Celebrate Your Muses: Your Gateways to Inner Worlds

IMG_0885I 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!

Gathering Roses in Galactic Maelstroms

Whether it is astronomical convergences, or historical cycles, or just coincidence, these past few months have seemed to be time of galactic change in the lives of many people I know.  Whatever the cause, upheaval, forced truth-facing, losing one life and embarking on a new one, emotional anarchy, creative excitement and inspiration, initiations and rebirths – all these and more have burst through my daily life and those of so many others in my circles. At the same time, national and global transition seems to be a part of the very air we are breathing. 

This image of a violent storm, a ripping away into rawness before a new life can occur, has sometimes seemed like the only way real and deep rebirth can happen, or maybe that is just how it has been envisioned in the culture I grew up in. I usually love a great storm.  I have been known to walk through the eye of a hurricane, to stand outside in a lightning storm so that I can experience the electricity in the air all around me, to rush outside when the wind is blowing down trees and power lines in order to feel the earth’s power.  But, at this moment in my life, I want peace and gentleness.  I crave rest and calm.  I want to be a part of the future, but I want to get there differently.

Perhaps we can choose how we experience transformational moments like these. My image of times like these has always been of that gigantic storm causing the land we live on to break up, dissolving into the ocean. We fall into the deep water and sink down, down to the depths where all and only truth lies, where we battle our ten thousand demons and then, eventually, begin our swim back to the surface where the whole universe is roiling and making tsunamis that wash away all that has ever been built.  Eventually the chaos subsides and we wash up, exhausted and wounded, onto a newly made self, where we begin the cycle again.

It takes great courage to be part of this intensely powerful surge, to face all that awaits us under the storming sea and then to ascend again like Inanna coming up from Hades.  But this image focuses on the going-away, the death, aspect of that moment of transition between the old and the new. It assumes that we naturally hold onto what is no longer needed, or no longer in existence, until it is ripped from us or we sever it from ourselves.  What if we paid less attention to the fear of the unknown and the insecurity that makes a trauma out of leaving behind the past?  What if we talked as much about what happened to Inanna when she came back from Hades as her journey there?  What if we simply walked away from what is no longer a part of us and instead imagined strolling onto the shore of our new lives in joyful expectation and celebrating all that is waiting for us there?  What if we push aside the worldview that change must come from conflict and destruction and replace it with one of inevitable but peaceful turnings, the way the earth moves around the sun? 

But of what will I build my new life if all around me is turning to dust?  I will build it of the only thing I truly own – my faith that I have been made to be exactly who I am and that where I will end up is precisely where I am meant to be. So, instead of abandoning those parts of myself and my life that no longer fit, I will honor all they have done for me and remake them into what I do need, whether it is self-destructive anger turned to determination or meekness made into contemplative wisdom. I will be able to leave behind situations and people who harm me without fear because I will have the strength and hopefulness to find new companions and opportunities. I will nourish my everyday self with healthy food, and sleep, and times of fun and enjoyment and merriment, and solitude and company.  I will make sure that I am happy.  When I walk out onto the shore, I will expect beauty and kindness to be all around me, and what I don’t discover, I will create, for why else would I have landed here?

Not only will I make a different way of experiencing these times for myself, but I will make it my task to make such a way for others also.  When I come across someone who is struggling in the ocean, I will be extra nurturing.  I will listen with intensity and nourish them with food and opportunities to celebrate.  I will lend them my spyglass so that they, too, can see the new lands arising from the tempest. 

Perhaps I will be one of a new profession, that of midwife to those who are participating in this re-creation of themselves and our world.  Maybe I will make it my job to be of comfort to those who are more directly in the middle of the maelstrom so that they can do what they need to do for themselves and others.  I will place vases of flowers around their birthing room and open the windows to the fresh winds that blow.  I will remind those who are in the throes of these moments that they have not been tossed into the ocean without help or a compassionate witness. We will walk out onto the shore shoulder-to-shoulder and experience the stillness of the morning that so often comes after a storm.  We will talk about taking care of ourselves, of not burdening ourselves with what we have left behind in the ocean, of giving ourselves time to be amazed and enchanted with our new lives.  We will re-envision transformation as the joy of building rather than the pain of tearing down and leaving behind.  I think maybe that is who I am and what I am supposed to be doing. Together we will see the land of our transformed lives as a paradise and then it will be one. 

