Quest Cycles Applying the Hero Quest to the crises in our lives Linda S. Griggs
Some occasional thoughts and images to show what I'm up to "artistically."
January 7, 2016
Resurrecting Medusa: Reclaiming our Divine Feminine Legacy
If you studied Greek mythology in school, you probably know the story of Medusa, one of three demon monsters called Gorgons who had snakes for hair. Anyone who looked at them would instantly be turned to stone. Two of the Gorgons were immortal, but Medusa was mortal. She was therefore vulnerable to being killed by any hero brave enough and clever enough to do the deed.
Enter Perseus, hero extraordinaire. He was aided in his quest by Hermes, who gave him a sword that could not be bent or broken by the Gorgon's scales, and by Pallas Athena, who gave him a mirrored shield so he could avoid looking directly at Medusa. Perseus was also given a pair of winged sandals (so he could fly quickly to and from the Gorgons' lair), a magic cap that made him invisible, and a magic pouch that would expand to carry anything that needed to be carried (like, say, Medusa's head). Armed with these special tools and guided by Hermes and Pallas Athena, Perseus found the three Gorgons sleeping in their lair, cut off Medusa's head, and escaped before the other Gorgons knew what had happened. He gave Medusa's severed head to Pallas Athena, who attached it to her own shield and wore it from then on.
All hail Perseus. And many thanks to Hermes and Pallas Athena.
What this version of the story (which comes from Edith Hamilton's Greek Mythology, the standard on which most other tellings of the Greek myths are based) leaves out, is the mythology that preceded the Greeks: more ancient stories from the matriarchal goddess-centered cultures the Greeks overthrew.
According to Demetra George (in her extensively researched book, Mysteries of the Dark Moon), those ancient stories were changed, re-interpreted, distorted and/or erased by the patriarchal Greek conquerors. What remains are stories that glorify the Olympian gods at the expense of the powerful goddesses that held sway for thousands of years before them.
So when it came time for me to make a book using the photos I took this summer, I decided to try to illustrate the original story of Medusa, as detailed and explained by Demetra George.
That story begins with Medusa's origins, as the sister of Athena and Pallas - three goddesses who collectively made up the Libyan triple moon snake goddess, Neith.
As part of this triple goddess, Athena represented the maiden, Pallas the mother, and Medusa the crone.
Early on, Pallas and Athena were engaged in friendly combat with each other. When Zeus distracted Athena with his breast plate, she accidentally killed Pallas.
In her sorrow, Athena fashioned a breast plate containing an image of her dead sister, and took on her name, becoming known as Pallas Athena.
Meanwhile, Medusa became queen of the Gorgon Amazons,
These Gorgon sisters were beautiful golden sea goddesses, with Medusa, the most beautiful of all, pursued by many suitors.
Historically, Medusa was an African high priestess who presided over Libyan tribes of Amazon warrior women. As such, she celebrated the sexual mysteries of the Goddess and her Consort.
In the oldest tales (from 6000 BCE), she willingly took Poseidon, god of the sea, as her lover - as part of this sacred sexual ritual.
Sometime after 2000 BCE, however (after the patriarchy overthrew the matriarchal tribes), the legends tell of the "marriage" or "rape" of Queen Medusa by Poseidon.
This sexaul act enraged Pallas Athena, perhaps because it occurred in one of her temples, perhaps because she was jealous of Medusa's beauty and sexuality, perhaps because Poseidon was a bitter rival who contested her rulership of Athens.
Whatever the reason, Pallas Athena turned her sister, Medusa, and the other Gorgons into ugly hags, with "glaring eyes, huge teeth, brazen claws, and serpent locks" (Demetra Geroge). One look at them would turn any man to stone.
The interesting twist here is that, historically, priestesses in ancient moon-worshipping rituals actually wore masks called "gorgoneions" or Gorgon masks. They wore these masks to frighten away strangers and also to evoke the moon goddess herself during their secret ceremonies.
According to Demetra, these ceremonies included "divination, healing, magic, and sexual serpent mysteries associated with death and rebirth." She goes on to say, "The female face , represented by Medusa, surrounded by serpent hair, was a widely recognized symbol of divine female wisdom."
And so the stage is finally set for Perseus to come and conquer Medusa. According to Demetra, his conquest of Medusa actually represents historical events that occurred during the reign of King Perseus (whose name means "destroyer"), circa 1290 BCE.
During this period, the patriarchal Hellenes overran the chief shrines of the early moon goddesses in North Africa, stripping their priestesses of their Gorgon masks and slaying the high priestesses. According to Demetra, "This historical rupture and sociological trauma registered itself in the Perseus/Medusa myth."
When I originally read Demetra's account of the original story of Medusa's death by Perseus, I blamed Pallas Athena for aiding Perseus, and thus betraying her sister to the patriarchy. I had absolutely no sympathy for her. But as I re-read the story to create my photo book, I realized that Pallas Athena was also a victim of the patriarchy she sided with.
As Demetra points out, when Pallas Athena was elevated into the Greek pantheon, "she was forced to deny her femininity and sacrifice her sexuality, becoming a perpetually chaste virgin. She was cut off from her cyclical nature, which included renewal through sexual rites."
Demetra emphasizes that the other deal
Demetra points out that an early representation of Medusa, dating from the seventh century BCE in Boatia, depicts her as a small, slender mare-woman, with no trace of the frightful Gorgon's mask.
According to Demetra, Poseidon's rape of her in the form of a stallion tells the story of "how the first wave of Hellenes who rode large, vigorous horses, forcibly married the Amazon moon priestesses."
For Demetra, Pallas Athena's turning Medusa into a fearful demon was really "an act of compassion for her lost sisters."
By giving the Gorgon mask its deadly powers to kill attackers, Pallas Athena was actually trying to "protect the Queen and her priestesses from continuing to be defiled, degraded, and destroyed through the sexual assault of the invaders."
I love this interpretation. It both redeems Pallas Athena and resurrects Medusa and all her sacred regenerative powers. As Demetra reminds us, Athena gave a vial of Medusa's blood to Asclepius, god of healing, who used it to "heal the living and regenerate the dead." Fittingly, his daughter Hygeia, goddess of health, became the guardian of the sacred serpents in his healing temples.
Demetra encourages us to reclaim Medusa's power by "honoring the dark moon wisdom that arises from our sexuality. . . . Medusa is the source of our deep, regenerative healing power."
The next time you hear someone using Medusa's or any other goddess's name (say, Lilith, Hecate, Kali, Coatilcue, to name just a few) to denigrate women, check out the ancient sources for what that goddess really stands for. I bet you she was originally a very powerful being who was dealing with things our culture is afraid to access: the birth/life/ death/rebirth cycle, blood mysteries, sacred sexuality, death and transformation, magic, divination.
All this is our sacred legacy as women. Let's take it back.
December 8, 2015
Manifesting Ancient Bird Goddesses
It's been almost a year since I last wrote in here - more than a year since my mother died and I wrote about the two shrines I made for her. With my husband retiring this spring and me turning 65, I've been feeling more unsettled than creative. In fact, with nearly 100 shrines created in the last 10 years (all of them on display around our house, because I don't sell them), I've decided that form of creativity is no longer sustainable for me. But I have yet to find a new form.
So I was pleased this summer when my artist friend, Karen Godfrey, invited me and two other friends (Deb Wickering and Ann Willey) to make papier mache bird goddess masks with her - for a "sustainability parade" to be held at the Grand Rapids Public Museum over the Labor Day weekend.
Now, I've been studying about ancient goddesses for a good 15 years now. Did you know that Paleolithic peoples in Spain, Eurasia and Siberia created the first goddess-inspired clay figurines 40,000 years ago? Since then, archeological sites around the world have revealed thousands of artifacts depicting ancient goddesses - often as half-bird, half-woman. (For more information on archeological goddess finds, check out The Language of the Goddess by Marija Gimbutas.) Here are three examples:
The one on the right is Serbian, from the 15th century BCE. Because of her clean lines and simple decorations, I chose to try to make a mask representative of her. Karen and Deb and Ann each chose other figures they especially liked.
