Losing Your Children to Patriarchy*

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There are many ways to lose your children. Some parents endure the death of a child from illness or accident. Others, like my own parents, lost their only son to suicide.

 

I lost my children to the dominant culture. Of course, as a young twenty one year old mother I colluded in this process without knowing it. First by repeating the cycle of abuse I had been born into, and then making a series of poor choices as a young woman and mother.

 

I grew up in a terrifying abusive family, one that looked like the “American Dream”- great from the outside – rotten from within. Living in an upper middle class environment in a “nice” house in the country in upper Westchester New York my father ran a successful business and my mother was a stay at home housewife and artist. Both considered themselves academics because each had attended the colleges of their choice, although my mother never received an undergraduate degree. My father was an immigrant who came to this country from Italy when he was 12 and put himself and his brothers through college becoming an aeronautical engineer in the process. My mother, an only child, came from a family of privilege and she never let anyone forget that, particularly her daughter who she treated like a servant.

 

Inside our family walls unspeakable violence of all kinds occurred. Both of my parents drank – a lot. My mother used deathly silence as a means to control her husband and children, sometimes refusing to speak to the perceived offender for a week. Sometimes, she inexplicably left home for days. I was so terrorized by the threat of those silences/abandonment that I did anything my mother wanted me to, giving up my personal self in the process. My father’s explosive rages kept both his children walking on egg – shells whenever he was around which fortunately was only on weekends. We both hated him, gravitating towards our mother who seemingly was the better of the two because she endured this abusive behavior although she struck out at her children instead.

 

Theirs was a marriage made in hell. Silence and Rage make poor bed partners, and I remember begging my mother to divorce my father when I was barely six years old (it is astonishing to me that I knew what divorce meant at that age).

 

To escape my family I went away to college and got married.

 

My abusive drunken husband threw me down the stairs when I was three months pregnant with my first child.

 

Four years later my brother killed himself just after graduating from Harvard.

 

Single motherhood became the worst nightmare in my life after the loss of my only brother who I adored.

 

As a suicide survivor I believed that I owed my parents my children and willingly surrendered them whenever my parents wanted them (a prime example of what survivor’s guilt can do).

 

How did I manage to forget what it had been like living with people like that?

 

It wasn’t until mid –life after having made the terminal mistake of letting my parents “parent” my children that I began to suspect that something was very wrong with them, and that maybe I wasn’t the whole problem after all.

 

By that time I was divorced, my children were grown, and both had left home. It was too late to repair the damage. I didn’t understand at the time that my children had internalized the very worst of their grandparents’ patriarchal values of “power over” and were embracing my parents’ view about how defective their daughter was as a human being.

 

I began to craft my own authentic life.

 

I thought time would soften my children’s vicious treatment of me.

 

I didn’t realize that my children thrived on this sense of having emotional power over their mother.

 

Power Over, not Love.

 

I am ashamed to admit that I kept trying to repair the damage with both of my children up until this year, enduring the silent treatment, endless bullying, and verbal abuse at the hands of my youngest son after my oldest simply shut the door on our relationship 25 years ago.

 

This is not to say that eventually I didn’t became aware of what had/was happening.

 

I did, but like Cinderella, I kept “hope” alive for a different ending.

 

Until now.

 

This spring the chains that once bound me as a sorrowing mother snapped and I was set free.

 

Grace intervened.

 

At this point in my life I respect who I have become too much to sanction more “family” (familiar) abuse.

 

Still, it is frightening to acknowledge how our personal accounts repeat themselves over generations without interruption.

 

These family stories are bigger and more powerful than we can ever know, creating a cautionary tale for those who think they have escaped abusive situations. We either repeat the story, or embrace its opposite. In rare cases, if we have the courage, we can break the cycle, something I hope that I am doing today.

 

First Harvest Moon (The Blueberry Moon – 2017)

Published on the day of my youngest son’s 49th birthday.

 

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Afternotes:

 

The word Patriarchy requires an explanation:

 

Historically, Patriarchy was defined as “The Power of the Fathers.”

 

This definition is partially correct. Patriarchy is a hierarchal system of domination that thrives on white lower, middle, and upper class men (and some male identified women) having power over other less fortunate individuals especially other women.

 

Carol Christ defines Patriarchy as a system of power that seeks to control women through their sexuality.

 

However we define it, Patriarchy is a destructive system that is endemic to our culture and is mirrored by the collective in countless ways including our insatiable need to “control” nature.

