Showing posts with label Motherline. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Motherline. Show all posts

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Muse of Lost Homeland

A Letter to my Grandmother

Emma Hoffman as a young woman
I wish I could see
those fabled houses from before I was born
the home of my grandparents in the hills above Kassel
the home of the poet Nelly Sachs on Lessingstrasse in Berlin 
the crystal, the silver fish knives, the music room, the library
the well-tempered Bach, the Hölderin, the Goethe
Buber’s “Legend
of the Baal Shem Tov” who, it is said, 
ascended
to the radiance…
—(Lowinsky, “Many Houses Ago” in The Little House with Stilts Remembers)

Your Birthplace

Berlin, Germany
September, 2015

I write you—
You have come into the world again
with the haunting strength of letters
—Nelly Sachs, in “Glowing Enigmas”

Oma, I have come here for you. You were born here, in 1881, raised here, studied art here. You learned about family, animals, birds, trees, roads, sun, and moon here. You learned your alphabet of colors and the song of your soul here, in this Northern light, where it is fall. It’s getting cold. The young women wrap their necks with colorful shawls; the young men wear leather. You would not recognize this city. 


Most of the Berlin you knew was smashed to pieces by the allies in the last months of WWII. Many of the spare, square, renovated buildings preserve a piece of the bombed, bullet riddled past.

Oma, I don’t find Berlin beautiful. I find it exciting, interesting, respectful of its ghosts, full of life in its many forms, the kindness of strangers, ironic graffiti, and shadows from the Soviet and Nazi past. You wouldn’t be moved to paint much here, Oma. There are too few trees. The Old Synagogue is gone. Though you were never a religious Jew you liked to paint interesting buildings. Did you know the New Synagogue, built around the time of your birth? Parts of it survived the war. Other parts were renovated. That old Byzantine style cupola is so lovely. It would stand up well beside the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, where Dan and I just spent some time. The dome appears suddenly, blue and gold and gleaming, exotic in this rectangular city of blacks, browns, whites.

The New Synagogue

It is, however, painful to get near it. It bristles with metal fences and with security, because Jewish sites in Germany are at such risk of terrorist attacks. So much history here. A “Juden Frei” (Jew free) Berlin was never achieved, Oma, hard as they tried. A small band of survivors, hidden in attics and basements, preserved what they could of Yiddishkeit after the war. But now in this modern city, full of young people, wild night life, students, business people, young women with diamonds in their noses, young men with dreads, we hear that Jews are coming back to where their great grandparents made their lives. It is cheaper to live here than in Tel Aviv or San Francisco. There is an energetic feeling of new life and possibility.

What surprises and moves me deeply is the pull of German—my mother tongue and yours. I never speak it in America, though in recent years surprise myself from time to time by dreaming in German. But here, in Berlin, German pours out of my mouth so effortlessly, from some unconscious spring. And it feels good, “heimatlich—” at home.

We sit in a restaurant in our hotel, in “Die Mitte,”—the middle of Berlin, used to be East Berlin, and hear English, Hebrew, German, Danish, Italian, Turkish. We overhear business meetings, friends sharing confidences, travelers telling stories of the journey, young folk with laptops working on a project in a cozy corner full of books. It is an experience of “Gemeinshaft”—community, and “Gemütlichkeit”—comfort—that would stun you in the city where you saw Hitler staring at you in a café in 1930 and knew, in your intuitive way, that he wanted to kill you and your people.

I’m sure you knew, though I didn’t, that Jews have lived in Berlin—“the place at the end of the swamp”—since 1200 CE. Your maiden name, Osterman, means “from the East.” When did your ancestors come? Were they refugees? So many questions come to me here, in the city of your birth, almost a half century after your death.

Refugee Reality
We are refugees from that room
with its single bare light bulb
Will our visas ever be granted?
Will our dead know where we’ve gone?
—Lowinsky, “Refuge” first published as “Limbo” in Levure Litteraire
Everywhere people are talking about the refugees flooding Europe. Germany, of all countries, has offered haven for many. Can you believe that, you who fled for your life from Germany? America didn’t want to let you in, didn’t want a flood of Jews. Eventually, after what must have been frightening times crossing borders with false passports, you and your family were given safe haven. Now it’s America that wants to build a wall to keep people out. And here, in the city of the former wall dividing East and West, signs on buses and on walls declare “Alles is Möglich”—everything is possible. That used to be how things felt in America. No more.

The International Herald Tribune is full of the stories of the refugees. How they pass through Turkey, take a boat to Lesbos, just six miles into Greece, hoping to go further North, to Germany, if they’re lucky. How strange that Sappho’s little island has become the main point of entry for Europe. 2000 to 3500 migrants arrive there daily on inflatable rafts. Many don’t make it to safety.