We started out making wire frames to which we added the papier mache, which we eventually painted. It took us 6 weeks of 2-hour weekly work sessions (plus home sessions and a couple of extra sessions towards the end) to complete our masks.
Here I am in my completed wire structure, sans any papier mache.
Can you see at least some resemblance
Here's Karen ready to fly off in her
. . . and in her almost completely papier mached frame, helping Deb attach rolled up paper arms/wings to her wire frame.
Here's Ann trooping around in the sun and woods
As you can see, it was all pretty serious business.
So the day of the parade arrived, and we all showed up in our completed costumes . . .
. . . wearing tags describing the origins of each of our bird goddesses.
We walked together in the parade, handing out fliers to anyone who showed the slightest bit of interest in our strange attire.
We were bird goddesses for a day, but it changed all of us forever, by reminding us of our ancient past:
"Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was a simple understanding that to sing at dawn
When Women Were Birds,
Something else also happened for me. After worrying that my creativity had dried up over this last year, manifesting the goddess in this way has resurrected my commitment to keep creating, but to find a new form - one that doesn't take up as much physical space as my shrines. (Uh, yes, my bird goddess mask is the largest thing I've ever made and I did manage to make a place for it in our basement tv room. But really, there's just no more room for anything else. . . .:)
My first new creative project is a book using the tree and petroglyph photos I took out West this summer - to try to redeem the much-maligned ancient, ancient moon goddess, Medusa. I'll write about that in here soon.
I know that having my creativity transformed and reborn through this mask-making venture is all part of the goddess's eternal birth/life/death/rebirth cycle.
And so, if you're still wondering why I am so drawn to continue studying and making art related to the goddess, I leave you with a final goddess image and a poem, "Circle of Stones," by Judith Duerst:
And if, in that image, you could see the Great Mother
How might your life be different?"
January 18, 2015
Two shrines have been forming on my desk since my mother died in November. One started with the shaman image a friend sent me as a condolence card, coupled with two carved Inuit pieces my mother left me. The other started with three plastic animal figures that leaped into my hand at a local book store over Christmas. While I wasn't sure about the meanings of any of the pieces, I knew they all pertained somehow to my mother.
Once I finally added my photos to the figures a week ago, the meanings became clear: both shrines would be about my mother's "crossing over" to the other side.
Here's the first one, which uses the plastic animals that presented themselves to me at the book store. I call it "Crossing Over 1: With Snake, Jaguar, Vultures, and Bat."
Front: Now, I know this looks scary. That snake in the pictograph photo has just eaten that figure's arm, and that jaguar with the big teeth is definitely coming for that sweet, vulnerable baby hippo (my mother with Alzheimers). However, as I discovered after I'd made this shrine, all the animals in it have archetypal meanings that directly relate to a quick and easy "crossing over."
Snake: Transmutation, ascension
Jaguar: Sudden transformation
Vultures: Cleansing, renewal, transformation, "death eater"
Bat: Rebirth, learning to transpose
Back: The golden Egyptian jewelry glyph of snake and eye and regal bird on the right belonged to my mother. Like the photo of the Chaco Canyon pictograph of hand, moon, and star on the left, it feels celebratory, which is how I envision things being once my mother's soul crossed over.
On top: Yes, those are my mother's ashes in the glass vial that leaped into my hands at the funeral home. Can you see the woman's face between the outstretched wings in the metal decoration? It looks like she's launching herself out of the new mud-nest at the top of the photograph. I love the implications of that!
Here's the second shrine, which uses my mother's Inuit pieces.
Front: On the bottom, the Inuit shaman is drumming to call the bear (my mother's soul) out of the protective circle of stones
The white rock crystal (desert rose selenite) behind the bear helps her to connect with past lives;
Above this, the deer kachina dances
On top: The white deer is a symbol of gentleness that clears the pathway for "all of Great Spirit's children to reach Sacred Mountain without . . . the demons of fear blocking the way."
Back: Like a transparent sun disc, my mother's soul rises up from the Valley of Death (photo at left). Climbing the shaman's ladder (twisting stick in the middle), she is reborn in a new life - like a tree dancing in the morning sun (photo at right).
God speed, Mom.
December 19, 2014
Valley of Death
Yes, it's been awhile since I made an entry here. After we took our spring sojourn to the SW, I made my usual calendars from my petroglyph and scenic photos, but was waiting for inspiration to make a photo book of my favorite shots. I knew I'd be in Death Valley in November for a bike tour my sister had talked me into, so I waited.
In the meantime, my sister and I visited my mom for my birthday the end of September. We had a good time playing cards with her and reading further in one of the books we had been reading with her over the phone since the first of the year. It was getting harder and harder to find books Mom enjoyed and could follow. One surprising hit was Charlotte's Web, whose charming illustrations never failed to elicit a giggle and some comment from her. When we moved on to A Wrinkle in Time, she asked after a couple of chapters "if these are real people, not spiders and geese and pigs." We assured her they were. "Except, of course, for Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which. We're not exactly sure what they are." She accepted our word for it and continued on, although she later commented that it wasn't her favorite book "because it wasn't realistic - with all that space travel and all." Apparently, somewhere along the way on her Alzheimer's journey, she'd lost the ability to "suspend disbelief" and just go with the creative narrative flow.
Several weeks before we left for the Death Valley bike trip, my sister and I got word from our brother that the staff at the assisted living facility had said it would soon be time to move Mom into their new "memory unit." None of us was looking forward to that - from either a logistical or an emotional standpoint. We knew there would be a huge pushback from Mom, and we would end up having to play the bad guys to make it happen. I didn't want to risk trying to fly out to do it in the middle of winter, so I convinced my sister that we should amend our plane tickets to add a side trip to Wyoming at the end of our Death Valley trip.
The day before we left for Death Valley, we got word from our brother that Mom was in the hospital, diagnosed with heart faliure. She would be in the hospital at least over the weekend, but should be back at the assisted living facility by the time we arrived. He said she was very weak and confused, adding, "I told the assisted living staff they'd have to be Nazis to try to move her now." They had agreed. So it appeared our coming visit would be more of a pep up than the forced march we'd dreaded.
So my sister and I proceeded on our 3-day Death Valley trip. With Mom's changing circumstances, however, the irony of our location was not lost on us. Rather than walking through it, we were literally biking through the 23rd Psalm's "valley of the shadow of death."
Looking over Badwater Basin (282 feet below sea level) from Dante's Peak (5,000 feet above the floor of Death Valley), felt like looking into the underworld.
The severely eroded gullies and mudstone hills of Zabriskie Point are marked by stark lines that looked like secret pathways through the underworld.
The dry "streambed" flowing through the dark and light gullies of Zabriskie Point eerily echoed "He leads me beside still waters."
Even a bent tree trunk at the Sand Dunes looked like a corpse.
The morning we were to leave from Death Valley, our brother called with the news that Mom had fallen and hit her head and was comatose. He wanted to warn us that it wasn't going to be a normal visit: "She's not going to be playing cards."
At noon, the biking group was making its last stop in Death Valley, at a well-known tourist trap called Scottie's Castle, situated on a high point, with a view of the valley. While we waited for the tour of the "castle," my sister and I hiked up a hill to a gravesite. As we stood there looking over Death Valley, we saw this:
We both understood the message the raven had come to give us:
An hour later, as the bus finally drove out of Death Valley (headed for Las Vegas where we would catch a morning flight to Wyoming, knowing this would probably be the last time we saw our mother), this is what I saw out the window:
In Las Vegas, we called our brother. He said Mom's breathing was really labored. He didn't see how she could make it through the night.
This is what we saw as we stepped outside to go to dinner:
That's the spotlight that shines up into the heavens from the Luxor hotel. Those white spots are birds, flying into and out of the beam, feeding on the swarm of moths that have been drawn to the light.
But my sister and I knew what it meant:
Six hours later, twelve hours before we were set to arrive, Mom took her last breath.
I've made my 2014 photo book. It uses my Death Valley photographs to illustrate the 4,000-year-old story of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of heaven who spent 3 days dead in the underworld with her sister, and then, just like a certain other deity whose birth we celebrate this month, arose and returned to heaven.
