Keeping Score June 11, 2013
A BIG black spider crosses the porch toward me. What if it climbs up my leg while I’m absorbed in my book? My territory. I consider stepping on it. This feels harsh. Maybe I’ll just relocate it. I slide a piece of paper under it but it leaps onto the nearby wall and scuttles beneath a plank of cedar siding. I turn my rocking chair to watch. Why did it come here? Is it looking for food? A place to weave a web?
“When you have the experience, don’t miss the meaning.” John O’Donohue
This area of the Smoky Mountains is home to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, a culture rich with legends about animal helpers and teachers. In “Living Stories of the Cherokee” by Barbara R. Duncan, storyteller Kathi Smith Littlejohn tells about a time long ago when there was no fire and everything was dark and cold. The animals knew there was fire on the other side of the world so they decided to get some. Buzzard went first, but when he tried to carry hot coals back on the top of his head, he burned all the feathers off. The little black snake, who wasn’t black then, tried next, but the only place he could carry coals was on the back of his neck and it burned his body black all the way down. To this day he’s still black.
Then Grandmother Spider said, “I’ll get the fire.” Of course, the other animals laughed at her, but she said, “I may be small, but I’ll get it. You watch me.” So she went to the river and made a little pot of clay. She carried it on her back to the other side of the world, put some hot coals into the pot, and carried them back. That’s how she brought fire to this side of the world and gave the Cherokee people the idea of making pottery.
The mythological motif of the smallest one succeeding when others fail is universal. It teaches that when your intention is sincere and benevolent, fierce determination, careful observation, and creative thinking count more than size, age, gender or physical strength. Can I learn something from careful observation and creative thinking about this spider?
I watch her explorations until I lose her. What did I learn? I think back. I’ve been worrying that my preoccupation with writing dulls my appreciation for the life and beauty that surround me so I came out to the porch to get out of my Mind. One point for Nature. But I brought a book with me! One point for Mind.
My first instinct was to kill the spider. Instincts are Nature. Point. But when I recognized my instinctive response I decided to spare her. Choosing to override an instinct comes from the Mind. Point.
I reflected on this experience. Reflection is both Nature (according to Jung it’s a natural human instinct) and Mind (it requires a deliberate choice to use cognitive skills). Point. Point.
Three points each so far. But here’s the tie-breaker: I took notes! Then I turned the experience into another blog post. Darn! My writer animus is relentless! As usual, Mind trumps Matter.
I worry. Is this imbalance in my personality a bad thing? Just as taking action satisfied Grandmother Spider’s need to bring life-giving fire to her community, writing satisfies my need to understand myself and help others acquire self-knowledge. So what’s the difference between us? I worry about which aspects of my personality are dark, which are bright, and which side’s winning. She’s too busy doing her thing to worry. Here’s Grandmother Spider’s message to me: “Keeping score is more appropriate to gaming than living. Your job is not to perfect every aspect of your personality; it’s to do the work you are uniquely suited to.”
Re-Stocking and Moving On August 24, 2012
The property on which our family’s summer home sits in North Carolina was purchased over 40 years ago by my husband’s 101 year-old father and his second wife. Yes, he’s alive and living comfortably with Winn, his third wife! This amazing man is the son of a poor Italian immigrant who arrived at Ellis Island in the first decade of the 20th century. His bride-to-be, who was hand-picked for him by his brother back in Italy, arrived the next year.
Grandpa and Grandma Raffa’s four sons became well-respected citizens who led long and happy lives. After my father-in-law’s first wife Julia—my husband’s mother for whom our daughter was named—needlessly bled to death after birthing their second child, Tony eventually remarried and moved to Florida to establish a medical practice with his younger brother Nick. As far as my husband and I, our children, five grandchildren, and various in-laws who now also live in Florida are concerned, the tragedy of Julia’s death was transformed into countless miracles of new life and creative opportunity.
Tony and his second wife, Helen, found their way to the North Carolina property through friends and fell in love with it. Each summer for many years they pulled a silver Air Stream up from Florida and lived with their children in a nearby RV camp. From there they’d drive up the mountain, ford the bold creek, and explore this wild land.