 

(As an eco – feminist I believe that what we do to nature we do to women. A poignant example is the way we continue to sanction rape of both women and the trees that provide us with oxygen to breathe).

 

An equally horrifying example is the attempt by the dominant culture to control a woman’s right to have an abortion. A woman’s right to choose is just that – a basic human right to have control over her bodily processes including pregnancy.

 

I have worked with women for most of my life, and I have never met a woman who didn’t struggle with the right to choose abortion, and then have to deal with the guilt and shame she endured as a result of making the choice to end a pregnancy.

 

As a naturalist/ethologist I am struck by how nature has built in abortion as a response to too much stress in most non – human species, if not all. If the mother in question does not have enough food or resources to survive, spontaneous abortions occur without danger to the mother. Survival of the potential mother comes first.

 

Black bears, for example, practice something called delayed implantation, which means that the mother mates in the spring, but the fetus will not develop unless that mother has sufficient food and has gained enough weight to survive hibernation. If she has, cubs will be born and cared for while the mother is denning during the winter.

 

In my own life I experienced a spontaneous abortion after leaving my abusive alcoholic husband. I had no money, no place to live, one toddler and one 6 month old baby (I went to work as a waitress). Without support from my family I did not see any way through this horrific situation until Nature mercifully stepped in and ended a third pregnancy.

 

Most desperate women are not as fortunate.

 

I have come to embrace Carol Christ’s belief that Patriarchy is primarily a system that seeks to control woman through every aspect of her sexuality. The obscene emphasis on the way women are supposed to stay “ young” is yet another way we cage our women like the animals we consume so mindlessly, objectifying ourselves and animals without consent or compassion.

 

As women, we still struggle to develop an identity beyond being someone’s mother, wife, grandmother, servant.

River Muses

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As the river rises with spring melt from the mountains, Abiquiu dam opens flooding the river to overflowing. The men come to clean the acequias or ditches that will bring life bringing water into the fields to irrigate the crops. All the farmers share this precious water, and having “water rights” determines whether crops will thrive or perish…

Every morning a shimmering golden orb mirrors the river whose serpentine shape and echoing voice welcomes me as I walk out to feed the birds and walk my dogs. I respond to her rumbling roar of water on stone with a prayer of thanksgiving for the gift of water, the rising sun, and a new day spent in this place of unimaginable beauty.

I have fallen in love with a river.

What Spirits decreed that I might live here for a time?

For months I climbed to the ruin of Poshuouinge to glimpse the serpentine path of water meandering below wondering what stories the river held close to her heart. Generations of Tewa speaking Pueblo peoples lived here along the river’s banks, women digging mud, shaping pots out of wet clay, creating art with agave brushes, men carving swiftly flying arrows, clearing the acequias, planting, harvesting, hunting giving thanks for the river’s generosity…people struggling to live in harmony with the land they called “Mother.”

Yet there was much suffering too. Too much blood was shed. Children and women were stolen by those who believed they had more “rights” than others, people who used other people and earthscapes for personal gain. Yet the People endured and some live on today in Pueblos scattered along the river.

Is this why the river tells me that I too must be steadfast, make peace with a troubled past, leave land that I love deeply, come to live here as a child would, trusting the river’s ebb and flow?

Is this why I have met such generous hearted people, people I could come to love?

Did the river draw them to her just as she calls to me now?

These questions haunt me because Place has a kind of Power that works invisibly through Fate and body/mind pulling a person into relationship with a particular element – like the water of this river – but this power never uses words to communicate. Instead, Nature calls her red winged blackbirds to sing their hearts out as I listen fervently for confirmation.

These black robed muses are answering my call.

It is up to me to make the choice to believe these birds whose Presence I see and hear, but whose message I cannot as yet feel.

Baba’s Tapestry

 

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Above: Huichol String Painting of the Tree of Life – Thanks to Bruce Nelson for the image

This morning the first email I read was written by a male friend of mine who reminded me that today, International Women’s Day, was “my day.” How delightful to be reminded of this moment by a good man I thought to myself.

An article in Return to MAGO about the biological miracle of female mitochondrial DNA captured my attention immediately afterwards. It had been a while since I had thought about the unbroken line of genes passed down from mother to daughter that allowed geneticists to trace woman’s heritage back to the “first mother.” I reflected for a minute on “her- story” that I share with all women including my own mother and grandmother.

