25. Go Inside, Go Outside
Perception - our ability to understand our lives and the world around us, has been on my mind. I guess it's part of having lived for 57 years and extracting myself, to some degree, from the day to day chaos of working in a hospital, child rearing, grad school, etc. I'm on the other side. It's not to say I'm not busy, often insanely busy, but the busy is my doing or at least it seems that way. So I spend a lot of time thinking. Or maybe I just give myself that time. I've learned to question everything and one of the biggies is, "What is real?"
How much of our life is our own construct, framed by a series of decisions made consciously or unconsciously? How much has to do with a legacy passed down generationally? How much has been interrupted by events that, on the surface, seem completely random but with deeper investigation, seem consistent with patterns that were established long ago, long before we made our entrance on this planet?
And so we come to the subject of Spirituality. It's a word that triggers a gut response for many. It has associations with authoritarian and overbearing tendencies or some new age, West Coast, hippy vibe. So I think it's important for me to define what I'm thinking about when I say Spiritual. It's the idea that we are not autonomous, that we are part of something bigger, that we are not completely in control of all that happens around or to us. As an adult, I've always considered myself spiritual. I left the church at as a teenager and have since rejected a great deal of the ideas I was taught. It has been a slow unpacking. The creation story annoys me. That a woman (Eve) is responsible for our fall from paradise, that woman grew out of a man's rib and is not an autonomous being, that woman and her relationship to the serpent (phallus) was evil, she is a temptress and cannot be trusted. It was the church, after all, that accused female healers of "dealing with the devil" starting in the 13th century. The healers had beliefs that didn't align with or follow the doctrine of the church. They maintained a spiritual connection with the planet, the landscape, flora and fauna. For such a crime, they were burned at the stake - as witches. And what about love? For whom? Is it conditional? Who decided that some were less, that some were "other", that some were unworthy, that some did not deserve agency or independence, that some were incapable of making informed decisions?
As I've immersed myself in Herbalism over the last year, I've met a group of people who are deeply spiritual. Their spirituality stems from traditions that preceded "church", traditions that were preserved despite church, traditions that were passed forward generationally, in the home, around the table, in neighborhoods, amongst family and friends, under oppression, often beside but not completely separated from church. These powerful woman have found strength in traditions that honor the feminine, along with their otherness.
Getting to know these women, I've become aware of the lack of my own traditions that acknowledge and honor the feminine and my ancestors. I've written in this blog about my experiences in Ireland, where a series of coincidences and events sent my mind whirling. The spiritual traditions of my Irish ancestors were subsumed, shunned and replaced with Christianity/Catholicism and later under British, Protestant Colonizers.
I searched for and found clues to these traditions in the traces of an earlier culture, remnants that remain in Ireland - the Stone Alignments, Circles and Tombs that I visited. In those spaces, I felt a strong connection to an energy in the air - on a bodily level. The scale of the stones, greater than human but only by so much, felt both looming and comforting, familiar and foreign. They were sited in a way that insisted on respect and awe, taking advantage of the spectacle of the landscape around them - they were sited at the crest of a hill, in the center of a valley, along the shore of the Atlantic, marking the celestial bodies that aligned with them and the epicenter of a spiritual community. The sites felt sacred even without ceremony and the stones still stand today, more than 5000 years after being laboriously lifted into unnaturally upright positions.
Recently, I re-discovered the Sheela Na Gig. Stone relief and sculptures, "figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva" with "the explicit gesture of opening the vulva" as if opening to the infinite, the possibility of creation, the cyclical nature of life, of death and rebirth. While highlighting their feminine physiology, they also wear grimaces, a threatening countenance. Some experts compare them to the "Cailleach, 'the old wise-woman healer, a multifaceted personification of the female cosmic agency' with deep roots in Irish mythology as simultaneously life-giving and nurturing as well as hostile and destructive." They can be found, ironically, on 14th century Romanesque Churches throughout the island - over 200 of them. They appear to be from an earlier period than the churches, pre-dating the stonework that surrounds them. Their form mimics fertility sculptures from other cultures - strong, powerful feminine deities.
I've made a conscious decision to release myself from skepticism and my complete reliance on science as an explain for all phenomena. Science is another belief system, full of its own flawed logic and doctrine. It is, after all, under the guidance of human minds and we, by default are flawed. I have a Bachelor of Science. I worked as an RN in a major teaching hospital for 13 years and in Clinical Research (research on people) for 10 years. A flawed scientific belief, for instance, is glaringly obvious regarding dietary recommendations. All recommendations in the past have been based on "firm" scientific data but you might have noticed that they change every few years. Much is an educated guess. And much theory is built on those educated guesses and with some consistency, they are proven wrong.
