Enheduanna: Priestess, Author, Inspiration

This Mother’s Day, it is fitting that a blog honoring women’s creativity and spirituality celebrate Princess Enheduanna.  She is the first person we know of to sign her literary work and, delightfully enough, her most cited poem is a hymn to the Goddess Inanna.  Her poetry to Inanna is also considered to be the first to use the first person to express her own feelings of relationship to the Divine. She is truly a mother of women’s creativity and spirituality.

We even know a bit about Enheduanna, though she lived 4300 years ago.  According to Christiane Inmann’s Forbidden Fruit: A History of Women and Books in Art, Princess Enheduanna was the high priestess at a temple in Ur and she wrote poems praising her father, the Akkadian King Sargon who conquered Sumer, as well as Inanna.  She was quite well-known, with her work appearing in 35 different cities in ancient Babylon.

How different was the fate of the Princess Enheduanna from those of so many women poets, artists, and other creators after her who were forced to be nameless in their own time and ours.  “Anonymous Was a Woman,” says the bumpersticker and all too often it is true. How powerful is the simple act of signing our name to expressions of our souls!  Because the work of so many millions of women creators is nameless, it is lost to us.  An essential legacy of the women who created that work is also lost to us.

As I think about Edheduanna, I realize the importance of taking credit for my work and encouraging other women to do the same. It can be so easy to not take credit for our work, especially if it is not considered to be “art,” or if we work in an environment that does not encourage women to be forceful, or if we prefer to stay in the background. Owning your work gives it power. A work whose author is known is tied to the force of a human being.  It is an expression of a particular life and so has a history and a meaning that an anonymous work does not. When you make a new recipe for rose geranium apple cake, call it “Emily’s Rose Geranium Apple Cake.”  When you contribute an idea to a meeting, say “I think we should…” rather than “has anyone thought about…?”

Putting your name on your work means not only by claiming authorship, but also proclaiming its existence and importance to the world. So often we second-guess whether anyone will want to read or see or hear what we create and it may never see the light of day. If it truly expresses you, it is worthy and deserves your time and effort to be experienced by others. From now on, when I write something I love, I will make sure that it finds a home in some publication or this blog.

When we sign our work, we form connections with other women.  I love to buy clothes from places that sell clothing created by women artisans in cooperatives and one reason is that each piece usually has a tag saying which cooperative or woman made it.  Instead of just being a consumer, I am now someone who is in an economic, social, and political relationship with a human being.  I can imagine her hands embroidering the designs and her mind feeling a sense of satisfaction at its beauty.

Signing our work helps create women’s history. For how many millennia have girls grown up thinking that they are not as naturally brilliant as men because there were fewer  historical works of genius with women’s names on them, though they surely existed? While we may think that a spontaneous photograph or a knitted scarf are not worth bothering to put our name to, to someone in the future it may become an important inspiration and link to the past.  My great-grandmother churned out quilts to sell, but never signed them.  Only because my grandmother pinned a label on one of them with the information that it was made by her mother do I have something that I cherish as a work not only of great beauty, but a link to my own past and the perseverance and creativity of my ancestress.

When Edheduanna wrote about her own spiritual experience, she put her name to her work in a deeper and richer way than simply etching her name in the tablet.   She declared that what went on in her soul was worthy of being known throughout her world and down through time. She did not wait for someone to tell her what to feel or hesitate, wondering if what she had experienced and written was good enough, but knew that her own thoughts and feelings were of lasting and unique importance, as, indeed, are those of us all.

Edheduanna’s Mother’s Day gift to all of us is the encouragement to be proud of what we feel, believe, and create and to say so by making sure that everyone now and into the future knows that it is part of our lives and experience. Long before anyone told us not to be overly sure of or loud in our self-proclamations of our own spiritual wisdom, Edheduanna invited us to give ourselves the gift of owning our own spirit and its works for ourselves and all the women who come after us.

Louisa May Alcott: Her Gift to Women of All Ages

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

And so begins Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  You most likely read this book as a girl and probably have a copy given to you some Christmas or Hanukkah decades ago in an attic somewhere. 

