Monthly Archives: April 2016

On trust

Sometimes the Magpie gets stumped, and this is one of those times. I didn’t have any idea what I was going to write about for this post, so I asked a bunch of good Facebook friends of mine to throw me a word to maybe spark things off.

And I was given the word: Trust.

So we’ll go with that.

Trust. What’s it all about?

We usually talk about it in terms of our relationships with other people. We believe people will do what they say they’ll do, that they’ll come through for us, that they have our backs – or we don’t. If we don’t, that suspicion runs through our relationships, and makes it hard to interact with others.

Some years back when I was with a fringe theatre company, we used to do exercises to build trust between cast members. Falling back into your group’s arms, that kind of thing. During that split-second when gravity’s doing its job, you learn who your friends are – or who you think they are. Can you relax, make yourself vulnerable, and trust them not to drop you? That’s the real issue, perhaps, in all our relationships.

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But really, our trust in other people stems back from an even more basic kind of trust. And so does its absence.

People of a certain age may recall the poem Desiderata (which, totally coincidentally, turned up in my Facebook feed just after I’d written the first draft of this post, in this excellent cartoon version), and its triumphant coda:

You are a child of the Universe, no less than the trees or the stars.
You have a right to be here.

But if a child is raised in a negative, harmful way, they may have trouble believing that they do have a right to be here. Obviously, kids who are deprived of the very basic necessities – food, shelter, safety – are going to have some big issues. But even kids who have their physical needs met can be deprived in other ways. Maybe they weren’t really wanted, or not at that particular time. Maybe they were the ‘wrong’ gender, or remind the parent too much of a hated ex-spouse or relative. Maybe, as they grow, their personality clashes with the parents’, or they’re judged to be physically unattractive, or their interests or career choices are deemed inappropriate, or they choose a different spiritual path, or they turn out to be gay, or….

There are a myriad of reasons why a child may be rejected, by their family or by the world in general – the earlier, the more harmful, but don’t underestimate the damage that can also happen later in a child’s growth. And if you hear the message Don’t be who you are, often enough, and loudly enough, it can sound a lot like Don’t be.

We’re hard-wired, as primates, to cling to those who care for us. Human babies are born with something called the Moro reflex: hold them under the back and lower them suddenly as if they’re falling, and they’ll spread and then clasp their arms. It’s a relic from when our baby ancestors used to cling to their mothers in the trees. Lose your mother back then, in any sense, and you literally died. These days we have a lot less fur to cling to, but the reflex remains.

It does psychologically, too – and that can be disastrous. We have a deep need to believe our primary careers are in control, in charge – that they’re right. So if they’re giving us the message that we don’t deserve to exist – that will be our reality. That they might be dead wrong isn’t something our young brains are built to encompass.

If you think you don’t belong in the world, that obviously makes it hard to trust yourself. And if your very existence is wrong, how can you be sure anything you do is right – including how you relate to other people? But it stems from an even more basic trust, in existence itself. In the Universe of Desiderata, or if you believe, in Spirit, in God.

You may have already guessed that the Magpie was herself one of those bewildered, out-of-place young chicks (I was literally called a cuckoo by someone close to me as a teenager, and half believed it). It does take an awfully long time to drag yourself out of the dark and look on the stars again (to paraphrase Dante, who knew all about being rejected and losing trust). But it’s definitely possible.

In my last post, I wrote about Persephone, someone who’d also been down into the dark places and come out again. I discovered, only yesterday (thanks to the fascinating astrological work of one Demetra George) that I happen to have been born with the asteroid Persephone on my Ascendant. That means that Persephone issues – coming to term with the dark places, finding meaning there, sensing what lies beyond, using those discoveries to bring healing – are pretty basic to my expression of self. (The same point is conjunct the fixed star, Sirius, which is supposed to signify fame and wealth…eh, we’ll see.)

The Greek underworld, like many others, was underground. Chthonic (I love that word). It’s where the dead are buried, but also where organic matter rots down and nourishes new life, gets recycled (which being one of nature’s scavengers, yours truly is all for). And under the surface is also where you find treasure.