April 7, 2014
I've been learning about an astrological concept called "progressed lunation cycles," which an esteemed astrologer named Dane Rudhyar came up with back in the 1940's. According to Rudhyar, just as the moon cycles through 8 phases approximately every 29.5 days (i.e., new moon, crescent, first quarter, gibbous, full moon, disseminating, last quarter, balsamic, and then back to new moon), we also cycle through 8 similar "phases" approximately every 29.5 years. In the course of a 90-year life span, then, we would progress through three of these 29.5-year "progressed lunation cycles."
Just as each moon phase lasts around 3.5 days, each of the 8 phases within one of our 29.5-year cycles lasts around 3.5 years. Each phase also has a particular theme: new moon (emerge, initiate), crescent (struggle to move forward), first quarter (act, build structure), gibbous (perfect the structure), full moon (illuminate purpose), disseminating (distribute meaning), last quarter (reorient to the future), balsamic (release the old and seed the new).
(You can read more about how to figure and interpret these personal phases in Rudyhar's book, The Lunation Cycle, or in Demetra George's book, Finding Our Way Through the Dark.)
According to Rudhyar and George, as we pass through the repeating phases in each 29.5-year cycle, corresponding phases echo each other (e.g., the events of a second new moon phase would echo those of our first new moon phase 29.5 years before). And with each repetition of a given phase, we learn new, better ways to respond to events, expanding our abilities and awarenesses, spiralling our souls up through new understandings and growth.
According to this theory, depending on which 3.5-day moon phase you were born under, you will be inclined to live out a particular moon phase theme in your life. However, depending on which 3.5-year progressed lunation phase you are currently in, you may find that the current events in your life focus you on a different one of these themes. This can be a little disconcerting.
In my case, I was born under a disseminating moon phase - all about distributing meaning. I know I have been "disseminating" what I have learned throughout my life: first as a university instructor, then as a writer, workshop faciitator, and lately as an artist. I now find myself in a last quarter progressed lunation phase (all about reorienting myself to the future), wherein trying to disseminate what I've learned has not been so easy. To help me figure out how to deal with this situation, I made a shrine. I call it "Disseminating Spirals."
Front - This image of a series of doorways in an ancient ruin at Chaco Canyon, NM, suggests the brick walls I feel myself running up against in this "last quarter" phase of my life. The metal crosses at the top reinforce this idea: "Do not enter" seems to be the message I get at every turn.
Even the corn cob on top looks like a solid barrier.
Inside - The spirals of the Zuni snake offering bowl, of the painted wooden bead between the mysterious and lovely muskrat jaw bones on the left, and of the metal and ceramic beads on the right remind me of the growth spirals inherent in the progressed lunation cycle.
The tiny pictograph figure with arms outstretched on the left, coupled with the fierce Panamanian Golden Crocodile God (AD 800 - 1400) on the right remind me that - at my core - I am a disseminator.
Back - My photo of a pictograph reminds me of the joy and necessity of my being a disseminator. The spiral painted on the body of the swallow at the bottom reinforces the idea that there is always a place for my disseminating within the cycle. I just have to find a new way to do it, within the context of each new phase.
The corn cob at the top - like the strange vegetation on either side of the pictograph figure - has become a vehicle for dissemination: rather than blocking the way, it now carries the seeds of the next cycle.
And the very strange little pictograph figure on the left? I think he's waving me on: "Go for it! We need what you have to disseminate!"
There's a reason my logo contains a spiral. I thought it stood for the Hero Quest Cycle. But now I'm beginning to understand that spiral in an even larger context.
April 2, 2014
Like everyone else my age, I've been thinking a lot lately about what will become of me once my husband retires and we decide once and for all if we will move out of the house and town and life that has been ours for the last 24 years.
An article in the December 2013 Esquire (which I just got around to reading) offers an unexpectedly interesting perspective on this. It's called, "The Promise of the Second Act: It's not a reinvention. It's a reveal."
In my life, I've been blessed with at least a second, a third, and even a fourth act: starting out as a university composition and literature instructor, I morphed first into a fiction writer, then a technical writer/editor, then a marketing writer, then a creative non-fiction writer/artist/workshop leader/astrologer.
Each of these acts - except the last - came about organically, following on the previous one as I outgrew it and other opportunities presented themselves. The most recent act - which came about as I rethought my life after my breast cancer - was more difficult, requiring more of a conscious effort of personal transformation. Perhaps because of that, it has been the most meaningful, the one that has lasted the longest, the one that feels closest to my core.
To help me contemplate what my fifth act (the one that will come with retirement) might be like,
Front - The Georgia O'Keefe painting, "Blue-Headed Indian Doll," and the three metal masks above it remind me of what it feels like to reach the end of an act: there's nothing moving here; everything is at a standstill, dead.
Inside - The Georgia O'Keefe painting on the left, "Kokopelli with Snow," looks like a discarded mask: before the new act can begin, the old one must be released. What remains is the essence of self (the red pepper floating above the painting), which is carried over to the top of the right side.
My pictograph photo on the right shows one figure disintegrating while the other grows more and more distinct: the old act dying as the new act takes shape.
The forms on the bottom are the exterior and interior of a horse chestnut. I love how the spiney exterior shrinks and eventually splits open
Back - My photo of this pictograph represents what I hope will happen to me in retirement: the new self rises up, splitting into multiple selves that magnify and expand on previous selves.
Yes, that's a red pepper also rising up at the bottom, bringing the very best of my core self into this new fifth act.
It's really comforting for me to look at this shrine. So full of possibilities. Such an interesting reveal.
February 23, 2014
Ever since finishing my snapfish.com "Scarlet Ibis" photo book, I've been Googling James Hurst, trying to find his address or some other contact information, so I could send him a copy. As detailed in my last post, his short story had had such a profound effect on me, I just wanted to thank him. (After all, if any of my work had affected someone as much as his did me, I'd want to know.)
I had found his basic biographical info in multiple places online. I knew he was born in N. Carolina in 1922 (just a year before my mother), and that he'd originally studied to be an opera singer, but had decided he wasn't good enough and had become a banker instead. Somehow, in that environment, he'd managed to maintain the literary sensitivity to write a play and several short stories which were published in literary journals. "The Scarlet Ibis" first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1960, and won the "Atlantic First" award that year. From there this remarkable story went on to be included in literature anthologies across the country, which is how I encountered it in ninth grade.
Apart from a couple of authorial comments ("There are three characters in the story: the narrator, Doodle, and the setting," and "It's about the tenacity and the splendor of the human spirit."), Hurst seems to have vanished - like J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee - into the literary ether. Some sources say he now lives on a farm near where he was born; others declare he lives in Mexico City.
Because I knew he was now in his 90's, I continued my online search for him, worried that I wouldn't be able to find him before he died.
Yesterday, on a hunch, I Googled "James Hurst obituary." There were several (his is a common name, it turns out). I carefully did the math on each one, relieved that it couldn't be him. And then I found one that repeated the same biographical detail I've just given you.
James Hurst died on October 24, 2013: two weeks after his 91st birthday, 20 years to the week after I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and 3 days before I got the urgent desire to add my photos to his text in my "Scarlet Ibis" photo book.
Holding the printout of Hurst's obituary in my hands, I could have been the narrator at the end of his story:
"For a long long time, it seemed forever,
God speed, James. Thank you.
November 26, 2013
Synchronicity and "The Scarlet Ibis"
When I was in the ninth grade, our class read a remarkable short story by James Hurst, called "The Scarlet Ibis," about a boy and his physically-challenged younger brother, whom he calls Doodle. I think it may have been the first story I'd ever come across that didn't have a happy ending. As I wrote my own little stories, that revelation gave me permission to explore the darker side of things - an exploration I continue to this day through all my art.
The images Hurst created with his words have stuck with me all these years later - so much so that I recognized many of them in the photographs I took out West this summer.
Here is one of the images I saw in my camera's viewfinder at Kootenai National Forest, in Montana:
And here is the image I vaguely remembered from reading Hurst's story nearly 50 years ago:
"On the topmost branch a bird the size of a chicken, with scarlet feathers and long legs, was perched precariously. Its wings hung down loosely, and as we watched, a feather dropped away and floated slowly down through the green leaves. . . . The bird began to flutter, but the wings were uncoordinated, and amid much flopping and a spray of flying feathers, it tumbled down, bumping through the limbs of the bleeding tree and landing at our feet with a thud."
