Belly Blessings

For thousands of years henna has been used by women to bless other women in honor of transitions, celebrations and thresholds. In Morocco, Berber women have been using henna for over 8,000 years. In India, women have used henna to adorn their bodies for marriage for over 3,000  years. When I was living in Mali, West Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer, girls and women blessed each other with henna for weddings and celebrations and I was the grateful recipient of many artful designs on my hands and feet. And now, 36 weeks pregnant and 15 years later I’ve been blessed by some of my community of women near and far with the American version of women blessing women for pregnancy: adorning one another with art in a culture where we can proudly show our bellies…

There is something so nurturing about the slow, quiet process of blessing a belly with art as a baby grows inside. My henna artist invited me to come up with an intention for baby that she would weave into the henna as she ‘drew.’ It was a rare and much needed moment of tuning in with this sweet being. Free of multitasking, I reflected on how difficult is has been to create moments of quietly connecting with this baby as so much of my time and energy is devoted to my other two sons and to work and to maintaining a basic order in my home. This was a moment to dip into the subconscious and draw forth the symbols that have accompanied women across time as we prepare for birth: for me it was a Tree that I wanted painted on my belly, and a bird. I needed to be reminded of the Tree of Life, and how for a brief moment my body serves as a similar vessel – home to new life and playing an integral role in the circle of life’s continuation. There are the roots that remind me of where I’ve come from, both in this lifetime as well as the history of my family. There is the symbolism of the family tree. With the owl I’m reminded of vision, even in times of uncertainty and darkness. She helps me to remember a quiet gracefulness, both when she is perched in the tree as well as when she silently flies.

Every time I look at the owl in the tree, I’m reminded that this is my time of quietly waiting for what is to come – and I do well to remember my roots and the ground, even as I know I’m about to take flight into something vastly new and mysterious…

IMG_1654Henna art by SarahKate Butterworth

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Breezy Point Madonna

Understanding the laws of nature does not mean that we are immune to their operations.”  ~David Gerrold

And here she is: Madonna presiding over the devastated remains at Breezy Point after Hurricane Sandy struck. The rest of the neighborhood is charred from fire and swept away from flooding, and somehow she remained intact and unscathed in her original location. To me her graceful, open posture reminds me of the capacity for stillness in the eye of a storm as well as the powerful, unbiased, compassionate witness to life’s unfoldings. No judgement: just peace amidst what painfully is.

Motherhood From Spirit and Water

I recently watched a movie on 12th Century Christian Benedictine Abbess, mystic, nun, writer, artist, herbalist, musician and prophetic visionary and healer Hildegard von Bingen, whose mandalas are above (the first is entitled Awakening, the second Motherhood from Spirit and the Water, and the third Cultivating the Cosmic Tree…). What strikes me so deeply about her story and her life’s work is how much she was able to do as a woman in one lifetime – and during a time when a woman’s power in Europe was scant. She found a way to divinely illuminate a feminine spirituality that was embodied and earth-based. Her message reminds me that the archetype of Motherhood transcends giving birth. Here is a woman who was visionary, mystic, healer, caregiver and creative artist all at once. Opening herself to awakening and perceiving the interconnectedness of all things, a profound Vision guided her life. She mapped the way of the Sacred Feminine – withstanding great scrutiny and never wavering from the certainty of her experience, even when called crazy. She found a way to live with spiritual understanding infusing all her actions. She was a master in the garden, a master of herbs and plants. A cook. And all of it was part of a greater divine understanding and experience. Shortly after seeing the movie about her life (Vision), I randomly came across a cookbook called From Saint Hildegard’s Kitchen: Foods of Health, Foods of Joy and was again reminded that the realms of literal motherhood can also be profoundly spiritual in nature. Even cooking, herbs, gardening…all these things can be imbued with Spirit if we orient ourselves in this light.