Syrian Refugees Arriving in Lesbos

Hungary has closed its borders, built barbed wire fences, tear gassed, water cannoned, beaten, the war terrorized, hungry, exhausted refugees looking for haven. Here we are again, Oma, the dangerous border crossings our family knew in your time—how my father snuck across the border from Germany into Holland in the middle of the night, how my 18 year old mother and her older cousin took the train from Austria to Holland in 1938—when borders were closing—terrified that the cousin’s left wing connections would land them both in detention. In America there are people seeking refuge from dangerous gang riddled countries like Honduras. There are mothers and children, as well as unaccompanied children crossing borders, riding the tops of trains, risking everything to escape the impossible situations behind them, and to find their relatives in America. If they make it to the American border they are held in detention. There are politicians running for president on the promise to keep out the refugees, people like we were, fleeing for our lives. Round it goes, round and round. Where it will stop nobody knows.

There have always been refugees. Exodus and diaspora, go back to the beginnings of human history when our ancestors wandered out of Africa. Did they do so out of curiosity, the urge to explore? Were they driven by conflict or drought? When Dan and I were in Venice I read Jan Morris’ fine book, The World of Venice. She writes:
Venice was founded in misfortune, by refugees driven from their old ways and forced to learn new ones. Scattered colonies of city people, nurtured in all the ease of Rome, now struggled among the dank miasmas of the fenlands…They learnt to build and sail small boats, to master the treacherous tides and shallows of the lagoon, to live on fish and rain–water… 
If we are to believe the old chronicles, the foundation of Venice occurred on 25th March 421, at midday exactly.
Are we at the end of one era, entering another, like the ancient Venetians?

Forsaken City
O the habitations of death,
Invitingly appointed
For the host who used to be a guest—
—Nellie Sachs in “O the Chimneys”
In Berlin, Oma, it feels different. There are commemorations of the lost Jews all over “Die Mitte.” There are “Stolpersteine—”stumble stones—brass markers embedded in the ground so passersby will stumble over the names of those who lived here and were murdered in concentration camps. There are powerful sculptures, like one by Willie Lammert, called “Frauengruppe,” Group of Women—concentration camp figures emerging out of their nightmare, looking disoriented and gaunt.

Frauengruppe, by Willie Lammert

There is the Jewish Museum, which was an overwhelming experience for us. The old building, late 19th century, is connected to the new building by an underground passageway. One is forced down, down narrow steps into the dark gray walls and confusing maze of the building by the esteemed architect, Daniel Libeskind, who shaped his creation like a shattered Jewish Star.

Berlin Jewish Museum

One can follow the axis of the Holocaust, the axis of exile, the axis of continuity; there are voids to symbolize the lost fragments of European Jewry. One gets lost, disoriented, exhausted. The Holocaust Tower is a strange dark place, a very high triangle at the apex of which a crack of light is seen. When the heavy door closes behind one it is hard not to panic.

I was particularly taken by exhibits of Jewish family life in Germany before the Second World War, the time during which you were raising your big family, before all the deaths and the horrors. I was amazed to see a beautiful portrait by your teacher and mentor, Lovis Corinth, of his Jewish wife–to–be, Charlotte Berend. The portrait was made in 1902. You would have been twenty-one. I think you were studying with him then. Did you know Charlotte? She was just a year older than you, also a painter and a student of Corinth. I could see his influence on you in the warmth of feeling, the exquisite brushwork, and the feeling of interiority touched by light from without.

Portrait of his Charlotte by Lovis Corinth

There is a sculpture of a table, one standing chair and one chair knocked over, in bronze. It is called “Der Verlassene Raum—” The Forsaken Room—by Karl Biedermann. Around the edges of the work one can read inscribed lines by the great poet of the Shoah, Nelly Sachs— an essential muse to me. Did you know her work? She was born in Berlin, the same year as you were. I’d love to imagine you, Charlotte Berend and Nelly Sachs, lovely young women in a Berlin cafe, talking about your creative lives. What difficult futures lay ahead for you. A quote from Nelly’s poem is: “O ihr Schornsteine, /O ihr Finger, /Und Israels Leib im Rauch durch die Luft! “ O you chimneys/O you fingers? And Israel’s body as smoke through the air!

The Forsaken Room by Karl Biedermann

* * * * *

You can find more poems and stories about my grandmother, Emma Hoffman, in the Summer 2014 Issue of The Jung Journal, V. 8, # 3, in my book of poems, Adagio & Lamentation, and in The Motherline: Every Woman’sJourney to Find Her Female Roots.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Motherline Muse

Motherline stories evoke a worldview in which all beings and times are interconnected…They are as common as the repetitive loops made in weaving, crocheting and knitting. They are as powerful as touching a grandmother’s face in childhood, or seeing a daughter suckle her newborn child.
Naomi Ruth Lowinsky, The Motherline p, 23

I’ve been reading Patricia Damery’s novel “Snakes” whose narrator is the breast–feeding mother of a plump baby girl. My body remembers the suck of my own babies’ mouths, the sweet breast feeding reverie, the intoxicating smells of baby skin and my own milk. I remember the pleasure and I remember the overwhelm.