How Hurst integrates this fallen scarlet ibis into his story of the older boy's attempts "re-make" Doodle (by first teaching him to walk, and then to swim and climb trees and do everything else a normal brother would be able to do) is the stuff of great literature. (If you're interested, you can read the complete text of the story yourself on-line here.) Suffice it to say, this story had a profound effect on me way back when.
So when it came time last month to make my annual snapfish.com book using my summer photos, I knew I wanted to pin those photos onto the structure of Hurst's story (first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1960). I dug out my old copy of the story, and got to work.
Creating my book became an exercise in intuitively feeling my way through the images/emotions in the story and then selecting photographic images of mine that matched the feeling Hurst was trying to evoke - like finding Ezra Pound's (or was it T.S. Elliot's?) "objective correlative" to emotion.
Some of my favorite photos initially popped out as objective correlatives to some very key lines in the story:
"It seemed so hopeless from the beginning that it's a miracle I didn't give up. But all of us must have someone to be proud of, and Doodle was mine.
"I did not know then that pride is a wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life and death."
"They did not know that I did it for myself; that pride, whose slave I was, spoke to me louder than all their voices, and that Doodle walked only because I was ashamed of having a crippled brother."
"Once I had succeeded in teaching Doodle to walk,
"I should already have admitted defeat, but my pride wouldn't let me . . . . It was too late to turn back, for we had both wandered too far into a net of expectations and I had left no crumbs behind."
Making my way page by page through Hurst's story, I was astonished at how easily my photos - taken in 2013 in the West - fell into place to illustrate a story set in 1918 in the deep South.
You just can't ask for a better example of synchronicity than that - unless you consider the synchronous revelation that has come to me just this last week.
My original copy of "The Scarlet Ibis" exists in a literary textbook that my mother used with her ninth grade English classes from the early 1960's into the late 1980's when she retired. She gave me that book when she moved out of our house and into assisted living three years ago. It's not lost on me that if not for her gift, I might not have been able to re-discover Hurst's beautiful story.
Since September, my brother and sister and I have been trying to get my mom some occupational and physical therapy to help ensure her continued independence at her assisted living facility. Because she mostly just sits and watches tv these days, the 90-year-old muscles in her arms and legs have weakened, making walking or even getting in and out of her chair more difficult.
My mom has never been keen on exercise; when she used to golf, it was always with a golf cart. So wiggling her fingers and lifting her arms and legs on demand is not on her list of fun things to do - especially not with sweet young things who laugh and joke their way through the therapy sessions. She has already fired one set of therapists who came to her room, so my siblings and I have been trying to convince her to cooperate with another set. Whenever any of us seems to be making progress with her, we congratulate ourselves.
It occurs to me that our attempts to get our mother to do something she obviously does not enjoy, and that she may or may not ultimately be able to gain from, is not unlike what Hurst's narrator is trying to do with Doodle. How much of what we're doing is for our mother's benefit, and how much is out of our own shame at having a mother who can no longer do the things others her age can still do?
I consciously made my "Scarlet Ibis" book for myself, because I wanted my own beautiful copy of a story that had meant so much to me growing up. Unconsciously, however, I think I needed a stark reminder at this point in my life of how my own pride at being able to improve my mother's situation may indeed be "a wonderful, terrible thing."
Today I'm thinking twice about how hard I will continue to push my own will onto my mother.
August 11, 2013
Therese Rising: Contemplating Life/Death/Life with Zhang Xiaogang
A couple of years ago, I came across a tree in the SouthWest that - from one side - looked like it was dead, but - from the other side - looked like it was dancing, vibrant with life.
and "Dancing" side
Bowled over by this incredible depiction of the life/death/life cycle, I knew my photos of this tree needed to be "enshrined." So I added some figures plus a dead branch I'd found on a walk and titled the resulting shrine "Contemplating Life/Death/Life."
Then I ran across a newspaper article about a Chinese artist, Zhang Xiaogang, and his triptych, called "Forever Lasting Love." I didn't quite understand the relationship between his title and the three paintings (with their stark images of emaciated people and bodies in graves), but their colors and aesthetic seemed to have something to do with my shrine, so I added them to it.
Here's how "Contemplating Life/Death/Life with Zhang Xiaogang" turned out:
Two weeks ago, out of the blue, I learned that a very dear friend and thriving fellow breast cancer survivor - Therese Rasch - had had a massive stroke. Therese had attended our first workshop more than 10 years ago as well as several after that. Over the years, she had continued to visit me and my workshop co-facilitator and artist friend, Karen Godfrey, to make and discuss art and her personal hero quest. I'd last seen her in March and had just been thinking earlier that week that I should give her a call to see about getting together.
For the next few days, the entries her family posted on the hospital Carepages told us that, because MRIs showed the stroke had destroyed the left hemisphere of her brain, her 20-something daughters had made the impossibly hard decision to take her off life support, and - according to her wishes - donate her organs.
Reading through hundreds of Carepages comments on this shockingly sad news, I knew I needed to make a shrine to work through my own grief at Therese's untimely death. Individual pieces for a shrine about this vibrant, life-loving 52-year-old woman came together very quickly, but it took me a week to actually make the shrine.
Among those pieces were pictures I'd taken of Therese and her art over the years; three small buttons made from paintings by our mutual artist friend, Ann Willey; two brass plates depicting scenes from Biblical passages; a small Egyptian sarcophagus and a couple of earrings that reminded me of tears; an icon card depicting Mary and the archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation; a piece of lake-smoothed burnt wood and half an empty oyster shell; and more copies of Zhang Xiaogang's three paintings, which I still didn't fully understand, but which I nonetheless knew had to be part of this new shrine.
More than a week after the deeply moving Celebration of Life her family put on for her hundreds of friends - consisting of photo collages and collections of objects representing their happiest memories of the many facets of her so-well-lived but far-too-short life - here's how my shrine turned out:
It took me several more days to understand why the pieces that came together in this shrine had to be there.
At the bottom of the shrine, the Annunciation card represents what I envision happened to Therese: an angel came down and told her it was time to leave this life. On either side of that card, the blackened piece of wood and the shell represent her corporeal body, which her spirit subsequently left behind.
Above that, the Egyptian sarcophagus and the "tears" represent her family's and friends' response to her very sudden, completely unexpected, and way-too-early death. The brass plates on either side of that depict 1) the Luke 5:25 story of Jesus telling a paralyzed man, "Rise, take up your bed and go home," and the man doing just that, and 2) the story of Daniel being protected in the lion's den by a guardian angel. For me, these two Biblical stories represent 1) what friends and family wished could happen, and 2) what has happened: Therese's soul is being protected from above in its journey to the next world.
Like the life/death/life tree I'd photographed in the SouthWest, Therese's passing from this life to the next involved her first being "dead in life" (from the stroke) and then "alive in death" (through her organ donation). The figures in Zhang Xiaogang's triptych seem to be contemplating that mystery as well as asserting the everlasting nature of the love Therese left in this world, and which she takes with her into the next.
The Ann Willey art buttons at the top of the shrine (a bird whispering into a girl's ear; a sad girl holding a raven; a girl holding fresh flowers) echo what is depicted below them: the angel whispering it was time to leave; the sadness we all felt at that leaving; and the new life Therese's soul has entered into.
I ended up titling this shrine "Therese Rising." Because I know that is what she is doing.
June 19, 2013
Resurrecting the Past
My family - Christmas 1970
Since my last entry in February, I've been making more photo books from my dad's old slides - for my mom's 90th birthday last month. As was the case last fall when I first started working with my dad's slides, one planned book turned into three: one about my mom's relatives and our rendezvous with them over the years; one about my mom's and dad's travels; and the one I originally set out to make, called "The Wonder Years," about our nuclear family from 1966 to 1974, when my brother and sister and I were in high school through when we all married and left home.
