Friday, January 4, 2019

The Muse of Origins

I will be your mouth now, to do your singing
breath belongs to those who do the breathing.

Mother, me and my brother Si

Word Roots

…the bond between women is a circle
we are together in it.
—Judy Grahn, Love Belongs, p. 90

As I approach the first anniversary—Jahrzeit in Judaism—of Mother’s death there are so many things I wish I could tell her. I want her to know three poems of mine were just published in the on-line journal Origins. It’s rare, at least for me, to have a journal take so many poems at once. I wish I could share my delight with Mother, tell her what it means to me when work I have wrestled with, often for months, work that emerges from strong feeling, heated inward arguments, strange dreams, far flung travels, wild associations, increasingly frightening news, work culled from hours spent with the etymological dictionary, the Book of Symbols, a library full of Jungiana, poetry and Goddess literature, is finally brought into a shape that pleases me, and then, by some fluke of Dame Fortuna, transformed by the interest of strangers into words on a printed or on-line page. It feels magical—a long labor and then a birth. My poem has entered another realm. Who knows who will read it and what it will mean to them.

I want Mother to know that these three poems, in different ways, are about origins; they seem to have found the right place in the world wide web. Origins mission statement says:
We're interested in…writing that tells us something about a character's roots or what makes her unique… We want to read provocative poems, and have gripping conversations with writers about everything from craft to creativity. Literature offers us the opportunity to endlessly interpret who we are as human beings. This journal is a celebration and investigation of our diverse origins and the art that inevitably springs forth.
The roots of the word “origin” are fascinating. But even when Mother was alive and of sound mind, she would probably not have welcomed a long discussion about etymological roots. She’d want to know how the children and grand children are doing. She’d want to tell me about the Beethoven quartets she and her friends have been playing.

Mother as a young woman

I’m dead now, in a place where there is no time, where there are no endings and beginnings, where there are no roots and origins. Sometimes it’s fun to take a break from all this formlessness, to remember the old attachments of my life. Tell me about your word roots.

Mother, thank you for showing up. Word roots are ancestors, the origins of language and culture. You won’t believe what happened when I looked up the roots of the word “origin.” I found a family of words that come from Germanic and Old English words meaning “to move, to set in motion.” These words are related to the verb “to be,” to exist, to arise, be born; they are also related to Germanic roots which transmute into the name, “Emma,” your mother’s name, which means whole, universal. This is my grandmother, my Oma, my ancestor whose self–portrait sits in my study, watching me wisely, knowingly, as I write these words to you. She is my origin, as you are my origin.

I didn’t know her name meant that. That’s what you like to call a synchronicity. Yes?

Yes, and it’s even more of a synchronicity because the first of the three poems you can read in Origins is about the ancestors.

Emma Hoffman self portrait

“The Ancestors Visit the Department of Homeland Security”

When the ancestors come    time holds its breath    space drifts    borders shift
They slip through cracks    between earth and sky    between bare winter branch
and blossom    between dream    and first light
— “The Ancestors Visit the Department of Homeland Security
                                             (first published in Origins)

The Book of Symbols tells us that the ancestors are:
sagacious, uncanny, oracular, they are the legendary elders and immortals who belong to the past, to dreamtime, to the primordial “time outside time,” and nevertheless impinge eternally upon present and future, affecting…their descendants and participating in everyday affairs. (p. 790)
Ancestors Rock Art

That was the feeling I was after in my poem—weird ancestral voices impinging on my experience of current events mixed in with the bureaucratese of the current administration. 
Including my voice?
No, you weren’t dead yet when I wrote this poem.
Do I impinge on you now that I’m dead?
Not as much as I’d like you to. When you do show up it’s always helpful. You tell me to get over myself, get over your death and get out there in the sunshine and live!
Just like I used to when you were a girl. You spent too much time holed up in your room with your books.
I still do. It’s who I am. But I miss your voice, your attention, your concern.
OK, now you have my attention. What were the ancestors telling you?
I hope you’ll read the poem Mother. Just click on the link and scroll down; you’ll find all three poems. Can a ghost click on a link?
I’m not sure. I couldn’t deal with computers when I was alive. Why should I do so now?
If you can show up and talk to me I imagine you can do all sorts of things.
Here goes. Virtual space is strange. Reading is strange. Those ancestors sound like they’re on your father’s side of the family. In your poem they say:

