FROM THE HANDS OF OUR ANCESTORS TO OURS

Yesterdaytorso I visited the magnificent new Harvard Art Museums. I saw hundreds of objects but the one that has stayed with me is not a Cassatt, Matisse, the Monet, or monumental Greek or Roman statue of a deity and ruler, or piece of provocative modern art but a simple tiny female torso. This object is in the Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Art section. Someone carved it of steatite or chorite about 8,000 years ago, in the Neolithic era. It is only about an inch and a half long, but the details are familiar to anyone who has seen photos or examples of the thousands of statues of women or goddesses from that time. The torso is without a head, arms, or feet, focusing all attention on the torso and triangle from which all human life comes.

While we can never know exactly how these statues were used, the small size, in particular, strikes me as evidence that this object was created for daily use by ordinary people who might, for example, need to pick up and move often. Perhaps it was carried in a small bag or set carefully on a small household altar, much as many women I know place objects that remind them of the sacred within themselves, or of qualities of goddessness that they would like to develop, or of the faith of their foremothers that makes them feel at home in this world. I think that such an object would perhaps have been passed down from a woman to her daughter or niece or granddaughter or maybe an apprentice or priestess-in-training over many generations. Then, at some point, it came to rest somewhere until it emerged in our own time and came back to us.

I think of the lives of the women who first used it. While I imagine they had moments of great joy and love when they would come upon an especially beautiful landscape or gaze at the face of a beloved, I think that, like many of us in the 21st century, they also knew times of hunger and mortal danger and hatred and violence. They also suffered from serious illness and felt their life force ebbing from their bodies, yearning for a few more moments on earth. There must have been days when they felt as if waking up to face one more day was not worth the challenges of getting through it.

But they did. No matter where our personal ancestral lines take us in the world, and for most of us that would be many continents, whether or not the genes of the women who actually used that statue still live in some of us somewhere, we are all the result of generations and generations of women who go back to that Neolithic time and beyond. We all carry within us the flesh of women who lived in that time and, most likely, cherished some object like that on the 3rd floor of the Harvard Art Museums.

When I gaze at that object, I see not just a small piece of stone carved thousands of years ago, but all that my foremothers overcame in the strong, unwavering belief that life on earth is not only worth living for themselves, but passing on to future generations, including me. The statue is not just an object, but a message from the women who lived all those thousands of years ago – “Go forth. Make this Earth a place where my great-granddaughters and great-grandsons can live better lives than I or you did. Know that every morning you wake up is a good morning, no matter what your circumstances on that day. Revere the life that comes from me and make all that I went through for you to be here worth my while.”

Photo credit: Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of Louise M. and George E. Bates

Hildegard of Bingen, A Saint Whose Spirit Soared Free

The Medieval world was full of powerful queens and saints, both real and mythical. Second perhaps only to Joan of Arc, Hildegard of Bingen reigns as the woman who, after a thousand years, still moves us most with her life and work. Thirty years ago she was still an obscure saint from Germany little known outside her home area. Once rediscovered, her mystical visions and writings, and especially her liturgical music, quickly became magnificently popular. Though steeped in the culture and Christianity of her time, her art and biography have an essential and universal spirituality and message that speak clearly and passionately to women of our own time.

A new biographical novel has just been published, Illuminations by Mary Sharratt (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2012) that not only enlightens about the actions of Hildegard’s life, but really gives a sense of how completely women’s bodies and souls, aspirations and talents, were bound in medieval times. To me, Illuminations is the story of Hildegard’s remarkable liberation from a literal physical and spiritual entombment that also set free an almost other-worldly creativity. It is the story of the power of freedom of the spirit.

The novel begins with the literal entombment of Hildegard as a small child. She was given to the church by her family as the companion of a woman who was “enclosed,” a practice in which women and men were ritually made dead to the world and then spent the rest of their lives bricked up in tiny rooms that were, in this case, off the sanctuary of a monastery being, in the eyes of the time, made holy by their sacrifice. Finally freed years later, she became the leader of a group of nuns in the monastery, completely under the control of male clerics. She finally broke off from the monastery to form her own convent and spent the rest of her life battling the church hierarchy. As if this were not enough, she was also confined by her own body, suffering frequent debilitating illness and migraines.

Hildegard’s means of liberation was first her visions, which she had from a very early age but only began writing down in her 40s. Then her spirit was freed by her immense body of creative works, including books of her visions, theology, and medicine, stories of saints, and a voluminous correspondence (handily excerpted in Sabina Flanagan’s Secrets of God: Writings of Hildegard of Bingen, Shambhala, 1996). She also composed hours of liturgical music for the nuns in her convent to sing (I prefer the Sequentia CDs but others are also available). This freedom was won both because these brought her the fame and popular support that enabled her to prevail over her male opponents and also because of the ability of all art to rise above worldly circumstance and speak to all ages.

