It is with great pleasure that I introduce you to my guest blogger, Elaine Mansfield. Elaine and I met about 15 years ago at the Winter Park Jung Center where her husband Vic made a presentation about his newest book. Talking over dinner afterwards, Elaine and I discovered that we had many interests in common, including dreamwork, women’s issues, and mythological studies. We have stayed in touch ever since. The following piece is an especially poignant example of how her inner work helped her through Vic’s cancer and death:
While my husband Vic began chemotherapy in 2006, I absorbed Rainer Maria Rilke’s message in Sonnets to Orpheus: within the darkness of our experience, there is always light. Rilke praised the impermanence of the natural world where all that is born dies. Vic and I lived and loved as he—and we—were also dying.
Ah, the knowledge of impermanence
That haunts our days
Is their very fragrance.
During that chemotherapy autumn while my safe world collapsed around me, I studied Rilke’s sonnets and the myth of Orpheus in a mythology class. Vic struggled, suffered, and kept going. In the chemotherapy room, I watched brave women with scarves askew, bony men with smooth skulls, and angry teenagers with oversized baseball caps concealing their baldness. I saw how each patient balanced their darkness with a call from a friend, the smile of a nurse or companion, or music on their IPod. As I held Vic, the myth held me and taught me what it means to be mortal and live in this world of opposites.
Rilke’s words helped me accept as toxins entered Vic’s veins.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
Orpheus and the breath of life
Rilke helped me see that death is always present in my experience, even in pleasure.
Full round apple, peach, pear, blackberry
Each speaks life and death
into the mouth.
Searching for life and light within the darkness of Vic’s dying became my spiritual practice.
For almost twenty-five years I’d been part of a mythology class with women grounded in Jungian Psychology. We studied the Greek goddesses and gods, a few Eastern European and Asian fairytales, and Inanna’s descent to the underworld to be initiated into the mysteries of Death. Soon after Vic was diagnosed, a class member spotted Sonnets to Orpheus in a bookstore window and suggested we explore the myth of Orpheus.
Orpheus was a demigod, musician, poet, and prophet in ancient Greek mythology. After his beloved wife Eurydice died, he traveled to the Underworld to play his lyre, sing his lament, and gain Eurydice’s release. The beauty of his song convinced Hades and Persephone to grant her freedom, but Orpheus was told not to look back at Eurydice until they were in the Light. Being at least partly human, he glanced back and lost his Love forever to Death.Our group met twice a month and worked on one sonnet each meeting for over two years since there are 55 sonnets. We explored the mythic ideas, read many translations, studied various versions of the Orphic myth, and painted the poetic images—the god, a tree, a lyre. We also included images from personal experiences in our drawings. Within the vessel of this archetypal myth, Rilke’s poems, and a circle of wise, loving women, I remembered that my world of heightened opposites held just as much living as dying.
A gust in the god. A wind.
But life holds mystery for us yet. In a hundred places
we can still sense the source: a play of pure powers
that—when you feel it—brings you to your knees.
Elaine Mansfield’s writing reflects 40 years as a student of philosophy, Jungian psychology, mythology and meditation, and life on 71 acres of woods, fields, and sunset views in the Finger Lakes of New York. Since her husband’s death in 2008, Elaine’s website and blog have focused on bereavement, marriage, and the challenges and joys of her emerging life. Elaine has written a book about love, loss, and new life to be published in 2014. She facilitates hospice support groups for women who have lost partners or spouses and writes for the Hospicare and Palliative Care of Tompkins County newsletter and website and other on line publications.
Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry is from In Praise of Mortality: Selections from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus.
Original art by Elaine Mansfield.