In the same piece of writing (excerpts from Blood and Honey by Danica Anderson) references were made to scholar Marija Gimbutas’s research which highlights the importance of spinning and weaving, and how these two creative acts were carried out by women in sacred temples long ago. In ancient times flint blades were used as scissors by the women who cut the threads and cords – umbilical and otherwise. (Neolithic Europe).

These references swamped me with memories driving me to write, today, before I lost the precious threads.

First, I thought of my grandmother who I named “Baba” because she sang a song to me about three lost sheep that cried bah, bah, bah. The word “Baba,” I later learned, was a name used to denote grandmother.

My maternal grandmother took care of me as a child. She let me bake cookies and help her put up food that she had grown in her vegetable garden. She taught me how to grow flowers, and together we watched birds for hours. She cooked special foods for me when I was sick and washed my face with warm water every single night. She awakened me so that we could watch the deer grazing in a circle around the golden apple tree under a blossoming white moon. But what I remember best is sitting with her as she sewed…

My grandmother was a professional seamstress who crafted all my grandfather’s suits, shirts, ties, and silk handkerchiefs from bolts of cloth that she chose with great care. I also have many poignant memories of her sitting at the sewing machine stitching together dresses, shorts, shirts, for her only granddaughter who she loved fiercely. She taught me to sew delicate little stitches, and I have a clear memory of her working on a huge tapestry of the Tree of Life that was filled with colorful birds that I loved. That she never finished this particular piece of embroidery always upset me whenever I thought about it. At the time of her death my grandmother had embroidered so many pillow shams, and wall hangings that were so exquisitely executed that I was left to wonder about the significance behind the fact that she abandoned my favorite tapestry of all. I still have the silver heron scissors that she used to cut the threads while working on that piece of embroidery …

Today of all days seems like an appropriate time to honor my very creative and loving grandmother who nurtured me as a child, adolescent, and young woman. When I lost her not long after my brother’s death I lost the only adult I had ever come near to trusting…

According to Andersom, women’s aprons had pockets that often held precious family heirlooms like rings and necklaces, as well as scissors that were passed down from mother to daughter (or as in my case from grandmother to granddaughter).

(I stopped writing at this point to get a cup of coffee and to water my plants. I was stunned to discover a small pair of (child’s) scissors in the center of one of my passionflower pots that had been hidden there for months. Sometimes synchronistic experiences like this reinforce the powers of interconnection like nothing else can)

My grandmother also wore aprons that always had pockets in them.

My mother was an artist that worked in a number of mediums. At one point she was silk screening pictures that my brother and I had drawn onto linen napkins. My brother drew a bird’s nest with three eggs in it. The picture that my mother selected for me was a self-portrait of a small child who wore an apron with a single pocket in the left hand side. I was also wearing one of my grandfather’s berets. Oddly I had drawn myself with only one arm. As an adult, I wondered about why my mother had chosen this particular picture for her napkins because it seemed to indicate that her daughter saw herself in a distorted way.

The embroidered Tree of Life tapestry that my grandmother never finished and the picture of myself with one arm leads me to believe that something was broken in my grandmother and in me on an archetypal level (tree of life) and the personal (a child with one arm). But I think that the intergenerational woman thread endured and eventually triumphed, because the child had a pocket and inside that pocket was a woman who developed into a creative writer, one who continues today to re-weave the threads of her broken woman line.

The Grandmothers

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When I first arrived in Abiquiu the Pedernal stood out above the other mountains with its imposing triangular shape and flattened top. Initially this mesa fascinated me because Georgia O’Keefe painted it so often, but after a while, although I liked the Pedernal it became one mountain amongest many others… However, I also knew that the Navajo’s mythical Changing Woman was born on this flat – topped mesa,and that story continued to intrigue me.

For the Navajo, Changing Woman is the daughter of the Earth and Sky – a personification of the Earth and Universe. She represents the cyclical repetition of the seasons – spring summer fall and winter –aligning each with a different aspect of human life – birth, maturation, old age, and death. In this seasonal round Changing Woman lives out the different stages of her life as a child, daughter, mother, and old woman who dies, but who also is born again each spring…

The legend tells us that as a young woman Changing Woman was dressed in white shell, turquoise, abalone, and jet, and blessed with bee pollen… While bathing she was impregnated and two twins –monster slayer and child of water who after their births soon left their mother to journey westward to seek their Father, the sun. Changing Woman was lonely so one day she created the Navajo People from the skin of her body with the help of the holy people who came down from the mountains to assist her. Changing woman also created the Blessingway, a sacred ceremony for young girls that is still used today to celebrate the first bleeding or menstruation. After the original teachings were passed on the holy people left Changing Woman, but they promised that she would always feel their presence in the sound of the wind, the birds, and through the first green shoots of corn.