Snow for the Winter of Life

The older I get, the more I love the snow.  This winter, as more snow has fallen than in almost any winter on record, I hated what it did to the convenience in my life at first.  But now I see that each flake is a kiss from the hag, the Spirit of Winter, the old woman who presides over the deepening times of life, whenever they may occur.  She blesses us as we struggle with truths that become visible in the stark bone essence of the winter landscape, whether of the environment or of our souls.  She is the midwife of necessary endings and promises the hope of beginnings, however much they may or not be welcomed.  

 

Whether you are in the spring of life or nearing its end, snow has a message for you, for we all have times when we need the blessings of the Winter Hag.  She could leave us to our fates, but instead, like the good Mother that She is, she is present and makes herself known in these tiny drops of water, the very substance of life.

 

Snow is healing – it calms and quiets.  It has a soothing wisdom that does not proclaim, but instead drifts silently into consciousness, like a first snowfall on the grass.  When we are aching from loss, snow shows us how to be a balm for ourselves and others.

 

Snow honors and comforts the poorest.  Its beauty is for all.  It makes next spring’s crops grow as it brings nutrients to the soil of every farmer.   No one’s sorrows or needs, even our own, are too meager for snow’s ministrations.

 

Snow demands respect.  If its power in an avalanche or blizzard is ignored or belittled, its destruction can be devastating.  But these maelstroms are part of the earth and its atmosphere, just as upheaval is necessary in our own lives at times.  Snow requires us to honor all aspects of Her nature, and we learn that we must also honor our own. 

 

Snow knows how to be solitary – the single flake wafting down from the sky – and also one of many as a storm.  Especially in times of emotional winter, we must be alone to meet ourselves but also be able to then re-emerge into the company of others and begin to live again.

 

If you are lucky enough to live where it snows, go outside the next time the Hag of Winter breathes her blessings upon you.  Let her surround and embrace you with her cooling, strengthening, mysterious presence.  Learn from her.  If you live in a warmer climate, seek her anyway.  She is there for you.

Every Woman Is a Storyteller

The myth of Demeter and Persephone, as it is generally retold, goes something like this:

Persephone, the maiden daughter of the Earth Goddess Demeter, was joyfully picking flowers with her friends when Hades kidnapped her and took her to his Underworld realm.  Demeter wandered the earth in despair seeking her daughter, rendering the land barren so that the people starved and the gods and goddesses of Olympus had to do  without their sacrifices.  Finally, the gods and goddesses decreed that Persephone would return to her mother, but only if she had not eaten of the food of the underworld.  But, alas, Hades had tempted her and she had eaten pomegranate seeds.  Thus, she was forced to remain the Underworld, Hades’ captive wife, for four months of the year – winter – when the land would be bare and desolate, but come back to earth the other eight when Demeter would again make the land fruitful.

I have always loved and hated this story.  It is full of violence against women and the Earth is the unwilling object to be abundant or not at the gods and goddesses’ whim. Yet it also has a beauty and meaning that always eluded, yet attracted me.  Because it was written down millennia ago, this is the story that we hear.  Of course, it is not the only version.  In other renditions of it, Persephone journeys to the Underworld of her own accord and, with her mother, is a powerful goddess of life and death and rebirth.  How different the story and its meaning for women becomes when we change just a few things here and there.

Let us begin to think differently about our stories.  Instead of myths, folktales and other stories that have grown up by the retelling over time being frozen at the moment they were written down, maybe we can think of stories differently.  Maybe these stories belong to each of us, ordinary women and men, and it is our right and our gift from our ancestors, to reinterpret them to meet our own needs from generation to generation.  Many times I feel as if there are no myths or folktales that speak to me – they relate to lives long ago and few have come along that truly enlighten and inspire my own life.  Maybe it doesn’t have to be that way.

