I don’t know about you, but lately, I feel caught in a stream of polarities, like a bug caught in two spider webs. On the world stage, our politics emerge in black and white, either/or versions of reality: climate change is a hoax/ California is so committed to climate change they will negotiate on their own with other nations…the Russians are our allies/ We will enter a new arms race and beat the hell out of them…. Women are objects of powerful male’s desires/Women are powerful, valuable beings who can win the popular vote for president of the United States.
How do we find a place to live sanely in such a split apart world?
One way to understand it is to look at the psychology of patriarchy. Dominance is powered by the righteous beliefs of the ruling oligarchy: one side must be Right, the other horribly Wrong.
However, there is an ancient wisdom that runs on a very different fuel, a wisdom expressed in many cultures and mythologies. In their seminal work, Dancing in the Flames: the Dark Goddess and the Transformation of Consciousness, Marion Woodman and Elinor Dickson write of the ancient Indian goddess, Kali. Possessing four arms, she holds tools of destruction in each hand: a saber, a man’s head, a bowl of blood, a spear. Yet her head is surrounded by a halo, attesting to her role as the Goddess of Light: she who transforms destruction into creation. Kali is not about black and white, either/or. She is one body, one consciousness: both/and.
This view of reality is corroborated by quantum physics (matter is at once a particle and a wave) and chaos theory (unity emerging from the chaos of the natural world). Yet it holds little weight with those who can ignore science, much less understand the subtle interactions of the human mind and soul. The reality of paradox is threatening to those who would dominate through a winner-take-all view of the world.
What can we do? We who observe this but feel powerless to change it? We can protest. We can give to empowering organizations. But, also, this vision of Kali can be brought much closer to home, into the everyday, sacred moments of our own lives.
Kali invites us to embrace the wisdom of paradox, of both/and. It also opens us to a new interpretation of loss. If death and birth emanate from one source, our own lives a molecule of meaning on a path through this life cycle, we can come to experience loss, not only as inevitable, but as unsentimental, as necessary. Death makes way for birth and re-birth, in the physical world, and in the human heart.
In the final week of my father’s life, his baby sister, my Aunt Doris, came to the hospital from her home many miles away. I had not seen her since childhood. In my father’s final ten days, we spent every waking hour together. We discovered each other anew, adult to adult. She had a deep spiritual belief balanced by her cool, scientific mind. We went on to nourish our close relationship over the next thirty years.
My father’s death was devastating to me, a loss I grieve to this day. But the vivid dreams his death inspired, and the desperate curiosity it awakened in my young mind, led me to graduate school in psychology, and to my profession as a psychotherapist. My father’s death was, in a very real sense, the birth of my soul.
It also brought Aunt Doris into my life.
Fast forward thirty years, to a hot Arizona summer in 2012, when I visited her, after she had suffered a stroke. I recently discovered this piece I wrote at that time, the last I would spend with her before Alzheimer’s consumed her once so luminous mind:
Her eyes, one more open than the other, dominate the bones of her face.
“It’s you,” she whispers. “You’re here.”
I kiss her cheek. Tell her how beautiful she is; stroke her soft white hair.
She touches my gray strands with effort. “You are so young.”
Her slender form is like leaves resting on the ground.
“I have thoughts I cannot finish,” she says.
“I was always so—-“
“Independent,” I finish.
“Always. Where is the future?” she asks.
I say, “Be here now.”
Her chin shakes, “I still know you—“
“Yes, “ I touch the soft skin beneath her eyes.
“You’ve always been one of my favorite people, “ she says.
“You’re the mother I never had,” I whisper.
She pulls herself to stand, with great effort. I slide the walker into her hands.
“Thank you,” she says. “I keep —“
“Forgetting to use it,” I finish.
“I’m losing it,” she says.
“It’s okay,” I say, knowing it is. Knowing it is not.
She died a year later. Her death foreshadowed the struggle in me to accept my own aging body, and embrace my identity as a crone. As defined by Woodman and Dickson the crone is the wise woman who is whole unto herself. She may need to depend on others to open a heavy door for her, or pull her up out of the lava rocks along the beach, but her mind and soul are simultaneously embracing new energy, depth, and imagination. A virgin forest coming alive, even as the leaves shrivel and will ultimately fall.
I sometimes hear Doris’s voice in my mind, dispensing her home-grown humor and wise counsel. At other times, I whisper to her as I go for a walk, or stand in line at the grocery store. It makes me happy to see her in my mind, to imagine her response as I share some new revelation about how to live on this earth with four arms. “You have to balance all the paradoxes, “ I say, putting the soy milk on the conveyor belt, “Like Kali, dancing with all the losses, welcoming the new growth…”.
Going into 2017, I believe the best way to co-exist with the patriarchy is to fully embody all the passions of a creative life: our both/and, seeing in every death, the opportunity for something new to be born.
How have you experienced this in your own life? What birth, however subtle, has come from a death, however necessary?