The muse would come to me in those days—baby at my breast, on my hip, in the stroller. She’d say: “Why aren’t you writing about this? A mother’s experience is the foundation of everyone’s life? It’s so powerful. Where are the poems, the novels, the essays about this demanding, amazing and transformative experience?”

“When do I have time to write?” I’d lament. I knew the muse was on to something. I felt deprived by the lack of literature about this most profound human experience. This made me edgy and defensive. “The baby is hungry. The baby needs changing. There’s dishes to do, and laundry. There’s dinner to cook. My body belongs to the baby. So does my head. How could I even focus?”

All that has changed in my lifetime, I’m delighted to say. Many women, myself included, have written about the mysteries, joys and sorrows of mothering. I wrote a poem recently, about my problem.

Your Problem

In a peanut butter and jelly haze
in play dough and lego worlds
amidst unmade beds and Mrs. Dalloway
lost in a pile of laundry, all the edges

of your days unraveling, between baby cries
and dinner, between the earth spirit
who has opened you up, and the call
of that angel before you fall…

If there are rainbows
you don’t see them. If songs are singing
they don’t sing to you. If poems are forming
deep in the dangerous woods, you can’t hear them—

Poems are wild things, they’ll eat you up
just like the wolf, your grandmother has warned you—
but somewhere in a grotto, the witch
who has known you all your life, is busy
fermenting her brew…
(first published in Ibbetson Street)


If I could give my confused and disoriented younger self, just one book to read, it would be “Snakes.” Why “Snakes?” Because it would give her courage and hope. She would understand that her way of being and seeing has value and beauty.

Angela, the first person narrator and central character in “Snakes” does not suffer from the problem of my younger self. She is both mother and artist— a weaver. Weaving is her medium and her way of perceiving. Her voice weaves a rich tapestry of many threads: the bodily sensations of her milk letting down when her baby cries, the healthy smell of breastfed baby shit, the emotional trials of parenting two prepubescent boys, her ambivalent feelings toward her visiting, recently widowed mother, her spirited conversations with her dead father, her marital issues and lusty love for her husband, her memories of the small family farm she grew up on and her grief about the loss of that way of life, her meditations on her ancestors, her fear of snakes, her fascination with snakes and the myth she tells her sons about a shape-shifting serpent and his human bride.

“You mean you don’t have to write paragraphs that focus on one thing at a time?” my younger self marvels, remembering red marks all over her creative attempts in college. “You mean you can write about a woman’s gaze, her bodily response to a man’s nakedness? Listen to this:

“Let’s swim,” Jake said, pulling off his clothes. I stood spellbound. His body was lean and forbidden, yet I looked at every muscle, the tautness of his belly, the bulging of his thighs…I watched the curve of his buttocks as he hung midair and then ever so slowly, slipped into deep waters.
p. 85

“You mean you can leap from memory to myth to talking with a ghost to funny family conversations in which big brother calls baby sister “the Leech” to philosophizing about the loneliness and grief of ancestral farmers in the Midwest while writing in plain speech that is accessible and poetic?” My younger self is amazed. “You can loop back and forth in the generations, remembering yourself as a child as you deal with your children and your mother’s response to your mothering? You can weave a Zuni myth about a beautiful maiden who marries the sea serpent Kolowissi into a dialogue with an eleven year old boy?”

“Lived with a snake” Trent used to say. “She married a snake?”
“Kolowissi is a god” I’d explain. “He can take any form. But his favorite is that of a serpent.”
p. 33

“Just like that she weaves the ordinary and the marvelous into one fabric.” My younger self is impressed. She has suffered under the fallacy of categories. I wish she could have known what Angela knows: that all the realms are interwoven. That is how her mind worked. Still does. But back then she thought there was something wrong with her mind, that modalities were supposed to stay in their separate categories like university departments, or milk and meat, according to Jewish Kosher law. This muzzled her, hobbled her, kept her in a mental strait jacket, denied the flow of her thoughts. I wish she could have known what Angela knows—that magic is always present, as surprising and as ordinary as a snake slipping through yellow grasses on a California hillside.

Friday, April 29, 2011

My Mother’s Hallelujah Violin

A Mother’s Day Offering

I am losing my mother in little flakes of peeling off memories. Sometimes, during our Sunday morning phone conversations, she tells me she wakes up and doesn’t know where she is. Sometimes she doesn’t know who she is.

My mother is in Chicago, in a beautiful retirement community by the lake. I am in Northern California. She forgets this. She also forgets where my children and grandchildren live. “You’re so lucky!” she exclaims, each time we have this conversation, “They’re all near you! You can see them whenever you like.” I get her meaning. It’s not easy for her that I’m so far away. It’s not easy for me.