         Wound of our wounds      Haunt of our haunts      We carried your mothers’

         grandmothers    dread at our backs    blisters on our feet    from Moravia
         to the Pale of Settlement      Borders    closed behind us

True. I was thinking of my father’s people from what is now called Ukraine. You and your mother were born in Germany, your father in Austria. But your mother’s maiden name, Osterman, means person from the East. I wonder whether you didn’t have ancestors from the Pale of Settlement as well.

Maybe. They never spoke to me as they do to you. I do like how you go from their oracular voices to the Customs and Border Patrol:
“Customs and Border Patrol…using materials original in the United States to the
maximum extent permitted by law shall immediately begin planning, design, construction and maintenance of a wall along the land border with Mexico.”
It’s still going on, the fight about building a wall, the terrible anti–immigration rhetoric.

That sounds awful. We wouldn’t have been able to become Americans in that kind of a political climate. As it is we had to wait in Cuba because there was a quota on the Jews. That was in the middle of the war, and of the concentration camp slaughter of Jews.

I know Mother. That’s why the ancestors have haunted me into this poem. That’s why they say, at the end of the poem:

You owe us
eternal vigilance

so your children’s children
can carry us on

You owe us
your lives


Medicine Wheel

Have you ever been round such a wheel of changes?
This time last year you were gripped
by that agonized hip      Pain
was your shepherd your cane your walker
—“Medicine Wheel” (first published in Origins)

What’s a medicine wheel? Mother wonders.

Native Americans understand the medicine wheel as a symbol of time, of the seasons, of the directions. They create medicine wheels using stones or painting, or making round dream catchers. These are all modes of healing. I was also thinking of the Wheel of Fortune, and the mandala—a circle standing for wholeness. Jung painted mandalas in a time of psychological breakdown in his own life; he found the process healing. Tibetan monks create intricate gorgeously colorful sand paintings, and then scatter them, as a way to embody the transience of life.

My poem, in four sections, each of which has four stanzas and a final line in a voice of prayer or evocation, is a mandala in poetic form. The medicine is in the turning of the wheel, in the finding of words and images to express agony and a new way of being. It is in the litany of personal changes, political disasters, prayers and blessing. Just finding a form for it all, writing it all down, is healing for me.

What’s that about you using a cane and a walker? You’re too young for all that.

I had a bad hip for years. Used a cane. I needed hip replacement. Recovering from that involved using a walker. Now, miraculously, no more hip pain.

Why didn’t I know about this?

In the last years of your life, Mother, you couldn’t think straight. You couldn’t understand what was going on in my life, or in yours. I missed you even though you were still alive.

So my dying was a kind of healing. No wonder you want me around, talking to you.

That’s true. It’s been so hard not having you to connect with, not being able to complain to you about our disastrous political situation.

I gather things are pretty bad. In your poem you keep referring to “the Man made of Greed,” who seems to be a demon in your world. You’re praying to goddesses and quoting scripture, invoking Lady Fortuna and ending on this difficult image:

Destiny is a frayed rope
holding onto the boat
as seas rise…

Mother of Changes    hold on to us

But the truth is, Mother adds, always practical, I can’t hold on to you. I’m dead.

Tibetan Buddhist Mandala

Glacial Blue

                                                           Maybe it’s time
to visit the gods    who live here    among the people
of the tides    and the earthquakes    among the ravens
and the eagles    the bears    and the whales       They speak little
wear a bemused expression    on their animal faces
their rock faces      They will not answer your questions
about fast glacial flow    or the Black Hole
—“Glacial Blue” (first published in Origins)

Tlinget Totem Pole

Mother, do you remember when you went to Alaska, how you loved it? You were on an Elder Hostel trip, saw glaciers and whales, saw reindeer and bear in Denali. When Dan and I went, recently, I kept remembering your joy as I discovered my own enchantment with this land. I wrote this poem about it.

So how is this a poem about origins?