Kids often make craft projects from trash. It’s practical; it costs nothing, and it encourages their imagination better than any amount of pre-packaged expensive materials could. William Blake wrote that ‘Eternity is in love with the productions of time.’ I like to think that the Universe that birthed us is, like a good parent, smitten with our small human artworks – the literal ones we construct out of the emotional flotsam and jetsam of our imperfect lives, but also what we make of ourselves (there’s a telling phrase) from our sometimes unprepossessing materials. Who knows, maybe if there’s a cosmic fridge somewhere, our work gets stuck up on the door for parental admiration (with magnets that say ‘Welcome to Alpha Centauri’?). Or the equivalent.

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At the very least, creating may help us to metabolise the crap in our lives. It’s now proven that working with your hands, as opposed to tapping away at a computer screen, is good for you. I think it can do more than that: it can connect us back to our Source, give us a grounding in Being that we may have had trouble finding.

And for that to work, we have to trust the process itself. So it looks messy, it looks like it’s not working – carry on regardless. See what you can make of it. And if it really doesn’t work, there’s no shame in starting something new.

I was talking about art there, but it occurs to me that it’s not a bad way of dealing with life, either. At least, it seems to have worked for this blog post, and that’s something…right?

Letting the old myths speak

It’s been said that the Devil’s biggest triumph was persuading people he didn’t exist.

Whether or not you believe in a liberal Devil (the Magpie isn’t convinced – despite numerous superstitions, this bird is not on pecking terms with the Prince of Darkness), you have to admit that he’s been one helluva useful myth. And anyway, the Prince of Darkness (no, not him, although Mr Osbourne has done quite well out of the mythology too) is very far from dead to many people.

Try an experiment: don a feminist T-shirt, slip on a leather jacket festooned with black metal band patches, pin on a Pride button, adorn your car with liberal bumper stickers…then pay a visit to any number of towns in the Bible Belt of the southern US. You will soon find out that Satan is very real indeed…especially to people whose own greed, anger, prejudice and hatred totally escapes them. A certain rabbi’s story about a mote, a beam and an eye comes to mind. And that’s a way in which distracting people from the inner reality, in favour of the outer symbol, has been an incredibly successful ‘Satanic’ strategy.

History is written by the winners, and so are myths. Which means that some people in the old stories get a voice, and others don’t. Conquered peoples, whether by race or religion, get painted in a bad light and often aren’t around to defend themselves. Poor people aren’t the heroes of the formal stories much, because back then they couldn’t write. (Oral traditions are different, but the scribes and academics who write them down have generally had their own vested interests.) Women often don’t have much of a say, frequently being divided (by men) into ‘virtuous’ and ‘bad examples’.

Widespread literacy has changed this to some extent. And, while this Web we surf has its dark spots, it’s also democratised how we tell our stories in a myriad of ways. It’s given voices to many of us who couldn’t speak out easily before.

The old tales are being re-told. Members of indigenous peoples are telling their own stories again, free from the overlay of colonialism. And new ‘old’ tales are being constructed, too. Women, minorities, disabled people, LGBT people, and others are all looking at myths, fairy tales and the classic stories of our culture, and letting previously unheard characters speak.

Judaism has always had this kind of writing: midrash, the telling of Torah stories to clear up puzzles, resolve contradictions and bring out deeper meaning. Jewish feminists are now doing this from their own viewpoint. How would Eve tell her story? Noah’s wife? Job’s wife, who lost all her children thanks to a divine wager? The daughters of Lot, offered by their father to a crowd of men to protect his house guests? Christian women have done the same for Mary Magdalene. (Someone who was also given her own version of events by the early Gnostic churches – who also rehabilitated traditionally ‘bad’ characters like Cain. You could say that Milton’s Paradise Lost was an attempt to do the same for Satan.)

It’s something anyone can do, and with any story. Look for the stories that have niggled you, struck you as unfair to a character, left you with questions, or just plain not sat right with you for some reason. Then, pinpoint who’s the character in that story who should have been allowed to speak, but wasn’t, and start writing a monologue from their point of view. You may surprise yourself.

The story I used here – the Greek myth of the descent and return of Persephone (you can read the original here) – is one that never gelled with me for personal reasons, relating to mothers and daughters and the often less than flowery and intimate relationships between them. That and its very dodgy, as usual in Greek myths, sexual politics. The late Shekhinah Mountainwater suggested that prior to the abduction and rape myth, there might have been one where the young Kore went down into the darkness, of her own free will, to meet and be enlightened by her Crone self, Hekate, just as young girls in many cultures were initiated by old women. I agree – but I also think presenting initiation into relationships with men (for straight women), as a voluntary, positive step, is important.

