She Who Knows

SheWhoKnows.

There is the tale that is told so well by Clarissa Pinkola Estes in her world-renowned book,  Women Who Run with the Wolves.  When I first encountered this book, I was in an independent bookstore, The East West Bookshop, down the Peninsula in the San Francisco Bay Area.  I opened the book randomly and read a passage that was relevant to an experience that I recently had.  The hardbound book wasn’t in my budget.  I replaced it on the display table and walked away.  Then, after browsing for awhile, I was drawn back to the book.  Again, I randomly opened it and voila, another passage that claimed me.  I bought the book.  Every weekend, I’d read a chapter and integrate what I was discovering.  This book felt like a woman’s bible to me.  The mythology and tales that were woven in with a Jungian interpretation touched me deeply.  These tales, passed down from generation to generation, transported me into my own psyche in a way that had never happened before.

La Que Sabe, She Who Knows, was one of those stories.  The story goes…

“In the Southwest the archetype of the old woman can also be apprehended as old La Que Sabe, The One Who Knows. I first came to understand La Que Sabe when I lived in the Sangre de Cristo mountains in New Mexico, under the heart of Lobo Peak. An old witch from Ranchos told me that La Que Sabe knew everything about women, that La Que Sabe had created women from a wrinkle on the sole of her divine foot: This is why women are knowing creatures; they are made, in essence, of the skin of the sole, which feels everything. This idea that the skin of the foot is sentient had the ring of a truth, for an acculturated Kiché tribeswoman once told me that she’d worn her first pair of shoes when she was twenty years old and was still not used to walking con los ojos vendados, with blindfolds on her feet.”
(excerpt from Clarissa Pinkola Estes)

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When I created this mixed media painting, I had no idea who or what was going to emerge.  But then, she did.  This painting is not about perfection of features…it became about expression of a deep feeling…the woman who has searched inside and encountered her own depths in search of her place in the world.  She does not feign timidity.  Pretense doesn’t work for her.  She decorates herself.  She is radiant and is comfortable with being in her own power.  She is not apologetic for being this powerful.

She has lived her life and learned from it.  She is present with you and deep seeing into human foibles and their underlying strengths.  She understands that wisdom is there for each one of us.  And, she holds patient compassion for herself and others as we sense into our own deep knowing.

My Mother’s Hands

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This mixed media piece was to be my entry in an upcoming art show.

It was also a challenge to myself to integrate poetry with paint.  In some way, it was a homage to my mother’s life.  The photo is of her at age seventeen.  She was a beauty.  My mother died in 2011 at age 91.  From my perspective, her life had been a long, hard road. I’ve written so much about her, about our relationship, about her relationship with my father.

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One of the layers of this painting is a poem, My Mother’s Hands.   After writing the poem  on the canvas, I remember feeling vulnerable.  I was revealing her story to an audience who might not understand the battered wife syndrome.

The poem begins:

I wonder if a palm reader back then would have foretold
–a long life
–an unloving marriage
–an abusive spouse…

…and then I smudged some of the words with gesso and paint.

In the last three years of their lives, my parents were in a care home, a house in a neighborhood with eight elderly residents.  Another sister and I alternated visiting them during the week.  Two other sisters orchestrated their care from afar.  The brothers remained aloof until the very end as they didn’t feel at ease with our father.

In her later years, my mother’s hands were contorted with arthritis.   Her fingers had trouble gripping a spoon and then navigating it to her mouth.  But she had lost so many of her abilities that I didn’t want to help her too much.  I watched as the spoon wobbled towards her mouth.  Her mouth like a quivering bird anticipating food.

My father in the background would say “These are not the golden years.”  I could see that.

One sunny day, we were sitting outdoors under fruit-laden orange trees.  My mother said “I wonder where we go from here.”

“What do you mean, Mom?” I asked.

“After we die.” she said.

“I thought you believed in heaven,” I said, trying to offer comforting words.

My father said “There’s nothing.”

“Dad,” I said, “I thought you had a dream of heaven.  You said it was beautiful.”

My father said, “It was lonely.  I was the only one there.”

In slow motion, my mother reached for my hand and held it–an unfamiliar gesture.

Yesterday was Mother’s Day.  I’m sure thoughts of my mother weave through my mind on any given day.  For one reason or another.

I wonder what she’d be thinking about the state of the world today.  She once asked me to write her story…I’m not sure which one…the one of the devoted wife who stood by her husband no matter what abuse.  Or the possible woman who hid herself away and didn’t have an opportunity to blossom.