Pedernal, the imposing butte with its flat top or ridge lies in the heart of the Jemez mountain range at ten thousand feet.. Seen from one side it appears wide and flat, the way I see it from my house. However, an hour’s drive will take you into the startling Indian red, orange, ochre, grass green mountains behind the mesa, and from the other side the top appears peaked and narrow. The high butte is ringed by a long sheer cliff band almost impossible to climb, although ancient Puebloan peoples found their way to its summit.

The name Pedernal is the Spanish word for flint, the stone that can be found in abundance on and around this volcanic mountain. Puebloan peoples used the rock to make beautifully crafted tools like arrowheads and scrapers for hunting and skinning animals. Worked pieces and flakes of this rainbow –like chert can also be found at many ancient Puebloan ruins.

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The Pedernal was settled around 1161 CE and Indigenous people stayed until 1275 CE when the area was suddenly abandoned, possibly due to drought. The remaining artifacts include pottery shards that are typically black on white and jars with rounded bottoms so that they could be laid in a bed of hot ashes in the fire pits. Chert is abundantly common here.IMG_1074.JPG

Because I am so intrigued by the sharp, opaque, translucent flakes I collect them and spend a lot of time arranging them in different ways, much like I do with pottery shards. “Play” allows my mind to become still. This practice has become a daily meditation, much like bird watching from my window that overlooks red willow river.

After gazing at the Pedernal for months I developed a peculiar longing to get physically close to the actual mesa. I wanted large pieces of the stone to line my path to the birdfeeder, but there was something more ethereal pulling me too – and so two days ago – my friend and I drove out towards the base of the mountain… This drive takes about an hour and is absolutely stunning – a visual feast – crags, and sandstone statues, oyster to red dirt, thick Juniper, pinion, and deep green spruce and Ponderosa pine forests, huge clumps of black sagebrush, colder temperatures and the occasional clump of snow left me with the sense that I had entered another world, one where bears and elk found home. Seeing the mesa from behind gave me a sense of belonging to this place that I simply cannot describe beyond believing that I was called here by Changing Woman. Perhaps other Indigenous voices and holy people were calling too  in spirit if not in body.

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Above: Pedernal from behind

The night after this excursion I had a dream of my dearly loved grandmother that died in my early twenties. In the dream I was at her bedside, telling her I loved her, washing her face, rubbing cream on her hands and pitifully thin arms, listening to her rapid shallow breathing, feeling so helpless, and so guilty – all this while she lay in a coma. The next morning, thanksgiving day, she died at dawn.

My dream repeated the original experience with one dramatic change. Instead of the numbness and terrible nameless guilt I experienced at her death, in the dream I now understood that my grandmother had been waiting for me to make the trip down from Maine to the New York hospital to be with her, and that once we had said goodbye, she could die in peace. Astonished, I felt for the first time in fifty years that my presence had been enough. When I awakened from the dream the lifetime of guilt I had carried was gone and I was free to feel, to grieve as much as I needed to, which seemed to me to be some kind of miracle. Surely Changing Woman had wrought this reversal changing the storyline I had lived for so long.

Today the Pedernal is no longer a mountain in the distance, it is a holy dwelling place where Nature still sings the song of creation and those of the grandmothers who inhabit this sacred space in between the two worlds.

Re – Visioning Medusa

All through my childhood a self – portrait, painted by my mother hung above my parents’ bed. I was fascinated by this image of the stern face of my very beautiful mother with her long wavy chestnut hair. In the painting my mother’s body was buried in the sand up to her neck. Behind her, churning waves cascaded onto the shore. A blue sky was visible. A few seashells were scattered around and a large shiny green beetle was crawling over the sand. On the surface this image of my mother with her long curly hair seemed quite serene but as a child the painting disturbed me. It was as if this painting held a key – but to what? My father loved the painting and often commented on it…

I can remember playing at the seashore. My father would dig holes and bury both his children up to their necks in the warm sand that also held us fast…

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I had one reoccurring childhood nightmare of waking up and not being able to breathe.