She led me to think on ‘Vision‘- and what it means in my own life. The word vision actually means ‘something seen in a dream or ecstacy…especially a supernatural appearance that conveys a revelation; a thought, concept, or object formed by the imagination; a manifestation to the senses of something immaterial; the act or power of imagination; the mode of seeing or conceiving; discernment; direct mystical awareness…” The dictionary becomes a sacred text of reminder as I read the definition and feel acutely that there is a place for Vision in each of our daily lives that extends beyond the miraculous workings of the optic nerve. We can extend our Vision into the deeper heart of things and bring back revelations from this journey into our own daily affairs and doings…We can use our imaginations to create magical and sacred spaces for our families; We can take time to carefully discern…We can feel a part of a long line of women who have traced a path showing the way to sacred livelihood steeped in direct mystical awareness. Living steeped in Vision means living with the eyes of the heart wide open. It means shifting the gaze from sharp and often distracted by too many stimuli to soft and unfocused so that you can see the big picture. It means riding the waves of a situation with the capacity to see beyond surfaces into the deeper layers of what is unfolding. It means paying close attention and taking time for withdrawl when needed into our own sacred spaces of rest and sanctuary. And, perhaps most importantly, it means that we acknowledge the holy nature of all things – feeling our parts in a divine web rooted in a great cosmic tree of life…

Our Lady of Guadalupe & the Divine Mother

The beauty of this place is bewitching.  I wander down the narrow alleyways of Sante Fe, New Mexico, stroller in hands, paying homage to the Basilica of St. Francis and the myriad of shrines dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe.  The dive into more colors, more zest, more art, more movement of hips, Latin and Spanish music, deep cello chords and jazzy street saxophones renders me nourished.  Between live music, the varied life of street markets, strings of marigolds strung in gestures of devotion, I somehow turn the corner into a restful marvel even in the shadow of tiredness.  Life happens around me in swirling hips and spicy red chilis (some hanging from rafters), and Rowan takes a bite of salty sweet corn and I know that I’ve landed at a true crossroads of culture and tradition.

Everywhere I go, She follows. Our Lady of Guadalupe:  emblazened in minds and hearts, stamped on walls, murals and art – she dances through the city holding the solid ground of equanimity and compassionate presence.  She presides like the Queen she is – casting the town in a blue star spangled light.  Her image is in alleyways, restaurants, shops, churches, shrines.  She is virtually on every corner.  Artists here pay homage to her a thousand times over, with seemingly every artisan stall hosting a personal rendition of her graceful stature: arms folded, eyes ever so slightly cast downwards, fiery light of realization emanating from her whole body.

Just when I was feeling like a fish out of water in my relatively new station of Motherhood, there is the quintessential Divine Mother, the Sacred Feminine, the Goddess –  in one of her many faces, bestowing her calm, quiet authority on all who gather here.  She casts an aura of equanimity that I could certainly bear to heed.

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What does it mean to be a Divine Mother? Patient, graceful, accepting… (Bla, blah, blah: the usual list of virtues strings along in my mind’s eye).  For me it means to be real.  To show up amidst chaos (or not) and hold the ground of love and compassion, even when it doesn’t look or feel ‘perfect.’  Even when it is a mess.  Even when I lose my composure.  Our Lady presides over my self-forgiveness for the moments I fuzz out, succumb to exhaustion or frustration.  She reminds me of the power of silently witnessing, quietly supporting.  She is the backdrop for every life emerging:  Woman.  Mother.  Caregiver.  She who births in miraculous ways.

“Hello, Mother of Child,” the man at the Espresso joint says to me as I order my latte.  Yes, archtypally, that is what I am now.  Mother of Child.  It does me well to be surrounded by images and culture of devotion to a Mother – a reminder of the sacredness of this station of life – and an image to hold space for Divine Awareness, a glowing presence of inspired revelation, wearing a cloak of stars.  Our Lady of Guadalupe (her name means “Wolf River”) is profoundly of this Earth as well as she transcends.  She calls me to my feet – solid on the ground, while also reminding me of the great mysteries beyond.  She points me around every corner towards the recognition of the exquisite Beauty that the feminine form is privy to, and whispers to me that the realm of the Divine is also right here.

Shining Roots of Easter

I woke up this morning in Evergreen, Colorado looking out the window at snowy green trees bathed in wintery fog, pine needles iced with snow.  Immediately remembering that it was Easter, I felt a quiet pang of being drawn to participate in an ancient acknowledgment of resurrection and new life – Earth’s ushering forth of Spring alongside a sacred day marker of Jesus’s rising from death. Death and Rebirth.  Darkness and Light.  Winter into Spring.  New life.