I've done this in an attempt to resurrect memories for my mother, who is slowly losing her memory to Alzheimer's. But what I've discovered in making these photo books is that I'm also resurrecting memories for myself and my siblings. The opening picture, for instance, from Christmas 1970, shows my family in a nuclear hug that I love (that's me in the middle reaching around my mother and brother), but that I can barely remember.
The "Wonder Years" book, especially, is full of such pictures: pictures of me and my siblings and my parents messing around, being silly, enjoying each other - at occasions I now only have vague recollections of.
Take, for example, this picture of my sister, my new sister-in-law, and me striking "sexy" poses in the backyard in the summer of 1970. I remember the floppy hat I was wearing, but I do not remember the posing.
Before I made this book, if you'd asked me how I remembered my highschool and college years, I probably would've focused on my classes, my friends, the guys I was dating (or not dating) at the time. The last thing I would've mentioned would have been my family.
The event I do remember in association with Christmas 1970, for instance, was this:
my future husband coming to meet my family.
Now, looking back at those "Wonder Years" through the lens of the photo book, what I see resurrected is what was going on in the background of my life, what I took for granted, what I would have forgotten if not for these photos.
In making the "Wonder Years" photo book, what I'm really doing is resurrecting the nuclear family that, over the years, has been dissipated into four separate units (my mom's and dad's, my brother's, my sister's, and mine). I'm resurrecting a simple, solid, loving nuclear family that I'd almost forgotten I had.
Wonder Years, indeed.
February 6, 2013
"Come and play with me," proposed the little prince. "I am so unhappy."
"I cannot play with you," the fox said. "I am not tamed." . . .
"What does that mean - 'tame'?" asked the little prince.
"It is an act too often negelcted," said the fox. "It means to establish ties."
" 'To establish ties'?"
"Just that," said the fox. "To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy
The fox gazed at the little prince for a long time.
"Please - tame me!" he said.
Antoine de Saint Exupery, The Little Prince
These lines were part of a much longer reading from The Little Prince that my husband and I used in our wedding ceremony forty years ago. Our vows also came from what the little prince learned from the fox:
"I am responsible, forever, for what I have tamed."
When a couple of cards recently positioned themselves beside each other on my desk, I knew it was time to make a shrine about this taming business.
I call it "Fox Medicine: Uniting the Eagle and Raven Clan."
Here's the front of the shrine.
The main graphic elements are the two cards: "Wolf Medicine" by M.A. Belle (above, left) and "Little Fox" by my artist friend Ann Willey (below, right).
The contrast between the two cards suggests the difference between being "untamed" and "tamed." This contrast is underscored by the figures of the snarling wolverine (and the equally fierce and war-like petroglyphs behind him) and the much less aggressive arctic fox (and the idyllic "fox box" to the left of him).
What I didn't realize until after I'd finished the shrine was how the arctic fox figure also echoes the color and shape of the wolf on the Wolf Medicine card. So it seems that Fox Medicine (taming and also keeping the family together and safe) must somehow come out of Wolf Medicine (teaching and sharing wisdom and also being loyal for life).
Meanwhile, I had laid out two copper Native American bird figures to use on the top of the shrine, without really knowing why - other than that one looked sort of wild and the other sort of tamed. And then - out of the blue - my husband gave me a set of earrings depicting the two main clans of the Haida and Tlingit Native American tribes: the Eagle and Raven clans. The accompanying card explained that because members of the same clan cannot marry, marriages typically signify the joining of Eagle to Raven. "Designs linking Eagle and Raven are popular," the note went on to say, "in bracelets and rings given as gifts between couples of these clans."
I looked more closely at my copper birds: Eagle and Raven!
I've known since my diagnosis that Raven Medicine (as described by Jamie Sams and David Carson in Medicine Cards) was the key to my healing: "messenger of the void, magic of the darkness, walking with the Great Mystery, change in consciousness that will bring about a new reality and dispel 'dis-ease.' "
So I looked up Eagle Medicine: "power of Great Spirit, mental plane, higher mind, freedom of the skies." I realized I couldn't have written a better description of my husband if I'd tried.
This serendipitous additional reference to our marriage made the alchemy card I had selected for the back of the shrine seem all the more appropriate:
The alchemical joining of male and female into one being seemed like the perfect image of how taming/marriage works. I also liked how the petroglyph figures echoed the card's concept and designs.
But the longer I sat with the completed shrine the less I liked this back side. Aesthetically it just wasn't satisfying. And for all its depiction of harmony and balance, it actually seemed disharmonious and very off balance.
So I peeled off the alchemy card and the petroglyphs and started again. Here's the new back of the shrine:
The main element here is my photograph of a 2,000-year-old Bristlecone Pine Tree. It's much more balanced, aesthetically pleasing, and interesting than the alchemy card.
But beyond that, I think this new back also does a much better job showing what the alchemical union feels like. I especially love the way the petroglyphs' shapes are integrated into the ancient tree's curving, twisting and entwined trunk, roots, and branches.
Once again, I'm amazed at how what I started out to depict in a shrine (in this case, what taming looks/feels like) somehow morphs into something bigger and more profound by the time I finish it: specifically, how taming/marriage brings together different, sometimes opposing, but also complementary strengths - to create something new, something more solid, powerful, interesting and long-lasting than either of you could ever be alone.
If I hadn't made this shrine, would I really understand that?
January 16, 2013
Finding and Following the Thread
"There's a thread you follow. It goes among
William Stratford, "The Way It Is"
My writer friend Annie White sent me an article with that line in it back in November. At that time, I was trying to figure out how to organize the 100s of photos I'd gathered for my "first forty years" book about my husband and me. I knew I didn't want to do a straight chronology: "In 1972 we did this; in 1973 it was this. . . ." But I hadn't yet figured out a way to avoid that deadly dull structure.
The article itself was about "living organically, letting go of long-term plans, and stepping into each moment from a place of deep listening, unfolding, ripening."
So I stepped back from the book project and allowed myself to not know for a while longer. My college roommate had recently returned a stack of letters I'd written her way back when (yes, she'd had them stashed away all those years - even as I have hers stashed away around here somewhere), so I gave myself a couple of days to read through them. While I was at it, I opened up a box of notes and letters my husband and I had written each other before we were married. It occurred to me that I might find some relevant lines in these correspondences that I could incorporate into the book.
I found some relevant lines, all right, but they weren't written by me or my husband. Instead, they were quotations from our favorite books, poems, movies, and music - quotations that we both loved so well that they had become short-hand for our deepest feelings.
These lines became the threads that I followed to organize the book. And now that the book is finished, I realize that those lines are also the threads that we've been unconsciously following throughout our life together.
A few examples:
I organized a series of photos of my husband cooking around some lines from a poem by Carl Sandburg that wonders if love might be a cabbage:
"A good sweet cabbage . . .
"Little Word, Little White Bird"
Cooking breakfast - 2011.
For a series of photos of us goofing around being silly, I used more lines from that same Sandburg poem, about how love might be "goofer dust":
Pretending to eat a dead chicken - 1981.
Pretending to eat a dead fish - 1991.
A haiku by Kobayashi Issa introduces a couple of pages of photos of us climbing:
Climbing in Colorado - 1981.
Climbing in Wyoming - 2010.
Some lines from a very strange short story by W.S. Merwin help explain what we're doing with a couple of split rocks we came across in our hiking:
"One day my friend Tergvinder brought a large round boulder into his livingroom. . . .
Communing with a split rock - 1980.
Communing with a bigger split rock - 2010.
When I tell friends about the "first forty years" book, they ask if I got any surprising revelations or insights from making it.
Nothing surprising, really. Although we certainly look different than we did forty years ago, we're still essentially doing the same things, still laughing at the same things, still awed by the same things.
At our cores, we are still the same people we were way back when.
Our essential core selves - 1984 and 2007
Here's hoping that will serve us well as we head into the next forty years.
January 15, 2013
While I was making the two photo books described in my January 12 entry, it occurred to me that there was a third book that wanted/needed to be made: one focused on us from 1974 to 1978, during my husband's U.S. Army service in Germany.
So I created a file of photos of us from just that period:
Me and our VW in front of our German landlords' house. We lived in the one-bedroom upstairs apartment.