But that’s just my take. Why not write your own?

Anyway, over to Persephone…

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The first thing you need to understand is: it wasn’t rape.

Oh, I know those gods. (And I know too many men who think they’re gods, but that’s another story.). The popular ones, the jocks, the ones everybody worships, get to define words how they like.

Rape, to them, involves one actual person – the man – and a piece of some other man’s property. And stealing another man’s property is easy to get away with, if you’re a god. They just turn into a swan, or a bull, or a shower of gold, then they act all innocent and look like it was nothing to do with them, when some poor woman has a baby who’s wrestling snakes in the cradle.

Consent? What’s that? It’s easy to waive that, too, if you’ve offered her the gift of prophecy, or threatened to turn her into a tree, or some other such pick-up line. And besides, what woman in her right mind wouldn’t want to sleep with a god?

That’s how it applies to them, anyway. But it all changes when it’s Hades. The black sheep of the family. The scary, gloomy Goth brother who can’t talk about his work at parties without everyone going awkwardly quiet. The one nobody likes to mention. It’s so unlikely anyone would want him, that if he were accused of taking someone by force, you’d automatically believe it was true. Right?

My mother hates him, but then she hates anything dark. Mother dearest is all sweetness and light, all pretty flowers and cuddly bunnies – or she likes to pretend she is. Locusts and blight and weeds aren’t things she likes to think about. Somebody else must have been responsible for those.

She still calls me Kore. The apple of her eye. I told her I hated it, that it was a little-girl name and I was a woman now, thank you, but she wouldn’t have it. She wanted to keep me safe and clean and virginal, unmarried by the nasty world. Mum and daughter, best friends forever.

Except when they’re not. Except when growing up means having thoughts and opinions of your own.

They say I plucked a forbidden flower, and the ground opened up beneath me and sucked me down. Don’t you just love psychology? A woman being curious has to be punished; look at poor old Pandora. But we have to be curious to grow.

I was curious. So, I sought out the gates of Hades for myself. I groped my way down through the dark, and I found him.

Hades. King of hell, lord of the shades, ruler of the dread realm. Only, he’s really not a fraction as scary as his reputation makes him out to be, when you actually talk to him. We hit it off immediately; he’s used to people making assumptions about him, too.

They say he tortures people. Not so; it’s the guys upstairs who command that. Hades thinks it’s cruel and pointless; the use of punishment is reform, and how can you reform if you’re dead? He puts on a show for the family when they turn up, but the rest of the time, Sisyphus and Tantalus and the rest get to relax. The rest of the dead aren’t mindless, babbling shadows, either. I’ve struck up quite a friendship with Eurydice. Her experience is very different from how they tell it in the living world. A hint: artists like Orpheus make up their own myths, about themselves and the people they love. And some people just don’t know how to let go.

We went walking together, Hades and I, in the Elysian Fields, with the asphodel blooming all around us, and that was when he first kissed me. See, he’s not all gloom and doom. He just understands reality a lot better than some people I could mention. And he needed someone who could understand him.

Light and darkness. The universe can’t exist without both.

Mother dearest went into one of her rages when she found out. I feel sorry for mortals, I really do. They hadn’t done anything to deserve it. Mother can be a bit…wholesale, when she gets annoyed. The storms and hail and sleet she came up with this time weren’t cuddly at all.

I really didn’t want to go back, but Hermes came asking after me, and he can persuade anyone of anything. But…he doesn’t like my mother any more than I do. He’s all about ambiguity and seeing both sides of the story. I don’t think she’s ever really forgiven him for coming up with language; she thinks humans would have been so much less trouble if they’d never come out of the trees.

Anyway, it was Hermes who suggested we present her with a fait accompli.

Hades and I were wedded in the oldest of ceremonies: the sharing of the fruit of death and life. The pomegranate, many-seeded and bursts with blood-red juice. I couldn’t help giggling; we both looked like we’d been reading entrails.

And I took a new name, because as I said, the old one doesn’t suit me any more. Persephone. Light in darkness. Or darkness in light, if you will.

I came back, yes. But on my own terms. I get to spend half the year up here; the other half, with my husband. He’s fine with that. We both need ‘me’ time to function. Mother still sulks like a champion when I’m away, but she can’t do anything about it.

Light and darkness. It’s how the world works…