It’s about the origins of Alaska, the people that populated the north before white people came. In that way it is about the origins of America, its first peoples, its creatures, its glorious wilderness and habitat, the gods who inhabited its soul. It’s also about the origins of creativity, at least mine, which emerges from my great capacity to get lost. Come to think of it, that is part of the origin story of America—Columbus thought he was heading to India. When you let yourself get lost the unknown, the unconscious, can enter.

I like the story of that lost sea captain in your poem:

Our ship sits in the mouth of Disenchantment Bay
named by a lost sea captain looking for
the North West Passage

But your tone gets so dire when you write about the world you’re losing:

But as we lose    the world we know      As the news cycle
spins continuous sagas    of skullduggery    thuggery
every day a new catastrophe     while Google
plots Augmented Reality    and the Internet of Things
hands us over to the ‘bots      I hear a voice say  Maybe it’s time
to get lost    due North    where you’ve never been before    time
for the Inside Passage    to mist your soul    with glacial blue

—“Glacial Blue” (first published in Origins)

Whoever’s voice that is, speaking in you, is advising you well. It is time for wilderness, for hump backed whales and eagles, for what the native gods know that you’ve long ago forgotten. I’m glad you’ve got wise inner companions, because I’m dead, and it’s time for me to go now, and do what dead folks do.

What do dead folks do Mother? What do you do when you’re not talking to me? Are you still a sun worshipper?

Mother in the sun

She’s gone, leaving me to honor her in my way. There will be more poems for you Mother, more getting lost in reveries of origin. There will be a Jahrzeit candle, and me meditating on the mountain we both love—Denali, the Great One—remembering that line in Judy Grahn’s funeral poem:

“When you were dead I said you had gone to the mountain.” (Love Belongs, p. 91)


Friday, October 19, 2018

The Muse of Women’s Rage

The Furies embody the dark side of the binding power of eros, the madness of blood betrayed, the primal affective cry when one’s substance and identity are denied.
The Book of Symbols
In the fury of women lies the power to change the world. —Rebecca Traister
Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger
The Ghost of Clytemnesta Awakening the Furies.
Painting by John Dowman (1750-1824)

Whose Fury?

I am still reeling from the Kavanaugh hearings a few weeks ago. I watched them soon after Dan and I had returned from a magical time in Venice. Unplugged from the news, we had been absorbed in a luminous watery world of incandescent canals, boats, cobblestone streets, arched bridges and the heady freedom of no cars. We wandered the mazes of the ancient city, held in place by masses of great tree trunks fastened to the mud deep below. We meandered, got lost, got found, got lost again, found ourselves in a mass of human bodies packed on a vaporetto full of fellow tourists joining our delight in this glorious world. You could tell the native Venetians. They were the ones with the bored looks on their faces. The rest of us were in an enchantment.

Our time in Venice had been a retreat, a purification, a cleansing of the soul. By luck we had happened on an exhibition—Idoli: The Power of Images—of ancient clay figures, including many I’ve marveled at in books. I was heartened, strengthened, in this time of patriarchal strongmen taking over our world, to find myself overcome, again, by the luminous power of the goddess, so recently returned to us through archeological excavations. I was reminded of the work of Marija Gimbutas in particular, who has awakened so many of us to our deep roots in the feminine. 

Idoli Exhibition
I was reminded of my first intimations of the Goddess, as a young woman in India, and later as a young woman returned to America in the late 1960s, when news of our ancient divinity began to illuminate our lives and experiences. The patriarchy was coming to its end, we told each other. The power of women would prevail. It didn’t go the way we’d expected.

Something happened to me watching those hearings. It was as though a plug of mucous shot out of my throat and made way for a muse I have denied most of my life—the Muse of Women’s Rage. I grew up under the archetypal shadow of a patriarchal father’s rage. My father was a refugee Jew from Germany. In my child consciousness father and Hitler were merged. His fury ruled our home, made it a terrifying place, made my mother’s shoulders slump, her eyes fill with tears, dragged my brothers by the ears, sent my own anger deep into hiding in the basement of my soul. My father hated angry women. He said they had “hair on their teeth.” I convinced myself that anger did not become me. 