My mother is a fine musician—a violinist and violist. She still plays chamber music regularly. “What did you play?” I wonder. “Oh, I can’t remember” she says. “But it was fun.”

I remember, just a few years ago, when my mother was in her eighties, she’d tell me proudly about her Christmas time ”gigs,” playing Handel’s Messiah in Black churches all over Chicago. I wrote a poem about how our family identified with African-American culture, “Your People Are My People.” My mother and her “Hallelujah violin” make an appearance in the poem, which was recently published in New Millennium Writings.

So mother, here’s my poem as a Mother’s Day offering to you, who have taught me so much about aging with grace and with passion for what you love. It’s dedicated to Al Young, whose poetry inspired my poem.


YOUR PEOPLE ARE MY PEOPLE
for Al Young

My people are the people of the pianoforte and the violin
Mozart people Bach people Hallelujah people
my people are the Requiem people Winterreise people Messiah people
who crossed the red sea Pharoah’s dogs at our heels

Your people are the drum beat people the field holler people the conjure people
Blues people Jubilee people people who talk straight to God
Your people are the Old Man River people the Drinking Gourd people
singing the Lord’s songs in a strange land

My family had a Sabbath ritual
We lit the candles sang Go Down Moses sang Swing Low Sweet Chariot
sang slave music freedom music secret signals in the night music
my father said you never know
when Pharoah will be back

i was young
i was American i thought
my people were the Beatles the Lovin’ Spoonful the Jefferson Airplane
singing Alice and her White Rabbit through all
those changes my parents did not understand

That didn’t last
That was leaving home music magic mushroom music
Puff the Dragon music floating off to Never Never land
now heard in elevators in the pyramids of finance

but Old Man River still rolls through my fields
Bessie Smith still sweetens my bowl
Ma Rainey appears in the inner sanctum
of the CG Jung Institute flaunting her deep black bottom

My father’s long gone over Jordan
and I’d hate for him to see
how right he was about Pharoah

but I want you to know Al

every Christmas
in black churches all over Chicago
the Messiah shows up
accompanied by my mother’s
Hallelujah violin

(Published in New Millennium Writings)


You can learn more about my mother’s life, and about the power of the mother archetype in all our lives, in my book: The Motherline: Every Woman’s Journey to Find Her Female Roots. By the way, it makes a great Mother’s Day gift.

My mother and her “Hallelujah violin.”Photo by Joan David, 2007 


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Mother’s Day Gift of Memory

My mother, past 90, is losing her memories. The other day on the phone she couldn’t remember where I was born. Was it Cuba? Was it California? She couldn’t remember how she and her family got out of Europe, in those terrible days before World War II.

My mother has given me the gift of her stories. I remember the story she told about losing two pregnancies early in her marriage. My father thought it was from walking on the beach. One more try, he told his young wife, who longed for children. I was the result of that try, born in California. I cleared the way for three more— all brothers.

All through my childhood I heard stories of how she and her German Jewish family got out of Europe. Those stories inspired my book, The Motherline, and have spilled into poems, many of them collected in my most recent collection, Adagio & Lamentation.

When I was working on the Motherline, my mother was the age I am now. She was vibrant, adventurous, traveled all over the world on her own.

She is my inspiration for growing old with grace and joy. Will I live to be the age she is now? Will I too lose my memories?

Mother, I said on the phone the other day, open your copy of the Motherline. You’ll find some of your stories there. Oh yes, she said, you did write about all that. I hope she will turn to page 169, and read about the time she, my husband Dan and I went to Germany, to see where she had lived as a child, before the family fled. The large, gracious home she remembers, in a beautiful suburb of Kassel, was gone. It had been bombed in the war, and now there was a new modern house. This is what I wrote:

The landscape of her childhood descends upon my mother and she exclaims, sighs, laughs and points. The reserve of her adult persona fades, and I can see the exuberant little girl in her. “Ach!” she exclaims, here was the school she loved. Here they walked after school. Here is where her friend, Ursula, still lives, and their dog played with the dog who lived round the corner.

“Here is the wall around the house!” She shows us a stone and iron wall. “This is the original wall! Here we hung over the edge with our bowl of cherries, spitting the pits directly into the open windows of the passing bus. I was good at it too!”


My mother (in the center), age three, with two of her sisters

The Motherline is full of women’s stories, women’s mysteries, women’s memories. Since it was published in the 90s it has inspired many women to gather their family stories, track their Motherlines, honor the lives of their mothers and grandmothers. It has recently been reissued by Fisher King Press with a beautiful new cover—a painting by Sara Spaulding Phillips. It makes a great mother’s day gift.