Unfinished Business

When my friend, Carolyn, died in 2003, it was for me a generous (on her part) initiation into grief and loss.

In the final months of her life, Carolyn pondered the questions:  “What have I contributed?”  and “Did I do what I came here to do?”

My reply at the time was something like “Look at the people you’ve gathered around you.  Look at how they love you.  Isn’t that an amazing achievement?”

We tend to measure our success by the standards of a world that has defined success in terms of “how many toys you have when you die” and how much money you’ve accrued.

One’s life story is not so neat as a Hollywood ending or a well-scripted novel.  It’s a messy business with threads left dangling, unresolved issues, an apartment, room or house full of incomplete projects, and furniture, laundry, unreplied-to-letters, dishes in the sink, dreaded clutter.  There’s the ending that comes too soon before things are properly resolved or healed, put in order or even accepted.

In the small picture, everyone is not a hero.  And probably, it’s an unfair standard of measurement–heroic or not heroic.  One doesn’t often or always come out looking “good,” their life having been resolved by their dying.  Do you think that the works in progress that we are continue beyond this lifetime?  We can’t, though we might want to, make heroes of all of our dead.  They are the ancestors, but not necessarily of heroic stature.  I’ve been to  funerals where superstitiously or sentimentally or desirously, relatives and others search their memories to say something kind, albeit false regarding the dear departed.  Although tainted by loss, grief and fear these words don’t ring true.  Truth is a partial tale told under these sad circumstances.

When my mother-in-law died in 2007, for me there was a confusion of feelings.  I wondered why my feelings were so congested, constricted, why I couldn’t cry as forcefully as I thought that I should.  Was it because I was ignoring a large part of my experience with her?  So much had gone unspoken between us…she rivalled me for her son’s affection.  Finally, after our divorce, he was all hers.

What’s up to me is my part in the story.  A backwards look, a retrospective from the vantage point of a completion of sorts that occurs when someone dies.  And yes, let’s add a dose of compassion for this human condition.

Truthbound

Sometimes a quote stays with you.  This one is from the 1956 film, Anastasia, starring Ingrid Bergman:

“Truth serves only a world who lives by it.”

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In their later years, when things were so difficult with my aging parents, I was taking a creative writing class.  The instructor, a wise woman, witnessed my turmoil.  One day at the end of class, she took me aside.  She knew some of the challenges I was facing with my parents and family.  She challenged me to write a type of sonnet called a Sestina.  I didn’t know what a Sestina was.  I asked her for a timeline.  She said I should write it that evening.  I went home, studied the form and this poem virtually flowed out of me.  It was the perfect vehicle for what was happening in my life.  As art, poetry and writing can do, it shifted the energy for me.

Truthbound
© by Christine O’Brien

Truth lies in a shallow grave

while perspectives hang out everywhere.

Semantics argue with the unwary

as he admonishes “feelings aren’t facts.”

She remonstrates that mine is not the only opinion!

I inquire “How does one unearth truth?”

 

A sly animal is truth;

in its lair as silent as the grave.

Taunted by every brand of opinion,

each certain that his truth binds everyone, everywhere.

Scientists are burdened with facts.

Buying facts carte blanche is for the unwary.

 

My mother has been unwary,

living my father’s lies, denying truth.

Out in the cold, the stranded facts;

a story of lies they take to the grave.

Wounded healers, their children lay everywhere.

On unalterable facts I do base this sad opinion.

 

Really, what is there to opinion?

What warning can I give to the unwary?

The pain from his misdeeds is everywhere;

his forked tongue can’t speak the truth.

“Oh Dad, set yourself free before the grave

takes you and the unspoken, faltering facts.”

 

Weakening into old age, do they matter less, the facts?

That my mother be separated from him was my opinion.

Yet, there they are growing fragile together, headlong to the grave.

His rage bursts her peaceful ending, she the constant unwary.

In this sad scenario, can one find the concealed truth?

Fragments of perspectives and hurt feelings lay everywhere.

 

When division and broken hearts are everywhere,

are they less important now, the historical facts?

Is forgiveness the elixir of truth?

It seems opposition only supports an opinion

as egos argue in the territory of the unwary.

Let’s bury our perspectives in a grave.

 

Though facts, feelings and opinions are strewn everywhere

is it only the unwary who bind them to truth?

The grave is the end for all; is it wiser to pave the path with love?