Let it be said that some things leave no room for doubt in my mind- what is happening to this planet for instance and the effects of mankind on it. Do not think I've dismissed everything that has been discovered since the Age of Enlightenment's insistence on "proof". I'm saying that some things cannot or have not yet been proven - that's where belief plays a role. Semantics - belief... spirituality... the unknown... proof.
In letting go of my need for proof, I have had uncanny experiences in ceremony with these women, I've felt myself exit my body while learning Reiki. I've seen how belief, when placed alongside medicinal plants and fungi, can bring healing to mind and body. (By the way, I've also seen how belief in science has also led to healing in a hospital setting and how it has failed many in that same setting.)
The tricky part for me is finding what is authentic, my own history, a history that resonates with my DNA, my Irish ancestry and its spiritual legacy. My ancestor's trip across the Atlantic, under oppression and duress, under the threat of death from starvation and disease, did more than separate my family from kin and powerful landscapes, it severed us from traditions. Maybe it was our whiteness, our ability to blend in visually, to be seen as part of those who "belonged". We didn't look like "other". Maybe that allowed us to assimilate and sever ties so deeply. In the process, we gave up our roots, our knowledge of plant medicine, our ceremonies that linked us - through respect - to all beings that share this planet.
I've written in previous posts about Plant Intelligence. Specifically, an article by Michael Pollan, who shared fascinating research and insight about plants as sentient beings. He brings scientific proof to what some cultures have always known ... or believed. We diminish plants because they have a different relationship to time. Their responses to stimuli are slower and more difficult to perceive. Therefore, in our eyes, they don't exist. Indigenous cultures have consistently prioritized plants over humans/animals. They see their resilience and intelligence, their willingness and ability to heal us. Those cultures recognized our interdependence and couch interactions with respect, reverence and gratitude - an entirely different philosophy our current culture that would rather dig up the planet in search for fossil fuel, strip forests bare or pour poisons into water and loam, than seek renewable, planet-sustaining solutions to our existence. These practices stem from an arrogance that our human needs come first, that our actions have no consequence, that mutualism and respect fall into the realm of the weak or less ambitious. I believe It also comes from the loss of ceremonies that intentionally create connections between all that lives on this planet.
Part of my spiritual explorations have been through suggestion from my teacher, Karen Rose, at Sacred Vibes Apothecary, who advised me to look deeper inside myself - Go Inside. She suggested I start experimenting with Divination tools. Remnants of my Catholic sensibilities still twitch a little when I admit this but as they say, the proof is in the pudding. I started with Oracle cards. When I asked the deck to tell me which goddess I would be working with, out of the 50 possibilities, from all over the globe - India, Native American cultures, South America, Africa, etc, I drew a Celtic Goddess. And her advise? Go Outside. Be with the plants. Coincidence, serendipty, sychronism, proof, scientificly-measurable data, fate, faith, spiritualism, call it what you want but it keeps happening and I'm paying attention.
I've been busy in the studio as well, creating fertility sculptures - stretching and elaborating their forms. Again, fertility is not just about reproduction, it represents the possibility of life, renewal, death, regeneration, the cyclical nature of existence. It recognizes and honors the necessity of both male and female energy, its union and cooperation. Check out some of my new sculptures on my website.
I also wanted to share some press from the exhibition that just ended in my Project Space. Based around the need at times, to rage in the face of heartbreak and inequity. MIS has been a joy to live with. I extend great thanks to David Willis, who wrote this article for Medium Magazine. And I'm thankful to Stephanie Maida for her insightful review for Guest of a Guest. I also owe a lot of thanks to the artists who participated, Leah Dixon, Alison Kuo, Pik-Shuen Fung, Nadia Haji Omar, Junhee Mun, Barb Smith, Miryana Todorova, Julia Oldham, and Graciela Cassel.
And lastly, the exhibition Up-Root at Periphery Space in Providence, run by artist Babs Owen, comes down next week. Many thanks to all who made this jewel happen, especially artist and co-curator Tiffany Smith who brought new artists into my orbit along with thoughtful and powerful feedback on the project's direction. Other artists in the exhibition include Marilyn Narota, Star Montana, Tori Purcell, Dana Davenport, Heesun Shin, Stephanie Lindquist, Simone Couto, Kathie Halfin and Jean Carlos Rodea.