Current Events, Holy Wild, Mythology & History

Can Clowns Save Our Souls?

This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


untitled-clown_neys-fadzil

“He was nobody in particular, yet everybody all at once.”

— Conrad Hyers

It is said that the Irish god Manannan mac Lir likes to travel in disguise. He roams from town to town, sometimes entertaining kings with heavenly music, other times baffling onlookers with clumsy feats of buffoonery. “One day I am sweet, another day I am sour,” he declares, as if to explain away his conflicting reputation as both wiseman and fool. His disguise is a familiar one: a hat full of holes, shoes that squish with puddle water when he walks, threadbare striped clothes, a cloak of many colors that shimmers like mist in the sun. It’s a wonder we don’t recognize him immediately. Figures like him have been with us since the beginning, holding up a funhouse mirror to our ordinary lives, mocking our heroes and transfiguring our bums. In short, Manannan mac Lir is a clown.

Clowns need no introduction, says professor of religion Conrad Hyers in his book, The Spirituality of Comedy. When they appear on the scene, everybody recognizes immediately what they are. “There are clowns who are silent and clowns who are subtle, but there are no incognito clowns.” And yet clowns are, by definition, difficult to define. Almost defiantly contradictory, they take upon themselves the myriad aspects of human society and human nature, throwing all of these elements together in astoundingly irreverent and incongruous ways. “In a kaleidoscopic identity,” Hyers writes, “the clown is many people and many moods, formed and reformed out of the same disparate pieces of humanity.” The clown is the Everyman, recognizable despite or, more accurately, because of his make-up and his mask. The clown is the familiar stranger: the god who travels in disguise under an assumed name, yet whose reputation always precedes him.

Big Shoes To Fill: A Walking Contradiction

Over the past few months, we’ve watched this pattern of embodied contradictions and oscillating opinions play out in real-time as a Creepy Clown Epidemic took the American media by storm. In earlier articles, I traced the evolving nature of this phenomenon — from the Phantom Clowns of urban legend, to the mischievous Stalking Clowns confounding police, to the public backlash and its impact on the professional clowning community. As media coverage returned again and again to this strange but eerily familiar figure, interpretations of the Creepy Clown’s meaning have swung back and forth, each new claim reacting against and building upon those that came before it. Were the clowns real, or just a hoax? Old urban legend, or new media meme? A coordinated effort by marketers, or a grassroots trend of rumors and copycats? Attention-seekers, or anonymous pranksters? Political commentary, or frivolous distraction? Harmless fun, or serious threat? Criminals, or victims?

The answer, of course, is all of the above…. and then some. “Clowns are not ‘simply’ anything,” Hyers writes. “The clown as ‘Everyman’ is the representative of the many-sidedness of our existence and the tensions between sides — not any side or set of characteristics. The clown is omnivorously human.”

greatest-show_classic-film

This undiscriminating lust for life in all its forms can itself be disturbing (think: the exaggerated mouths and the smiles full of sharpened teeth in so many of today’s creepy clown Halloween masks). There is something unsettling about the clown’s willingness to poke fun at anything, to upset the status quo. We might wonder: is nothing sacred? Yet throughout history, the spiritual role of the clown has always been that of trickster, the Wise Fool who can challenge social norms and bring the shadow-side of ourselves and our community out into the open to be confronted, laughed at, integrated and transcended.

In his exploration of the clown as a cultural and spiritual figure, Hyers notes that there are two distinct manifestations of the clown as a mediator of opposites. The more “complex and ambitious” type of clown, Hyers writes, is the solo clown, who brings these opposites together in his own person and contains the tension of polarity within a single figure. The motley, multi-colored outfits of these clowns speak to this radical inclusivity of contradiction. “If they wear oversized shoes, they will like as not wear an undersized hat. If they give themselves a gaudy smile, they will probably also add a tear. If they are graceful one moment, they will likely be jerky the next.” They might take exaggerated care to tiptoe across the stage, only to trip noisily at the last minute; or precisely measure the swing of their giant hammer, only to miss the nail and smash their thumb instead. One day sweet, the next day sour.

478px-paul_cezanne_060But there is another kind of clowning: the comic duo. Here, polar opposites are exaggerated and separated, embodied in two different characters who are nevertheless bound together, played against one another to hilarious effect. From the Koshare spring-summer clowns (sprouters of grain) and the Kurena fall-winter clowns (maturers of grain) of the Jemez Indians, to the suave Whiteface and clumsy Augusto of the medieval French pantomimes, such pairs are well-known throughout history. If one is tall and thin, the other will be short and stocky. If one is a wild risk-taker, the other will worry and fret. If one is restrained in word and deed, the other flails about and never shuts up. We see these odd couples everywhere in modern times, too, in comedy pairs like Harpo and Groucho Marx, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Penn and Teller, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, Troy and Abed… the list goes on and on.

To these pairs, we might add: Patch Adams and Pennywise — the “caring clown” and the “creepy clown” of modern American culture. Perhaps we need look no further to explain the Creepy Clown phenomenon than our culture’s changing view of the clown, from the ambiguous trickster of sacred ritual to mere kids’ entertainer:

Before the early 20th century, there was little expectation that clowns had to be an entirely unadulterated symbol of fun, frivolity, and happiness; pantomime clowns, for example, were characters who had more adult-oriented story lines. But clowns [are] now almost solely children’s entertainment. Once their made-up persona became more associated with children, and therefore an expectation of innocence, it made whatever the make-up might conceal all the more frightening.

Everywhere we find them, clowns are walking contradictions, polarities set in dialectical motion so that we may (re)discover our own wholeness. “Our whole being is put joltingly together by the simple device of slapping opposites against one another,” writes Hyers. With our recent overemphasis on the innocent fun and “light side” of the Caring Clown, perhaps it was inevitable that the darker Creepy Clown would eventually come calling.

One Clown, Two Clown, Red Clown, Blue Clown

But why now? There is something unique about the Creepy Clown Epidemic this year. Although the cycle of clown sightings has recurred fairly regularly since at least the 1980s, there seems to be a deeper sense of urgency, uncertainty and anxiety that has driven this fall’s hysteria.

8112010clown-phil_roeder_sm

You don’t need to scratch very far below the surface to discover what it is. Almost from the beginning, commentators have noted the strong parallels between the Creepy Clown hype and the American presidential election, in which many aspects of an increasingly polarized and dysfunctional political system are on full display. Art and film often anticipate and illuminate these trends through their social commentary. Take, for instance, the recently-released Rob Zombie horror movie, 31, which one reviewer describes as “perhaps unintentionally relevant” in the current climate:

[T]he free-loving carnies and the carnage-loving clowns all arguably ought to be on the same side, as they’re at the same level of income, and loosely connected to the whole notion of traveling shows. But they’re not, and indeed, it’s partly because some on the clown side are racist, sadistic, abusive, horrible people. Regardless, though, they’re all being played by rich jerks for some minor amusement, and even once they realize this and have a chance to break the cycle, or heaven forbid, fight the actual system, they can’t stop. They just hate each other too much, while the rich go back to their rich lives unburdened.

Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist at Botany College in New Zealand, links the rise in creepy clowns to two rising forces in the US: social media, and a fear of otherness. “Social media plays a pivotal role in spreading these rumor-panics which travel around the globe in the blink of an eye,” he says. “They are part of a greater moral panic about the fear of strangers and terrorists in an increasingly urban, impersonal, and unpredictable world.” Politicians have often played on the fear of otherness to rally their base and “get out the vote” on election day. We might even see in the Republican and Democratic candidates an echo of the tragicomic duo, a pair of opposites vying against each other, each one “playing the mask” of political showmanship while also trying to radiate personable authenticity. All of this might explain why Loren Coleman, who posited the Phantom Clown Theory, notes that creepy clown appearances often coincide with the election cycle.

new-york-daily-news-clown-1Still, this year’s election season has been one of the most vitriolic in recent history, with one candidate in particular invoking (and provoking) xenophobia, racism and misogyny as defining aspects of his campaign. For some, the explanation for this year’s creepy clown craze can be summed up in two words: Donald Trump. Yale School of Drama professor Christopher Bayes describes Trump as “all illness and artifice,” saying, “There’s something poison there. It feels malignant, and it freaks us out.”

With his uncanny appearance — the fake spray-tan, the wild orange hair, the gaudy sense of fashion, the overblown blustering and weird gesticulations on stage — Trump is the quintessential creepy clown. Equally preoccupied with stoking fear of outsiders and resentment towards insiders who’ve supposedly rigged the system against him, he is not easily categorized according to our usual understanding of political and cultural identity. Instead, he hides behind a mask of populist “everyman” rhetoric to conceal crass self-interest and, perhaps, something even more sinister. In light of numerous allegations of sexual assault, including the rape of a 13-year-old girl and his possible connection to drug-fueled sex parties with underage teens, it’s hard not to see Trump as the “killer clown” who leers at children on the playground and tries to lure them into the woods. Even his caught-on-tape boasting about how his celebrity allows him to assault women — “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” — seems like a sickening callback to the serial killer-clown John Wayne Gacy’s confession, “You know… a clown can get away with murder.”

Clown as Savior and Escape Artist

How do we rid ourselves of these creepy clowns, real and imagined?

First, it might help to know that much of the Creepy Clown hysteria is driven by media coverage and, like all such trends, it will eventually die down on its own (especially once Halloween and the election are over). Professor of psychology at Evergreen State College, Bill Indick explains, “That’s why it comes in waves. The media propagates it, creates it, feeds it and at a certain point, gets tired of it. The media then digests it and eliminates it. And just as quickly as it started, it’s over.”

We shouldn’t necessarily see this as a criticism of the media’s short attention span, however. After all, that is the clown’s deeper spiritual and psychological role in society: to help us confront our own contradictions, bring them to consciousness, and integrate them. Hyers writes:

What we are reluctant to acknowledge, but what the clown fixes on, is that we are composed of and dream of contraries. We fantasize about complete freedom and complete security, rugged individualism and social harmony, amorous adventures and marital bliss, higher wages and lower prices, something worth fighting for… and peace and tranquility.