I first heard the word Medusa when my mother mentioned her in relationship to herself in jest? Did I ask about her? My memory is silent on these two points, but I knew Medusa’s hair was writhing with snakes and that she was screaming. I also knew my mother was terrified of snakes. Because my mother was an artist, it is possible that I saw an image of Medusa in one of her art books (when I looked for images for this essay one seemed too familiar).

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I had another re-occurring childhood dream. My mother and I were locked in a bathroom. There were snakes crawling all over the floor. My mother jumped on the toilet seat and I was left alone on the floor with the snakes. I awakened screaming…

Once, walking in the woods a garter snake slithered across the path separating my mother and me. When I screeched in terror my mother turned on me viciously. Stunned and humiliated I endured her tirade, hopelessly confused…

When my little brother encouraged me to touch a snake in his terrarium one day, I agreed. I was amazed at how silky the snake’s skin felt. This animal was quite beautiful with his red tongue and golden eyes and the snake seemed unafraid and friendly. After this encounter my fear of snakes vanished…

As an adolescent I started to call myself Medusa.

Any time I acted out, losing my temper I berated myself. In time self – loathing became the mask I wore.

I hated my body.

I told anyone who would listen that I was “a lousy carbon copy of my mother” because that was how I saw myself. No one challenged me on this statement except my grandmother who told me once that she didn’t understand why my mother treated me the way she did… My grandmother intercepted my mother, but never confronted her openly.

In my early 20’s my brother’s suicide and my grandmother’s death severed me from any roots I might have had to the earth and any relationships including those with my children; I entered the dead years.

I couldn’t leave the house.

For my 39th birthday I bought myself a gold serpent ring. When I placed the ring on my left hand (on my ring finger) I intuited with amazement that on some level I was “marrying” myself. I also thought of my mother who was still afraid of snakes and experienced a peculiar sense of power and freedom. The hair on my arms prickled and I shivered involuntarily. I didn’t know what this insight meant but I believed I was prepared to journey into the unknown.

Steeped in mythology and the world of the Great Goddess, shaped by the scholarship of Marija Gimbutas and fascinated by her powerful images of snakes and women, the serpent came to life as an aspect of self and I had married him.

I went camping and re – discovered the forest, and moved to the mountains where I began to write…

I kept shallow clay bowls full of water for the snakes around my house. I kept their skins after they shed them in the woodpile.

When I dreamed about two iridescent blue snakes my dog died. I came to understand that snakes had both a powerful positive and negative charge, and that both involved the body. I recognized that it was important to be aware of this holy aspect of snakes because they embodied life and death of the body in the Great Round. My respect for all snakes deepened.

Last August I came to northern New Mexico and became acquainted with Avanyu, the Indigenous Tewa name for the Horned Serpent that is pecked into many rocks as a petroglyph. Avanyu, the Spirit of Water and Life lives in Si –pa –pu (the underworld) and is a powerful supernatural being for the Tewa. He is unpredictable, presiding over endings and beginnings. He represents change, transition, and transformations. According to the Tewa, in the beginning Avanyu fought the spirit of drought (a fiery comet) and rain fell creating rivers that were shaped by his sinewy body. Every spring at the pueblos the bow and arrow dance is done in his honor.

Recently, I was given a wonderful gift, a small shiny black pot with Avanyu’s image carved into its micacious clay surface. I have become enamored by the images and the mythology around this powerful serpent. Every day I look at my pot and wonder what specific message Avanyu might be trying to convey to me.

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As I began this essay I also wondered how Avanyu’s serpentine aspect might relate to my writing about Medusa? Was he guiding me? I certainly believe he is highlighting the importance of needing to live through the truth of my body.

When I first began researching Medusa I was appalled by my own ignorance regarding the actual myth. I had never studied this tragic story because I thought I knew it.

In the earliest record, Hesiod’s Theogony, Medusa was one of three sisters, the daughter of Earth and Sea who “lived at the world’s edge,” the only sister that was mortal. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses Medusa became a virgin priestess (devoted to celibacy) dedicating her life to the goddess Athena. In some versions Medusa was also vain, and Athena couldn’t tolerate her beauty or the conflict that this engendered. Either way, Poseidon desired Medusa and she broke her vows. In some versions Poseidon raped her in Athena’s shrine.

Athena’s fury was limitless, and she punished Medusa by turning her into a frightening figure. Her beautiful long hair became a tangle of hissing serpents, her face was contorted into a mask of hatred. To gaze directly upon this distorted countenance was to be turned to stone. As a final punishment Athena saw to it that Medusa was shunned and cast out; she wandered alone in despair and torment, and in some accounts she was banished to a desolate island in the sea.