My husband with our landlady and her children
After I'd gathered up all these photos of us, I noticed that they weren't nearly as interesting as the ones that had surrounded them - of our landlords' and neighbors' daily activities, of town celebrations, of town landmarks, of the lovely fields and woods and hills just outside of town. Once I pulled those photos out and put them all together, I realized I had a picture of what we'd loved most about this time in our lives: our very simple, grounded life in the idyllic farming village of MarktBergel.
So I made a different book - one focused on MarktBergel and its most interesting residents.
The chimney sweep who showed up to do his thing
Spring view from our balcony: an old woman pulling a cart across a field where crops changed with the seasons.
I sent a copy of my book as a gift to our German landlords (with whom we've stayed in touch all these years - thanks to their patience with my rudimentary, ungrammatically correct but seemingly understandable German). I expected them to be surprised and pleased, to maybe wonder why we'd taken pictures of the ordinary people and mundane things we did. But I was completely unprepared for their over-the-top outpouring of thanks.
It seems that the vision of MarktBergel presented in my book now only exists in my book. Not only are the old people gone (of course), but so are their old ways, and the old scenes we found them in. Our landlords say the field across from their house now has 5 single-family houses on it, and many of the old fachwerk buildings in town have been torn down to make way for new construction.
Our landlords say the friends and neighbors they've shared the book with are "very moved" by it, while their two granddaughters, aged 16 and 18, exclaim at the "strangeness" of it all. Their oldest daughter (who was 8 when we arrived in 1974) also wrote to us, saying she remembers much of what is in the book, and that she read it through "thankful tears."
Looking through the MarktBergel book transports my husband and me back in time. Despite what our landlords have told us about how it's all changed, in our minds, everything is still the way it was when we lived there.
Looking through the book is a different experience for our landlords and their family and friends. Because they are surrounded by what now is, they know they are looking at ghosts.
January 12, 2013
Photographs and Memory
Summitting Gannett Peak, 1979 - Wyoming's highest mountain
Since August, I've been engaged in a major stroll down memory lane, occasioned by my husband's and my fortieth wedding anniversary. To mark this milestone, I decided to make a snapfish.com photo book of our "first forty years."
This necessitated going back through 100s and 100s of our old photographs, housed in dozens of our old photo albums, as well as 100s of digitized slides taken by my dad and my brother in the 70s and 80s.
Going through all those old photos, I expected that I'd find (in addition to photos like the one above of events which we both remember well and love) photos of events I barely remember - especially among my dad's and brother's digitized slides. This is exactly what happened.
While I smile remembering both of these events from 1973, I did not know that a photo existed of the second. So finding my brother's photo of us on our first camping trip was a wonderfully unexpected gift - one that "made real" what for the last 40 years had only been a very vague memory.
On the other hand, finding this third photo - also taken by my brother - was rather disconcerting. Not only is this photo one I never knew existed, I have no memory of the occasion on which it was taken. I recognize where it was taken (in our first apartment) and when (sometime during the first 2 years of our marriage), even the clothes my husband and I are wearing, but I cannot remember anything about my brother's visit.
So coming across this photo was really sort of disturbing. It gave me a clue about how my mom must feel when we show her a picture from her past and she can't remember anything about it.
Here's another photo that is even more disturbing, because it came out of one of our own photo albums. I remember where it was taken (Belgium) and when (during a weekend trip we took up there during the 4 years we lived in Germany in the 70s), but I cannot for the life of me remember how that monkey came to be sitting on my shoulder. But the photo says it happened, and so I've come to believe it must be true.
While working on our photo book, I took a slight detour to also make a book for my mother about the three trips she and my dad made to visit us while we were in Germany.
I gave my mom her book when I visited her in November.
While I know she was pleased with my efforts as well as the book itself, I'm not sure if her Alzheimer's-altered mind really remembered that she had made those trips to Germany, let alone many of the activities pictured in the book.
However, my mom has had this picture I took of my dad in Rothenburg, Germany on display in her home since he died in 1989. I have no idea if she remembers where it was taken.
Of course, I included it in her Germany book.
When I called my mom recently, she asked if she'd thanked me for "the book you made me about the way we were." I assured her that she had, and that I'd enjoyed making it. She thanked me again and then added, "I look at the pictures of your dad and think, 'Wasn't that fun!' "
It occurs to me that because she recognizes the one picture of my dad, she has come to believe in the reality of the other photos from those trips - taking it on faith (as I do with the monkey photo) that she was part of those activities, even without any specific memories of them.
My friend Karen Godfrey says she read something somewhere about how all our memories are floating around out there in another world, so nothing is ever really lost. I like that a lot. It means both my mother and I can access the happiness that's apparent in photos whose specific memories we can't quite locate anymore.
October 8, 2012
A month ago, after writing my last artlog entry, it occurred to me that perhaps there was something I could do for my Alzheimer's-declining mother. Perhaps I could ask one of her old friends - a very practical, intelligent, good humored, warm-hearted, patient and compassionate woman who had accompanied my mother on a plane trip out to my niece's wedding several years ago - to drop by occasionally and do what I would do if I were visiting: talk to my mother, read with her, watch a DVD with her, take her out to the common area of the assisted living facility for popcorn or icecream, take her to church or out to lunch.
I discussed all this with my siblings. They were variously unenthusiastic: "Mom's comfortable with things the way they are. She likes being alone. . . . She doesn't know the friends that do drop in. . . . It will just agitate her. . . . If she doesn't respond well to this woman, how will we tell her to stop coming?. . . . We need to just accept where Mom's at and quit pushing for more."
I finally convinced them to let me contact her old friend: "What's the worst that can happen? She gets a couple of visits from someone she used to like. If it doesn't work, we'll stop."
So I wrote to the old friend. She wrote right back, saying she was doing essentially the same thing I'd described for a couple other friends, and didn't feel she could take on another similar obligation. But she promised she would stop in to see my mother sometime and then report back to us on how it went.
So I backed off, took my hands off the project, let it go.
Meanwhile, I had some artifacts lying around on my desk. They started forming themselves into a minishrine.
Front: The central bird goddess is a paper clay figure I'd just made. I hadn't gotten around to painting her yet. The turtle and lizard dishes I had bought in the SW when we were there this spring. Their stark whiteness and simple lines seemed to go with those of the bird goddess, so I put them all in a box. When I read about their symbolic meanings, I was floored by how they applied to me and the current situation.
Dancing Bird Goddess: you are a fearless and courageous technician of magic who can transform reality, finding keys to unlock closed doors.
Lizard: imagination - door to all new idea and creations.
Turtle: to give back to the mother as she has given to us.
I pulled out a SW tarot deck and chose cards whose images seemed related to the three figures I'd already put together. I put those cards on the inside and outside surfaces of the box. Again, I was floored by the relevance of the meanings of those cards - to the old friend I'd contacted as well as to me having contacted her:
Queen of Water: (figure on inside left panel) warm-hearted and fair person, good friend and mother, practical, honest, loving and intelligent, gift of vision.
Four of Water: (lizard/turtle figures on outside right panel)
Strength: courage, conviction, energy, defiance, action, confidence, zeal, accomplishment.
Magician: originality, creativity, imagination, spontaneity, self-confidence, ingenuity, flexibility, self-control, masterfulness.
Page of Water: (right inside panel) reflective, meditative, loyal, willingness to offer services and efforts toward a specific goal, helpful person.
I set the minishrine up on my desk, and have been meditating on it all month.
This weekend my mother's old friend wrote that she had finally visited my mother, that they'd had a great time "cussing and discussing the political situation" and talking about old friends. As she left, she'd asked my mother if she'd like to go to the grocery store with her the next time she went, and my mother said yes.
When I called my mother this weekend I asked her if anyone had visited. "Oh yes - oh what's her name? You don't know her, but I've known her for years." I suggested her friend's name. "Yes!! She just called up out of the blue and asked if I'd like company. It was very nice. We talked about old friends. She stayed about an hour."
I'm looking at my minishrine as I write this - thanking, thanking, thanking the Dancing Bird Goddess, Turtle, Lizard, Strength, and Magician for empowering me to take charge, and for helping me find my mother's wonderful old friend: the Four and the Queen and the Page of Water. . . .