The ever-shifting media narratives — about clowns, and about everything — can guide us through a process of navigating these contradictions, swinging from one perspective to another, discovering the complexity of the stories we tell about our all-too-human lives. Hyers notes that clown performances often end with the clowns being chased off stage, driven out of the shared community space and sent scurrying back into the mists of chaos from which they came. “What has been welcomed so clamorously, must also be put to flight somewhat ingloriously,” he writes. “The clowns who have indulged us vicariously, must also vicariously pay a price for their profanities. The scapegrace becomes the scapegoat.”

clown-session_laura-cuttierBut at the heart of this process is a longing for wholeness and a renewed sense of unity. With his colorful patchwork antics, the clown reconnects “the many fragmented shades of our existence, if only by tossing them laughingly side by side and calling their ephemeral combination a link between the heavens and the earth.” Liminality and impermanence are all part of the play. The clown straddles, skips and stumbles over the lines we draw to separate the mundane and the sacred, “mudhead and godhead,” order and disorder, stability and change, inside and outside, life and death.

In this way, the clown is also a psychopomp, leading us through fragmentation towards resolution and the redemption of a richer life. Says Hyers, “[T]he clown resembles a ghostly apparition from the spirit world, paradoxically seeking with grinning death-mask to renew life and revive our slumping spirits.” Why should we be surprised, then, to find ourselves brought face-to-face with this paradoxical figure during the season of ghouls and goblins, when the veils between the worlds are thin and the dead mingle with the living?

So maybe the solution is actually quite simple: to rid ourselves of the creepy clown, we need only rediscover the deeper complexity and ambiguity of the clown as a sacred trickster and spiritual guide. To live more courageously and playfully in the face of our uncertainty. To remember to hold our desire for categories of right and wrong, good and evil as lightly as we can. For though we might try to follow where the clown leads, we cannot hope to pin him down or hold him still. It is only when we stop insisting that the clown be just one thing that he is free to become the multiplicity of being that he really is.


Photo Credits:
• “Untitled,” by Neys Fadzil (CC) [source]
• Jimmy Stewart, Emmett Kelly, The Greatest Show on Earth, 1952 [source]
• “Shove tuesday (Pierot and Harlequin)” by Paul Cézanne [source]
• “8.11.2010 clown 209/365” by Phil Roeder (CC) [source]
• Frontpage June 17, 2015, New York Daily News [source]
• “Clown Session,” by Laura Cuttier (CC) [source]


Daily Prompt: Transformation


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com

Current Events, Holy Wild, Mythology & History

Can Clowns Save Our Souls?

untitled-clown_neys-fadzil

“He was nobody in particular, yet everybody all at once.”

— Conrad Hyers

It is said that the Irish god Manannan mac Lir likes to travel in disguise. He roams from town to town, sometimes entertaining kings with heavenly music, other times baffling onlookers with clumsy feats of buffoonery. “One day I am sweet, another day I am sour,” he declares, as if to explain away his conflicting reputation as both wiseman and fool. His disguise is a familiar one: a hat full of holes, shoes that squish with puddle water when he walks, threadbare striped clothes, a cloak of many colors that shimmers like mist in the sun. It’s a wonder we don’t recognize him immediately. Figures like him have been with us since the beginning, holding up a funhouse mirror to our ordinary lives, mocking our heroes and transfiguring our bums. In short, Manannan mac Lir is a clown.

Clowns need no introduction, says professor of religion Conrad Hyers in his book, The Spirituality of Comedy. When they appear on the scene, everybody recognizes immediately what they are. “There are clowns who are silent and clowns who are subtle, but there are no incognito clowns.” And yet clowns are, by definition, difficult to define. Almost defiantly contradictory, they take upon themselves the myriad aspects of human society and human nature, throwing all of these elements together in astoundingly irreverent and incongruous ways. “In a kaleidoscopic identity,” Hyers writes, “the clown is many people and many moods, formed and reformed out of the same disparate pieces of humanity.” The clown is the Everyman, recognizable despite or, more accurately, because of his make-up and his mask. The clown is the familiar stranger: the god who travels in disguise under an assumed name, yet whose reputation always precedes him.

Big Shoes To Fill: A Walking Contradiction

Over the past few months, we’ve watched this pattern of embodied contradictions and oscillating opinions play out in real-time as a Creepy Clown Epidemic took the American media by storm. In earlier articles, I traced the evolving nature of this phenomenon — from the Phantom Clowns of urban legend, to the mischievous Stalking Clowns confounding police, to the public backlash and its impact on the professional clowning community. As media coverage returned again and again to this strange but eerily familiar figure, interpretations of the Creepy Clown’s meaning have swung back and forth, each new claim reacting against and building upon those that came before it. Were the clowns real, or just a hoax? Old urban legend, or new media meme? A coordinated effort by marketers, or a grassroots trend of rumors and copycats? Attention-seekers, or anonymous pranksters? Political commentary, or frivolous distraction? Harmless fun, or serious threat? Criminals, or victims?

The answer, of course, is all of the above…. and then some. “Clowns are not ‘simply’ anything,” Hyers writes. “The clown as ‘Everyman’ is the representative of the many-sidedness of our existence and the tensions between sides — not any side or set of characteristics. The clown is omnivorously human.”

greatest-show_classic-film

This undiscriminating lust for life in all its forms can itself be disturbing (think: the exaggerated mouths and the smiles full of sharpened teeth in so many of today’s creepy clown Halloween masks). There is something unsettling about the clown’s willingness to poke fun at anything, to upset the status quo. We might wonder: is nothing sacred? Yet throughout history, the spiritual role of the clown has always been that of trickster, the Wise Fool who can challenge social norms and bring the shadow-side of ourselves and our community out into the open to be confronted, laughed at, integrated and transcended.

In his exploration of the clown as a cultural and spiritual figure, Hyers notes that there are two distinct manifestations of the clown as a mediator of opposites. The more “complex and ambitious” type of clown, Hyers writes, is the solo clown, who brings these opposites together in his own person and contains the tension of polarity within a single figure. The motley, multi-colored outfits of these clowns speak to this radical inclusivity of contradiction. “If they wear oversized shoes, they will like as not wear an undersized hat. If they give themselves a gaudy smile, they will probably also add a tear. If they are graceful one moment, they will likely be jerky the next.” They might take exaggerated care to tiptoe across the stage, only to trip noisily at the last minute; or precisely measure the swing of their giant hammer, only to miss the nail and smash their thumb instead. One day sweet, the next day sour.

478px-paul_cezanne_060But there is another kind of clowning: the comic duo. Here, polar opposites are exaggerated and separated, embodied in two different characters who are nevertheless bound together, played against one another to hilarious effect. From the Koshare spring-summer clowns (sprouters of grain) and the Kurena fall-winter clowns (maturers of grain) of the Jemez Indians, to the suave Whiteface and clumsy Augusto of the medieval French pantomimes, such pairs are well-known throughout history. If one is tall and thin, the other will be short and stocky. If one is a wild risk-taker, the other will worry and fret. If one is restrained in word and deed, the other flails about and never shuts up. We see these odd couples everywhere in modern times, too, in comedy pairs like Harpo and Groucho Marx, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Penn and Teller, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, Troy and Abed… the list goes on and on.

To these pairs, we might add: Patch Adams and Pennywise — the “caring clown” and the “creepy clown” of modern American culture. Perhaps we need look no further to explain the Creepy Clown phenomenon than our culture’s changing view of the clown, from the ambiguous trickster of sacred ritual to mere kids’ entertainer:

Before the early 20th century, there was little expectation that clowns had to be an entirely unadulterated symbol of fun, frivolity, and happiness; pantomime clowns, for example, were characters who had more adult-oriented story lines. But clowns [are] now almost solely children’s entertainment. Once their made-up persona became more associated with children, and therefore an expectation of innocence, it made whatever the make-up might conceal all the more frightening.

Everywhere we find them, clowns are walking contradictions, polarities set in dialectical motion so that we may (re)discover our own wholeness. “Our whole being is put joltingly together by the simple device of slapping opposites against one another,” writes Hyers. With our recent overemphasis on the innocent fun and “light side” of the Caring Clown, perhaps it was inevitable that the darker Creepy Clown would eventually come calling.

One Clown, Two Clown, Red Clown, Blue Clown

But why now? There is something unique about the Creepy Clown Epidemic this year. Although the cycle of clown sightings has recurred fairly regularly since at least the 1980s, there seems to be a deeper sense of urgency, uncertainty and anxiety that has driven this fall’s hysteria.

8112010clown-phil_roeder_sm

You don’t need to scratch very far below the surface to discover what it is. Almost from the beginning, commentators have noted the strong parallels between the Creepy Clown hype and the American presidential election, in which many aspects of an increasingly polarized and dysfunctional political system are on full display. Art and film often anticipate and illuminate these trends through their social commentary. Take, for instance, the recently-released Rob Zombie horror movie, 31, which one reviewer describes as “perhaps unintentionally relevant” in the current climate:

[T]he free-loving carnies and the carnage-loving clowns all arguably ought to be on the same side, as they’re at the same level of income, and loosely connected to the whole notion of traveling shows. But they’re not, and indeed, it’s partly because some on the clown side are racist, sadistic, abusive, horrible people. Regardless, though, they’re all being played by rich jerks for some minor amusement, and even once they realize this and have a chance to break the cycle, or heaven forbid, fight the actual system, they can’t stop. They just hate each other too much, while the rich go back to their rich lives unburdened.

Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist at Botany College in New Zealand, links the rise in creepy clowns to two rising forces in the US: social media, and a fear of otherness. “Social media plays a pivotal role in spreading these rumor-panics which travel around the globe in the blink of an eye,” he says. “They are part of a greater moral panic about the fear of strangers and terrorists in an increasingly urban, impersonal, and unpredictable world.” Politicians have often played on the fear of otherness to rally their base and “get out the vote” on election day. We might even see in the Republican and Democratic candidates an echo of the tragicomic duo, a pair of opposites vying against each other, each one “playing the mask” of political showmanship while also trying to radiate personable authenticity. All of this might explain why Loren Coleman, who posited the Phantom Clown Theory, notes that creepy clown appearances often coincide with the election cycle.

new-york-daily-news-clown-1Still, this year’s election season has been one of the most vitriolic in recent history, with one candidate in particular invoking (and provoking) xenophobia, racism and misogyny as defining aspects of his campaign. For some, the explanation for this year’s creepy clown craze can be summed up in two words: Donald Trump. Yale School of Drama professor Christopher Bayes describes Trump as “all illness and artifice,” saying, “There’s something poison there. It feels malignant, and it freaks us out.”

With his uncanny appearance — the fake spray-tan, the wild orange hair, the gaudy sense of fashion, the overblown blustering and weird gesticulations on stage — Trump is the quintessential creepy clown. Equally preoccupied with stoking fear of outsiders and resentment towards insiders who’ve supposedly rigged the system against him, he is not easily categorized according to our usual understanding of political and cultural identity. Instead, he hides behind a mask of populist “everyman” rhetoric to conceal crass self-interest and, perhaps, something even more sinister. In light of numerous allegations of sexual assault, including the rape of a 13-year-old girl and his possible connection to drug-fueled sex parties with underage teens, it’s hard not to see Trump as the “killer clown” who leers at children on the playground and tries to lure them into the woods. Even his caught-on-tape boasting about how his celebrity allows him to assault women — “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” — seems like a sickening callback to the serial killer-clown John Wayne Gacy’s confession, “You know… a clown can get away with murder.”

Clown as Savior and Escape Artist

How do we rid ourselves of these creepy clowns, real and imagined?

First, it might help to know that much of the Creepy Clown hysteria is driven by media coverage and, like all such trends, it will eventually die down on its own (especially once Halloween and the election are over). Professor of psychology at Evergreen State College, Bill Indick explains, “That’s why it comes in waves. The media propagates it, creates it, feeds it and at a certain point, gets tired of it. The media then digests it and eliminates it. And just as quickly as it started, it’s over.”

We shouldn’t necessarily see this as a criticism of the media’s short attention span, however. After all, that is the clown’s deeper spiritual and psychological role in society: to help us confront our own contradictions, bring them to consciousness, and integrate them. Hyers writes:

What we are reluctant to acknowledge, but what the clown fixes on, is that we are composed of and dream of contraries. We fantasize about complete freedom and complete security, rugged individualism and social harmony, amorous adventures and marital bliss, higher wages and lower prices, something worth fighting for… and peace and tranquility.

The ever-shifting media narratives — about clowns, and about everything — can guide us through a process of navigating these contradictions, swinging from one perspective to another, discovering the complexity of the stories we tell about our all-too-human lives. Hyers notes that clown performances often end with the clowns being chased off stage, driven out of the shared community space and sent scurrying back into the mists of chaos from which they came. “What has been welcomed so clamorously, must also be put to flight somewhat ingloriously,” he writes. “The clowns who have indulged us vicariously, must also vicariously pay a price for their profanities. The scapegrace becomes the scapegoat.”

clown-session_laura-cuttierBut at the heart of this process is a longing for wholeness and a renewed sense of unity. With his colorful patchwork antics, the clown reconnects “the many fragmented shades of our existence, if only by tossing them laughingly side by side and calling their ephemeral combination a link between the heavens and the earth.” Liminality and impermanence are all part of the play. The clown straddles, skips and stumbles over the lines we draw to separate the mundane and the sacred, “mudhead and godhead,” order and disorder, stability and change, inside and outside, life and death.

In this way, the clown is also a psychopomp, leading us through fragmentation towards resolution and the redemption of a richer life. Says Hyers, “[T]he clown resembles a ghostly apparition from the spirit world, paradoxically seeking with grinning death-mask to renew life and revive our slumping spirits.” Why should we be surprised, then, to find ourselves brought face-to-face with this paradoxical figure during the season of ghouls and goblins, when the veils between the worlds are thin and the dead mingle with the living?

So maybe the solution is actually quite simple: to rid ourselves of the creepy clown, we need only rediscover the deeper complexity and ambiguity of the clown as a sacred trickster and spiritual guide. To live more courageously and playfully in the face of our uncertainty. To remember to hold our desire for categories of right and wrong, good and evil as lightly as we can. For though we might try to follow where the clown leads, we cannot hope to pin him down or hold him still. It is only when we stop insisting that the clown be just one thing that he is free to become the multiplicity of being that he really is.


Photo Credits:
• “Untitled,” by Neys Fadzil (CC) [source]
• Jimmy Stewart, Emmett Kelly, The Greatest Show on Earth, 1952 [source]
• “Shove tuesday (Pierot and Harlequin)” by Paul Cézanne [source]
• “8.11.2010 clown 209/365” by Phil Roeder (CC) [source]
• Frontpage June 17, 2015, New York Daily News [source]
• “Clown Session,” by Laura Cuttier (CC) [source]


Daily Prompt: Eerie

Deep Ecology, Holy Wild, Rite & Ritual

Participating in Enchantment: Redefining Magic

This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


After the flight two days earlier to Charlotte, NC, I’d learned one thing for certain: I was not a natural flyer. My first time in an airplane in more than fifteen years had left me feeling queazy and disoriented, retreating to the quiet sanctuary of my hotel room for an evening as I attempted to ground myself in a new landscape, a city hundreds of miles from my home in chilly, hilly western Pennsylvania. High-rise buildings, a depressing lack of trees and green park space, people walking around without jackets in early December… Even after that first evening, I’d spent the entire trip feeling out of sorts, cut off from my usual sense of place.

Now, I sat anxiously in the claustrophobic cabin of the plane, preparing for the flight back to Pittsburgh and worrying that I was in for another nauseating, jolting ride.

flysky-ShannonKringen

Susan Greenwood’s latest book, The Anthropology of Magic, was tucked into my carry-on. The text was academic in flavor as well as subject matter. It had clearly been written with the new student of anthropology rather than the lay magical practitioner in mind. A more accurate title for the book might have been “Competing Theories About Magic, And What It Really Is, In Anthropology” …but that would’ve been a bit cramped on the spine.

The text introduced a number of scientists and researchers who’d spent their long, distinguished careers studying the practice of magic and shamanic techniques in tribal cultures throughout history and all over the world. Some of the names I recognized from my college days studying comparative religions, but even still I’d often felt my head swimming as I worked through Greenwood’s arguments. I’d spent the past few days reading her intense (and sometimes convoluted) discussions of the myriad competing theories of consciousness, ritual, reason and myth that have been informing and shaping the field of anthropology for the past several generations.

This book wasn’t your typical Magic 101 how-to that many Pagans enjoy. Still, it held something immensely valuable for those seeking to deepen their understanding of magical work as a spiritual practice. It would take time, and some rigorous intellectual work on the part of the reader, but it would be worth it.

As our plane taxied into place on the runway, I took a deep breath and pulled out the book, flipping through the loose pages of notes I’d taken and thinking once again about the nature of magic…

flying-dowitchers-TJ-Gehling

The central tenet that Greenwood puts forth early in her introductory chapter, and returns to often throughout the text, is that magic is not so much something you do as it is a kind of consciousness. More specifically, magic is participatory consciousness: a consciousness of participation and enchantment.

For much of the book, in fact, Greenwood’s discussion focuses on mapping out the more widely-accepted theories of magic found within the anthropological community, and then illustrating how these traditional theories fail to speak to and reflect the essence of magical consciousness.

As a social science, the field of anthropology has tended to strive for standards of rational analysis and objective observation that have served the physical sciences well and proven invaluable in collecting reliable data from controlled experiments. This approach has led many anthropologists to view magic itself as a kind of failed science, an attempt made in ignorance to control and manipulate the forces of nature, acting on false premises about patterns of relationship and causality. Many anthropologists have therefore concluded that magic is the antithesis of religion (being more concerned with manipulative power than with worship) while at the same time viewing it as merely the embarrassing progenitor of “real” science, with no more to teach and nothing of relevance to contribute to the “civilized” epistemology of more enlightened modern times. Other theorists, such as Evans-Pritchard, have argued that while belief in magic may be ignorant, it is not primitive or inherently irrational. Far from it, such social groups as the Azande function with belief systems that are perfectly rational and internally consistent, albeit founded on a few basic wrong assumptions.

What all of these theorists hold in common, Greenwood argues, is their own fundamental bias towards the objective-rational approach of modern Western science, which renders certain key aspects of magic and magical consciousness practically invisible to study and consideration. Yet the human mind and the socio-cultural community function together in ways that are often subjective, nonrational and mythological in nature. Understanding the role that magic plays for individuals and their communities requires an appreciation of these aspects of human experience that cannot easily be reduced to rational analysis or dismissed as psychological quirks.

Rather than relying solely on the model of objective experimentation and data collection exemplified in the physical sciences, Greenwood suggests that anthropologists hoping to gain insight into the workings of magical consciousness must be willing to approach the processes of magic on its own terms, and to develop epistemological models that can integrate diverse kinds of rational and nonrational, objective and subjective kinds of knowledge in ways that inform and lend perspective to both. Greenwood herself lives up to this rather intimidating demand for a new generation of anthropologists. Her eloquent accounts of her own participation in magical and shamanic rituals as part of her participatory field research are arguably some of the most engaging and intriguing parts of the text, and they serve as indispensable illustrations of theoretical concepts that might otherwise be too abstract for the reader to fully grasp.

heron-taking-flight-Donald-Ogg

As a result of her participatory approach to research, Greenwood has clearly come to appreciate certain aspects of magic and its role in society that many anthropologists have until now largely overlooked. Picking up an old debate between the two anthropologists, Lévy-Bruhl and Evans-Pritchard, she revisits the possibility that magic is indeed a kind of consciousness distinct from that of logos-based reason so celebrated in the West.