Friday, April 8, 2011

This Mother's Day Bouquet Requires No Water and Never Goes Bad

The Motherline by Naomi Ruth Lowinsky, a Mother's Day Bouquet Steeped in Mother Earth and Soul.
So many of the stories that I write, that we all write, are my Mother’s stories. Only recently did I fully realize this: that through years of listening to my mother's stories of her life, I have absorbed not only the stories themselves, but something of the manner in which she spoke, something of the urgency that involves the knowledge that her stories–like her life–must be recorded. –ALICE WALKER[1]

The Motherline: Every Woman's Journey to Find Her Female RootsBeing a mother is an experience of body and soul which ties one to the source of our life and all life. The Motherline is for women who have mothers, are mothers, or are considering becoming mothers, and for the men who love them. Telling the stories of women whose maturation has been experienced in the cycle of mothering, this book does not sever mother from daughter, feminism from "the feminine," body from psyche. The path to wholeness requires reclaiming aspects of the feminine self that we have lost and forgotten in our struggle to free ourselves from constricting roles; it requires that a woman make a journey to find her roots in the personal, cultural, and archetypal Motherline.


Mother is the first world we know, the source of our lives and our stories. Embodying the mystery of origin, she connects us to the great web of kin and generation. Yet the voice of her experience is seldom heard in our literature. Psychology, the field that examines human nature, has tended to be child-oriented. And much of the feminist literature has been daughter-identified. We are so full of judgments about what mother ought to be that we can barely see what mother is. This has been shattering to a woman's sense of self and her connection to roots. We have no cultural mirror in which to envision the fullness of female development; we are deprived of images of female wisdom and maturity. Finding our female roots, reclaiming our feminine souls, requires paying attention to our real mothers' lives and experience; listening to our mothers' stories, and our grandmothers' stories, is the beginning of understanding our own. When we hear these stories, we tap into the wisdom of our Motherline.

Being a mother is an experience of body and soul that ties one to the source of one's own life and to all life. In the deepest sense of the word it is a religious experience, for the word religion comes from the Latin religare, which means to bind back to, to reconnect with. The Motherline will help you reconnect to the story of your origins, your Motherline, your body, and your soul.

I have been gathering material for this book all of my life, much like one gathers material for a patchwork quilt. I've taken the stories of the women of my Motherline, memories of childhood, journal entries, my experience raising children and stepchildren to adulthood, pieces of my master's and doctoral dissertations[2] (both of them studies of mothers), the stories I've heard as a psychotherapist and the stories I've told as an analysand, what I've learned from students and colleagues at the Women's Therapy Center and the Pacifica Graduate Institute, and what I've learned at the C.G. Jung Institute of San Francisco where I trained as a Jungian analyst. I've gathered dreams and poetry and prose, and sewed them all together with journeys I have made to create a pattern that evokes female wholeness. Like most women's sewing projects, it has been worked on, put away while children are being raised and life makes other demands, felt guilty about, and brought back out to be worked on again. As in quilting, the design of the book has been created by combining many separate elements into one pattern.

Although The Motherline contains the voices of many women, its structure is based on my personal life because it is the flesh and blood of our female, subjective experience that I seek to bring to consciousness. Each of our stories is unique and yet there is an underlying Motherline pattern. Other women's stories set up sympathetic vibrations so that we can begin to near our own.

The process of finding one's Motherline is idiosyncratic and chaotic. It takes most of a lifetime. Every woman must engage in it in her own way and in her own time. The reclamation of feminine soul is not a process that can be readily taught. Rather it is a potentiality that can be evoked by shifting the way we listen to women's voices, and the way we see ourselves, our mothers, and our grandmothers. I hope to facilitate this process.

Each chapter of the book describes reclaiming an aspect of the feminine self. It is not the entire story. There are aspects of female nature, such as the warrior-amazon and the erotic lover, that are not addressed here. The Motherline is a search for female continuity and the sense of wholeness that is gained when we find it.


OF SELF, SOUL, AND SHADOW

What is self and soul? Self has come to have specific meanings in psychology. In self psychology, it is used to mean an inborn potentiality for an authentic and vital identity. Jungians use the word self in a similar but larger sense. For them, the self is the "potential for integration of the total personality"; it "contains the seeds of the individual's destiny";[3] it includes the psychological, biological, and spiritual aspects of being human.

There has been much controversy among feminist thinkers about whether the experience of self is gender-specific. There are those who argue that a gendered sense of self is a by-product of culture. Though I agree that the culture may warp and damage the female experience of self, it makes no sense to me to separate one's sense of self entirely from one's body. Female identity is rooted in embodied experiences of menstruation, childbearing, lactation, and menopause, which are filtered through the veils that different cultures throw over them. Clearly a woman's identity consists of much more than her reproductive system, and this is where the feminist critique is invaluable in confronting cultural misogyny. But I believe that we go to the depths of our feminine selves in these primal, physical experiences, common to women of all cultures. Devaluing these depths is a function of our own cultural bias.