Today is Christmas and I just happen to be spending it near Concord, Massachusetts where the real events upon which the book is based took place and where it was written.  This coincidence got me to thinking about the book and the profound influence it has had upon my life. 

Like many girls and young women, I grew up wanting to live in the world of the Marches and be like the sisters in the book.  More than any other book I read when I was young, Little Women  shaped my view of what women should be; the goals they should be able to pursue; the traits of honesty, perseverance, charity, and humor that lead to happiness and success; and how women should relate to one another with respect and love.  I doubt I would be writing this blog if not for this book.

As I reflected on the book from an adult perspective, I began to realize how amazingly effective it is for empowering young women, especially given that it was written at the height of the Victorian era.  It is revolutionary, but in a way that transforms by teaching, by simply presenting a portrait of real life where women are truly respected and believe in themselves.  It is a book that deserves a second look as we look for new visions of the future, though it was written 140 years ago. 

In Little Women, the primary relationships are among women, the sisters and their mother. The male characters seem to exist mostly to move the plot along.  Jo’s engagement in the final chapter comes across as the compromise it was; Louisa wanted to keep Jo single, as she was herself, but was forced to marry her off by her publisher.

The girls are each expected to find her innate talent and develop it.  When the family needs money, Jo and her sisters assume they will go out and find work, though their choices are limited. In real life, when Louisa could not enlist in the Union Army she became a nurse and turned her experiences into the truthful and poignant book Hospital Sketches.  She also spent many years working to support her family.  She develops this theme of the importance of women working in her delightful novel Work.  

Perhaps most importantly, each of the sisters is a fully developed young woman with some characteristics that are contrary to those of a “good young woman” of that time or our own.  They are sometimes grumpy, obstinate, fed up, shallow and more, yet each is respected for who she is.  Individuality is prized in this book.

Yet, other books for young women have been written with these same qualities, books that I read when I was a child but that never affected me as much as Little Women.  What is it about this book that makes it such a force for the inner transformation of young (and grown-up) women?  As I thought about it, I realized that it carries another important message:  the real, daily lives of young women are as important as those of any celebrity, any glamorous heroine, any fictional character in some extraordinary circumstance. Nothing outside of normal daily life happens in Little Women, yet every decision they made and action they took  is considered to be one more step in the girls’ progress towards becoming strong, independent women who really do go out and change the world. What we do everyday makes a difference – what an encouraging, inspiring, liberating message this is in a world where so much seems to be beyond our control, where misery engulfs women on every continent, where challenges on the road to a world where everyone is cared for and respected can seem insurmountable.     

Perhaps this Christmas you’ll want to lie on the rug, like Jo, and enjoy again the gift Louisa May Alcott gave you so many years ago.  Or, if you have never experienced it, read Little Women and some of her other works like Work and Hospital Sketches for the first time. Hers is a world worth spending time in at any age.

The Perfect Worlds of Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman worked hard to envision a better world for you to live in.  Gilman lived and wrote most actively in the years surrounding the turn of the 20th century, penning economic treatises and fiction that explored her ideas that a more peaceful, just, happy world depended on the equality, especially economically, of women.  Her general ideas have been validated by studies that show that everyone is healthier and better educated in societies in which women work and have control over their pay because women tend to spend their money on their family’s well being.

She seemed to disappear till 1979 when her novel, Herland, was reprinted.  Much of her work is now back in print, but too few women know about her still.  She wrote three novels about perfect societies, or utopias, but Herland is, to me, the most compelling.  In Herland, three men come upon an all-woman society.  They assume that, because Herland is “civilized,” it must include men. Instead they find that the women are doing quite well by themselves, thank you very much, even reproducing girl-babies without benefit of men at all.

In Herland, the focus is on community, but a caring community in which respect for each person abounds but all is shared, and raising children is honored as a profession for those who are specially trained.  Herland views the whole world through eyes that do not see gender and we come to see all that still makes no sense in our time, a hundred years later.  Originally, Herland has only women, but as the women and men visitors find out, it is possible for a Herland to continue even with men, as long as everyone respects everyone else without limiting them due to gender.