At the time Lévy-Bruhl proposed such an argument, his theory was considered implicitly racist, demeaning those of “primitive” cultures as pre-logical and lacking the reasoning faculties of more civilized peoples. In response to this misunderstanding of his idea, Evans-Pritchard took on the task of proving that such peoples as the Azande were fully rational and intelligent human beings who were not somehow lesser than their Western counterparts, but merely different. An on-going correspondence between the two researchers continued to inform and clarify Lévy-Bruhl’s original theory, however, and Greenwood returns to his suggestion that magical consciousness is, though not degenerate, certainly a unique kind of consciousness distinct from and not reducible to reason alone. (Indeed, as her discussion of the experiment in which sugar-water was labeled “poison” illustrates, modern Western academics themselves are not immune to magical consciousness, even when their rational minds insist otherwise.)

What characterizes magical consciousness, according to Greenwood’s revised hypothesis, is a particular kind of participatory awareness. While traditional Western science relies on analogical reasoning in which participation is characterized by repeatable, controllable outcomes of physical reactions in order to predict similar future results, the analogical participation of magical consciousness is subjective and experiential, informed by culturally-shared myths and shaped by a sense of nonphysical interconnection between objects or events that share metaphorical relationships.

In traditional anthropological terms, this describes sympathetic and contagion magical practices — in which the similarity of ritual acts and objects are seen as being in meaningful relationship with those things they symbolize and/or imitate. Objects or people once in contact are understood as maintaining a connection or relationship that can be used to exert influence at a distance. In Greenwood’s understanding, however, the basis for sympathetic and contagion magic is not merely inaccurate assumptions about how the physical world functions.

Instead, she proposes that these conceived patterns of relationship accurately reflect the subjective experiences of the participants in magical work. They are therefore not only valuable and valid in understanding how and why people utilize magic, but they can actually provide us with meaningful knowledge about the world, insofar as they offer us insight into the perceptions and relationships of the world as we experience it, that the normal consciousness of rational analysis cannot always discover.

Pagans and other modern magical practitioners in the West may find in Greenwood’s theory of participatory magical consciousness echoes of some popular definitions of magic among our own communities. One of the most well-known, attributed to Dion Fortune, is that “magic is the art of changing consciousness at will.” The various ritual acts described in classic anthropological texts, as well as in Greenwood’s own field research, are interpreted in her theory as the means by which individuals and social groups intentionally induce this particular altered state of magical consciousness, which renders the participant receptive to and capable of perceiving patterns of relationship and participation that are nonrational and emotional (rather than objective and analytical) in nature.

The modern Pagan approach to magical work, with its emphasis on meditation and creative visualization, is very much in keeping with this interpretation. However, in my own experience, we Pagans can be just as prone to the mistakes of an ingrained rational-scientific bias as the average anthropologists. This is why Greenwood’s work is worthy of study and contemplation not only by those entering the academic world, but for anyone who wants to challenge and deepen their approach to magical work as an integrated part of an authentic spiritual life.

Too often, even Pagans can slip into the habit of mind that approaches magic as merely an occult (i.e. hidden) alternative to mainstream science, with our focus primarily on controlling the forces and energies of nature for particular ends. As I leafed through my pages of notes jostling in my lap, trying to concentrate despite the thrumming engines of the plane as it prepared for take-off, I realized that this was exactly the mistake I had made myself.

At first I’d tried a handful of tricks to help myself adjust to the disorientation of flying, drawing from my years of Druidic practice. On the trip to Charlotte, these techniques had proved beyond useless. I’d experimented with breathing techniques meant to induce relaxation… but the result had been an overpowering, nauseating awareness of the pressurized and recirculated air of the cabin. I’d tried to remain grounded and centered, sensing the edges of my physical body and energetic field, imagining a smooth stone resting in my center as a firm point of stability and connection with the land below… yet the stone turned over and seemed to slosh in my stomach as my small, dense body rattled in my narrow seat with every wave of turbulence or dip of a wing. Magic, it seemed, had failed me.

But now, with the plane taxiing down the tarmac and anxiety slowly tightening its grip in my chest, I recalled what Greenwood had written about participation as the key to magical consciousness. She spoke of the unexpected relationships she’d experienced between far distant memories and the sensations of her immediate landscape. Of the tensions of myth and metaphor that drew these disparate events into patterns of meaning and beauty that wove an experience of interconnection with the world. This was magic, after all.

I thought back to that first evening in the hotel room, remembering the time I’d spent returning to myself and slowly ridding my body of air-sickness. The night had been stormy, and outside my window the rain danced in expanding, overlapping ripples that reflected the fluorescent lights of the city in ever-changing patterns as the water beat out a subtly complicated soft-shoe rhythm on the roofs above and the pavement far below. I’d sat watching and listening, and singing my awen, a Druidic meditative chant, until the vibration of breath in my body had released every twinge of tension.

sunset-airplane-SAM-Cheong

Remembering this experience, I squared my feet on the floor beneath the seat in front of me and did my best to sit upright and relaxed in the uncomfortable airplane. As the plane roared into movement, raging down the runway and lifting off from the ground, I closed my eyes and sang to myself, letting my awen expand and fill my awareness.

This time, I didn’t resist the experience of flight as I had before. I didn’t imagine stones or hard boundaries. I didn’t try to control the experience and the energies rushing through me. Instead, I allowed the chant to open my body up to vibration.

As I did so, I found that my physical body began to vibrate with the thrumming turbulence of the plane. In sympathetic movement, suddenly I could feel the exhilaration of flight not as something wrenching and disorienting, but as comfortable and natural: I was participating in flight with the huge machine around me.

And this experience of participation and interconnection with the world around us is perhaps the most important aspect of Greenwood’s theory. By understanding magic as a kind of consciousness that places participation at its heart, we no longer relegate magic to the realm of anti-religious power-mongering and manipulation. Instead, magic opens us up to relationship. To reverence. To an engagement with an enchanted world that plays a vital role in an earth-centered spirituality that seeks the sacred in the natural forces and landscapes in which we live our everyday lives.

Because of this heightened sense of participation, my experience of the flight north was smooth and almost pleasant. Our descent into the shimmering City of Steel just as the sun was blazing brilliantly in shades of orange and purple on the western horizon infused the journey home with a sense of breathless enchantment I will remember for a long time to come.


susan-greenwood-anthropology-magicNote: An earlier version of this book review originally appeared in Sky Earth Sea: A Journal of Practical Spirituality (Spring 2010) under the title, “Participating in Enchantment: A Reflection on Susan Greenwood’s The Anthropology of Magic


Photo Credits:
• “flysky,” by Shannon Kringen (CC) [source]
• “Flying Dowitches,” by TJ Gehling (CC) [source]
• “Water of Leith Heron Taking Flight,” by Donald Ogg (CC) [source]
• “Over the Moon,” by Dagmar Collins (CC) [source]
• Airplane at sunset, by SAM Cheong (CC) [source]


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com

Deep Ecology, Holy Wild, Rite & Ritual

Participating in Enchantment: Redefining Magic

After the flight two days earlier to Charlotte, NC, I’d learned one thing for certain: I was not a natural flyer. My first time in an airplane in more than fifteen years had left me feeling queazy and disoriented, retreating to the quiet sanctuary of my hotel room for an evening as I attempted to ground myself in a new landscape, a city hundreds of miles from my home in chilly, hilly western Pennsylvania. High-rise buildings, a depressing lack of trees and green park space, people walking around without jackets in early December… Even after that first evening, I’d spent the entire trip feeling out of sorts, cut off from my usual sense of place.

Now, I sat anxiously in the claustrophobic cabin of the plane, preparing for the flight back to Pittsburgh and worrying that I was in for another nauseating, jolting ride.

flysky-ShannonKringen

Susan Greenwood’s latest book, The Anthropology of Magic, was tucked into my carry-on. The text was academic in flavor as well as subject matter. It had clearly been written with the new student of anthropology rather than the lay magical practitioner in mind. A more accurate title for the book might have been “Competing Theories About Magic, And What It Really Is, In Anthropology” …but that would’ve been a bit cramped on the spine.

The text introduced a number of scientists and researchers who’d spent their long, distinguished careers studying the practice of magic and shamanic techniques in tribal cultures throughout history and all over the world. Some of the names I recognized from my college days studying comparative religions, but even still I’d often felt my head swimming as I worked through Greenwood’s arguments. I’d spent the past few days reading her intense (and sometimes convoluted) discussions of the myriad competing theories of consciousness, ritual, reason and myth that have been informing and shaping the field of anthropology for the past several generations.

This book wasn’t your typical Magic 101 how-to that many Pagans enjoy. Still, it held something immensely valuable for those seeking to deepen their understanding of magical work as a spiritual practice. It would take time, and some rigorous intellectual work on the part of the reader, but it would be worth it.

As our plane taxied into place on the runway, I took a deep breath and pulled out the book, flipping through the loose pages of notes I’d taken and thinking once again about the nature of magic…

flying-dowitchers-TJ-Gehling

The central tenet that Greenwood puts forth early in her introductory chapter, and returns to often throughout the text, is that magic is not so much something you do as it is a kind of consciousness. More specifically, magic is participatory consciousness: a consciousness of participation and enchantment.

For much of the book, in fact, Greenwood’s discussion focuses on mapping out the more widely-accepted theories of magic found within the anthropological community, and then illustrating how these traditional theories fail to speak to and reflect the essence of magical consciousness.

As a social science, the field of anthropology has tended to strive for standards of rational analysis and objective observation that have served the physical sciences well and proven invaluable in collecting reliable data from controlled experiments. This approach has led many anthropologists to view magic itself as a kind of failed science, an attempt made in ignorance to control and manipulate the forces of nature, acting on false premises about patterns of relationship and causality. Many anthropologists have therefore concluded that magic is the antithesis of religion (being more concerned with manipulative power than with worship) while at the same time viewing it as merely the embarrassing progenitor of “real” science, with no more to teach and nothing of relevance to contribute to the “civilized” epistemology of more enlightened modern times. Other theorists, such as Evans-Pritchard, have argued that while belief in magic may be ignorant, it is not primitive or inherently irrational. Far from it, such social groups as the Azande function with belief systems that are perfectly rational and internally consistent, albeit founded on a few basic wrong assumptions.