The word soul is most commonly used in a religious context, and means the part of our being that is connected to the immortal. Some psychological thinkers such as James Hillman use soul in a broader way, to name the experience of seeing the gods or the sacred in all life forms. This book is about women's immortality through our birth-giving capacity. Soul here is not separate from body. It is through our full honoring of bodily experience that we become ensouled. Soul does not separate us from ordinary life. It does not float off into the stratosphere as spirit seems to in the distinction commonly made between spirit and flesh. In colloquial usage one who has soul is one who has acquired depth through suffering, often one who has been oppressed. Soul is born of the kind of suffering that brings us in touch with the mysteries of life.

One way we garner soul is through the integration of what Jungians call the shadow. The shadow is that part of our personality that is cast into darkness by our fears, values, temperament, and cultural prejudice–a part of ourselves we do not know. Traits that we deny and repress in ourselves and dislike intensely in others are usually parts of our shadow. Contemporary women are prone to project aspects of their shadows on their mothers. We cut off our natural energy flow when we disown our envy, rage, competitiveness, pettiness, sensuality. Paradoxically, when these traits are recognized and owned, they tend to soften and get humanized. Learning to suffer our own shortcomings and those of others, even to develop a sense of humor about it all, gives depth and richness to the personality. It is an aspect of maturation and of soul.

Jungian theory describes psychological experience on three levels: the personal, the cultural, and the archetypal. Most current psychology emphasizes the personal and neglects the cultural (leaving that to the anthropologists) and the archetypal (leaving that to the theologians). The problems created by this narrowness in psychological thought are more than academic. Mothers get saddled with cultural baggage or with archetypal expectations. Because the gods are dead, mothers are expected to stand in for them, taking the blame for much that more truly belongs to fate. Because we've lost a historical sense of how culture shifts, we are outraged that our mothers did not raise us according to the standards of our times but had the effrontery to be shaped by the values of their own generation. Thus painful intergenerational rifts and misunderstandings arise. Women whose mothers love them deeply feel estranged and unmothered. Women whose daughters long to know them can find no language of mutuality.


OUR MAMMALIAN MAMA

How do we distinguish between the three levels of experience–personal, cultural, and archetypal? Archetypal psychologist James Hillman sees Archetypes as the "roots of the soul."[4] Jungian analyst Joseph Henderson describes the archetype as involving both a primordial image and an instinctual root that "create a pervasive sense of being gripped by an urge and dazzled by an image of compelling power."[5] An archetype can be described as an underlying life pattern with both instinctive and symbolic poles of expression surrounding a core of great emotional charge. The Great Mother archetype, for example, is a primordial image that expresses our instinctual, mammalian nature. It takes many cultural forms, from images of the Virgin Mary to those of the death-dealing goddess, Kali, in India. But the female form with breasts is recognizable in all cultures. We are all born of woman. Her breasts and her womb permeate all times and all cultures. Every culture translates the mother archetype differently, and every biological, or personal, mother has her own unique psychology and connection to her child.

The personal experience of the mother-daughter relationship is shaped by the individual lives and temperaments of the two women. If, for example, the daughter is the longed-for only child of an older mother who tried for years to get pregnant, her experience of her personal mother will be very different from that of the sixth child of an exhausted mother who considered getting an abortion. The quiet, introverted child of a quiet, introverted mother will have a different experience of self than would the fiery, extroverted child of that same introverted mother. When a woman becomes a mother she embodies the archetypal mother and becomes the culture bearer who will socialize the child. At the cultural level a child will be schedule or demand fed, bottle or breast fed, told she should be seen but not heard, or encouraged to express her spontaneity, raised by her mother or a nanny or an au pair depending on the culture, historical period, class, and personal circumstances into which she is born. However, all these children need to be held and protected, praised and fed and played with, scolded and limited. Though this is done differently in various cultures, a child needs some manifestation of the mother archetype in her life or she will be severely damaged.

It is confusing to sort out the personal, cultural, and archetypal levels of our experience. Archetypes are mostly seen in their cultural manifestation, and changes in cultural attitude become personal battlegrounds between generations. But there are some areas in which the archetype shines through. For example, it is striking to consider how many cultures make similar sounds for naming the mother: Mama, Mutti, Ama, Ema. The "ma" sound brings the lips together as in reaching for the breast. Thus a linguistic form reveals the physiological nature of the archetype across cultures.

I remember seeing a television report about a gorilla mother who had just given birth in a local zoo. She held her baby close. When she lifted her great gorilla hand to tenderly pat its head, a shiver of archetypal energy burst through me. I knew that gesture. Every human being knows that gesture. The mother archetype in her gorilla form had been revealed to me on the evening news!

The words male and female refer to our biological natures, while the words masculine and feminine imply cultural and archetypal meanings as well. Jungians historically have been interested in the archetypal distinctions between the masculine and the feminine, not limiting them to one gender. Whether these concepts are useful or stereotypical has been controversial in both Jungian and feminist circles. The feminist critique is that these are culturally biased concepts. Jungians respond by pointing out that the masculine is not limited to men, or the feminine to women.

