When she tried to climb back into the boat, he cut off her fingers and then her arms, tossing them into the sea where they became the sea creatures that feed the Inuit people.
Sedna sank to the bottom of the ocean where she grew old and became a Goddess. She took responsibility for sending up the sea creatures who willingly gave their lives that her people on land might live. But when the people disobeyed Sedna’s rules, her hands ached and she stopped sending the creatures and the people starved. Only when the people sent shamans—who had to go through many terrible trials to reach Sedna—to relieve the pain in Sedna’s hands would she relent and send the sea creatures back to the land.
I should say that I did not grow up in the Inuit culture so I am not claiming to be able to interpret, or even tell the story, correctly or at all. I am, at most, simply relating elements of the story in which I have found resonance for my own life. Really, it could be said that I am not telling the Sedna story at all, since I’m sure it is quite different within the context of Inuit life and faith, but a story that is similar and meaningful to me only, and perhaps to you, too.
That said, those elements of the story that I have heard seem to me to be a wonderful way of looking at growing older. It does not glamorize that stage of life, for Sedna has her disabilities in not only her painful hands (something that perhaps makes me identify with the story since arthritis also makes my own hands ache at times) but in her leg which she drags behind her. However, I find within the story a tremendous and active, passionate strength and power that should come with later life and its experience.
I sometimes look forward to my later years as a time of retreat and rest, of moving away from the maelstrom of life and sending out rays of good advice to grateful children and grandchildren when I choose. Later life is no time for such withdrawal, even for contemplation and meditation, according to Sedna. Sedna has retreated from the traditional roles, but is even more active in her world. She does not simply nurture her family, but all human life. She not only guides her children, but all people.
Sedna brings order to her world. She sets rules which, if followed, cause the people to live in peace with their world. Sedna teaches me that, at this stage of life, I know what is right and I need to stand up for those values of peace, cooperation, and respect for all people as they are that I have taken as core to my life and work. I need not justify my beliefs over and over, especially to those who would insist on my behaving in a more mainstream way. I have come to how I view the world through honest reflection on real experiences and my perspective is as valuable as anyone’s.
Sedna nurtures and feeds the people. Her hands and arms became the food that makes human life on the land possible and she sends it to the people that they may live. Sedna teaches me that, because I have been given many gifts over my decades of life, it is time to give back those gifts in my time, talent, and counsel. I have work to do and retirement, if by that one means giving up one’s role in the world, is not an option. In fact, it is time for be to more active, more vocal, more involved in the daily lives of those around me and across the globe because I have more wisdom to offer than when I was younger.
Sedna protects herself and that which is sacred. Not just anyone can approach Sedna, even to assuage her pain, but only someone who has the courage and intelligence to succeed at the trials that lie between the world above and her sacred realm. Sedna teaches me that what I have found to be sacred—the art, the stories and literature, to relationships, the ideals—are truly profound and are to be defended and protected.
Sedna becomes fiercer as she ages. She does not just hang onto the boat, but makes laws and punishes the people when they disobey. Or perhaps she states the laws that exist in nature and is no longer willing to sacrifice her sea creatures when the people flout those laws until they send their shamans as redemptive penitence. I look forward to perhaps even scaring people a bit with fierceness when I do what I feel needs to be done.
Sedna, when younger, did act from her naïve dream of a better life, as she did when she married the Bird God in her youth, but in later life surrounds herself with her reality and makes herself a Goddess of it. She does not hang onto the boat, pretending that her father who has thrown her overboard will help her back in, but lives completely in the ocean world in which she finds herself, making her own realm in it from which she comes to rule all humanity and sea creatures. I, too, must look at my world with honesty, at what I can reasonably do and what I cannot, and what I cannot reasonably do, but must try to do anyway.
Sedna seems to me to be a near perfect model for older women of our time. Just as we are active and have begun to work into our 60s, 70s, and beyond, so does Sedna. She takes life as it is and stands strong for what she knows is right, and so is it also right for us to value our life experience and lessons learned from it and be strong advocates for what we believe in. Sedna knows who she is and, as I read her story, I feel that I also know a bit more who I am, too.
15 Mar 2009 1 Comment
I strongly believe that spirituality should be joyful and even fun. As Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “joy is also a promise,” a promise of the inborn goodness of life, living beings, and the universe; a promise that joy is essential to who we are as human beings. In that spirit, every year I create a diorama retelling some ancient spring myth using Peeps candies, partly as a new kind of everyday celebration of the Spring Equinox and partly because I like to eat the leftover candy.
A number of people have asked for a photo of this year’s diorama, and it seemed that posting it was the most efficient way of both showing a picture and explaining the story. So, here it is:
The Reunion of Demeter and Persephone: A Moment in Peeps
The diorama depicts the moment when Demeter is reunited with her beloved daughter Persephone. This is a story with many versions, but the basic tale concerns Demeter, the goddess of abundance, who oversees the growth of life on Earth. Her daughter Persephone, is either kidnapped or chooses to go to the Underworld with Hades (depending on which version you follow), where she stays for some months. Demeter, in her grief, turns the world to a cold and desolate winter wasteland. Eventually, Persephone is rescued or chooses to return to the Earth’s surface, where she is reunited with her mother. In joy and gratitude, Demeter makes the world bloom once again, bringing springtime to the Earth. However, because Persephone has eaten pomegranate seeds while in the Underworld, she must return there for three months each year, in winter, before returning again every spring.
Demeter is the purple Peep and Persephone, the yellow Peep, is running to her. They are within moments of being reunited in the diorama. You can see the snow on the ground and in the trees, but also the flowers and green shoots beginning to appear. Hades, the pink Peep, is standing at the gate to the Underworld, trapped and watching, angry or sorrowful. The bears, gummi bears in fact, are doing a little romp while humans, the green Peeps, are dancing in a circle.
Ancient stories are most meaningful when we take them out of books and the realm of history and find ways to bring them into our own lives. I do this in many ways, and in Spring, I do it with this little, fun diorama ritual. If you have unique ways of celebrating the Spring Equinox or ancient stories, I would love to hear them!