Here is another version of the Persephone and Demeter tale.

Persephone was the maiden daughter of the powerful Earth Goddess Demeter.  She and her mother loved one another dearly, and her mother knew that the time had come for her daughter to become the woman she was meant to be, in all her strength and wisdom and bright joy.  Demeter also knew that it was time for humans and the Earth they lived on to evolve, too.  Humans lived in eternal summer, with abundant food and shelter, but no time to think, to contemplate and create, to honor that within themselves that was deep and rich.  Demeter was deeply bereft to give up her daughter to her daughter’s destiny, but she knew that she had no choice.   

So, Demeter called Persephone to her and told her it was time for her to go on an important journey.  She was to sojourn to the Underworld and become a part of it.  She was to be the link between the upper world of light, activity, and outward growth and the underworld of darkness, thought and inner enrichment.  Through Persephone, humans would learn to become not just the willing servants of the gods and goddesses, but creative and immortal in their ability to think beyond their daily lives and become like the gods and goddesses. 

Persephone willingly ventured down to the Underworld, though her heart was filled with sadness at leaving her mother and the beauty of the Upperworld and fear at what she would find in the Underworld.  When she arrived, however, she met and fell in love with Hades, whose realm she had entered.  In time, he brought her the gifts of the pomegranate, that fruit of fertility and holiness, and She brought him the joy and  pleasure of the Upperworld.  Yet, Persephone knew that her destiny was not to live in the Underworld all the time either.  So, again with grief at leaving her new-found partner, she returned to the Upperworld and come to a decision with her mother about what to do. Together with Demeter and a willing earth, Persephone and Hades helped bring the world into balance, with Persephone spending a third of her time in the Underworld and two-thirds in the Upperworld, in correct proportion for the Earth to allow humans to both be nourished through the fruits of the land and to dive deep into the restful contemplative cave of their own souls.  And so it is even to our own time.

I like that version much better and what does it teach us?  That women are powerful, that mothers and daughters and women and men together can remake the world, that love creates balance, that we must face our fears and put aside our own sadness at times to fulfill our destiny, that we must both celebrate the abundance of our time in the light and honor the nurturance of our time in the dark, and that we are like the goddesses of old if we will just recognize and use our talents and strengths. 

This is my story of Persephone and Demeter and it belongs to me, an ordinary woman of the 21st century, just as much as to any ancient author or contemporary scholar.  What is your favorite myth or folktale and how do you tell it?

The ABCs of Goddess in Everyday Life

I was just sent a fun meme game by Aerolin in which you are supposed to write 26 things about yourself using the alphabet.  Well, since I love to change rules, I’m going to write instead about 26 things in which  I find Goddess around the house.  Here goes!

A is for apple, that fruit so plentiful at this time of year that it is a perfect symbol of the abundance of Goddess.

B is for basement, the “hermit cave” of my house, that dark warm spot that was scary in childhood, but that I now see as the place of quiet and contemplation, the heart of the home.

C is for cape.  I’ve decided that every woman needs a flowing, billowing, brightly- colored cape to be her wings and to announce her presence to the world wherever she goes.  I have a bright red and purple ruanna from Ireland that I think will need to suffice for right now.

D is for dandelion, that flower that almost no one remembers is full of vitamins and other nutrients and, if it weren’t so common, would be a garden favorite because it is so pretty and cheerful.  The more I look for Goddess around my house, the more I think that perhaps we stopped appreciating Her when we no longer valued things we encountered everyday.  

E is for egg, an outer world symbol of all that is creative and fertile within us.

F is for feline, my black cat who brings some of the wild freedom of nature into my home and who is my constant companion, proof that species is no barrier to caring and understanding.