September 3, 2012
Ode to Alzheimer's
My mother has Alzheimer's.
It's been eating away at her brain for the last several years. She's been in an assisted living facility out in Wyoming for the last year and a half. She still has a sense of humor, still knows who all of us kids are and enjoys seeing and hearing from us, still tries to keep up on the news through CNN and her local paper, but she's no longer sure how to use her computer, her DVD player, her phone, her radio.
My mother used to be an English teacher, used to write short stories and direct plays, give wild creative parties where everyone dressed up like lords and ladies or took turns reciting poetry. She used to play Bridge (very well) and golf (not so well, but she enjoyed getting out with friends to chase the ball around the course). She used to be quite the social butterfly.
Her old friends don't drop by so often anymore, because sometimes she doesn't recognize them or remember their names. I made a book for her last year with some of her old short stories and poems matched to old family photos. I'm not sure she recognizes who's in all the pictures, including the ones of herself.
It's hard for us kids to watch her mental decline. To help me come to grips with it, I've made several shrines. Here's one:
The little Buddha box on top was made by Karen Godfrey. The quotation she put on it reads: "There are no words for the space I enter." That seems to me to be a perfect description of where my mother is at these days.
The skeleton to the left sorta speaks for himself.
The collage/painting in the middle is one I made a year ago to express the dissolution I feel my mother going through.
Here's the back of the shrine:
The collage/painting is mine, showing how people are becoming shadows for my mom these days, and also maybe how her family members who have already passed on are waiting for her.
Making these shrines doesn't help my mother. But it helps me.
August 13, 2012
When we take long road trips, my husband and I both enjoy listening to CDs by Clarissa Pinkola Estés (that wonderful Jungian analyst/storyteller of Women Who Run with the Wolves fame - about whom you can read more under the "Resources" tab on my Bio and Contact page). This year's Clarissa selection for our three-week trip out West was a gift from my spirit guide artist/writer friend, AnnaMarie White: The Dangerous Old Woman: Myths and Stories of the Wise Woman Archetype.
Among the notes I was able to scribble down from this CD are these:
Be first, last, best, only.
Ask only, "Where am I needed?"
Mountains are raised by earthquakes. Anything that's worth anything comes from cataclysm.
You have a responsibility to leave behind a map/legacy for others.
You are as you were born.
Eccentricity is the beginning of giftedness.
I especially love that last line, which Clarissa repeats several times and then expands on, saying that anything you have ever been teased for, criticised for, made fun of for, berated for, put down for, ridiculed for, ostracized for, made to feel small for, etc., etc., etc. is actually your gift, your uniqueness. It is what you are here to BE/DO.
Let's say it one more time: Eccentricity is the beginning of giftedness.
Half way through our trip, in a museum gift shop, I know that line was playing in my head when I came across shelves and shelves full of the most amazingly bizarre dinosaur toys I'd ever seen. One after another they leaped into my hands: tall ones, short and stocky ones, spikey ones, horned ones, sleak ones, feathered ones, crazy colored ones. I narrowed my selection down to just four by the time I got to the check out counter, nodding yes when the clerk said, "Somebody's gonna be pleased with this gift!"
Lady, you don't know the half of it. . . .
So here's the shrine I just finished using those wonderful dinosaurs (two of whom I painted red to better tell the story, adding in a couple of tapirs who leaped into my hand at an airport gift shop at the beginning of the trip) to illustrate Clarissa's wise, wise saying:
Front (the story goes from bottom to top):
Bottom: The boringly black and white tapirs hem in the oddball red "eccentric." The photograph is one I took last year in a cave at Arches, UT. The light at the upper left hand corner is the escape hatch - where the little red "eccentric" needs to go.
Top: What following the escape hatch light leads to: other "eccentrics" to hang out with.
Bottom: Those stodgy old tapirs
Top: Once the odd little red guy finally finds the ones who "get" him, he can reveal his sharp teeth and claws (his gifts!!) - and turn over his cowry shells to reveal their equally spikey undersides.
I love how these dinosaurs - who look so fierce by themselves - look as if they're laughing and playing when you put them all together.
Back: This photo is another one I took last year at Arches - of a spikey tree outside the cave.
I love how well defined the tree's branches are against the two-toned rock wall,
This is what owning your eccentricity/giftedness feels like.
I know a lot of people think my shrine-making is weird and eccentric and just too, too odd. And I know most people don't understand why I take (and love) these strange photographs, or how I can possibly see the things I see in them or in the peculiar little figures I use in my shrines.
This back panel shows how I feel whenever I make another shrine (especially one that uses my photographs) and then post it here.
July 30, 2012
Plutonian Transformation Shrine
It's been a while since a shrine formed itself on my desk. That's how they usually start out: as pieces of this and that collected here and there, set up on my desk to contemplate as I go about my daily activities. Some things sit there unmoved for years. Others group themselves up after a couple of weeks or months and I know there's a shrine taking form.
May was the last time a couple of mini-shrines formed.
Then a couple of weeks ago, Karen Godfrey and I made and painted paper clay figures based on some clay figurines from A.D. 1100 - 1200 that my husband and I saw in a pre-historic museum in Utah.
My unpainted clay figures.
My painted clay figures - the "baby" one on the right is resting on a cow vertebra I found out in Utah while we were searching for petroglyphs.
Yes, they are weird, especially the "baby" one. I figured they'd end up in a shrine someday, but had no idea how.
Then I put the red figure in a box with a Bryce Canyon photo I'd taken last year, one that ended up in the center of my book, Hero Quest: Into the Abyss:
Something powerful seemed to be happening, but I wasn't sure what it was yet.
The red figure sat in the box with the photo of the white figure for a week or so, during which time I showed it to a couple of friends, including one whose family member had recently been diagnosed with cancer. I had xeroxed off a chapter for her from a book (Making the Gods Work for You, by one of my favorite astrologers, Caroline Casey) about Pluto, god of the UnderWorld, and the three phases of transformation that he always brings to crises. As I directed her to the part of the xerox that told the story of Inanna (Sumerian Queen of Heaven) descending to the UnderWorld to see her sister, Erishkegal (Queen of the UnderWorld), it dawned on me that my red and white figures perfectly illustrated that very scary sisterly meeting - in which Inanna is stripped naked and "hung as a corpse in the land of the dead."
Later, as I re-read the whole Pluto chapter, I realized that - with the addition of some more photos from my Hero Quest book, and some petroglyph clay figures - I could illustrate all three phases of the Plutonian transformation cycle that Casey describes. (That cycle, I might add, echoes the Hero Quest cycle that is such an important part of this website.)
So here is the finished shrine, with quotations from Caroline Casey included as part of each section:
"Phase one: disruption of the outer world.
Brings you to your knees.
"Phase two: descent into the Underworld, not knowing.
Only by diving into unfamiliar depths can we tap inner resources."
"Anyone who was anyone in the ancient mythological world had to do a tour of duty in the Underworld."
"Phase three: surge of authenticity
And on top, the biggest surprise of all,
"Only after we've made it out, do we know how it has changed us, what we have shed and left behind,
Jean Shinoda Bolen, Crossing to Avalon
July 7, 2012
Non-people vacation photos
I just finished sorting and editing and sizing and cropping and labelling and printing out rough draft copies of the more than 1,000 digital photos I took last month on our 3-week vacation to the West. It has taken me the better part of a month to complete this tedious task. I've undertaken this task for the last several years, after each of our sojourns to the West. Until I've done this, I really don't know what I "saw" on my journey. I always discover images I don't remember taking, or am amazed at how well certain photos turned out.
In addition to the many, many photos of ancient rock art, there are a number of photos of my husband and me in this very large file, and also many of our FJ Cruiser "Boomer" doing his valiant thing to get us to all the remote places we wanted to go. However, the vast majority of my vacation photos are "scenic."
We used to make fun of my dad for taking mostly scenic shots. Twenty years after his death, we found a couple of closets full of carousels of vacation slides he had taken over the years - slides we'd never seen, and that I doubt he had ever viewed once he put them in the carousel, waiting for the day (which never came, of course) when he would set up the slide projector and the screen and turn out the lights and give a "slideshow" for family and friends.