Eventually Medusa escaped her mortal misery, meeting her death at the hands of Perseus who slew her because he used a mirror and did not look directly upon the dreaded face. He saw Medusa as a reflection in his shield. (To look directly into the face of human evil is to be possessed by it, to reflect is to see evil without being swallowed by it). Perseus took her severed head to Athena who attached and wore it on her shield. In addition to her other powers Athena could now deflect the powers of female rage/hatred in her mind, if not in her body.

Robert Graves believes that the myth of Medusa preserves the memory of conflicts that occurred between men and women during the transition from a matrilineal to a patriarchal society. According to Graves, the function of Medusa’s head with its writhing snakes was to keep men at a safe distance from the sacred ceremonies performed by women that celebrated the Triple Goddess as the moon. He suggests that Orphic poems reveal that the full moon is also the head of Medusa.

Scholar Camille Dumoulie postulates that Medusa is the Great Mother because so many texts illustrate Medusa’s affinity with the sea and the powers of nature. I see Medusa as one aspect of the Great Mother, the wild untamed aspect of Nature, and the great sea of the unconscious, a source of positive or negative power.

Dumoulie also perceives Medusa’s head to be a mask and a mirror. According to this scholar the mask of Medusa represents collective violence and death energy. I think that Medusa is an image of woman’s rage/outrage/hatred/grief that needs to be expressed in a healthy way by taking concrete positive actions to deal with negative feelings while inhabiting and listening to one’s body (as well as one’s intellect). Although she doesn’t mention it, I think it’s important to note that this “mask” aspect of woman can also be removed at will as long as one has developed some conscious awareness and an ability to contain feelings and emotions.

As a mirror, Dumoulie fails to explain what’s behind the rivalry between Athena and Medusa beyond stating that Athena needs to separate or split away from her double in order to hold on to her identity. I think the core of the issue between the two is Athena’s envy. Envy can result in hatred of women by women; Athena turns her priestess into a monster and then, after her death, puts Medusa’s face on her shield revealing the intimate relationship between the two. Athena “wins” acquiring power over her victim. Athena does not develop the powers of self – reflection; instead she persecutes her servant. Medusa’s head then becomes an aspect of Athena who is associated with the power to annihilate, to turn others to stone, but this power lacks a body.

Medusa and Athena are two aspects of the same goddess. Athena betrays this truth by taking Medusa’s head and placing it on her shield so she can kill without having to own this vicious feeling aspect of herself. Feelings and emotions have their roots in the body.

Dumoulie believes that “whoever seeks Athena finds Medusa’s head.” I believe that this statement of hers contains a warning for every woman. Athena is a goddess of war; she is associated with patriarchal “power over” and is also associated with the masculine ideal of wisdom. She was born from Zeus’s neck, not through a woman’s body. She is a daughter of intellect who risks reversal – snapping into her opposite (Medusa/feeling) without grounding in a body that will help her mediate unbridled power and hubris.

Medusa is also sometimes characterized as a symbol of male castration. Yet Medusa’s ability to annihilate is a result of the violence imposed on her by Athena who is characterized as a female hero figure. Medusa didn’t choose this mask – it was thrust upon her by Athena, a female goddess who victimized her. I think the story of Medusa is more about woman hatred. The result of her abuse was that she was abandoned as an outcast and died in a state of terrible despair. Her terrifying loneliness is evident in the images of Medusa that reveal female misery, not the face of female evil.

I would also argue that the snakes in Medusa’s hair are symbolic representations of woman’s power. Women and Serpents have a long history together, one that stretches back to Neolithic times when serpents were seen as wisdom figures, embodying the life force within women and in Nature. Like the Minoan Snake goddess or the snakes in my life that contain both life and death aspects in one serpentine figure, Medusa’s head is covered in serpents suggesting that the potential for women’s wisdom is also present. Medusa needs a body in order to express this potential.

For most of my life I had identified my anger/rage with Medusa condemning myself without ever knowing anything about this story or the context in which Medusa lived out her (mortal) mythic life. Today I see Medusa in a very different light and feel great compassion for her, and for myself. This female figure was brutalized first by seduction or possible rape, and then betrayed by the goddess she had dedicated her life to – Athena, who blamed the victim and not the perpetrator. Twice. This heinous act would be shocking if one didn’t recall that Athena sprang from Zeus’s neck, (an unholy birth if there ever was one) and was as a result, a male identified woman, one who may also become a woman hater.