G is for goodies, of the cakes, cookies, and candy kind.  Remember, in many cultures it has been traditional to make “cakes for the Queen of Heaven” not “plain brown rice and tofu for the Queen of Heaven.”  Brown rice and tofu has an important place in our diet, but goodies do, too, to remind us of the sweetness of life and that Goddess wants us to enjoy living.

H is for Heaven which, if I have my way, will look just like my house, because that’s where I find it.

I is for ice cream.  If I were Goddess – well, we are all Goddess, but you know what I mean – I would say “thank you for the cakes, but I would prefer ‘ice cream for the Queen of Heaven.’ A prime example of co-creation – She made the cows and the sugar cane and the flavorings and the ice and we put them all together to make the perfect food.

J is for Jupiter, the planet.  Just because it is billions of miles away doesn’t mean it is not part of my home.  When I recognize the sacred within myself, I am at home anywhere.

K is for kindness, a virtue too often thought of as nice but not as good as strength or power or even love.  But, kindness is the one thing that makes a house a home and that which will, in my view, transform the world because understanding its essential importance changes how we interact with one another everyday.

L is for love, of course.

M is for music.  Music is spirit that you can hear and feel.

N is for necessary evils, like housework, that become sacred acts when you forget you are supposed to hate them and, instead, find the symbolic and ceremonial in them.

O is for open pit barbecue.  As a vegetarian, I don’t really barbecue, but for those who do, this is about as close to a home-based ancient Goddess fire ritual as you can get, I would think.

P is for peppermint, a wonderful reminder that Goddess has provided remedies for so many ailments in our own gardens.  She does not want us to suffer, but knows that when She gave us bodies, illness would come, too, because that’s part of being in the physical world. 

Q is for questioning, an activity that is essential for a Goddessy life, since this is how we grow as we are meant to.  Home is a wonderful place to question because it is safe and full of love as we experiment and try out different answers.

R is for running and the fun of watching my cat bound around the house, bringing pure joy in living into my home.

S is for snow.  It is so abundant and so beautiful, though few crystals will ever be seen.  Whenever I see it snow, I know Goddess loves me and that it is up to me to express gratitude by being as gentle with others as a snowfall.

T is for teapots.

U is for the Universe, ever-present in even the smallest crystal of sugar or drop of water if I look hard enough.

V is for variegated leaves, yet another unnecessary beauty that illustrates the beauty all around us if we will just look.

W is for water.  How amazing that the substance that brought forth all life runs from my own faucets!  My house truly is a temple!

X is for my son’s X-Box and the expansion of consciousness that electronics can bring. 

Y is for you, those who read this blog and therefore make it live.

Z is for Xena, (I know that Xena is spelled with an “X” but I have already used “X” and it is pronounced like a “Z”) who brought Goddess-y women into our children’s lives through our tvs, who is strong and uses her power to fight for right, who can make a wonderful, wild sound, and who has many times given me the answer to a dilemma when I would ask myself “What would Xena do?” 

I tag foxchild one of the many women I have met blogging who I would like to know better!

The Strength of the Weeping Willow

As I become older, I find myself getting “weaker,” as I have always thought of that word, rather than “stronger,” as I thought I would.  I more often get emotionally overwrought, or find that I have to take a break from life for a day or two, or am deeply wounded by something that is said that would not have bothered me in the past.  I have always thought that “strong” meant that you were able to withstand the worst that life could throw at you and still function everyday, appearing cheerful and content.  I no longer believe that.

When I am distressed, it is generally from witnessing someone else’s tragedy, even if in a book or movie, losing loved ones, or finding myself in a situation where people are being unkind and uncompassionate to one another.  The older I get, the less I am able to keep up that boundary between myself and my “world” and others and “their world.”  What happens to someone in Mali, happens to me.  When I see a child being berated in a store, I no longer think “can’t they take that outside?”, but instead consider what that child’s life must be like to be treated that way all the time and how that will affect her or his future well being.  I no longer only get angry when someone doesn’t treat me well, but instead I am sorry for whatever has happened to them to make them bitter.