What all of these theorists hold in common, Greenwood argues, is their own fundamental bias towards the objective-rational approach of modern Western science, which renders certain key aspects of magic and magical consciousness practically invisible to study and consideration. Yet the human mind and the socio-cultural community function together in ways that are often subjective, nonrational and mythological in nature. Understanding the role that magic plays for individuals and their communities requires an appreciation of these aspects of human experience that cannot easily be reduced to rational analysis or dismissed as psychological quirks.

Rather than relying solely on the model of objective experimentation and data collection exemplified in the physical sciences, Greenwood suggests that anthropologists hoping to gain insight into the workings of magical consciousness must be willing to approach the processes of magic on its own terms, and to develop epistemological models that can integrate diverse kinds of rational and nonrational, objective and subjective kinds of knowledge in ways that inform and lend perspective to both. Greenwood herself lives up to this rather intimidating demand for a new generation of anthropologists. Her eloquent accounts of her own participation in magical and shamanic rituals as part of her participatory field research are arguably some of the most engaging and intriguing parts of the text, and they serve as indispensable illustrations of theoretical concepts that might otherwise be too abstract for the reader to fully grasp.

heron-taking-flight-Donald-Ogg

As a result of her participatory approach to research, Greenwood has clearly come to appreciate certain aspects of magic and its role in society that many anthropologists have until now largely overlooked. Picking up an old debate between the two anthropologists, Lévy-Bruhl and Evans-Pritchard, she revisits the possibility that magic is indeed a kind of consciousness distinct from that of logos-based reason so celebrated in the West.

At the time Lévy-Bruhl proposed such an argument, his theory was considered implicitly racist, demeaning those of “primitive” cultures as pre-logical and lacking the reasoning faculties of more civilized peoples. In response to this misunderstanding of his idea, Evans-Pritchard took on the task of proving that such peoples as the Azande were fully rational and intelligent human beings who were not somehow lesser than their Western counterparts, but merely different. An on-going correspondence between the two researchers continued to inform and clarify Lévy-Bruhl’s original theory, however, and Greenwood returns to his suggestion that magical consciousness is, though not degenerate, certainly a unique kind of consciousness distinct from and not reducible to reason alone. (Indeed, as her discussion of the experiment in which sugar-water was labeled “poison” illustrates, modern Western academics themselves are not immune to magical consciousness, even when their rational minds insist otherwise.)

What characterizes magical consciousness, according to Greenwood’s revised hypothesis, is a particular kind of participatory awareness. While traditional Western science relies on analogical reasoning in which participation is characterized by repeatable, controllable outcomes of physical reactions in order to predict similar future results, the analogical participation of magical consciousness is subjective and experiential, informed by culturally-shared myths and shaped by a sense of nonphysical interconnection between objects or events that share metaphorical relationships.

In traditional anthropological terms, this describes sympathetic and contagion magical practices — in which the similarity of ritual acts and objects are seen as being in meaningful relationship with those things they symbolize and/or imitate. Objects or people once in contact are understood as maintaining a connection or relationship that can be used to exert influence at a distance. In Greenwood’s understanding, however, the basis for sympathetic and contagion magic is not merely inaccurate assumptions about how the physical world functions.

Instead, she proposes that these conceived patterns of relationship accurately reflect the subjective experiences of the participants in magical work. They are therefore not only valuable and valid in understanding how and why people utilize magic, but they can actually provide us with meaningful knowledge about the world, insofar as they offer us insight into the perceptions and relationships of the world as we experience it, that the normal consciousness of rational analysis cannot always discover.

Pagans and other modern magical practitioners in the West may find in Greenwood’s theory of participatory magical consciousness echoes of some popular definitions of magic among our own communities. One of the most well-known, attributed to Dion Fortune, is that “magic is the art of changing consciousness at will.” The various ritual acts described in classic anthropological texts, as well as in Greenwood’s own field research, are interpreted in her theory as the means by which individuals and social groups intentionally induce this particular altered state of magical consciousness, which renders the participant receptive to and capable of perceiving patterns of relationship and participation that are nonrational and emotional (rather than objective and analytical) in nature.

The modern Pagan approach to magical work, with its emphasis on meditation and creative visualization, is very much in keeping with this interpretation. However, in my own experience, we Pagans can be just as prone to the mistakes of an ingrained rational-scientific bias as the average anthropologists. This is why Greenwood’s work is worthy of study and contemplation not only by those entering the academic world, but for anyone who wants to challenge and deepen their approach to magical work as an integrated part of an authentic spiritual life.

Too often, even Pagans can slip into the habit of mind that approaches magic as merely an occult (i.e. hidden) alternative to mainstream science, with our focus primarily on controlling the forces and energies of nature for particular ends. As I leafed through my pages of notes jostling in my lap, trying to concentrate despite the thrumming engines of the plane as it prepared for take-off, I realized that this was exactly the mistake I had made myself.

At first I’d tried a handful of tricks to help myself adjust to the disorientation of flying, drawing from my years of Druidic practice. On the trip to Charlotte, these techniques had proved beyond useless. I’d experimented with breathing techniques meant to induce relaxation… but the result had been an overpowering, nauseating awareness of the pressurized and recirculated air of the cabin. I’d tried to remain grounded and centered, sensing the edges of my physical body and energetic field, imagining a smooth stone resting in my center as a firm point of stability and connection with the land below… yet the stone turned over and seemed to slosh in my stomach as my small, dense body rattled in my narrow seat with every wave of turbulence or dip of a wing. Magic, it seemed, had failed me.

But now, with the plane taxiing down the tarmac and anxiety slowly tightening its grip in my chest, I recalled what Greenwood had written about participation as the key to magical consciousness. She spoke of the unexpected relationships she’d experienced between far distant memories and the sensations of her immediate landscape. Of the tensions of myth and metaphor that drew these disparate events into patterns of meaning and beauty that wove an experience of interconnection with the world. This was magic, after all.

I thought back to that first evening in the hotel room, remembering the time I’d spent returning to myself and slowly ridding my body of air-sickness. The night had been stormy, and outside my window the rain danced in expanding, overlapping ripples that reflected the fluorescent lights of the city in ever-changing patterns as the water beat out a subtly complicated soft-shoe rhythm on the roofs above and the pavement far below. I’d sat watching and listening, and singing my awen, a Druidic meditative chant, until the vibration of breath in my body had released every twinge of tension.

sunset-airplane-SAM-Cheong

Remembering this experience, I squared my feet on the floor beneath the seat in front of me and did my best to sit upright and relaxed in the uncomfortable airplane. As the plane roared into movement, raging down the runway and lifting off from the ground, I closed my eyes and sang to myself, letting my awen expand and fill my awareness.

This time, I didn’t resist the experience of flight as I had before. I didn’t imagine stones or hard boundaries. I didn’t try to control the experience and the energies rushing through me. Instead, I allowed the chant to open my body up to vibration.

As I did so, I found that my physical body began to vibrate with the thrumming turbulence of the plane. In sympathetic movement, suddenly I could feel the exhilaration of flight not as something wrenching and disorienting, but as comfortable and natural: I was participating in flight with the huge machine around me.

And this experience of participation and interconnection with the world around us is perhaps the most important aspect of Greenwood’s theory. By understanding magic as a kind of consciousness that places participation at its heart, we no longer relegate magic to the realm of anti-religious power-mongering and manipulation. Instead, magic opens us up to relationship. To reverence. To an engagement with an enchanted world that plays a vital role in an earth-centered spirituality that seeks the sacred in the natural forces and landscapes in which we live our everyday lives.

Because of this heightened sense of participation, my experience of the flight north was smooth and almost pleasant. Our descent into the shimmering City of Steel just as the sun was blazing brilliantly in shades of orange and purple on the western horizon infused the journey home with a sense of breathless enchantment I will remember for a long time to come.


susan-greenwood-anthropology-magicNote: An earlier version of this book review originally appeared in Sky Earth Sea: A Journal of Practical Spirituality (Spring 2010) under the title, “Participating in Enchantment: A Reflection on Susan Greenwood’s The Anthropology of Magic


Photo Credits:
• “flysky,” by Shannon Kringen (CC) [source]
• “Flying Dowitches,” by TJ Gehling (CC) [source]
• “Water of Leith Heron Taking Flight,” by Donald Ogg (CC) [source]
• “Over the Moon,” by Dagmar Collins (CC) [source]
• Airplane at sunset, by SAM Cheong (CC) [source]

Holy Wild, Social Justice, Theology

Romancing the Flower Maid: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Anima

This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


My husband’s anima has a name like the sun, though these days she only shows herself as a quick-footed, gnome-like creature with black, star-studded owlish eyes. She lingers in the forests of his inner landscape, close to the temple that he has built for her there. During his morning meditations, he visits the temple, sometimes leaving offerings for her: a pearl from his heart, a prayer, a sip of cool water.

My animus has no one name, but goes by many. I call him the angel at the gate.

female-drawing-journal-outdoors

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a scientist. Specifically: a marine biologist. I was mesmerized by everything that lived in those dark, salty waters — from the translucent crystalline forms of microscopic protozoa to the sleek, monstrous bodies of whales. During warm summer afternoons, I would spend hours crouched on the banks of a muddy creek that ran through our neighborhood, practicing my skills as a naturalist. Making observations, taking notes, catching bugs and butterflies to sketch, collecting plant samples to take home with me, pressing them carefully between the pages of our old American Heritage dictionary.

Back then I, too, felt the subtle threat of being flattened out by the weight of definitions and labels. No one ever told me I couldn’t be a scientist because I was a girl. At least, not directly. But in all the subtle ways that society shapes us, opening some doors while discreetly closing others, my love of the natural world was slowly redirected away from the sciences and towards pursuits that were considered more appropriate for my sex. When I asked for a field notebook as a birthday gift, something rugged and sturdy and waterproof, I was given a beautiful diary with a delicately designed cover featuring flowers and kittens, more suited to stanzas of nature poetry than drawings of animal scat. My parents praised me for the creativity of my English homework and art projects, but never seemed to notice the careful, detailed work I put into my diagrams of squids and frogs for science class. My grade school friends could play with Breyer horses for hours, imagining elaborate stories inspired by Black Beauty, but they soon lost interest when I tried to recruit them to join an “endangered species club” and raise money to sponsor a manatee or an ocelot.

