Moving the World Forward on the Spiral of Life

To read a new blog post on Feminism and Religion about the power of thinking of your life as a spiral, please click here Moving the World Forward on the Spiral of Life.

Sacred Questioning

To read a new post of mine about asking essential and uncomfortable questions as a spiritual practice on the wonderful site Feminism and Religion, please click here.

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!

Happy Birthday, With Love, Sedna

This week I am 51 years old.  Last year on my birthday I began what I imagined would be a yearlong adventure gathering up those elements of my younger self that I had left behind but which I wanted back in my life.  Much of my meandering took place in New York City, where I had lived in my 20s.  I took two trips back there, and you can read about how I imagined the first trip would be before I took it in a piece I wrote for Moondance by clicking here. As it happened, the trip turned out to be almost exactly like that (without the red velvet jacket since NYC had a heat wave the April weekend I was there).  The year culminated in the very recent publication of a novel I wrote, The Temple of the Subway Goddess, that has within it elements of my time in NYC.

In any case, the year has ended and it is time for me to leave that task behind me and move ahead into the second (or so) fifty years of my life.  As I was thinking today about what that meant, I remembered one of my favorite stories, the Inuit story of the Goddess Sedna.  Here is the story as it was told to me:

Sedna was a beautiful maiden who lived with her father in the Arctic.  She married a Bird God and flew away with him to his nest, where she was very unhappy.  So, her father came to take her home.  As they were riding on the water home, the Bird God and his followers came after the boat.  Sedna’s father knew that if they attacked, they would sink the boat and all would die, so he threw Sedna overboard.  When she tried to climb back into the boat, he cut off her fingers and then her arms, tossing them into the sea where they became the sea creatures that feed the Inuit people.

Sedna sank to the bottom of the ocean where she grew old and became a Goddess.  She took responsibility for sending up the sea creatures who willingly gave their lives that her people on land might live.  But when the people disobeyed Sedna’s rules, her hands ached and she stopped sending the creatures and the people starved. Only when the people sent shamans—who had to go through many terrible trials to reach Sedna—to relieve the pain in Sedna’s hands would she relent and send the sea creatures back to the land.

I should say that I did not grow up in the Inuit culture so I am not claiming to be able to interpret, or even tell the story, correctly or at all.  I am, at most, simply relating elements of the story in which I have found resonance for my own life.  Really, it could be said that I am not telling the Sedna story at all, since I’m sure it is quite different within the context of Inuit life and faith, but a story that is similar and meaningful to me only, and perhaps to you, too.

That said, those elements of the story that I have heard seem to me to be a wonderful way of looking at growing older.  It does not glamorize that stage of life, for Sedna has her disabilities in not only her painful hands (something that perhaps makes me identify with the story since arthritis also makes my own hands ache at times) but in her leg which she drags behind her.  However, I find within the story a tremendous and active, passionate strength and power that should come with later life and its experience. 

I sometimes look forward to my later years as a time of retreat and rest, of moving away from the maelstrom of life and sending out rays of good advice to grateful children and grandchildren when I choose. Later life is no time for such withdrawal, even for contemplation and meditation, according to Sedna. Sedna has retreated from the traditional roles, but is even more active in her world.  She does not simply nurture her family, but all human life. She not only guides her children, but all people.

Sedna brings order to her world.  She sets rules which, if followed, cause the people to live in peace with their world.  Sedna teaches me that, at this stage of life, I know what is right and I need to stand up for those values of peace, cooperation, and respect for all people as they are that I have taken as core to my life and work. I need not justify my beliefs over and over, especially to those who would insist on my behaving in a more mainstream way.  I have come to how I view the world through honest reflection on real experiences and my perspective is as valuable as anyone’s.

Sedna nurtures and feeds the people.  Her hands and arms became the food that makes human life on the land possible and she sends it to the people that they may live.  Sedna teaches me that, because I have been given many gifts over my decades of life, it is time to give back those gifts in my time, talent, and counsel. I have work to do and retirement, if by that one means giving up one’s role in the world, is not an option.  In fact, it is time for be to more active, more vocal, more involved in the daily lives of those around me and across the globe because I have more wisdom to offer than when I was younger.

Sedna protects herself and that which is sacred.  Not just anyone can approach Sedna, even to assuage her pain, but only someone who has the courage and intelligence to succeed at the trials that lie between the world above and her sacred realm.  Sedna teaches me that what I have found to be sacred—the art, the stories and literature, to relationships, the ideals—are truly profound and are to be defended and protected.  

Sedna becomes fiercer as she ages.  She does not just hang onto the boat, but makes laws and punishes the people when they disobey.  Or perhaps she states the laws that exist in nature and is no longer willing to sacrifice her sea creatures when the people flout those laws until they send their shamans as redemptive penitence. I look forward to perhaps even scaring people a bit with fierceness when I do what I feel needs to be done.

Sedna, when younger, did act from her naïve dream of a better life, as she did when she married the Bird God in her youth, but in later life surrounds herself with her reality and makes herself a Goddess of it. She does not hang onto the boat, pretending that her father who has thrown her overboard will help her back in, but lives completely in the ocean world in which she finds herself, making her own realm in it from which she comes to rule all humanity and sea creatures.  I, too, must look at my world with honesty, at what I can reasonably do and what I cannot, and what I cannot reasonably do, but must try to do anyway.

Sedna seems to me to be a near perfect model for older women of our time.  Just as we are active and have begun to work into our 60s, 70s, and beyond, so does Sedna.  She takes life as it is and stands strong for what she knows is right, and so is it also right for us to value our life experience and lessons learned from it and be strong advocates for what we believe in. Sedna knows who she is and, as I read her story, I feel that I also know a bit more who I am, too.