After converting all these slides to digital images for the rest of the family to finally see, my nephew commented that he was disappointed there weren't more "people photos." Instead, there were scores of carefully composed photos of haystacks marching up a mountain in the Swiss Alps, narrow cobblestone streets in Germany, archwork in the domes of medieval churches in Italy.
I'm starting to understand where my dad's focus was with his vacation photos, because I have inherited his focus.
We are making art.
We don't want a photo of the Grand Canyon or Old Faithful; we want a photo of something no one else would even have noticed. And then we want to make an image of that something at an odd angle, with strange lighting or including some extra little detail to accent the strangeness of it.
Sometimes it comes out the way we envisioned; sometimes it doesn't. And if we're lucky, sometimes it comes out incredibly better than we had hoped.
Here are a few of my "lucky" vacation photos:
Tree dancing in the sunlight
Lava swirls at
Bristlecone Pine tree
Tree and rock formation at
"Lizard" tree stump
Like my dad, I used to fill photo albums with shots like this, and then never look at them again. I stopped taking photos for a long time, because of the obvious waste of money and storage space. But as I've come to understand the reason I'm obsessed with taking these kinds of photos, I've started honoring these "artistic" shots by using them in my shrines - and by making calendars and books out of them.
Now nearly every room in our house has one of my scenic calendars hanging in it, and our coffee table is home to a growing stack of my photo books. (Among them, Hero Quest: Into the Abyss.)
I wish my dad could see them.
June 25, 2012
Left and right brain"rock art"
We just got back from a wonderful couple of weeks out West, tracking down
These two examples show two distinct styles.
This petroglyph is located in Utah, at a gap in the mountains called Parowan Gap. The V-shaped "zipper" design (along with many, many other geometric designs at this site) is thought to be part of an elaborate calendar system that tracks the sun's annual movement up and down the mountain gap.
This pictograph is from Buckhorn Wash, UT. Although no one is exactly sure whether the figures are shaman or gods, they definitely seem to exist for more of a sacred than a "practical" purpose.
While I admire the ingenious precision of the calendar petroglyphs, I am much more moved by the imaginative art of the pictographs. I assumed this more artistic work was the product of more "advanced" peoples.
The calendar design is actually the more "modern" of the two: while it was pecked sometime between AD 500 and 1200, the shamanic figures were painted between 8500 and 2000 BC.
Knowing that this "right brain" art work is so much older than the "left brain" calendar system, reinforces for me the importance of "making art" as a way to tap into our essential human nature.
Here are a couple more "primitive" rock paintings, from a place called Head of Sinbad:
What I love about these pictographs is that they are perfectly aligned in the space around the branches of a cedar tree standing in front of them.
(See the first set between the two trunks in the middle, and the second set to left of the lower branches of the tree?)
Was that tree there 4,000 years ago? Probably not. But what an exquisite frame for the universe to have created, to accent that ancient artist's intuitively perfect positioning of the two pictographs.
May 25, 2012
The opening reception for Festival of the Arts was this evening. I don't usually go to openings (too crowded to really enjoy the art), but since this would be my only chance to see the exhibit, I invited my friends Mary Ellen McNaughton and Donna Oppewal to join me.
That's Mary Ellen gazing up at my "Between Worlds" photograph (in the middle of the top row). While I'm quite pleased to have it hanging in this regional show, I'm a little puzzled by its inclusion in this grouping of paintings of two violins, a stairwell, a delapidated car, and a bar sign. . . .
Directly across from this grouping hangs an incredible photograph of the Badlands. Perhaps whoever put my photo across from that one thought that two desert photographs on the same wall would be just too, too much.
Oh well. It is what it is.
On the wonderful side, however, while we were taking photos of my photo, a woman asked me if my photo had been in the Celebration show last year (titled "Paradise Lost"). When I said yes that was it, she said, "I thought I recognized it. I love it! I took a photo of it at that show!"
That almost makes up for its strange placement in this show. . . .
May 18, 2012
I just found out this photograph I took at Bryce Canyon, UT was selected to be included in Grand Rapids' 2012 Festival of the Arts. I call it "Between Worlds" because the tree seems to be perched on some sort of boundary between the Upper and Underworld. (I renamed it "Paradise Lost" last year, to give it a better chance of being selected for the notoriously Christian-slanted 2011 Celebration of the Arts show. My ruse worked!)
What I love about this photo is that it was taken absolutely on the fly. As you can see, there was a nasty storm brewing in the distance, so we were hurrying up a steep path to get to the "specified lookout" before the lightning started. We passed this tree along the path, and I debated whether or not to stop for the shot. After all, the sky was getting darker and darker, and I knew there'd be no depth to the roots without the sun. Still, when I squatted awkwardly down, what I saw in the viewfinder took my breath away, so I snapped the shutter.
We returned to Bryce Canyon last spring. Under great blue skies, I insisted we find the "hero tree" so I could take a sunlit (better) picture of it:
It's a completely different picture. Ironically, the sunshine and shadow do add "depth" to the roots, but the drama/interest is gone. I don't think either "Between Worlds" or "Paradise Lost" works with this one. I'm not sure what I'd call it. It's just plain boring.
So I'm taking all this as another affirmation of the value of the Hero Quest: we think we want everything to always be "sunny and nice," but what's really interesting are the storms. . . .
May 15, 2012
The book signing at Spirit Dreams was a lovely event: good turn out, lots of friends, good conversation, and we sold a few books too.
Thanks so much to everyone who came out on a Mother's Day weekend to help me celebrate the manifestation of my new Hero Quest photo book, Hero Quest Kit, and newly focused and redesigned Hero Quest Website!!!
Here are some photographic highlights (thanks to my paparazzi husband, Frank):
Karen Godfrey and I - before she and Frank made me move the table to the right to "open" up the display.
Donna Oppewal - resident Wise/Medicine Woman and fellow Hero Quester - with my new Hero Quest photo book. Back in December, she and Karen Godfrey started the real world "pull" on the book I'd originally created just for my husband and me - by requesting their own copies.
Reconnecting with Beverly Johnston, a neighbor and friend who graciously attended my first shrine and kit exhibition back in 2004.
Karen and I reconnecting with Marcia - a fellow breast cancer survivor whom I met at a papier maché doll workshop several years ago. Marcia made a tall, thin dancing doll, I made my Amazon Warrior, and Karen made her giant Frida Kahlo head - not exactly what the workshop leader had in mind, but exactly what we each needed to make.
With Bruce and Ann Willey, and Mary Ellen McNaughton. Ann and Mary Ellen are a couple of my very special Spirit Guides.
(To read about them and my other artist Spirit Guides, click on the Resources tab on the Bio and Contact page.)
With Elaine and Chet Maternowski, two good friends who - in addition to admiring my first linocut - were the first to dub me an "artist."
Striking a similar hand pose with Judy Horner and Monica Randles: two healers (one naturopathic, the other allopathic) who work magic with their patients.
Jay Van Lenten (Spirit Dreams owner and long-time supporter of my Hero Quest ventures) with Tevia, the amazing origami-folding kid.
With George, the fearless and extremely hospitable Spirit Dreams cat, checking out my display.
Jaye Van Lenten deftly handling the crush at the register: with Karen Godfrey and Andrew and Isabel Maternowsi (former neighbors who have become very special friends).
May 6, 2012
Just as May's super moon came into its lovely fullness in Scorpio this week - lighting up the Underworld to reveal all its richness - this sign appeared in Eastown Grand Rapids, MI.
And with that sign, I feel myself re-emerging for the umpteenth time from the Underworld, to present some more of the riches I always find there as part of my ongoing Hero Quest.
Many, many, many, many thanks to Jaye Van Lenten at Spirit Dreams for her ongoing interest in and support of all my Hero Quest endeavors, and for agreeing to carry my new photo book - Hero Quest: Into the Abyss - and for hosting this official launch.
Spurred on by the deadline this event created, my husband, Frank, has put the rest of his life on hold to help me redesign, refocus, and completely transform QuestCycles.com into what it has wanted to be all along, but what I was afraid to let it be: ALL ABOUT THE HERO QUEST.
I hope you like the new design and focus as much as I do. Welcome to the Quest. We're off!
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