Over the years, I gradually lost interest in science as a potential career path. My classes were too easy, and nobody seemed to expect much from me or notice when I did well. In middle school I discovered that bringing my mom’s old college biology textbook to study hall as my “fun reading” quickly earned me a reputation for being a nerd. Factor in my boy’s haircut, thick glasses, clunky braces, and my mom’s unfortunate belief that overalls would make me look adorable… and by the time I got to high school, I had pretty much secured my reputation as an awkward tomboy brainiac.

The mysteries of being feminine presented a far bigger challenge to me than any chemistry set or geometry problem. “Acting like a girl” didn’t come all that naturally, but I earned greater praise when I succeeded, when I was delicate and charming and self-effacing rather than stubborn or out-spoken or willing to get dirt under my fingernails. I was applauded for being a team player, but subtly discouraged from pursuing activities where I would stand out in the spotlight.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that it was my competitiveness and ambition, my desire to prove myself and challenge myself — those very traits that might be considered “masculine” and unbecoming in a woman — that drove me to work so hard to be good at being a girl.

In high school, with the freedom of a new school and a chance to start over, I remade myself into the hippie-artsy-mystic-poet-girl who wore flower-print skirts and dangly earrings. But even as I remade myself, I held onto a certain disdainful defiance, embracing the feminism and social justice of the women’s movement from my mother’s generation. I once prayed to God to give me large breasts and an even larger brain, so that I could be a living challenge to the stereotype of the brainless beauty. I wanted to force the world, once and for all, to take me seriously as a woman.

tree-sketch_Steve-Loya_sm

These days our society is moving further and further from the simple conception of gender as a binary: male or female, man or woman. We are beginning to recognize that gender is complex. In the natural world, scientists continue to discover undeniable examples of how sexuality is multifaceted and fluid, from the parthenogenesis of blacktip sharks to the three distinct sexes of the midshipman toadfish. Our online lives have also freed us from strict gender norms to a certain extent — we can adopt as many different personas as we like, each with its own Facebook page. Through virtual avatars, we can be male, female, plant, animal, or mineral; we can give ourselves fairy wings or stag antlers, or use our profile pictures to make a political statement with icons and slogans. Offline, through marriage equality and LGBTQ rights initiatives, we’re making important strides towards a more open society where people are supported and honored for who they are regardless of gender identity or sexual preferences.

But we’re not there yet. Binaries have kept us trapped for a long time, defining us by what we are not or what we supposedly cannot do, rather than by who we are and what we’re really capable of. No one person was to blame for the kind of pervasive, subconscious sexism that I and many people like me experienced as kids. As an adult, I can see now how much other people’s expectations of me influenced my own beliefs about who I was and what I could become. I’m not resentful of the encouragement and support I received growing up, but I can see more clearly how that encouragement was often one-sided. Those experiences have left me with a lingering sense that certain aspects of life are off-limits; that there are places I must not go and things I must not do.

pointofnoreturn_jinterwas

Carl Jung, one of the founders of modern psychology, explored the interplay of gender in a person’s psyche through his concepts of the anima and animus. Like the shadow, the anima/animus is an aspect of ourselves that we tend to externalize as something separate and distinct from our self-identity. According to Jung, every person holds within the subconscious an archetype of the opposite sex, a symbol or image that represents an amalgamation of all the traits and qualities that we associate with the “other.” For a man, this archetype is the anima, the epitome of womanhood; for a woman, it is the animus.

As a psychologist, Jung was fascinated with how archetypes and mental processes could sometimes help us become whole, healthy individuals, and at other times prevent us from reaching that wholeness. The anima and animus are no different. They can serve as inner guides that put us in touch with the fluidity and complexity of gender within ourselves, allowing us to embody both the masculine and feminine in their myriad expressions and permutations.

But when these archetypes are ignored, repressed or denied, they can become tricksters, sabotaging our relationships with others, looming up at us as projections that we attribute to external people and events instead of seeing them as aspects of our own psyches. If we want to grapple with the cultural legacy of binary gender roles that we’ve inherited, one of our first tasks is to make friends with our inner opposites.

Since childhood, my animus has often appeared to me in dreams and meditations as the angel at the gate. The wielder of the fiery sword, barring the way to a paradise where I need not hide my nakedness. My relationship with him has long been one of forbidden love. Sometimes he is beautiful, with wings of flame and shadow that seem to flicker behind him like an after-image burned into the retina. His face is bright, framed by a tangle of hair that writhes like serpents, or climbing ivy, or tongues of fire. At other times, he appears to me as utterly ordinary. But always, he is distant, loving wisely rather than too well, careful to place duty and professionalism above desire or intimacy. His detachment is seductive in its own way, for it echoes aspects of my own lingering discomfort with my gender.

Before I began to work with my animus consciously through meditation and dreamwork, I often found him in the people I dated — men who were rational and dutiful almost to a fault, who valued my intelligence and confidence but often held me at arm’s length, seeing me as too mature for “girly” things like romance or emotional vulnerability. Yet during arguments, my animus would lock horns with the suppressed anima in my partners: when I most wanted to be taken seriously as an intelligent person, defending my position with my animus’ fiery blade of devastating logic, they would see me as their own projected trickster-anima, the dangerous wild-woman, irrational and unpredictable.

As so often happens when we are taught that who we are isn’t quite acceptable, I came to dislike those parts of myself that identified me too strongly as “female” even while I tried to embody a particular ideal of femininity projected onto me by others. For a long time, my own animus — aping the impersonal disdain I found in the culture around me — prevented me from valuing the complexity of the feminine, both in others and in myself. I resented being seen as unpredictable or irrational, and I despised depictions of idealized women in mythology who behaved in ways that portrayed them as weak-willed and vulnerable to passing whims. Although intellectually I valued the diversity and equality represented in polytheism with its many gods and goddesses, personally I found it hard to imagine a female deity worthy of worship.

No goddess provoked my resentment more than Blodeuwedd, the flower-faced maiden in Welsh mythology, who had been crafted out of blossoms by the magician-god Gwydion to be a wife for his nephew, Lleu Llaw Gyffes. Made to suit the desires of men, Blodeuwedd was the ideal woman, perfect in every way and far superior to the flawed human women whom Lleu had been forbidden to marry. She was soft, delicate, beautiful, and completely loyal. That is, until she fell in love with a brawny huntsman who came along during her husband’s absence, and together they plotted to kill Lleu and usurp his place as ruler of the land. I rolled my eyes at how typical this “feminine weakness” seemed to me, how insulting it was that she should be so fickle and easily won over by the first handsome stranger to flex a bit of muscle her way. Far from celebrating her passionate love, or admiring her youth and beauty as a maiden goddess of the spring, I couldn’t help but think of her as “part of the problem.” When Lleu took his revenge for her betrayal, transforming her into an owl and cursing her to haunt the night hated by all other birds, my sympathies were entirely on Lleu’s side. My animus, his sword blazing, stood guard with a watchful eye on the castle turrets, listening to the owl’s eerie cry, satisfied that justice had been done.

I did not come to appreciate Blodeuwedd until I came to see her as an initiator of the Self. According to Jung, when we begin the work of integrating our animus or anima, we will often be confronted by the figure of an old wise one, an elder, whose work it is to initiate us into wholeness. Although I could not connect to the young flower maiden, I found that sometimes I could hear her whispering as the owl-faced old maid of the forest. She moved on silent wings, slipping like a dark knife into the heart of the moonless night.

Young people today are so noisy, she whispered. Young people are cobbled together from bits and pieces of beautiful things. They make themselves a patchwork of expectation and desire.

Listening to this owl-faced goddess, it seemed to me that her transformation had not been a punishment at all, but a triumph.

I came to see the story of Lleu and Blodeuwedd in a new light: as a story of a young woman’s confrontation with her own animus, who was at times a husband of skill and authority, but at other times came to her as a dark and handsome stranger. I came to see how this confrontation transformed Blodeuwedd from a puppet of flower petals into a living, breathing being with a will and a life of her own.

And I saw that this ancient myth was also a story of Lleu’s transformation, with the lovely flower maiden acting, through her betrayal, as an initiator and guide to the depths of wild soul.

bird_woman_ junibears

As we work with our inner archetypes of gender and confront the power of the other as it is expressed in the animus or anima, we often discover that the strict duality of male and female begins to break down.

My husband has been working with his anima for years as a guide to wisdom and wholeness. She shows herself now not as the beautiful young maiden, but as a wizened wild thing familiar with the shadowy ways of the subconscious.

I, on the other hand, still have work to do. My animus still appears sometimes as the handsome man of unrequited longing. But I have also had dreams in which I am the one who bears the flaming sword, and I raise it above my head not as a weapon against my enemies or a defense against the unknown, but as a torch that casts its steady light to dispel the darkness. On the hilt, I can see sometimes the entwining vines of plants and androgynous figures, neither male nor female, whose nakedness speaks of the strength and courage to be found in complexity.


This piece originally appeared in SageWoman Magazine, Issue 84. (August 2013)


Photo Credits:
• Tree sketch in Moleskein, by Steve Loya (CC) [source]
• “The Bird Woman,” by June Yarham (CC) [source]
• “point of no return,” by jinterwas (CC) [source]


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com

Contemplation & Meditation, Holy Wild, Mythology & History

Romancing the Flower Maid: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Anima

My husband’s anima has a name like the sun, though these days she only shows herself as a quick-footed, gnome-like creature with black, star-studded owlish eyes. She lingers in the forests of his inner landscape, close to the temple that he has built for her there. During his morning meditations, he visits the temple, sometimes leaving offerings for her: a pearl from his heart, a prayer, a sip of cool water.