The terms masculine and feminine are vital concepts that are typically truncated by the tendency of cultures to make rigid gender distinctions. These hurt both men and women. There is an enormous overlap in what men and women can do. At all levels, including the physical, we are more alike than we are different. But we can rob ourselves of our deep instinctual roots in life if we deny the power of the differences between the sexes. The feminine experienced by a woman is very different from the feminine experienced by a man, and vice versa. Gender differences have biological roots that go far below the cultural level, below human history: they precede our evolution as a species and take us down to our mammalian beginnings.

All mammals are divided into males and females. Females have breasts and wombs. Males have testes and penises. These sexual differences are meaningful; far from being a curse or a limitation on women's lives, our mammalian experience is what grounds us in our feminine selves. My thinking resonates with that of the men's movement, of which poet Robert Bly is a central spokesperson. He and others argue for a recognition of the differences between men and women at the instinctual level. It is a relief and a pleasure to hear men honoring their own embodied experience. These differences are, indeed, empowering for both men and women.


A PATTERN OF FEMININE SOUL

The Motherline is arranged in ten chapters, each evoking an aspect of the feminine self and how it can be reclaimed. The sequence describes the journey I made, but it is not a linear path. One could begin from any place in the pattern to find one's way into the Motherline.

We begin with a conceptualization of the Motherline as the source of our stories. In the second chapter we consider the women's movement, which at once frees us and gets in our way as we seek our female roots. In the third chapter we pick up the thread of our Motherline search by going back to our forgotten knowledge of the mother tongue, remembering images we took in with our mother's milk, of the primal female experiences of bearing, bonding, and being in relation to children.

In Chapter 4, we confront the developmental problem of differentiation between mother and daughter, which forces both women to engage in the painful process of sorting out self from other, and acknowledging shadow. The thread of our story is taken up in Chapter 5 by four women who, in telling their stories from the middle of their lives, loop from the past through the present to the future and back, weaving a rich tapestry of contemporary female maturity.

In Chapter 6 we follow the thread of women's lives by looking at generational change and how we are shaped by the times we live in. Chapter 7 explores girlhood memories of a grandmother and how this process links a woman to her past and to her future and transforms the mother-daughter dyad into the ancient, sacred, female trinity: maiden, mother, and crone.

Throughout The Motherline, my own Motherline story unfolds; I am confronted by the ghost of the grandmother I never knew. Her voice comes to me from before my birth and requires me to make a journey into the realm of my ancestors. This takes me to Israel in Chapter 8 to meet female relatives and learn their stories, and to Germany in Chapter 9 to see the landscape of my mother's childhood through the ashes of the Holocaust. My journey is part of a pattern of female development; you will see how many women make this descent into the past to find their roots.

In the end we must seek our spiritual roots in the old female religion. In Chapter 10 we traverse the land from the lost shore temples of the east coast of India to a sacred hill in Glastonbury and discover that the forbidden and taboo aspects of feminine soul are a part of our landscape as well as our dreams and our visions. What we have lost or forgotten of the feminine mysteries is hidden in our everyday lives.

About the Author
Naomi Ruth Lowinsky is the author of The Sister from Below: When the Muse Gets Her Way and The Motherline: Every Woman’s Journey to Find Her Female Roots and numerous prose essays, many of which have been published in Psychological Perspectives and The Jung Journal. She has had poetry published in many literary magazines and anthologies, among them After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery, Weber Studies, Rattle, Atlanta Review, Tiferet and Asheville Poetry Review. Naomi has three published poetry collections: Adagio and Lamentation (2010), red clay is talking (2000) and crimes of the dreamer (2005).

Naomi has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize three times and is the recipient of the 2009 Obama Millennium Poetry award for "Madelyn Dunham, Passing On.” Naomi is a Jungian analyst in private practice, poetry and fiction editor of Psychological Perspectives, and a grandmother many times over.





[1] Alice Walker, In Search of My Mother's Garden (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovitch, 1983), p. 240.
[2] Naomi Ruth Lowinsky "The Generation Cord: A Hand-Me-Down of Mothering in Four Families and a Changing Culture," (Master's thesis, Lone Mountain College, 1977). "All the Days of Her Life: A Study of Adult Development and the Motherline in Modern Women," (Ph.D. diss., Center for Psychological Studies, 1985).
[3] Andrew Samuels, Jung and the Post-Jungians (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985), p. 91.
[4] James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology (New York: Harper Colophon, 1975), p. xiii.
[5] Joseph Henderson, Shadow and Self (Wilmette, Ill: Chiron, 1990), P. 54.