Incandescent with Rage

Watching the morning session of the Kavanaugh hearings, feeling the power of Blasey Ford’s painful testimony, and how it was blown to smithereens by an afternoon full of hectoring, furious white men, made me, to borrow a phrase from Rebecca Traister’s opinion piece in the NYTimes Sunday Review “incandescent with rage and sorrow and horror.” (“Fury is a Political Weapon” Sept. 30, 2018) I’m not used to managing this kind of feeling. I find Traister’s opinion piece, and her new book Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, very helpful. She argues that rage can be fuel for political and creative engagement. Like fire, rage can be used to illuminate, to cook, to create a clay goddess, and it can be used to destroy. I found her advice strengthening, encouraging. In her opinion piece she wrote:
If you’ve been feeling a new rage at the flaws of this country and you want to change your life in order to change the world, then I have something incredibly important to say: Don’t forget how this feels. 
Tell a friend, write it down, explain it to your children now, so they will remember.
Clearly I have to change my life by owning my rage. Clearly I have to use my words; they are my tools. I offer you this poem—my expression of the rage of women. I say to you who read this: If this poem speaks to you, please send it on to your friends and your kin. Urge them to vote, to get others to vote in our upcoming midterm elections, perhaps the most consequential elections of our lifetime. I urge you and your friends to support Emily’s List, which supports women candidates all over the country. Whatever is your mode of political expression, use it to voice your feelings about our frightening times.

Me Too
September 27th 2018

All of us are you   Christine   in this moment
All of us in tears   because that’s what we do when we’re mad
All of us took off the day    to watch you tell
what few of us have ever dared to tell
All of our eyes dart   from senator   to prosecutor
Prosecutor?     Whose nightmare is this?

Some of us watched Anita Hill face those same   white men
those same    dead fish eyes     a generation ago Anita was so
self possessed    Not one hair    went astray    in her careful do
while your scared hair    Christine    blows around    tangles
in your eye glass frames     tries to hide
the terrified fifteen year old in you we all are
For who of us has not felt    that heavy hand over our mouth
Who of us has not feared    death by suffocation?
Who of us has not heard    that nasty laughter?

Shirley Chisholm locked herself in chambers      Wept her rage
at those old boys    who dismissed     diminished betrayed her
They could not tolerate     a black woman    running for president
Who of us did not feel    primordial fear    when Hillary spoke up
while the guy with that schlong of a tie    stalked her mocked her
Who of us did not feel the hot tongs    of the Inquisitor
when in the Quicken Loans Arena    in Cleveland    in 2016
a guy with a tie incited the crowd to    “Lock Her Up!”    “Lock Her Up!”

All of us know what happens    to those who refuse to do
the patriarchal dance     of diffidence
We’re stalked    pilloried    diagnosed as disturbed
in the womb     We bleed from our eyes
Well you’re showing them    Christine    not one iota
of rage    not a drop of disturbance    You make sweet and pliant
eye contact    name your terror    though sometimes we glimpse
the owl in your soul    how your roots reach down     to your own hard truth

You’re a flower in a fierce wind    pulling petals in close    until
storm over    goddess willing    you rise
to your full stature    dismiss the security detail    return
to your everyday home    with its two front doors    teach psychology
make dinner    walk the dog    help the boys with their homework

But this is not the end of it      Your dance of diffidence
settles nothing      He’s back    the one we all remember from forever
beating his chest    roaring       No one stops
his predatory attack    his entitled engorgement     for which we are
a handy piece of flesh    to be grabbed    groped    banged    nailed
                                                                                                     to a broken
                                                                                                                             of the tree

All of us know    what he’s not saying
that we’re witches    bitches     we are let’s say it aloud
CUNTS      And what is a cunt    but a portal    into a new world
we all come through     unless Caesar gets his way
and what is a witch    but a woman of power
who knows her own nature    is a part of all nature

In my dream    a brilliant black girl paints the world    in every living color
She’s Changing Woman    Woman of the Craft    Woman becoming us all
She runs strong    as a wild horse    dodges rocks and fissures     Maybe
it’s your dream Christine    and we’re all with you    on the wings of the owl
in the deepest part of the woods    where the oak grove remembers
the ones we were before
                                                                              we were grabbed groped banged nailed