In those days there was one small cleared site. It contained an old stone root cellar built into the mountain, a dilapidated barn, a source of fresh spring water, and an electrical hook-up for the the trailer the former residents had lived in. The clearing was surrounded by giant hemlocks, white pine, native rhododendrons, an outhouse, and wild blueberry bushes on either side of an old animal trail which wound through the woods. Helen’s discovery of an arrowhead suggested it had once been used by the Cherokee.
Beside the clearing was a huge hole 10 or 15 feet deep and dozens of yards across. The former residents had hopes of turning it into a trout pond for tourists, but despite the rains and fresh spring water that emptied into it, it never held more than a few stagnant puddles. Years later we plugged the leaks and stocked the new pond with trout. Helen was too ill to travel by then, so she never saw it. Despite Tony’s worries that it would become an “attractive nuisance” that would end in tragedy for unwary neighbor children, the pond has been a great source of pleasure, especially to our grandchildren who love to watch the trout fling themselves at food which, to them, must seem miraculously to fall like manna from heaven every summer.
We consider the trout pets and never catch or eat them, but there are those who think differently. When we return each summer there are always several missing. Last week we came across the headless body of a huge 3-year old lying in the nearby pasture. Neighbors speculate it may have been the victim of a great blue heron, or perhaps the magnificent bald eagle who’s taken up residence nearby. This is always upsetting, especially for the grandchildren, but in the end we re-stock and move on.
Carl Jung said of the violent changes that regularly occur both in the psyche and in the world, “The grand plan on which the unconscious life of the psyche is constructed is so inaccessible to our understanding that we can never know what evil may not be necessary in order to produce good by enantiodromia, [swings in opposite directions] and what good may very possibly lead to evil.”
I find it almost impossible to judge a thing either blessing or tragedy any more. I wonder if I’ll still feel that way after the next election!
The Alpha Mare April 18, 2010
The archetypal Crone represents many valuable qualities. One of these, leadership, is aptly symbolized by the Alpha mare. In herds of horses, the leader is almost always a mature mare. While the stallion is the physically strongest and most aggressive male who mates with the females and protects himself, his herd, and his territory by keeping intruders away, he is not the wisest, most trusted horse in the herd nor is he the dominant leader who makes the others feel safe and secure.
The Alpha mare does not command respect because she is youngest, prettiest, most charming, physically strongest, or the stallion’s favorite, but because her age and vast experience have made her confident, mentally strong, and savvy in the ways of survival. The other horses follow her because she makes wise decisions. She socializes the younger horses and teaches them to be obedient, leads the herd to food and water, and guides it to safety when threatened by predators. Of all the horses in the herd, male and female, young and old, the Alpha mare is the one who knows best how to preserve the species.
There was once a time when groups of people sat at the feet of Crones, respectfully seeking their guidance and benefitting from their wisdom. The Cheyenne tell a story about “The Old Woman of the Spring” who gave them the buffalo and horse and taught them to plant corn.
In the tale “Grandmother Spider Steals the Sun,” Spider Woman brought the sun, fire, and art of pottery-making to the Cherokee. Old Salt Woman gave the Cochiti the magical blessing of salt, in the form of some of her own flesh, to make their food taste better.
The Brule Sioux say that when a grandmother prayed for a sacred herb to save the Comanche nation, a spirit told her where to find Grandfather Peyote and how to use it. She brought it back to her people and gave them the ceremony, and from that moment on, they learned to know themselves.
The Tiwa tell of Apache Chief to whom Spider Old Woman gave special medicine and Gopher Old Woman gave secret knowledge that helped him retrieve his lost wife. Such stories speak to the reverence native peoples had for the elder women whose lengthy life experience and intimate relationship with nature sacralized their lives and improved their chances for survival.
As the Sky God replaced the Earth Goddess as our primary source of spiritual guidance and meaning, our respect for Crone wisdom diminished in many parts of the world. At the individual level this is occasionally justified. Certainly, not every grandmother has feet at which one would necessarily want to sit! Generations of being separated from all that feels sacred to women has turned some of them into the very worst examples of feminine shadow. These are the wicked witches we hear about in fairy tales, and they should be avoided like poison lest they spread their toxicity to us.
But there are also some Alpha mares out there. We need to seek out these examples of the positive, empowered Crone, for they hold vital secrets that could help us maintain the delicate balance between societal preservation and annihilation.