I read Herland many years ago and loved it because I, like many women, I think, had created my own “women-only” utopia.  I chose a job where I worked almost exclusively with women; I had only women friends; I spent my free time volunteering for women’s organizations or gathering women poets for readings in my living room.  I was “of the world” in that I had a mainstream job, but I loved the freedom of being able to be myself because I was with only women.  Now that I can no longer live that way, I miss it and constantly try to recreate that sense of lightness that comes from being out from under society’s narrow ideas about what I should or should not be and do simply because I am a woman.

If I could, I would give copies of Herland to everyone in the world for it is needed now more than ever, whether the answer is a society like Herland’s or not.  Our world is changing quickly and decisions made now will determine what our future will be.  It seems to me that in the century since Herland was published, we have become afraid to “dream big,” to give voice to our belief that we can live in peace and joy, that everyone can be respected for who they are, that no one needs to go to bed at night hungry, cold, or alone, that all we have to do is determine that this is what we will do and it can be done.

To those who find that task daunting, I would give a copy of her short story, The Yellow Wallpaper.  She is possibly better known for The Yellow Wallpaper, but it is a very different kind of story than Herland.  It talks about the descent into insanity of a woman who is kept away from people and forbidden to work as a cure for her depression, a practice common in Gilman’s time. It is a kind of anti-utopian story, except that it really happened and still happens to some degree whenever a woman is denied the chance to use her talents to benefit herself and others.  If we do not choose to look upward, as Herland does, we risk descending into The Yellow Wallpaper.

I hope that, if you haven’t, you will read Herland and think about it.  Would an all-woman society, or at least one where there were no gender differences, be the best way to live?  Would it really be peaceful with everyone content and fulfilled?  What can we take from Herland to apply to our own efforts to make a better future?  How can we make our own lives more like the free and happy women in Herland? How can we make a world that may not be perfect, but is better than what we now imagine is possible?

Charlotte Perkins Gilman is one of those rare authors whose work seems to become even more important a century after she lived.  Unlike the women of her time, we must not only work towards a better future, but towards having any future at all.  We need strong, clear voices to lead us, we need our own voices, and Charlotte’s Herland is like a calling from the past “Dream, dream, and don’t stop till you have made the future you dream of.” 

Sources:

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins.  Herland. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins.  The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader. Ann J. Lane, ed.  New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.

Helen Nearing: Liver of The Good Life

Helen Nearing’s influence on my life has been profound and I am honored to write this post to celebrate her and her husband, Scott.  I grew up in the 1960s and 70s in a liberal university town where their works were widely read, so I have always just assumed that everyone knew of them and had a copy of “The Good Life” on their shelves.  But a couple of days ago, I realized that this view was most likely wrong and that there are probably millions of women who have never heard of Helen.  So, if this is the case with you, I would love to introduce you to one of my favorite women of all time, Helen Nearing.

Helen Nearing and her husband Scott moved to a farm in Vermont in 1932 and began a grand experiment in what would now be called “voluntary simplicity.”  They grew their own food, built their own house, made their own clothes, and only made enough money to meet their most basic cash needs.  (Until this time, Helen had grown up in luxury and done very little physical labor. Think of the faith, love, and courage it took for her to make the decision to do this!) They divided the day into four-hour blocks:  one was for “bread work,” meaning what they needed to do to meet essential needs to sustain life, one was for community service, and one was for leisure and recreation. 

The key was to reduce their needs to a minimum.  No trips to the mall, no fancy clothes, no new cars, nothing that did not serve a useful purpose.  In exchange, they got back four or more hours a day and the satisfaction of spending their time outside, doing honorable, healthy work, and being role models for people like me who were looking at non-traditional ways of living their lives. 

To me, voluntary simplicity is less about doing things a certain way than in creating a new relationship between yourself, your work, and money.  It is about not taking the media’s word for it that you really need 95% of what they are selling. It is the realization that if you do not needs gobs of cash, you do not have to give away your precious time and energy at a job that is extremely stressful and time-consuming instead of one that is fulfilling, requires fewer hours and serves others, but may be lower-paying.  You can choose how you spend the days of your life and what you give your precious talent and energy to.