As beautiful as her work is, however, I find that it is its spirit of freedom that makes it so compelling. It is easy to see how the power of liberation unleashes spiritual and creative genius when we consider the oceans of works of art and literature by women in the 19th and 20th century who were finally able to speak their minds and hearts and tell their stories. So often, oppressors are celebrated and hold the power of life and death in their own time, but are forgotten or reviled by history while the songs and stories of those they held in bondage of one kind or another serve as anthems for future generations. To know the power of freedom, confine yourself to one room for even one day and then experience that joy and sense of being alive that you feel when you walk out again into the sun.

For many people in our world, past and present, freedom is not a religious value. Religion is about following a set of rules in order to stop humans from their inevitable wickedness and the belief that faithfulness requires one to exercise one’s freedom is considered to be absurd. To some, and especially those in Hildegard’s time, to think that each person must follow her or his own path, is heresy. When you consider freedom to be a religious value, however, everything changes. Valuing religious freedom means that one assumes that humans are not basically sinful but, rather, are at heart good and will do what is right if left to be themselves. Creativity that comes from each individual’s uniqueness is held in the highest regard as a spiritual act. Rather than spending time and energy protecting the power of the hierarchy, each individual is celebrated, supported and encouraged as an indispensable piece of a divine universal whole.

Hildegard of Bingen’s life is a testament to the power of holding freedom as a religious value. Her outpouring of creativity was like a spring that, once allowed a small trickle, burst through to become an ocean. Inside their own convent, the nuns under her supervision performed Hildegard’s own works, did not always wear their habits, and defied the church’s authority over them when necessary. While Hildegard would be considered conservative, in that she was always berating church officials from straying from the original tenets of behavior for religious, she was constantly challenging the authority of the church hierarchy to tell her how to believe or worship.

It is easy to find parallels to Hildegard’s struggles in the recent attempts by the Vatican to control American women religious. Certainly many things have not changed in the thousand years since Hildegard lived (though anyone listening to Sister Simone Campbell at the Democratic National Convention heard how powerful the spirits of contemporary women religious can be, especially when they are using their voices on behalf of those in need – You go, Simone!).  But, to me, the message of Hildegard’s life is not defined by those who would have confined her, but rather the power and joy she found in her own freedom and in her lifelong work to liberate other women. When you read her life and her works and listen to her music, whether you share her religious tradition or not, may your spirit take wings.

Revering Forgotten Dreams of Our Earliest Mothers

I begin the New Year with a post about our earliest art and spirituality…

As we enter into winter’s deepest weeks here in the northern hemisphere, when the light is growing but the cold and snow drive us inside, it is a good time to enter into the “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” as Werner Herzog calls the cave in France that gives his film, just out on DVD, its title. The film, which had only a very limited theatrical release, shows rare footage of the art in the cave, some dating to 30,000 BC, as well as what little information exists about what may have happened there.

Most of the paintings are of animals running, fighting, hunting, resting and walking — things Paleolithic humans would have observed animals doing. The only figure that appears to be human is of a woman’s lower half that resembles the Willendorf  statue figure.

As the scientists in the film explain, we really cannot know what went on in the cave or, assuming that the paintings had a spiritual function, what Paleolithic spirituality was like. However, we can express what we, as humans, experience in the presence of this art, whether in person or, when that isn’t possible, through media like this film.

When I look at the figure of the half-woman, I see the power of creation surrounded by the life-giving as well as life-taking power of nature in the dynamic yet precise animal drawings. Thinking back to the environment of those times, the animals were both what provided life for women and their families as well as perhaps the greatest danger as people were killed or injured hunting or getting in the way of stampedes or animals on the prowl for food.

What I love most about the cave paintings is both their intense beauty as well as the proximity of the power of the female figure to that of the animals. The female figure is  close to the animals that original creators must have greatly feared at times. Her power is also deeply embedded in the power of the animals as if both were elements of the same spiritual power. Whatever the paintings meant to the original artists, when I see them, I feel tremendous courage in facing and putting oneself in the midst of one’s fears as well as acknowledging and celebrating one’s own spiritual power.

How would this translate to our own time?  To our own lives? Can we use our own spiritual power as life-givers, as humans, to face the most dangerous aspects of ourselves and transform them into beauty, into life-affirming power? So many of us do this each day when we use anger at injustice to effect change, when we turn back cruelty with kindness towards its victims, when we name those prejudices that have gone unchallenged for too long for what they are.

The lives of those who created these paintings are so different from ours that we can never know whether our experience of them is anything at all like that of their original creators. Yet, at the same time, I do believe that some experiences are universally human. As I was thinking about this post, I got two automated calls from our local police department. One reported a little boy missing in our neighborhood and asked for help in keeping an eye out for him, then the other told us that he was home safe. In the cave are the footprints of a child about the same age, most likely made shortly before an avalanche closed off the cave, preserving it for us to find millennia later. No human remains are in the cave, so presumably the child found the way out again. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to me that perhaps that child’s wanderings created the same sense of community concern and relief if the child returned home safely.