I believe that Medusa can help us as women to stay in touch with the archetype, as in a force of energy/and information, so that we have a choice. Women can allow themselves to feel rage, contain it, and express it in healthy ways. We don’t have to act out destructively towards others or ourselves after we have been brutalized or betrayed.

I am finishing this essay on the day after the Women’s March on Washington (and everywhere else around the world). The massive world wide protest highlights how effective women’s anger/rage can be when it is mobilized into a peaceful collective movement that has at its core the belief that women, and the sensible/sensitive men that support them, will not put up with more abuse – verbal or physical. We say NO to giving up our hard won rights. We say NO to the destruction of the planet and its non –human species, to misogyny, to rape, to privileging one group over another, to restricting reproductive rights, to building stupid walls, to isolating one group of individuals from another. We embody Medusa’s outrage, and begin to fight back. This misogynist who became president partly because 53 percent of white women voted him in must be stopped. First we need to own the proliferation of women hatred and other hatred that abounds in our country, and then we need to take to the streets to protest in huge numbers. Our greatest challenge is to keep up the momentum. Women must gaze with the eyes of Medusa on the monster lurking behind the doors of the Oval Office. Women and men everywhere must turn him to stone.

I conclude this essay with a personal note on serpents. I believe that the serpent saved my life because by “marrying” him I opened the door to the unconscious waters, the wisdom of my dreams, and to living my life authentically. My greatest challenge then as now is to live my life through my body as well as through my intellect. I don’t choose as my mother once did, to bury my body in the sand. Perhaps Avanyu will continue to guide me…

The Bear Goddess and the Tree

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She wore a fur coat and drove

a flaming chariot that flew through the night.

Its fiery wheels threw sparks, like stars..

One point of light leapt onto frozen ground,

sprouted roots and grew a Tree…

When the Snow Bear came to the mountain

It was the longest night of the year.

She reached up to a sky of diamonds and ice,

plucked a star and flung it far…

It landed in Juniper’s thick branches…

The little tree’s berries ripened and fell.

Her green boughs glowed with pride.

Juniper had been chosen to light up the night.

Wafting sweet fragrance on wild winter winds

as a Blessing for All, the little tree soul took flight!

12/21/16

Working notes:

For a number of years I decorated my northern white cedar, the Guardian Tree in front of my little log cabin with crystals that were once a part of a chandelier that belonged to my mother’s family. In the center of my tree I put a large crystal star that shimmered at night when the lights were lit, while the rectangular beveled crystals reflected a rainbow of colors. I never thought much about this little ritual of tree lighting (beyond feeling that it was exactly the right thing to do each November when the nights come so early) until I came to New Mexico and met the young juniper in my front yard. I cared for her in much the same way as I cared for my cedar tree in Maine, and in November decorated her blue-green branches with white lights…

It was only after writing this poem that I recognized the full implications of my actions. Every year I enact a personal mythical story as I decorate my winter solstice tree to honor the dark days of winter, The Great Bear, the winter solstice, the changing season and the power of hope.

In Native American traditions the bear (polar, black, grizzly) is the animal most frequently associated with medicinal plants, flowers, and roots that are used to heal. Bear healing circles were common in many tribes.

By calling up the Great She Bear (whose celestial aspect is the constellation of the Great Bear) I am invoking the Animal Powers to move through our lives, to heal what has been broken in ourselves and in the culture. When the bear throws the star and it lands in the tree, the three become embodied as one. The star (symbol of hope), the animal and plant powers are united and together they “light up the darkest night.” During these troubled times I am reminded that the tie that binds us to each other, to the Cosmos and to the Earth can be renewed if we take the story seriously and choose appropriate actions.

I use the image of the polar bear as the Great Bear Goddess (found in every Indigenous culture north of the equator) to help us remember that animals like the polar bear are dying because of our indifference to global warming. This breaking of “the ties that bind us” to other species must be attended to or we will be facing extinction ourselves.

