Once Upon Our Time

In order to make some of my columns and articles available to readers here, I am reprinting them as posts.  This was first published in Moondance in July, 2009.

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.

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