Celebrate Imbolc with Snow Ice Cream

Imbolc, the Celtic holiday celebrating the first stirrings of spring, is almost upon us. One reason I love Imbolc is that it isn’t widely celebrated, so we can more easily make our own celebrations that are meaningful to us. Also, anything that promises spring is welcome in the middle of a New England winter. I just learned this year that February 1 actually does mark the beginning of the solar spring, the time when the sun shines long enough during the day that the Earth begins to warm and the snow to melt. On February 1, there is no sign of spring in New England, so I always believed that the Celts just had a different climate with an earlier spring than we did. It’s nice to know that the Celts actually were celebrating an astronomically-significant event; they were so smart!

This year I have decided to make snow ice cream for my Imbolc observance. If you have never made snow ice cream, here is how you do it. When the snow starts falling, put a bowl out to gather the fresh snow. You can, theoretically, scoop it off the snowbank, but I don’t trust it to be really clean unless it has just fallen. Mix about 6 cups of snow with 1 cup milk, ½ cup sugar or equivalent sweetener, and a little flavoring of your choice. The snow will quickly become much less than 6 cups. You can freeze it and then it will have the taste and texture of Italian ice.

To me, eating snow is the perfect way to celebrate the first twinklings of spring because snow is like winter’s harvest. It is so beautiful and so abundant, like grains of wheat or rice. Each flake is unique and spectacular, even though very, very few will ever be seen and appreciated. How much Gaia must love to create for us to make snow. What a spring-like gesture of plenty snow is.

Making snow ice cream is a connection to our younger, “spring” selves, at least for those of us who made it as children. I love the idea of doing something at Imbolc that I did as a child, when the world really was new and every day was an adventure. What a deep way to connect to the youthful spirit of spring, that is all potential and growth and enthusiastic optimism!

Yet, for all its springlike reflections, snow ice cream is still made of snow with all its somber and cold qualities. Winter’s peace and sanctuary, to me, comes with the first silent snowfall. When we ingest snow, we are bringing this element into ourselves, acknowledging the essential ending phase of life’s wheel. Yet, we are remaking it into something joyful and pleasurable, nourishing that part of us that is renewing ourselves as we wait for the sun’s warmth and the growth that it will bring.

On Imbolc, may you enjoy a nice, chilly, tasty bowl of snow ice cream and observe all that is happy and hopeful about this moment of the year!

The Languages of Life

I recently took one of those tests which tells you which “intelligences” you possess, whether you are good at math, interacting with others, writing, music, or a host of other things. One, which had just been included but, the testmaker said, may or may not be an “intelligence,” was “nature.”

To me, nature isn’t an “ability,” but a language. I walk into a forest or look up at the sky, and I experience a poem or symphony or insight. I scored high on “nature” but low on “music,” which surprised me because I have always loved music. Someone else who took the test scored very low on “nature” but high on “music” even though he has spoken eloquently about the beauty of landscapes.

What this made me realize is that our world is full of many different kinds of languages and some we understand while others we simply do not. The musician who also took the test hears a song and it mostly likely, to him, has many layers of meaning, opens up new emotions and ideas, expresses that which can only be understood through music. I think that I, who do not really speak the language of music, do not comprehend what he and others who know this language well hear. I may enjoy music, but others perceive aspects of music that I simply do not. Maybe I could, now that I understand that it is a language, learn that language, too.

Anything that expresses truth to you is a language. I know people who look at a mathematical equation and see their Creator and others who can talk to someone for two minutes and know them thoroughly just based on body language, attitude, word choice or whatever (personal interaction isn’t one of my best languages, so I don’t know what else that language includes).

I like the idea of viewing what might be thought of as “abilities” as “languages” because that perspective celebrates the interactions and connections we have with our universe. We aren’t just skilled at teasing out the strands of harmony, but we are conversing with music. We don’t just have the ability to identify different species during a walk in a meadow, but we are walking with the meadow and listening to what it is saying to us.

I wonder if use of this word “intelligences” rather than “languages” comes from our culture’s emphasis on individual ability to produce rather than the capacity to understand and connect. Maybe it reflects how our culture grades people on how they do on tests and other so-called objective measures rather than who they are as human beings, how we value production of commodities over relationship, how we find it easier to judge rather than reach out. Maybe if we thought in terms of the universe being made up of many languages, we might view the world and our place in it a bit differently.

When two people speak different languages, it doesn’t mean that they will necessarily misunderstand each other, but that they can open up whole new worlds for one another. When the musician sings, I get a glimpse of what he hears when he listens to music, something that is a precious gift. I like to think that one of my descriptions of watching snow fall would offer him a small insight into what I experience, too.

Recognizing the “languages” that we speak and others don’t can also help us communicate with one another and help each other better understand what we are trying to say. I know that I will make a special effort to “translate” experiences more when I am writing or speaking with people who may not speak the “languages” I do.

I also think of the many languages spoken over the centuries frequently by women that have been lost. The language of healing herbs, of the women’s arts that are no longer widely practiced, of traditions related to women that are no longer observed or remembered – what did these languages once express that we may never experience again?

I also wonder if many “languages” are not given their due because they are commonly associated with women’s tasks and lives. I think of a friend who can pack an entire life philosophy about finding joy in everyday pleasures amidst tragedy into one bowl of pasta. What other aspects of our lives would we dive into with gusto and learn from if we only saw them for the meaningful “languages” they are?

We are at a time in history when communicating not only with each other, but with the world we all inhabit, is essential. We must take the time to listen to all that we can, even that which speaks in languages we may not understand as well. As in so many things, we are on this planet to work together, and remembering and honoring our many languages is one tool to use as we hopefully progress towards a more peaceful, sustainable, happy global existence.

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.

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