In 1953, they wrote their book “Living the Good Life” about their experiment and, over the years, until their deaths in the 1980s and 1990s, they were visited by literally thousands of people who came to their home to learn what they had to teach.  They wrote more books and articles, lectured, and always lived what they preached.  Scott was actually the more public face of the two, but he was more analytical and pragmatic, while Helen came from a more mystical, artistic, contemplative point of view and so it was she that I felt connected to, though I never met her.

I do not, of course, follow their lead exactly (as the Coldwater Creek catalog people can attest), but it is because of them that I bought an old house with few modern conveniences and have worked for 20 years with my husband to renovate it, grow many of my own herbs, shop mostly in consignment stores, and take jobs that don’t necessarily pay tremendously well, but pay enough for me to live and help support my family. And, I should say that I am not advocating that women stop fighting to be paid as much as men or that they live at poverty level.  Of course women need to have economic equality – the issue is how much of our lives we want to spend making money, not that we should make less than men – and too many women completely underestimate how much they will really need in retirement.  If you have children or parents to support or care for or have special needs yourself, your financial need will be substantially higher than people like the Nearings, who had no responsibilities other than to themselves and were in good health till their deaths.

What I have recently come to realize is how integral this view of how to make a living can be to women’s spiritual lives.  Many women feel that their connection to the Earth is an essential aspect of their spirituality.  The importance of not over-consuming and making your living in a way that does not exploit the Earth is obvious.  “Voluntary simplicity” is one important way to reduce the amount of energy we use, garbage we generate, and pollution we cause.  There is no better way to honor the Earth than to step away from destroying Her.

Voluntary simplicity is also key to a healthy global web of sisterhood between women.  When food, clothing and materials for shelter are exported rather than used for the good of the women in other countries who make them and factories that make unnecessary goods pollute the environment, especially in developing nations, what we have here in the US really does reduce the quality of life for women around the world.  Here is where “fair trade” can come in.  If you buy goods that are made by women who are fairly paid and who work in safe, ecologically-sound conditions, you can have your imports and help women overseas support themselves in a way that benefits them, too.

Finally, voluntary simplicity is a grand way to express to yourself and others that you are sacred.  Your time, energy and talent is worth more than a cashmere shawl or yet another knick-knack or fancy dinner out.  If you spend the time you gain on “soul pursuits” like music, art, poetry, walks in the woods, reading, or whatever brings you closer to your Creator and your inner self, how rich will you indeed be.  You have not only stated your sacredness, but taken back power over your life by being the one to determine how you spend your time and energy.

In the last few years of her life, Helen wrote a book titled “Loving and Leaving the Good Life” about her marriage to Scott and her thoughts about what their lives had meant.  She chose to end the book with words that were not about economics or freedom or power, but about love.  And this, to me, is the real spiritual message of voluntary simplicity: love yourself and your soul enough not to waste them, love others enough to spend time with them rather than in constant work, love the Earth enough to conserve it; love all beings enough to participate with them in this world in a responsible way. 

But she says it much better than I do: “A network of love crisscrosses the globe…  There are so many threads of love in the world, so much love going on, for and from so many people.  To have partaken of and to have given love is the greatest of life’s rewards.”

To learn more about the Nearings and their work and lives, go to The Good Life Center, the organization that sells their books and continues to spread their message.

                                                                              ~ Carolyn Lee Boyd

Find Your Power with Max Dashu

Max Dashu is one of women’s history’s unsung heroes and someone every woman, and man actually, should know about.  For almost 40 years, Max has collected thousands of images that document the history of women and their achievements that rarely makes it into history books.  She has created 100 slide presentations that show powerful women as shamans, civic leaders, priestesses, rebels, artists, and so much more.  And these aren’t just extraordinary women, but also everyday women following in the footsteps of their mothers and grandmothers as their community’s healers, spiritual prophets, creators, lawgivers, and leaders in every way.  Other of her programs show how women and men all over the world and throughout time have worshipped the Divine in the form of a woman.   Finally, her work demonstrates how sexism, racism, and other injustices have robbed us of an important part of our legacy as human beings.  