The Three Rabbits

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When I first came to the high desert I fell in love with the western desert cottontail rabbits that appeared at dawn and dusk as well as at odd times during the day to feast upon the sunflower seed I scattered for them on the ground. At first these animals were very shy, disappearing into the nearest bush the moment I spoke to one, even from inside the house. Soon however their behavior began to shift. Instead of hopping away they began to make eye contact with me through the windows, their beautiful brown eyes shining like marbles, their ears and whiskers twitching as they nibbled the seed while keeping one sharp eye on me! When I met one in the yard, I surprised him/her by calling out “hi bunny” as I walked my dogs. They would freeze when I spoke and fasten their glistening doe-like eyes on me in what seemed like curiosity. It occurred to me then that they weren’t used to humans talking to them. I began earnest conversations with these rabbits whenever I met one letting them know that I wanted nothing more than to be a good friend… By early fall they allowed me to get within a couple of feet of them. I longed to touch the silky gray fur of just one rabbit…

One day I was walking around outside looking for lizards to photograph and decided to sit on the ground. The snakeweed was in bloom and although the seriously disturbed earth around the house was bare, the bright yellow clumps thrived in the surrounding hills. It was hot in the late September sun, but I was stalking lizards and had no intention of allowing heat to get in my way. Finding a bare spot I sat down to wait.

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My breathing slowed as I slipped into a light trance… A cottontail approached me; I kept still, breathing deeply. The rabbit stopped just in front of me its whiskers twitching. Now I was on high alert having snapped out of the relaxed state I had been in. Ever so slowly I reached out to touch the soft fur coat, and the rabbit didn’t move when I gently ran my hand over its back. Amazed and joyful I repeated this gesture three times. When the rabbit hopped away his/her tail bobbing, I stopped holding my breath and relived the experience still feeling the silky fur…Did this really happen? My rational mind was on overload even as my body relaxed again. Of course it did, my body responded feeling thick fur. “Of course it did!” I heard myself replying in response to my own query. This rabbit had responded to my longing telepathically by coming and allowing itself to be stroked. Immense gratitude flooded me. Our relationship had become reciprocal.

This incident marked a dramatic shift in the cottontails’ behavior. Now whenever I was outside alone rabbits appeared like magic. I also discovered that although many rabbits and hares visited me that there were three that lived right here by the house. I could tell them apart by their size, one was so much smaller than the other two who looked like twins. I also identified the difference between the twins by the way they twitched their whiskers, by the subtle differences in the gray brown of their coats, the way each held its ears, even the shapes of their cottony tails were different.  I don’t know if they are related but all three are great friends. I am guessing that they are all female rabbits since they are sharing the same territory (males need a much larger space). The three spend a lot of time chasing each other in what seems to be some sort of game. They reverse directions without warning, and the chased becomes the chaser! They also leap up into the air without apparent reason  their long back legs propelling them skywards with ease. And sometimes they nuzzle each others noses.

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Now that winter is almost upon us, my three rabbits spend their days hiding out under the boughs of one particular juniper tree, the one by my back door. Even when it’s frigid they come out for a brief visit while I am bringing wood into the house. I watch them nibbling the ripe berries and licking the ice from the copper water pan that I refill each morning for the birds. Two of them have almost demolished the two prickly pear cactus plants that are close to the house. Even though I watch them eat through binoculars I can’t see how they manage to rid the pads of their sharp thorns before taking their first bite. I know from previous experience that rabbit incisors do make a clean cut. I leave spinach leaves on the ground for them, and the occasional carrot. But it’s the sunflower seeds they love the most, probably because the latter are high in both protein and fat.

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I have become so attached to my little cottontails that I am already imagining how much I will miss these particular rabbits when I leave. They have become members of my family, the only difference being that they live outside while Lily B, my dove, my two Chihuahuas and I live indoors. Every evening we repeat the same ritual with me standing at the window, the dogs in their chair and Lily B peering down from his high swinging perch. We all watch the rabbits and scaled quail devouring their seed just after the sun has slipped below the horizon. The littlest rabbit is usually the last one to leave just as darkness spreads her cloak of cracked stars over the high desert scrub and sand.

If I am correct in my assessment that these rabbits are all females, I expect I might have little ones in the spring, since they mate quite early and have about 2- 6 young, born naked and blind. The literature says that few make it to adulthood, so nature compensates for these losses by allowing the rabbits to have many litters a year helping keeping the population relatively stable.

There is a wonderful story about the goddess of spring riding in a chariot led by six rabbits holding lighted candles. Both the goddess Eostre and her familiars, the rabbits, celebrate the new dawn, renewal and fertility returning to the Earth after a long winter’s sleep…During these dark and sometimes frigid days of winter I am reminded that each season has its blessings and that with the winter solstice approaching tomorrow (in the northern hemisphere) the sun will soon be climbing higher in the sky bringing warmth and longer days and before we know it, the wheel of the year will be turning again.