I have stared out my kitchen window several times a day for over 20 years and only yesterday did I notice that I have a woman emerging from the closest tree. From several different angles, a female figure is clearly stepping out of the tree’s gnarled bark. Now, do I believe that there is a physically present being, or even some kind of spirit, actually trying to free herself from a maple in my backyard? No, but the play of light and shadow that come together in the bark to create an image of woman’s form has held my imagination ever since I saw it and that is its significance.
The tree is the Queen of the land I live on and when I look at her bark imagery, I am more aware of the 20 years I have spent in studying our relationship to nature and how that affects our everyday lives. I am reminded of the many, many nature images of goddesses, mythical figures, and characters whose stories have become part of my mythological inner creative world over the past decades. All these come together to set the tree apart and also to create a symbol that is very relevant as I contemplate what I’ve done in the past and what I would like to do in the future. I was ready to see her, so I did.
Lately I have also been thinking of the many people, places, times, and stories that have, like the tree, spoken to a deeper part of me. Every once in awhile I will hear music or see a performance, or read a lifestory, or encounter a country or a historical era that grabs my spirit and will not let go until I have come to know it as thoroughly as I can. I don’t just experience it, but it sets off ideas, insights, determinations, creative flurries, and changes in attitudes to myself and my world view, sometimes for years at a time.
Many, many people and places are inspiring because of the beauty or artistry of their work or the courage of their deeds, but these muses are different. The connection to them or their work goes beyond a recognition of achievements or a desire to be like them, but rather they are in some way a gateway to the symbolic, otherworldly aspect of my life. There is something about them that shows that a piece of art isn’t simply a creative work, but the entrance to a cave brimming with treasured insights; a lifestory isn’t only a biography, but an allegory about all our life journeys; a country isn’t just a geographical boundary, but sometimes an entirely new universe and way of looking at the world. For a long time I wondered why muses show up in dreams so much more often than people I love and talk to everyday, and then I realized that it is because something about them speaks the language of the inner world.
I have come to believe that what I see in them, or rather what they inspire in me, is not wild flights of fancy, but rather myself and them as they really are. Some element in each of them – deep compassion, an ability for whimsy and imagination, a way of life based in both integrity and spiritual openness, a positive way of being powerful – was just what I needed to see in myself at that moment. By touching an aspect of myself that was beyond what I believed I could be, they showed me what we and the world are truly like – energetic, rich, multi-layered and -faceted, poetic, beautiful, and passionate. I can observe myself by trying to go outside of myself and imagining what I look like, but it is much easier if I have a mirror. These muses are, somehow, mirrors to me of who I really am by showing themselves as they really are.
But they aren’t really mirrors of me as I am now, but rather gateways to me as I could be, two steps down the road on my life’s journey. In every case, each has opened up entirely new worlds that I had never conceived of, but once I came to live in them, they seemed completely natural and homelike, where I was supposed to be at that moment. Each one stayed vibrantly in my life even after I had integrated some element of themselves into me (I’ve never actually met any of my muses and I wonder if I would tell them they were muses if I did?). For example, one is amazingly adept at facing and expressing inner aspects while still staying grounded in a very demanding every day life. Once I had written a story on this theme and thus brought it into myself, I knew that lesson was ended, but I still find in enjoyment and wisdom in the work of this muse.
At one time I hoped to be able to create the experience of finding a muse myself, or being my own muse, at will but now I realize that it doesn’t work that way. Each muse has appeared at unexpected moments in places where I was not looking for them – as the result of my son saying “Mom! Come watch this show!” or accompanying a friend to a concert I did not particularly want to attend or picking up a video at random at a store or wandering in an art museum. In each case, I had an immediate experience of recognition. None of my muses came up and introduced themselves as such, but rather I knew them when I saw them.
So, what this means is that I must be more open, take more time to experience what comes my way, go on more aimless walks, get to know the people whom I come across seemingly at random. I must always keep in mind the mystery of the world, always know that the people whom I meet are more than they appear, always remember that, beneath the maps and surface geography, a landscape holds unknown treasures. I must be ready to welcome the mysteries of the world and able to look more often in the mind-broadening, assumption-shattering way of my muses.
But, I must also fulfill an obligation to be muse-like to others. After all, some of my muses are living, breathing human beings with a need for inspiration of their own and, indeed, everyone is in need of a good muse now and then in order to be all that they potentially can be. This means recognizing and expressing the mystery in myself, celebrating the many levels, powers, and talents I possess that I so often hide because letting them be part of my life is just too risky or too much trouble. When I do that, I am not only depriving myself, but all those who might look at me and see themselves two steps down their path (which isn’t to say that I am two steps ahead of them, but rather two steps down a path they have not yet trod. They may be five steps down many other paths I haven’t tried).
The concept of “muse” seems curiously old-fashioned and rarely used, but I think the similar term “mentor” or even “inspiration” does not due to relationship justice. It is far too powerful and mysterious and operates on too many levels for that. Perhaps it is time to reclaim this word, not just for artists, but for everyone, and to recognize and honor those muses in our lives (maybe even take them out to lunch sometimes!) as well as our own obligation to be as true to ourselves and giving of our inner beings as we can so that we can be muses to others when they need one. Nor can we forget our animal and plant muses – like my woman-inspirited tree – or our relationships to them. Celebrate your muses; celebrate yourself!