Max’s programs are unique, not only because much of the information is not available elsewhere, but also because of her courage and determination in following the story wherever it leads her in time and place.  She shows that we, as women and people, have so much more in common with our ancestors and women on other continents than we knew.  Iconography, practices, ideas, and stories flow from one culture and time to another in her programs, binding us together with women from the most ancient past and distant places.

As if this were not enough, Max is also an artist whose work breathes life into the history through her own vision.  Her paintings include goddesses, spiritual leaders, spiritual concepts and more.  They are vibrant and beautiful and powerful.

Now, even if you aren’t able to go to one of her presentations, you can see one of her most popular programs on DVD.  “Woman’s Power in Global Perspective” is an 86-minute rendering on film of her slideshow that starts with the monuments of female dieties, ancestors, and other beings that ancient people raised all over the world; continues with both notable and everyday women who have been shamans and other spiritual leaders, warriors, queens, and liberators, healers, artists, musicians and poets, scholars and philosophers, athletes, and more; and ends with activists who have furthered and continue to promote a better future for us all.  You can see clips from the video, read the transcript, find a study guide, and order the DVD from Max’s Suppressed History Archives .  There you may also read articles she has written, find more about her other programs, and more.  You can see and learn more about her art here.  You’ll discover things about your heritage as a woman that you never knew. 

                                                                              ~ Carolyn Lee Boyd

Singing with Ancient Women’s Voices

Sometimes the spirit of women ancestors is as close as the songs our grandmothers taught us.  Last night I went to a performance of traditional Balkan music, including a women’s a capella choral group.  The group offered songs sung for centuries by Bulgarian women  in the towns and villages as they worked, celebrated marriages, accompanied dances and went about their daily lives. 

The music is both enlivening and haunting, evoking images of life from centuries ago through music that seems, at times, otherworldly because of its use of a “drone” (where some women sing a steady undertone, like a bagpipe), its sometimes dissonant harmonies, and its unusual rhythms and scales.  Even the vocal technique is unusual to our ears, but perfectly suited for being heard miles away, across mountains or farms.  Whatever the musical theory behind it, to hear twenty women singing loudly and joyfully in complex and magnificent harmony is a spiritual  experience.  To know that women are coming together again to bring this music of extraordinary ordinary women to us is empowering and hopeful.

This music has undergone somewhat of a renaissance in recent years and a number of performing groups have sprung up in the US and elsewhere.  They can be seen at folk festivals and concerts like the one I attended and many have CDs available.  One European group is called The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices.  A US group whose website has some audio clips is Kitka.  For a longer list of US groups, go the Mary Sherhart’s site. 

The culture of that region is extremely ancient, with folk art echoing the symbols and stories of women from millennia ago.  While the music has most likely evolved over the centuries, it is still  is exciting to think that perhaps captured within those harmonies and lyrics are the voices of ancient women telling us about their lives.

                                                                              ~ Carolyn Lee Boyd

Isadora Duncan: Woman for Our Times

If you would like to read a post I wrote for the Her Circle Ezine Inner Circle blog about the dancer Isadora Duncan and what she has to say to women of our own times, click on the link below!

 Isadora Duncan

                                                                              ~ Carolyn Lee Boyd

Into the Cave with Donna Read

Deep in our psyches is a cave, a place of shadows and warmth, nurturing and fertility, where we can go to reflect, revitalize, and reconnect with our souls, beliefs, and values.  We may venture there alone, but sometimes a talisman appears to ignite the bonfire in the cave’s center that gives us enthusiasm and lights our way as we emerge onto the next steps of our path.  Such a gift to all women are the films directed by Donna Read.  

A series of Read’s films, The Goddess Trilogy, was released today by Alive Mind. 