                                                                              Naomi Ruth Lowinsky

Changing Woman

Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Muse of Good News

In Bad Times
Good news is essential medicine, especially in bad times. We live in outraged, heartbroken, burnt out times as we pass through the first anniversary of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally that turned deadly. Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, the young woman who was killed by a neo-Nazi backing driving into a peaceful counter demonstration, was on the radio. She has created a foundation, with the help of many who mourn her daughter, which will provide scholarships to young people with Heather’s activist values. Heather understood about inequality and racism. Her mother wants her legacy to grow and thrive. Bro said:
Unfortunately, we’re still at such a racial divide that it took a white girl dying for white people to wakeup and pay attention," she said. People of color, she said, "have been fighting this fight for many years – this is not news to them.
In the way that good can sometimes emerge out of horror, the white supremacist rally that was organized on the anniversary of Charlottesville at Lafayette Square in Washington D.C., not far from the White House, was a bust for the alt–right. Only some two-dozen people showed up. It was a triumph for the counter demonstrators who were thousands strong, and who shifted the conversation to the real issues of mass incarceration, inequality, and systemic racism.

Holy Smoke!
Meanwhile, back on the west coast, California is on fire, again. At last count twenty fires were burning all over our state. They intrude on our state of mind, trigger memories of last October’s fires, of dear friends who lost their home. Smoke fills the air, makes it hard to breath, smothers our sacred Mount Diablo, drapes the sky in veils of ash. What have we done to our earth? Who came up with the name “holy” for that fire in Orange County? Holy smoke! Holy terror! Holy moly! Holy cow! Holy crap on a cracker!

The word holy comes from word roots than mean whole, heal, health, and sacred. Fire is a dangerous god, demanding sacrifice, an essential god who warms the hearth, an out of control god who reminds us how little control we have, a healing god who opens seed pods in the forest, growing new life. How to keep faith with such a god when our world is in flames and the Holy Fire threatens our way of life. The governor says: “this is the new normal.” He knows, what our president refuses to acknowledge, that fires in the west and floods in the east are, at least partially, a function of climate change.

I find myself responding gratefully to small stories of good news. The word “good” comes from roots meaning to unite, to gather, to bring together, as Susan Bro is working to do in her daughter’s name, as the firefighters are doing as they work to contain gigantic flames. The word “news,” of course, speaks to what Jung called “The Spirit of the Times,” the New, the Now. There are many oases of goodness in our lives. The Heather Heyer Foundation is good news. The counter demonstrators at Lafayette Square are good news. The firefighters who fight for our wildlands and homes are good news. We need to remember the values of unity, of gathering together in this fractured moment in our history. Here are a few of my recent “good news” experiences.

Holy Vegetables
In Broad Ripple, a magical section of Indianapolis along the Monon Rail Trail, where there is no longer a train, but where people run, bike, walk, push their strollers past beautiful vegetable gardens, where chard, kale, basil, and beets reach luminous leaves to the sun amidst marigolds and other flowering plants which attract the honeybees whose hive is tucked in among all the vegetative glory. Butterflies dance in the warm air; young mothers push their baby carriages into the Public Greens, the restaurant side of this idyllic farm–to– table tableaux.

It’s Saturday. Brunch is being served. The young mothers and fathers have brought their babies into the restaurant. They will have eggs cooked with fresh greens, herbs and tomatoes from the garden—a treat for them after sleepless nights and too much to do.

It’s our first time back to this restaurant since Mother died. We’ve come to visit family, and we feel the big hole in our midst. But here, watching a toddler pull his little book out of his mother’s bag with intense focus, I feel my mother’s pleasure in young children. I’m moved by the values expressed in this place, which in conjunction with the Patachou Foundation is feeding the children who suffer food inequality in this town.