To me, “strength” was always symbolized by a tall, straight pine tree trunk, standing steady in all weather, holding up all the branches and leaves.  But now I think that real strength comes from the roots.  That’s where the tree soaks up the outside world and uses it to create the beautiful and sheltering trunk and branches.  Real strength is being able to take the cries and sorrows of the world within yourself and make them into something healing and nurturing.  But, transformation is never purely an act of building up.  First you must truly feel all that you have taken in and let it rip you apart, if it must, so that you can bring it back to the world in some other form, whether as a story or poem, or social activism, or just a more loving manner. 

When I seemed to withstand so much, I think it was because I had made the walls around me thicker so that I wouldn’t have to think too much about what I was seeing.  Also, it has only been in the past ten years that I have seen tragedy happen to my own family, seen loved ones truly suffer.  There came a moment, witnessing my mother’s death, when I could no longer keep out the world, when I began to really be in the truth of what was happening around me.

What if we lived in a world where strength was defined differently?  What if strength was the ability to feel the pain of others, even if it sometimes left you unable to function for awhile?  What if strength was the ability to be torn apart by the suffering of others so that it could be transformed into healing within yourself and then brought back out to the world? 

What if a strong community and nation was one where we come to one another’s aid and hold each other up as we feel and empathize, where we celebrate together each other’s triumphs?  What if bearing emotional and physical pain without asking for help was not considered weak, just unnecessary, so that never again would someone go without medical treatment or counseling because of what others might think?  What if weakness was having a center that is too undeveloped to let in life’s experiences, but that this was considered to be simply an indication of a need to grow, not a personal failing?

What if the symbol of strength was a weeping willow as well as a majestic pine? What kind of world would we live in?
 

This Old House, Part Two

As I mentioned in the last post, I often think of the women who lived and worked in my house 150 years ago. Though I know nothing about them, I do sometimes wonder what their lives were like and what they thought about the world they lived in.  Occasionally, when I am feeling as if the earth in my time is in too much trouble to ever survive, I imagine the world they saw when they stood at the same kitchen window I gaze out from everyday.

In their time, which was my great-great-great-grandmother’s day, not so far back, really:

• Americans held other Americans in slavery—buying, selling, and killing each other with no remorse.
• Women could not vote, keep their earnings or inheritances if they were married, serve on juries, follow a career of their choosing, or engage in most other activities that we take for granted.
• The genocide against Native Americans was in full swing and would continue for decades and decades.
• If you had a mental illness or a developmental disability, you would receive no treatment, intervention, or education, and may spend your life in an institution.
• You had a good chance of dying a painful, wasting death from tuberculosis and burying one of more of your children from infectious diseases.
• If you became too old or sick to work and had no savings or family, you would spend your last days in a poor farm, if you were lucky.
• And on and on.

When you look at the world from our ancestors’ perspective forward, we have come very far in 150 years.  Perhaps we might come just as far or farther in the next 150 years.   

I also realize that each of the changes has come about because someone or a group of people envisioned a different and better future and made it happen, even though in some cases it took many lifetimes to accomplish.  We live in the utopian dreamworld of our ancestors.  One reason why I may ponder those who changed our ancestors’ world is that I live in a town that is well-known for its Victorian reformers.  Abolition, women’s rights, education, inclusion of those with disabilities, religious reform, labor—all these were passions of people who walked the same streets I do and were not so very different from me. 

So, I have learned from them that it isn’t enough to have faith in the future, but we must also actively envision and create it.  Then, in 150 years, our great-great-great-grandchildren will think about our world and celebrate us just as we do those who brought about a better world so many years ago. 

But, you may ask, what does this really have to do with women’s spirituality?  I believe that real change is only possible when people recognize and honor the sacred within all of us, all beings, and the earth.  Until then, it is acceptable to treat others as less than human and ravage our home.  What we do to bring balance, Goddess, and the Sacred Feminine back into our world is as essential as anything that has happened to make human progress in the past.  The only difference is that now it is up to us.

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