My animus has no one name, but goes by many. I call him the angel at the gate.

female-drawing-journal-outdoors

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a scientist. Specifically: a marine biologist. I was mesmerized by everything that lived in those dark, salty waters — from the translucent crystalline forms of microscopic protozoa to the sleek, monstrous bodies of whales. During warm summer afternoons, I would spend hours crouched on the banks of a muddy creek that ran through our neighborhood, practicing my skills as a naturalist. Making observations, taking notes, catching bugs and butterflies to sketch, collecting plant samples to take home with me, pressing them carefully between the pages of our old American Heritage dictionary.

Back then I, too, felt the subtle threat of being flattened out by the weight of definitions and labels. No one ever told me I couldn’t be a scientist because I was a girl. At least, not directly. But in all the subtle ways that society shapes us, opening some doors while discreetly closing others, my love of the natural world was slowly redirected away from the sciences and towards pursuits that were considered more appropriate for my sex. When I asked for a field notebook as a birthday gift, something rugged and sturdy and waterproof, I was given a beautiful diary with a delicately designed cover featuring flowers and kittens, more suited to stanzas of nature poetry than drawings of animal scat. My parents praised me for the creativity of my English homework and art projects, but never seemed to notice the careful, detailed work I put into my diagrams of squids and frogs for science class. My grade school friends could play with Breyer horses for hours, imagining elaborate stories inspired by Black Beauty, but they soon lost interest when I tried to recruit them to join an “endangered species club” and raise money to sponsor a manatee or an ocelot.

Over the years, I gradually lost interest in science as a potential career path. My classes were too easy, and nobody seemed to expect much from me or notice when I did well. In middle school I discovered that bringing my mom’s old college biology textbook to study hall as my “fun reading” quickly earned me a reputation for being a nerd. Factor in my boy’s haircut, thick glasses, clunky braces, and my mom’s unfortunate belief that overalls would make me look adorable… and by the time I got to high school, I had pretty much secured my reputation as an awkward tomboy brainiac.

The mysteries of being feminine presented a far bigger challenge to me than any chemistry set or geometry problem. “Acting like a girl” didn’t come all that naturally, but I earned greater praise when I succeeded, when I was delicate and charming and self-effacing rather than stubborn or out-spoken or willing to get dirt under my fingernails. I was applauded for being a team player, but subtly discouraged from pursuing activities where I would stand out in the spotlight.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that it was my competitiveness and ambition, my desire to prove myself and challenge myself — those very traits that might be considered “masculine” and unbecoming in a woman — that drove me to work so hard to be good at being a girl.

In high school, with the freedom of a new school and a chance to start over, I remade myself into the hippie-artsy-mystic-poet-girl who wore flower-print skirts and dangly earrings. But even as I remade myself, I held onto a certain disdainful defiance, embracing the feminism and social justice of the women’s movement from my mother’s generation. I once prayed to God to give me large breasts and an even larger brain, so that I could be a living challenge to the stereotype of the brainless beauty. I wanted to force the world, once and for all, to take me seriously as a woman.

tree-sketch_Steve-Loya_sm

These days our society is moving further and further from the simple conception of gender as a binary: male or female, man or woman. We are beginning to recognize that gender is complex. In the natural world, scientists continue to discover undeniable examples of how sexuality is multifaceted and fluid, from the parthenogenesis of blacktip sharks to the three distinct sexes of the midshipman toadfish. Our online lives have also freed us from strict gender norms to a certain extent — we can adopt as many different personas as we like, each with its own Facebook page. Through virtual avatars, we can be male, female, plant, animal, or mineral; we can give ourselves fairy wings or stag antlers, or use our profile pictures to make a political statement with icons and slogans. Offline, through marriage equality and LGBTQ rights initiatives, we’re making important strides towards a more open society where people are supported and honored for who they are regardless of gender identity or sexual preferences.

But we’re not there yet. Binaries have kept us trapped for a long time, defining us by what we are not or what we supposedly cannot do, rather than by who we are and what we’re really capable of. No one person was to blame for the kind of pervasive, subconscious sexism that I and many people like me experienced as kids. As an adult, I can see now how much other people’s expectations of me influenced my own beliefs about who I was and what I could become. I’m not resentful of the encouragement and support I received growing up, but I can see more clearly how that encouragement was often one-sided. Those experiences have left me with a lingering sense that certain aspects of life are off-limits; that there are places I must not go and things I must not do.

pointofnoreturn_jinterwas

Carl Jung, one of the founders of modern psychology, explored the interplay of gender in a person’s psyche through his concepts of the anima and animus. Like the shadow, the anima/animus is an aspect of ourselves that we tend to externalize as something separate and distinct from our self-identity. According to Jung, every person holds within the subconscious an archetype of the opposite sex, a symbol or image that represents an amalgamation of all the traits and qualities that we associate with the “other.” For a man, this archetype is the anima, the epitome of womanhood; for a woman, it is the animus.

As a psychologist, Jung was fascinated with how archetypes and mental processes could sometimes help us become whole, healthy individuals, and at other times prevent us from reaching that wholeness. The anima and animus are no different. They can serve as inner guides that put us in touch with the fluidity and complexity of gender within ourselves, allowing us to embody both the masculine and feminine in their myriad expressions and permutations.

But when these archetypes are ignored, repressed or denied, they can become tricksters, sabotaging our relationships with others, looming up at us as projections that we attribute to external people and events instead of seeing them as aspects of our own psyches. If we want to grapple with the cultural legacy of binary gender roles that we’ve inherited, one of our first tasks is to make friends with our inner opposites.

Since childhood, my animus has often appeared to me in dreams and meditations as the angel at the gate. The wielder of the fiery sword, barring the way to a paradise where I need not hide my nakedness. My relationship with him has long been one of forbidden love. Sometimes he is beautiful, with wings of flame and shadow that seem to flicker behind him like an after-image burned into the retina. His face is bright, framed by a tangle of hair that writhes like serpents, or climbing ivy, or tongues of fire. At other times, he appears to me as utterly ordinary. But always, he is distant, loving wisely rather than too well, careful to place duty and professionalism above desire or intimacy. His detachment is seductive in its own way, for it echoes aspects of my own lingering discomfort with my gender.

Before I began to work with my animus consciously through meditation and dreamwork, I often found him in the people I dated — men who were rational and dutiful almost to a fault, who valued my intelligence and confidence but often held me at arm’s length, seeing me as too mature for “girly” things like romance or emotional vulnerability. Yet during arguments, my animus would lock horns with the suppressed anima in my partners: when I most wanted to be taken seriously as an intelligent person, defending my position with my animus’ fiery blade of devastating logic, they would see me as their own projected trickster-anima, the dangerous wild-woman, irrational and unpredictable.

As so often happens when we are taught that who we are isn’t quite acceptable, I came to dislike those parts of myself that identified me too strongly as “female” even while I tried to embody a particular ideal of femininity projected onto me by others. For a long time, my own animus — aping the impersonal disdain I found in the culture around me — prevented me from valuing the complexity of the feminine, both in others and in myself. I resented being seen as unpredictable or irrational, and I despised depictions of idealized women in mythology who behaved in ways that portrayed them as weak-willed and vulnerable to passing whims. Although intellectually I valued the diversity and equality represented in polytheism with its many gods and goddesses, personally I found it hard to imagine a female deity worthy of worship.

No goddess provoked my resentment more than Blodeuwedd, the flower-faced maiden in Welsh mythology, who had been crafted out of blossoms by the magician-god Gwydion to be a wife for his nephew, Lleu Llaw Gyffes. Made to suit the desires of men, Blodeuwedd was the ideal woman, perfect in every way and far superior to the flawed human women whom Lleu had been forbidden to marry. She was soft, delicate, beautiful, and completely loyal. That is, until she fell in love with a brawny huntsman who came along during her husband’s absence, and together they plotted to kill Lleu and usurp his place as ruler of the land. I rolled my eyes at how typical this “feminine weakness” seemed to me, how insulting it was that she should be so fickle and easily won over by the first handsome stranger to flex a bit of muscle her way. Far from celebrating her passionate love, or admiring her youth and beauty as a maiden goddess of the spring, I couldn’t help but think of her as “part of the problem.” When Lleu took his revenge for her betrayal, transforming her into an owl and cursing her to haunt the night hated by all other birds, my sympathies were entirely on Lleu’s side. My animus, his sword blazing, stood guard with a watchful eye on the castle turrets, listening to the owl’s eerie cry, satisfied that justice had been done.

I did not come to appreciate Blodeuwedd until I came to see her as an initiator of the Self. According to Jung, when we begin the work of integrating our animus or anima, we will often be confronted by the figure of an old wise one, an elder, whose work it is to initiate us into wholeness. Although I could not connect to the young flower maiden, I found that sometimes I could hear her whispering as the owl-faced old maid of the forest. She moved on silent wings, slipping like a dark knife into the heart of the moonless night.

Young people today are so noisy, she whispered. Young people are cobbled together from bits and pieces of beautiful things. They make themselves a patchwork of expectation and desire.

Listening to this owl-faced goddess, it seemed to me that her transformation had not been a punishment at all, but a triumph.

I came to see the story of Lleu and Blodeuwedd in a new light: as a story of a young woman’s confrontation with her own animus, who was at times a husband of skill and authority, but at other times came to her as a dark and handsome stranger. I came to see how this confrontation transformed Blodeuwedd from a puppet of flower petals into a living, breathing being with a will and a life of her own.

And I saw that this ancient myth was also a story of Lleu’s transformation, with the lovely flower maiden acting, through her betrayal, as an initiator and guide to the depths of wild soul.

bird_woman_ junibears

As we work with our inner archetypes of gender and confront the power of the other as it is expressed in the animus or anima, we often discover that the strict duality of male and female begins to break down.

My husband has been working with his anima for years as a guide to wisdom and wholeness. She shows herself now not as the beautiful young maiden, but as a wizened wild thing familiar with the shadowy ways of the subconscious.

