Yearning for the Ocean Mother at the Spring Equinox

Here in New England, the spring equinox frequently coincides with the flooding of our rivers and streams.  The melting of giant piles of snow and torrential seasonal rains cause the rivers and streams to rise and basements are wet and roads close. This year, the flooding has been the worst I have ever seen in my 20 years here.  Trees have come tumbling down on houses as their roots can no longer hold on in the sodden soil.  Rivers and their banks have become lakes. All but one of the roads out of my neighborhood is closed.

I take the train to work and on the day of the worst rains, as I was walking around gigantic puddles and gazing in amazement at the streams running across roads and the furious falls roaring over rocks and dams, I found myself singing one of my favorite Goddess songs, Yemaya Assesu.  It is a happy, cheerful song praising Yemaya, one of the names of the great Ocean Mother Goddess of many parts of Africa and the African Diaspora.  While her traditional cultures and others may experience her differently, to me she has always been the all-embracing, all-loving, all-life-giving Mother whose affection  wraps itself around you in both your saddest and most joyful moments.

But yet, though an ocean Goddess certainly was evident in the water everywhere, what I sensed that day seemed more like the Destroyer-Creator Goddesses like Kali.  People were being washed away in rushing rivers.  Uprooted trees lined the roadways.  Animals were displaced from their homes and rushing for refuge on higher ground.  The water itself was powerful, pulling along with it branches and leaves as it raced over roads and fields, oblivious to all the obstacles humanity thought it had built on the land. Yet, I knew that in the weeks ahead, this water would also be a life-giver, making my own garden much more abundant, providing more food for the animals once they returned home, and nourishing the young saplings that would grow in place of the trees that were lost.

As the days passed, the waters receded only little, but a peace came over the land.  The rivers were still overflowing and the woods I walked through daily were waterlogged, but the water was glassy and still, reflecting the clouds and sun.  And, while the raindrops dripped down my face and soaked my shoes and clothes, I also felt the intimacy of the element of water. All life came from water, and we are made of water.  We all swim in water before birth and water or the lack of it is the difference between life and death for all of us.  Water is part of us at all times and we cannot escape it.  Water is truly like a mother from whom we are born and who is part of us always. I thought of a story from a long time ago.

I was living in New York City in the 1980s when AIDS devastated entire communities.  I worked for an agency that oversaw a program that sent older volunteers where they were desperately needed.  One place they were assigned was pediatric wards of hospitals that were full of babies whose mothers were not able to care for them because they were dying of AIDS. The hospitals cared for the babies as best they could, but none of the staff had time to simply hold the babies, sing to them, and rock them.  No one did, except for volunteers like ours.  At the time, no one really knew how AIDS was spread, so there was some concern that the volunteers might possibly contract AIDS from the babies, yet the volunteers were there for the babies, day after day. One day a reporter asked one of the volunteers if she weren’t afraid and she said “We’ve been through the Depression.  We’ve been through the Great War.  We’ll get through this.”

And I recognized Yemaya in that woman’s intense love of those babies who were not even her own family and her understanding that life will continue past this immediate crisis. And I saw Yemaya in the flood waters all around me.  Many living beings would not survive the floods – trees, small plants and animals, some people – but the impulse to life would continue. The intimacy of water would ensure that the landscape and the beings living on it might be different, but life would return.  Peace would come back to the land and new plants and trees would grow and baby animals and humans be born.  This is a new meaning of spring and the spring equinox for me, this intense love of rebirth and life that looks beyond what is happening at the moment and sees that with courage, faith, and love, life will continue.

Someday I will have my own flood, whether accident or disease, and my life will not continue.  But Yemaya will be there and life will go on, whether in my son and his children, or herbs I have raised and that have gone to seed, or words I may have written or said that meant something to someone and are remembered, like the quote from the woman volunteer.

This spring I celebrate those wild days that are Kali-like, but mostly I honor Yemaya’s devotion to the continuation of life that this season brings and I vow to express it in my own words and deeds the rest of the year.

The Reunion of Demeter and Persephone: A Moment in Peeps

I strongly believe that spirituality should be joyful and even fun.  As Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “joy is also a promise,” a promise of the inborn goodness of life, living beings, and the universe; a promise that joy is essential to who we are as human beings.  In that spirit, every year I create a diorama retelling some ancient spring myth using Peeps candies, partly as a new kind of everyday celebration of the Spring Equinox and partly because I like to eat the leftover candy. 

A number of people have asked for a photo of this year’s diorama, and it seemed that posting it was the most efficient way of both showing a picture and explaining the story.  So, here it is:

The Reunion of Demeter and Persephone: A Moment in Peeps

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The diorama depicts the moment when Demeter is reunited with her beloved daughter Persephone. This is a story with many versions, but the basic tale concerns Demeter, the goddess of abundance, who oversees the growth of life on Earth.  Her daughter Persephone, is either kidnapped or chooses to go to the Underworld with Hades (depending on which version you follow), where she stays for some months.  Demeter, in her grief, turns the world to a cold and desolate winter wasteland.  Eventually, Persephone is rescued or chooses to return to the Earth’s surface, where she is reunited with her mother.  In joy and gratitude, Demeter makes the world bloom once again, bringing springtime to the Earth.  However, because Persephone  has eaten pomegranate seeds while in the Underworld, she must return there for three months each year, in winter, before returning again every spring.

Demeter is the purple Peep and Persephone, the yellow Peep, is running to her.  They are within moments of being reunited in the diorama.  You can see the snow on the ground and in the trees, but also the flowers and green shoots beginning to appear.  Hades, the pink Peep,  is standing at the gate to the Underworld, trapped and watching, angry or sorrowful. The bears, gummi bears in fact, are doing a little romp while humans, the green Peeps, are dancing in a circle.

Ancient stories are most meaningful when we take them out of books and the realm of history and find ways to bring them into our own lives.  I do this in many ways, and in Spring, I do it with this little, fun diorama ritual.  If you have unique ways of celebrating the Spring Equinox or ancient stories, I would love to hear them!