Mother, if I could visit you as you used to be, I’d take so much pleasure in telling you about this program of the Public Greens, the tote bags for sale that say: “Real Food Belongs in All Zip Codes.” I can see your eyes brighten, a smile crease your face. If you were here with me, you’d turn yourself toward the little ones, sit quietly, and the children would be drawn to you like bees to a flower. They’d show you their favorite book, their teddy, their binky. You’d emit that sweet observant calm I miss so much. You’d murmur something and they would respond with all the language they have. On the way out you would exclaim about the glowing health of the chard, the tomatoes, the flowers. You’d watch the beekeeper put on her white veil to open the hive and gather honey. “It is so beautiful here” you would say. I would agree, and we would wander together through Broad Ripple, along the Monon trail, and that great empty hole in me would be filled with your presence.

One Nation, Indivisible
I don’t usually love the Fourth of July. I hate firecrackers. They seem crazy dangerous to me in our parched land. I don’t like jingoism and patriotic flag waving. But Dan prevailed upon me to join him at the Fourth of July parade in our small suburban town of Pleasant Hill. Dan is the activist in the family. He knows everyone in the political life of this town, shows up often at City Council meetings and was instrumental in the City Council's creating a "welcoming" policy toward immigrants, meaning that the police won’t co-operate with ICE in deporting or holding immigrants unless the immigrant has committed a serious crime. He goes to meetings and tells our refugee family stories of illegal immigration, how his father went AWOL from the anti–Semitic Polish army as a young man, and stole his way to America with false papers, how my parents and grandparents stole their way out of Nazi Europe, with false papers, had to live in Cuba for 18 months because the US was not letting Jews in, and eventually made their way to America.

Dan enticed me to come with him to the parade by saying we‘d be walking with the “Indivisible” float. Indivisible is a grassroots progressive political movement to engage people in the political process at a local level and stir up resistance to current administration policies. Its name connotes the goodness of gathering together to save our democracy, and to work for “liberty and justice for all.” Those are words we’ve often said automatically. How consequential they seem to us now. I’ve heard many stories from Dan about Indivisible and its brilliant women leaders. They are good news.

That’s how I found myself walking with members of our family, waving flags, and handing out red white and blue plastic leis to a diverse and good humored crowd full of families with young children and oldsters sitting on fold up chairs. The Indivisible float was not supposed to be overtly political, so the theme of the “Blue Wave” was translated into a glittering, glowing beach scene draped over someone’s truck. Turns out those brilliant women are also creative.

The best news for me, however, was the sight of a patrol car rolling slowly along, filled with brown skinned children laughing and waving, looking entirely at ease with their policeman host. The best news for Indivisible was: they won the prize for best float!

Holy Moly!
Who could have predicted this? Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old first generation Puerto Rican, ran against a well-established congressman, Joe Crowley from Queens, NY, and won. She calls herself a democratic socialist, worked for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 election, stands for Health Care for All, College for All. She speaks truth to power, hope to fearful ruts of consciousness; she says:
It’s not OK to put donors before your community.
This nation is never too broken to fix.
We have to do this together.
The 16 year old socialist in my soul, the one whose heart throb was the early twentieth century socialist candidate for president Eugene Debs, is cheering wildly. She has, over the years, been drowned out by the sadder but wiser voice of my mature self. Now she’s holding forth like the Parkland kids:

Why can’t we stop gun violence? Why can’t we have health care and college for all? Why shouldn’t we have a big shift to the left in this crucial moment in our democracy? Your democratic party has been shifting right for decades. Ocasio-Cortez is a new kind of socialist, not ideological. She speaks from the heart. She’s down to earth: she’s pragmatic. And anyway both you and Dan come from her district, you both lived in Queens as children. Eugene Debs ran on the socialist ticket five times. He said things that are so true today, a hundred years later:
I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence. 
To stir the masses, to appeal to their higher, better selves, to set them thinking for themselves, and to hold ever before them the ideal of mutual kindness and good will, based upon mutual interests, is to render real service to the cause of humanity.
Do something for me, the young socialist in your soul, who hasn’t had a voice for decades: Give Ocasio-Cortez the last word in this blog, for she is truly good news!

“You have given this country hope, you have given this country proof that when you knock on your neighbor's door, when you come to them with love, when you let them know that no matter your stance, you are there for them — that we can make change.”