Perhaps, too, some of the emotions evoked by the cave’s paintings are also universally human. Perhaps the women who saw their own bodies in the drawings in the cave would be proud of the courage and life-affirming acts of women 30,000 years in the future who were inspired by the paintings to contemplate their meaning.

If you have not seen “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” you might wish to think about finding a copy of the DVD and watching it. Winter is a good time not only because it is traditionally when stories from ancient times were told, but also because it is when our environment may be closest to those of the original Paleolithic people who made the paintings. Europe was much colder then and the people would likely have felt more at home in the chill of winter looking out at barren and snowy landscapes than in the steamy heat of summer. Maybe if you watch it, you will also see yourself on the cave walls.

The Winter Queen of the Soul

In order to make articles and columns available to readers here, I am reprinting them as posts.  This first appeared in Moondance, December, 2008.

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.

Celebrating Our Birthdays and Changing the World

In order to make articles and columns available to readers here, I am reprinting them as posts.  This first appeared in Moondance, December, 2008.

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.

Celebration of Life, Art Print

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 a bit too long and large for me. It is gaudy and probably not considered a wise wardrobe choice, even in my twenties. It will be my Ceremonial Birthday Jacket and will represent that, this birthday, I will not lament my old age, but will rebirth myself in all my glory and uniqueness.

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.

If I had celebrated my birthday this way every year, I wonder what I could have accomplished, how much I would no longer regret, what kind of a woman I would be? What if every birthday was a “jacket” celebration?

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!

Hand to Hand Across Time

The older I get, the sparer my spiritual universe becomes, and the more I wonder if I would have felt more comfortable in a Paleolithic world. There is something essential– self-confidently spiritual, as star-bright and as earthy as a diamond–about the cave paintings and other artifacts our most ancient ancestors left behind. I especially love the handprints from that time that are found on cave walls in many places of the world. If you have not seen them, they are handprints just like you used to make in school – the artist covered her or his hand with paint and pressed it to the wall or outlined it with paint. Some of these are single prints, almost as if they are a signature, while others are in elaborate patterns and seem to have a meaning that goes beyond the imprint of a single person.

To me, nothing symbolizes all that is good about being embodied on Earth like a handprint. It is with our hands that we have always gathered or grown the food that keeps us alive, built the homes that shelter us, held our babies who are the next generation, and made objects that ease our lives. Our hands are how we go beyond ourselves to reach out to other people and to create art that expresses the inexpressible within us and speaks to those who will live tens of millennia after us.

I love the Paleolithic handprints because they also remind me that, once, humans were new upon the Earth, that decisions about what kind of communities we would live in, how we would treat one another, whether we would be a short-lived or a long-lasting species had yet to be made. What would it be like to live without the burden of knowing the history of our world for the past few centuries or that we are responsible for the forecasts of global doom?

But the meaning of the handprints to me goes beyond what they symbolize to how they connect us to those who made them. According to David S. Whitley’s Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit, some of the hand prints in California were made by young girls participating in a celebration of their growth into womanhood. Marija Gimbutas in Language of the Goddess says that the majority of handprints appear to have been made by women. Why might this be?

Of course, we cannot know exactly what the people who made the prints or paintings in the caves were thinking as they laid their hands against the cave walls, but the women artists could hardly have missed their own connection to whatever concepts of the sacred they were depicting or touching. They were the partners of nature in creation, bringing into being what nature had set into motion. In their birthing, which was likely much more dangerous than our own, they experienced the intimacy of life and death up close as they knew that giving birth could so easily end in either one, or both. Perhaps leaving a remnant of their physical being was the most sacred act they could imagine.

Because the women who made the handprints gave birth, despite its danger, our generation lives. Our existence, our DNA, and their handprints are all that remains of their physical being on the planet. Perhaps they had elaborate myths and rituals, an oral literary tradition, shelters and artifacts, a history of achievements and migrations, but these have been lost. What we really have, all we really have, is that one-to-one connection between ourselves and others and from that we need to remake the world anew each day.

This season of late spring we are now in, when the soil is still wet and we dig our fingers into it, is the time when we most live through our hands after a winter of gloves and coat pockets. Tomorrow, when I wash the Earth off my hands to prepare the meal of greens and vegetables for my family, much as the hands of those who made the handprints must have done, I will look at them as doorways to the sacred, a dialogue with women from long, long ago, a reminder that my spirituality can be as fresh and new as the Paleolithic dawn.

Mary Moody Emerson: Independent Spirit

If you would like to read a blog post I wrote for Her Circle Ezine’s Inner Circle blog about Mary Moody Emerson, an initiator of American Transcendentalism and a woman who found her own way despite the constrictions of Victorian life, click on the link below!

Mary Moody Emerson

                                                                              ~ Carolyn Lee Boyd

Previous Older Entries