These past three months I have learned the wonderful, important word “survivorship.” At the cancer center where I receive care, “survivorship” means life’s physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, economic, social, and political aspects affecting the quality and quantity of life after treatment.
“Survivorship” also perfectly describes what I have seen over and over working with older women, especially those who have made their lives masterpieces of this art. The deaths of loved ones, the loss of home and country, devastating illness and lifelong disability, violence from family and discrimination and hate from strangers – through it all they have found a strength and power that they have used to make their lives and that of others more meaningful and impactful. In fact, almost all older, and many younger, women I know have been transformed by their own kind of survivorship into someone beyond who she imagined she would ever be.
Survivorship also describes the courage, persistence, strength, wits, guts, intelligence, and wisdom of the global community of women necessary to overcome the trauma, violence, violation and repression of at least the past several thousand years. It is what has brought women through to where we are now. Women’s spirituality as a force and a movement is also a heroine of survivorship. Through millennia of being repressed and dressed up in the garments of patriarchal practices to suit their needs, the traditions and spirit of the Female Divine have survived and we now see Her reclaiming Her place in our spiritual lives, theology, and world history.
Illustration by Nanri Tenney
Illustration by Nanri Tenney
Often in troubled moments I seek guidance in a Goddess’s story that has resonated with me. One such is Sedna, the Arctic Goddess of the ocean. Since I am not of Her tradition, I can only express what the universal elements of Her story have meant to me.
This is Her story as I have heard it, most recently in Patricia Monoghan’s Goddesses and Heroines: Sedna was a young woman who married a seabird after he promised her a happy, easy life. When she instead found her home to be squalid, her father came to fetch her home in a kayak. Her husband’s flock attacked the kayak and, fearing all would die, her father threw Sedna overboard. When she held onto the sides of the boat, he chopped off her fingers, then her arms. At the ocean’s bottom, she transformed into a goddess, always dragging one leg behind her, and her mutilated arms and fingers became the fish and sea mammals that fed the people. She gave the people laws they must obey if the sea creatures were to sacrifice themselves to the hunters and she received the dead into her realm.
What happened to Sedna on her way down from the boat to the ocean floor to turn the abused young woman into the Goddess of life and death? She survived. To me, her journey is that of survivorship with the message that I must find my way through it with the knowledge and hope that transformation is not just possible, but inevitable. Where am I in the progress of the story?
Perhaps still holding onto the boat of who I was before diagnosis in some ways, perhaps watching my fingers and arms being flung over the side as surgery, radiation and chemotherapy make me feel as if I have lost the sense of wholeness I once took for granted. But, I am also looking down to the ocean floor, beginning to envision how this experience might make me into someone beyond previous imagining. I vow to not only survive, but also to thrive. Perhaps we should find a new name for this time of life when are not just survivors, but thrivors.
It seems as if this liminal falling-to-the-bottom-of-the-ocean moment is not just happening for individuals, but is also a historical time for the global community of women as we continue our awakening and movement towards equal rights, peace, and safety and for the spirit of the Female Divine as She arises and emerges.
We are profoundly conscious of the traumas and tragedies, of the losses and betrayals that have woven through our lives as individuals, as the global community of women, and as the human component of the Female Divine. Yet, we can see the bottom of the ocean, knowing that we can bring what we have learned there, even when it seems a bit dim and unfocused.
The prehistoric Egyptian Goddess shows her graceful strength, as she encompasses the world in her aura and shows her ability sustain and survive the difficulties of life and the beauty of joy. ~ Artist’s statement by Nanri Tenney
Much of what will be needed for our transformation is already underway here at FAR and elsewhere. First, we need to expand our vision of who we are, what we can be, and what we can achieve. We must ask ourselves, who would we be if we had never heard any of the “shouldn’ts” and “couldn’ts” that all women are subjected to from the moment of birth? What if we had always understand our essential being to be sacred and divine?
We have to acknowledge that what we have survived is hard. Maybe future generations will wonder how we came through it all in order to bring them the world in which they live. Like Sedna, we have wounds, but it can be the wounded pieces of ourselves that can be turned into food for the people, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual nourishment and nurturance. I suspect that many, maybe all, of us, don’t truly comprehend how wounded we are because so much of what wounds us is taken for granted as a part of life, but in recognizing our wounds, they can be transformed.
We need to envision what our ocean floor, the place where we express our transformed power and wisdom, looks like and who we will be in it. This is a task for the artist in each one of us to free our imaginations and dream as big as we can. Then we can put our visioning together and know where we are going.
Finally, we must take action, whatever that must be, to bring our vision to fruition. We must honor each woman’s contribution, knowing that everyone’s talents are essential and unique.
May we all, someday, stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart, in thrivorship in the ocean realm we have made together.