The three films are Goddess Remembered, a panoramic sweep of 35,000 years of global worship and reverence of the Sacred Feminine, from cave drawings to the present day; Burning Times, which gives the viewer a real sense of horror and tragedy, as well as the consequences that still continue today, of the witch hunts in Europe from the Middle Ages to the 18th century; and, finally, Full Circle, a very personal film about the meaning of Goddess spirituality to those who practice it as a western eco-feminist movement as well as those who are following their own culture’s traditions that are thousands of years old.  The series is available from womenandspirituality.net.

A year or so ago I saw another of Read’s film, Signs Out of Time, about the archeologist Marija Gimbutas.  Gumbutas uncovered tens of thousands of artifacts from the Goddess culture of Old Europe, giving back to us Europe’s peaceful, joyful ancient times.  This is available from Belili Productions.

It is impossible for anyone to watch these films and not have her life changed in some way.  I have studied women’s spirituality for 25 years, but I was still moved to tears by seeing the ancient temples where women and men peacefully worshipped a loving, abundant Mother, the village square where women were tortured and burned not so many centuries ago, and the commitment of those all over the world who revere the Earth and are determined that we shall not be the last generation.  For anyone who is not familiar with women’s or Goddess spirituality, watching these films will give a background that it took me decades to gain from reading books. 

The films are like sitting in a circle with women from our ancient past who tell us how their lives revolved around a diety who was a woman and women residing next door who talk about how their daily lives have been enriched and purpose found through women’s spirituality.  They have a warmth and passion that will inspire, move, and teach.  Go into your cave, invite these films in, and let your fire be lit.

                                                                              ~ Carolyn Lee Boyd

Happy Birthday, Yoko Ono

Tomorrow is Yoko Ono’s 75th birthday.  You have most likely heard of Yoko Ono, but you may not know that she has now spent almost 50 years creating art that is provocative, fun, spirited and meaningful.  She records music, creates and gives performances, makes films, exhibits art, and much more.  You may remember “cut piece,” performed a number of times over the years, in which she sits on a stage fully clothed and invites the audience to cut off her clothing with scissors.  Somewhere I still have my copy of “Grapefruit,” a book on delightful, surprising “instruction pieces.”  On the inside flap, for example, she writes “Burn this book after you read it.”

She continues to be a wise and global voice for peace and understanding that is more powerful for being constant over decades. Recently, she dedicated the Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland that will beam a light into the air between October 9 and December 8 each year. This past January, her full-page ad in the New York Times said simply “Imagine Peace.”

Yoko was my first true inspiration as a creative woman.  Like most other people, I first came to know about her because of John Lennon. I was about 12.  I ate up stories of her wildly creative, philosophical, heart-filled art; they opened up within me unexpected realms of the possible. Every piece expressed a sense that the world is, or should be, a place of joy and fun and spontaneity while at the same time envisioning a world at peace with itself.  I first learned from her that creating art is not for sissies, but worth dedicating your life to, that love truly does overcome all, and that one way to overcome unfair and harsh criticism is to outlast it.

You can see more art, find out what is going on in her world, and even wish her a happy birthday (if you do it fast!) at a webpage dedicated to her at http://www.a-i-u.net 

I love that I will be celebrating my 50th birthday within two months of her 75th birthday in the city that I moved to in my 20s because she, John, and Patti Smith all lived there and loved it. 

Happy Birthday, Yoko. 
 

Mary Webb

Mary Webb was a British writer in the early 20th century.  She had a brief moment of fame in the 1920s when her novel, “Precious Bane,” became popular then another briefer moment more recently when it was made into a movie by the BBC.

Most of her life, though, Mary Webb spent in rural England writing about traditional life there and supporting herself by selling produce she grew and other similar pursuits.  What is amazing about Mary Webb is her very deep connection to nature.  When I read her work I feel as if nature is speaking through her directly to me.  She expresses the transcendent beauty and profound meaningfulness of the nature that we take for granted everyday.  She wrote a number of novels — Precious Bane is my favorite and is a delightful love story also — and a book of poetry and nature essays.  You can probably find reprints of her work, especially the novel, here and there.  Look her up!

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