Discovering & Reclaiming the Joy, Intelligence, and Beauty
of Feminine Knowing
“I keep forgetting that I am alive.” - Benita
This is Benita. She is at a threshold. This is not her first threshold, but it is her last––at least as this woman, in this life, and who she has become over the past, we think, 97 years. “I keep forgetting that I am alive.” This is one of the first things Benita says to us. Benita is blind and lives with her younger sister, Manuela, who is deaf. They swing quietly in their hammocks in their small home at the top of a steep staircase that climbs from the town center in the Polochic Valley in the mountains of Guatemala. The fire on the floor is almost out; a thin smoke, like incense, wafts through the light cracking through the stick walls. Benita tells us that life now feels like the dream––her sense of reality shifts as she approaches the final threshold. It’s been awhile since anyone has sung to her. She misses singing. She hears our voices. Manuela does not. As I look at these sisters, I think about these lines from an Octavio Paz poem:
I hear within what I see outside.
I see within what I hear outside.
Manuela does not hear; she sees. Can she hear within what she sees outside?
Benita does not see; she hears. Can she see within what she hears outside?
I hear within what I see outside
I see within what I hear outside
Benita’s sight no longer responds to external stimulation––to light. Perhaps she is seeing on the inside what she is hearing on the outside––most of it silence in her quiet days. “I keep forgetting that I am alive.”
We find out that, in addition to longing for and forgetting how to sing, that she once had a child. But the child died very young because “its spirit was frightened away.” This is how the Q’eqchi’ explain death––the spirit is scared out of a person and leaves the body, causing illness, and if not properly treated, ultimately, the frightened will leave forever, and death takes them. Q’eqchi’ women are the healers, the midwives of health in their communities.
When Benita’s child fell ill, they would have tried to identify where and what had scared the child’s spirit away in order to call it back. They never did find the source of the child’s fright, and her child crossed the threshold to death long before Benita.
Wisdom Anthologies explores and reveals the thresholds of the feminine archetypes, the Heroine’s Journey through maiden, mother, and sage. At each phase, a soul must cross a threshold. From maiden to mother to sage. What happens at the threshold? What happens at those spaces between where one archetype dies and gives life to the next?
This is wisdom: to recognize and accept the thresholds as they present themselves. To take your time. To know these thresholds intimately. I believe in thresholds––they are the space between where the living happens, where, as O’Donohue points out, the heart wakes up and engages in a vital pulsating of confusion, fear, excitement, sadness, hope. My own experience at thresholds has been rooted in a quiet stillness as everything swirls around me––observing the emotions and thoughts that move through me, knowing that, in a moment of great stillness, I will cross over the threshold. It is common knowledge for musicians that the music happens between the notes––it is how we mind the spaces, the places in between that will create the song of our life that will continue to resonate throughout this earth and our loved ones, even as we cross the threshold from matriarch to death.
Why begin the journey of Wisdom Anthologies at the final threshold of a life, with the matriarchs? Why not begin with the maidens and follow a natural progression of growth? I get mixed reactions when I tell people that I want to interview women on the threshold of death. Some immediately tell me I should interview their grandmother in excitement and tell me how much I’ll love her. And so I do. Others think that what I’m doing is morbid and deeply sad. I get a sense that they associate aging with only the loss, frailty, and loneliness that comes with age. Why is my response to women at the threshold one of curiosity, excitement, and awe? Why do I ache to spend so much time with my elderwomen?
Since I was a girl, I had a subconscious understanding that sage women, which I loosely define as women over 70 years of age, had a knowing that could heal me. They were the ones reassuring me that everything would turn out all right, that I didn’t have to achieve greatness to be loved, to honor the ebb and flow of generosity and receptivity, and that there was a lot of reason for laughter in this absurd world.
They seem to say, why waste your time worrying and hurrying? Slow down. It has always been their honesty, their pace of ease, and their bodies that carry so much creation and loss that has pulled me toward them. For this reason, I have always looked forward to aging––to knowing what they know after a life of devotion to this world and tending to the relationships that bind us and the joy and the sorrow that make a heart holy.
My elderwomen, and I feel they are mine and I am theirs, are on the threshold of death. And they know it. Somehow I sense that this is Wisdom––to know our limit, accept it, and live out our days honest, simple, joyful, true.
This project is also highly influenced by The story I became obsessed with as a girl and took with me all the through my graduate school studies and continue to explore:
Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The element that did and will always lead me to a state of awe and wonder is this: Eve chose death. She chose mortality. I never bought into any interpretation that Eve’s decision was a sin. It has always felt profound, brave, and deeply wise. I’ve always believed that her path was what I, too, wanted for myself. To experience for myself the expanse of knowing the full spectrum of a life.
As part of my graduate school research, I spent many months excavating John Milton’s Paradise Lost where I continued my curiosity of The Genesis Story that shaped my culture, and my own personal psyche. John Milton’s questions were my questions? What does it mean to know? How does one become intimate with knowing? In Paradise Lost, Adam spends much of his time visiting with and listening to angels sent from God to instruct the first humans. He righteously anticipates these angelic visits, eager to please his divine father, and to learn, to know. For a while, the couple welcomes these visitors together with a youthful eagerness. The couple is one in heart and mind. Milton describes how the first couple might have gone to bed each night, after a day of devotion to God:
“[Adam and Eve] lulled by nightingales embracing slept,
And on their naked limbs the flow’ry roof
Show’red roses, which the morn repaired. Sleep on
Blest pair; and O yet happiest if ye seek
No happier state, and know to know no more.”