I, on the other hand, still have work to do. My animus still appears sometimes as the handsome man of unrequited longing. But I have also had dreams in which I am the one who bears the flaming sword, and I raise it above my head not as a weapon against my enemies or a defense against the unknown, but as a torch that casts its steady light to dispel the darkness. On the hilt, I can see sometimes the entwining vines of plants and androgynous figures, neither male nor female, whose nakedness speaks of the strength and courage to be found in complexity.


This piece originally appeared in SageWoman Magazine, Issue 84. (August 2013)


Photo Credits:
• Tree sketch in Moleskein, by Steve Loya (CC) [source]
• “The Bird Woman,” by June Yarham (CC) [source]
• “point of no return,” by jinterwas (CC) [source]

Contemplation & Meditation, Holy Wild, Theology

New Moon, Forever Maiden: Wild Worship in the Digital Age

This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


When I was little, I used to wonder what the poets compared the moon to before there were street lamps and light bulbs. Before electricity buzzed through the netting of wires strung between houses along the suburban street where I grew up, criss-crossing in thin dark lines against the dome of the sky. Evenings in late summer, when the light seemed to linger so long, I would gaze out of my bedroom window watching the horizon blush above the roofs of the neighbors’ houses. And there, just above where that great gold beast of a sun laid down to tuck its head behind the townhouses, there it was — that sliver of moon, impossibly bright, pinned among the clouds. The waxing crescent moon.

raising_moon-Andrea

What had the poets called it? A bow pulled taut. A silver sickle, wet with evening dew. The curving wings of some mighty bird riding high winds. The opening wake of sunset. The lip of a crystal cup, moonlight like a balm poured out over a dusky land. A veil slipping from the round face of a mirror.

In the windowpane, the reflection of my desk lamp hovered like a watery, round reminder of the coming dark and the persistence of the electric, the artificial, as constant as the purr of the air conditioning. As dusk fell and the world past my window grew darker, even the moon would eventually sink below the line of rooftops, and instead of the suburban night all the smudged glass would offer back was the pale reflection of my own face, half in shadow, safe inside the cool, pink sanctuary of my bedroom.

~

We live in a time of amazing opportunities and heart-wrenching tragedies, a time when many of us live daily with the humming tension between wild enthusiasm and deep cynicism. At 29 years old, I am at the upper age limit of the generation that has come to be called the Millennials. The generation that saw the century turn over into the Internet Age, the Age of Information. A generation that grew up with PCs and cell phones, instant messaging and online dating, grassroots journalism, pop-up windows, Twitter trends, lolcat memes and cyber-bullying. GeoCities, LiveJournal, MySpace, Facebook — the endless evolution of virtual space, the constant purr of news feeds and headline crawlers. Technology connects us instantly with people from all over the world, making it possible for us to exchange ideas, share inspiration and express our creativity in ways our great-grandparents could scarcely have imagined. But it can also lay us bare to some of the worst of human behavior: cruelty, ignorance, injustice and, ironically, a lingering sense of isolation amidst all the ringtones and white noise.

Women in particular face challenging contradictions in this brave new age. In a society that celebrates equality, we see before us endless opportunities to pursue our dreams. And yet in many ways, the glass ceiling seems thicker than ever, and the balancing act of gender equality forever remains a perilous one. Young women especially face dismal prospects in a struggling economy, saddled with an equal share of ballooning student debt but still burdened with persistent inequality in pay and employment opportunities. For a generation whose mothers took for granted access to birth control and family planning, we face the real possibility of seeing those options rolled back or revoked completely. Even the technologies that give us a voice — the online blogs, the websites and social media networks that help us forge communities of like-minded friends scattered across the globe — are designed and developed by engineers and computer programmers, professional fields that are still dominated almost exclusively by men despite the qualified success of education reform to close the gender gap in math and the sciences.

Like many women of my generation, I grew up believing I could do and be anything I wanted. And I wanted to write, with all my heart. I breezed through Calculus and AP Physics, bored to tears. It was the practice of poetry, the careful devotion I gave to the work of crafting secret refuges of spirit and song, that got me through my high school teen angst years fairly well intact. I blogged. I used the internet to find resources on how and where to publish, and to connect to other writers online who always had advice to share. One of those online friends introduced me to poets like Rumi and Omar Khayyám and first sparked my fascination with mysticism and the magic of the natural world, an enchantment that quickly grew into a roaring passion. In the midst of my small, conservative suburban world, a whole new universe was unfolding before my eyes.

light_through_murano_bowl-John_Lillis

By the time I graduated college with a degree in comparative religious studies, I was a valedictorian, a published poet, and a Pagan. I was also an intense, neurotic little ball of nerves that quickly spun out in graduate school before completing my degree. I found myself waiting tables on the midnight shift and living alone in the city, skirting below the poverty line and desperately lonely.

So I wrote. I lit candles and incense. I poured my heart into blog posts and half-finished novel manuscripts. I poured libations to the earth in the gravel lot behind my run-down apartment building, watching the water turn the sharp stones dark in erratic rivulets that disappeared into the dust. I oscillated between long bouts of writer’s block and periods of frenetic productivity that petered out into the ether of the huge, anonymous world-wide web. I felt trapped, claustrophobic, wild and free all at once, spinning around a center anchored firmly in devotion. Like Rumi, I was mad with the wandering moon.

I could have settled down, gotten a “real job,” some entry-level position in some office building somewhere. But I didn’t. A fierce idealism burned in me, a stubborn refusal to commit myself to work unless I could throw my soul into it. Waitressing was hard on my body, but the clatter of plates and the smell of coffee and the frantic multitasking of the after-hours rush made a kind of dance, a ritual of hunger and gratitude. I gave myself up to the mercy of the Gods of Good Tips, like a hunter laying offerings before carved images of his prey, that the fates might bring him a kill to last him through the winter. It was romantic, and naive.

That is the burden of the Maiden, the young beloved, the inexperienced youth casting herself out into the wild winds for the first time. To hold her idealism like a torch to light her way. To revel in the longing of her expectation, her potential becoming. And for all her daring, to risk being thought of as immature, foolish, sentimental, and naive. To have her parents fret that she isn’t saving for retirement, or that her tattoos might peek out above the collar of a respectable, office-appropriate blouse. It’s her task to scoff at such worries, too, because after all, cynicism is just the mask that hope wears when it ventures out at night.

ambience-jenny_downing

The Maiden is a goddess in many religious traditions. In the Catholicism of my childhood, the immaculate Mary was both Virgin and Mother. The Sunday school teacher explained to us delicately, as we sat wide-eyed and uncomprehending, that the Holy Spirit had entered into the young girl the way a ray from the sun penetrates a glass of water, without breaking it. I imagined a chalice, the smooth curve of its lip gleaming and its round belly beaded with condensation, suffused with light from within. The teacher told us how Mary had said yes.

Naive Mary. Poor, romantic, idealistic Mary, ready to throw away her social standing and her security, risking shame and ostracism, all to bear a child of God.

I think that this, too, is the burden and blessing of the Maiden: to say yes. The notion of virginity has a perplexing and complicated history. All too often, it is seen as a treasure to be hidden away, jealously safe-guarded — something that, once lost, is lost for good.

I see it differently. The purity and self-possession of the Maiden, the fierce joy that shines in her, cannot be contained, locked away. Stagnant water that does not flow soon grows cloudy and rife with gnats. The challenge that the Maiden presents to us is to remain open, porous and self-giving, willing to wander… and to do this without breaking.

But we live in a new world. The tendrils of the internet wind their way into every nook and cranny of our lives, seeping in through our computers and cell phones, even our television sets and the dashboards of our cars. Surrounded by the constant buzz and noise of the digital age, it can be hard to find a voice of our own. Demands for our time, energy and attention press in from all sides, and the urge to keep up with the pace of conversation can leave us grasping for inadequate language and flimsy metaphors. Like distracted adolescents, we can forgo a soul-felt, full-bodied YES! for the quick, clipped “Yeah. Fine. Whatever.”

To remain open, sometimes we need to craft a sanctuary for ourselves. The Maiden knows this lesson best of all, for her life is not only one of wild freedom but also limitation. She has not yet come into her full potential. She rubs up against the limits of her own self-becoming. She rides the contradiction of a wandering that remains anchored, a wildness held safe within the boundaries of innocence and sacred naivety.

Conjunction Without a Flash

As I write, the waxing crescent of the Claim Song Moon slips ever closer to the horizon in the west, trailing the sun like a little sister eager to follow in her big sister’s wake. Next month’s moon will dance through a new season, different in subtle ways, but always the same dance. I still don’t have a “real job,” one where I have to tuck in my shirt, go into the office and follow someone else’s rules. I make a living through my creative work, still the sharp-eyed, stalking hunter making my offerings to the sometimes fickle gods. I’ve learned to carve out a sacred space in which to do this work safely, using respectable language. I tell people I’m in online media production and web design. It sounds impressive. Many of the people my age I know do the same, cobbling together a resumé full of part-time work and creative side projects.

True, I haven’t lived with my parents for more than a decade. I have a husband now, which also sounds like a mature and grown-up thing to have, and I’m the stepmother to four delightful children (though I’ve always felt more like the crazy aunt). I will, through my own choice, never have children of my own, and to some that means that I will never really count as a “real woman,” either. Just a freewheeling flake who never quite got it together enough to settle down to the hard work of family life. Even in this age of opportunity and equality, there is still a stigma attached to women who choose not to have children, a belief that somehow we’ve failed, that we’ve become stuck. To some, I will forever be the maiden, naive and idealistic.

Yet we all have this Maiden in us, returning season after season like the crescent moon: the dusk-dreamer, the lover, the young creature who defends with fierce hope the belief that she can be anything she wants to be when she grows up.

In our quiet little apartment, I open up the windows and watch the moonset above the city skyline. I speak a prayer of naming, madly in love with all the things the moon might be.


This piece was originally published in SageWoman Magazine, Issue 83. (December 2012)


Photo Credits:
• “Raising Moon,” by Andrea (CC) [source]
• “Light Through Murano Bowl,” by John Lillis (CC) [source]
• “Ambience,” by Jenny Downing (CC) [source]
• “Conjunction Without a Flash,” by Distant Hill Gardens (CC) [source]


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com