Copyright 2010 © Fisher King Press - Permission to reprint this article is granted. Credits should be linked to www.fisherkingpress.com

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Grandmother Muse


The muse has not ceased to surprise me since the publication of “The Sister From Below.” In that book she is weird and uncanny—a siren, a seductress, a shape shifter—a being from the archetypal realm. The Greeks knew nine muses. Recently, I’ve been visited by a variety of forms of the muse. They inspire my poems. One is someone very familiar: my grandmother. Her spirit insists she be given her due in my pantheon of muses. How can someone as ordinary and safe as a beloved grandmother be a muse?

As the first child born in the New World to a family of German Jewish refugees from the Nazis, I had a special tie with my only surviving grandparent, the painter Emma Hoffman, whom I knew as Oma. Oma showed me that making art can be a way to transmute grief, a way to bear the unbearable. She did not show up as a muse until after her death and after a dream I had in which I saw her dying—a long hard labor—as in giving birth. I wrote a poem about that—“Self Portrait of My Grandmother“— forty years ago.

If a muse is a catalyst—a call to one’s creative spirit—my Oma is that. Her death agony, as I saw it in my dream, as I imagined it in my poem, was my birth as a poet. Oma called me into my calling. In “The Sister” I describe the writing of that poem as “a tunnel blasted through rock.” It opened me up to my passion for writing, and to the realm of the imagination. Here is a section of the poem:


Listen Oma: I’ll tell them!
I’ll tell them you painted tigers
and flowers and babies and trees
and you could make a shadow
outgrow the thing that threw it
so intricate, so subtle you drew it

I’ll tell them you bore six children and buried three
outliving the six million and all the generation
that you knew
a refugee Jew
But they say you must take your medicine now
Oma—when will this death be over?

(first published in” Open Reading.” Republished in “red clay is talking.”)

If a muse is an inspiration, my Oma is that. Her fierce focus, her life stories, the way she tied me to the past and to my future, inspired my first book, “The Motherline.” Here is a passage about her from that book:

Once a month as regularly as the waning moon we visited my Oma on Sundays, my first husband, my baby, and I. Oma was the right word for my grandmother. The resonant, round sound felt ancient in my mouth. Her eyes were so deep you could see eternity in them. She had soft withering skin and a slow thoughtful walk…

It was a chorus in my life, a monthly refrain that took us to a sanitarium inn the wine country, where Oma lived. As in a ballad, where each verse tell of events progressing although the chorus is always the same, so this visit was always the same, and that was a comfort. In the midst of studying for exams, the baby getting teeth, the car needing a brake job, and the growing protest about our country’s involvement in Vietnam, the visit to Oma was as predictable, as soothing as a lullaby. Her soft, inward melancholy, her hand on my shoulder, were a reassurance and a blessing. (p.121)

If a muse is a frequent visitor, a guest from mysterious realms, my Oma is that. She has come to me over the years, in dreams, in memories, in reverie, in her paintings. Sometimes a painting breaks through and I see it with new eye. I described a favorite watercolor in “The Motherline”:

Do the dead know when they walk with the living? Oma, do you know that you are always with me? Your life work of painting hangs in my home and my office. Do you remember the watercolor of the living room in Berkeley where I visited you often? You painted the light streaming in through the arched window onto floors and rugs. It is a painting of inner space—one you lived in as an old woman and I visited as a girl. You served me tomato soup and crackers in the light from that window…That painting hangs in my office now, grounding me in my own childhood as I listen to the stories of other people’s childhoods. (p.129)

If a muse is a call from the depths my Oma is that. Twenty years after I wrote that passage, I found myself flooded with longing for her. The poem that came to me then, refers to the same watercolor. It is the opening poem to my new poetry collection, “Adagio & Lamentation,” and the watercolor is on its cover. Here is the poem:

Oma

I wish you could stop being dead
so I could talk to you about the light so we
could walk among the vineyards as we did
forty years ago near St. Helena and you

could tell me again how the light of late
afternoon is so different from the light
of morning I was too young
to grasp your meaning but I believe

you said it is all about the fall of shadows
that when you paint it is not light that streams
from your brush but deep purple violet blue
you shaped emptiness and there was light

Oma come visit me sit at your easel as you always did
your brush poised your eyes as fierce
as a tiger’s show me how to create
the luminous moment among so many shades

of sorrow so many dead how to gather the light
of all the windows from all the houses of our lives
to make this bright trail I still follow along the gleaming
floor of the room in which you showed me how

to draw out the french windows to the unseen
garden a river of light that lifts
the Persian carpet into the air

So you see, this Grandmother Muse has cultivated my art and wandered in and out of my poetry and prose for forty years. There is an ancient practice that has always appealed to me—feeding the dead. I’ve thought of my writings as offerings to my ancestor, my Oma. I wonder if the dead can be honored in this new medium, the Internet. Oma, in this month of your birthday, does it feed your spirit to have a blog posting devoted to you?

Naomi Ruth Lowinsky