- Paradise Lost, Book IV, 771-775
What a lovely picture, yes? Falling asleep together lulled by nightingales in no need of a happier state, no need to know no more.
But, Eve begins to have dreams––Milton imagines that the dreams are whispered in her ear by Satan while she sleeps, but, again, I’ve never bought into any sort of “beguiled” narrative––I’ve always felt that Eve acted intuitively and bravely. So Eve begins to have dreams. She dreams about the tree. The tree of forbidden knowledge. She dreams that she and Adam eat the fruit of the tree. She tells Adam about the dream. He doesn’t like it, and tells her to forget it. She can’t. As the angels continue to visit them, Eve becomes obsessed with the meals she is making for their heavenly guests––I will haste and from each bough and brake, Each plant the juiciest gourd will pluck such choice To entertain our angel guest, as he Beholding shall confess that here on Earth God hath dispensed his bounties as in Heav’n (V, 326-330)
She wants to be in the garden. She wants to tend to the garden––to watch and observe and feel how life unfolds. For Eve, knowing no longer comes from lectures, let alone sitting alone in silence reading a text. Eve wants to know through living, through relationship with the earth. She wants to know for herself––through an intuitive presence. This desire to know the earth grows within Eve. And she chooses. She eats from tree. And she knows. Wisdom comes from within. And she makes the break with her angelic tutors. As I study this moment with Eve, I am reminded of a few lines from Wallace Steven’s poem Sunday Morning:
Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in fallen snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch.
These are the measures destined for her soul.
Eve wanted to know. To know for herself. And so she makes the choice. She chooses all the measures destined for her soul: passions, grievings, loneliness, loss, unsubdued elations, all pleasures and all pains. Eve chooses the tree. The tree of knowledge. Eve chose Wisdom.
In the earliest years of Jewish religion, temple worship was centered around the Asherah––a tree representing the Queen of Heaven. In about 640 BCE, King Josiah and his followers purged the temple of the Asherah, also known as Wisdom. There were followers who fled King Josiah’s kingdom, upset that he had forbidden worship of the Queen of Heaven, and they believed this would lead to a profound loss of Wisdom that they could not abide.
And so my own personal search for Wisdom is rooted in the stories of my own religious upbringing. I am constantly asking, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? My own personal search continues to draw me toward my elderwomen and the rhythms of the earth––my passion for understanding women and trees is deeply planted.
Recently I read a book by the naturalist David George Haskell called The Song of Trees, and at one point he describes how the death of a tree is a vital process that creates thousands of networks of new life. He writes,
“When a being––a person, a tree, a chickadee––full of memory, conversation, and connection dies, the network of life loses a hub of intelligence and life. For those closely linked to the deceased, the loss is acute. An ecological analog of grief unfolds in the forest: for the other creatures depend on living trees, death ends the relationship that gave them life. The living tree’s partners and foes must all find a new live tree or they will themselves die. Much of the understanding of the forest that dwells embedded in these relationships also passes away. The trees’ particular knowledge of the nature of light, water, wind, and living communities, gained through a lifetime of interaction in one location in the forest, dissolves.
“Yet by catalyzing new life in and around their bodies, dead trees bring about new connections and thus new life. This creative process is not didactic or perceptive. The tree does not pass on what it knew, re-creating a new version of itself. Rather, around and inside the tree, death brings about thousands of interactions, each one exploring ecological opportunity. From this unmanaged, uncontrolled multitude, the next forest emerges, composed of new knowledge embedded in new relationships. Like a lightning rod, the dead tree draws into its body the potential that surrounds it, focusing and intensifying what was diffuse. But unlike lightning, this surge does not flow into the ground and disappear. Life instead feeds on the closeness of connections in the dead tree, increasing in vigor and diversity of expression.
“Our language does a poor job of recognizing this afterlife of trees. Rot, decomposition, punk, duff, deadwood: these are slack words for so vital a process. Rot is a detonation of possibility. Decomposition is renewed composition by living communities. Duff and punk are smelters for new life. Deadwood is effervescent creativity, regenerating as its “self” degenerates into the network.”
And, so we are all trees. I cannot help but connect Eve, the tree she chose, the Asherah in ancient temples, and the trees we are all in relationship with now as we breath in the atmosphere. When I was about 16 or 17 years old, a phrase came to my heart that I have repeated to myself every day since: “I am an age old tree; I am stars in white snow.” I am an age-old tree. Each night as the darkness comes on, I remember death is with me, and each morning, I remember life is with me and I practice resurrection. One of my favorite Margaret Atwood’s poems is called Resurrection:
I see now I see
Now I cannot see
Earth is a blizzard in my eyes
I hear now
The rustle of the snow
The angels listening above me
Thistles bright with sleet
Waiting for the time
To reach me
Up to the pillared
Sun, the final city
Or living towers
Whose dormant stones lie folding
Their holy fire around me
(but the land shifts with frost
And those who have become the stone
Voices of the land
Shift also and say
God is not
The voice in the whirlwind
At the last
Judgement we will all be trees
I see now I cannot see. Benita cannot see––she has a blizzard in her eyes and will soon go the way of the trees. I too will someday approach and cross that threshold. And so I want to sit with Benita and Manuela and hold Manuela’s hand for as long as she wants to, I want to bathe myself in an ecology of living and dying. I want to sit with all the women at the threshold, in all their holiness. Benita cannot see me, but I see her. You see her. Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? We begin with the elderwomen. This is Wisdom Anthologies.
And we did sing for Benita.