These themes cycle themselves over and over again throughout the year and throughout the ages – so many stories giving rise to an understanding that transformation is always possible.  From death new life is also possible.  From the dark soil of winter rises new life.  The purple wildflowers bursting forth under snow in mountain forests offers testament to this truth today:  freezing hands touching soft petals under ice as songbirds fly overhead.

Spring emerges both within and without – my bones beckoning me to call forth again that which is drawn towards the Light.  What has been in hiding in the recesses of my experience becomes more illumined and I make myself available for a thaw into the heat of transformation.

The word Easter took root from Eostre and Ostara, names of a Germanic goddess who was celebrated prior to the 8th Century in northern Europe during the month of April (formerly known as Eostur-monath or Eostre month).   She was a goddess of Light, Dawn and Spring with her name deriving from the root austro, which means “to shine.”  She marks a season of new beginnings, returning light, beautiful early dawns…

Today, celebrate Light and the great shining forth of realization that invites the body and mind to be pervaded by radiance.  Remember the fire of transformation that moves everything from one condition towards another – and the possibility that a dying of one self gives rise to a less bounded capacity to shine.

Sri Aurobindo’s The Mother

I did not plant this prop for a photo.   Rowan simply decided to pick up a copy of Sri Aurobindo’s The Mother on this quiet snowy Friday and carry it around for the duration of an entire afternoon (I spared you the whole reel of photos of him throughout the house, book in hand).  I’d been meaning to read up on what spiritual traditions have clarified regarding the embodiment of Divine Mother.  What better doorway than to have it served on a platter by your son?

The One who we adore as the Mother is the divine Conscious Force that dominates all existence, one and yet so many-sided that to follow her movement is impossible even for the quickest mind…Far above all, she creates. Transcendent, she stands above the worlds and links the creation to the ever unmanifest mystery…Universal, she creates all beings and contains and enters, supports and conducts a million processes and forces.  Individual, she embodies the power of these two vaster ways of her existence, makes them living and near to us and mediates between the human personality and the divine Nature.

If you desire transformation put yourself in the hands of the Mother without resistance and let her do unhindered her work within you.  Three things you must have:  consciousness, plasticity, and unreserved surrender...Follow your soul and not your mind:  your soul that answers to Truth.  Trust the Divine Power and she will free the god-like elements in you and shape all into an expression of Divine Nature.

– Sri Aurobindo, The Mother

Firekeeping and the Invitation of Hestia

I’ve been reading Sue Monk Kidd’s Traveling with Pomegranates, which has me contemplating the marvel of sacred journeys, marked transitions in a woman’s life journey, the passage from maidenhood to motherhood, the finite gift of fertility and the inevitable movement towards Old Woman or crone.  It’s a lot to chew on as I feel my own passage from one form of dance into another:  that step into motherhood which moves me into the middle ground of life’s dance toward death.

New mothers receive, often unexpectedly and without preparation, the profound and often inescapable invitation to tend the Proverbial Hearth.  Don’t we 21st century women think we can take it all on, leaving the fireside kitchen for someone else to tend?  How many of us resonate with Sue Monk Kidd when she writes that she’d imagined herself “traveling more in the orbits of the so-called ‘virgin’ Goddesses like Artemis and Athena, whose forms of the feminine are about the search for an independent self.  They are the ones who could bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan.  I haven’t pictured myself as a “mother goddess” type.  My children have always existed at the deepest center of me, right there in the heart/hearth, but I struggled with the powerful demands of motherhood, chafing sometimes at the way they pulled me away from my separate life, not knowing how to balance them with my unwieldy need for solitude and creative expression.”

In seeming contrast there is the Goddess Hestia, the Goddess of the Hearth or Fireside, whose task is to keep the home fires burning, symbolizing nurturing and the continuity of a spiritual flame within the home.  As I delve into her history, I am surprised to find she is also a so-called “virgin goddess,” the sort of goddess who is self-contained, independent, uncorrupted and un-partnered (yes, like the free wheeling Athena and Artemis).  Virgin goddesses aren’t necessarily asexual so much as their sexuality cannot be owned or controlled by a partner.  Instead, the virgin goddess lives in her own circle of dominion.

Wikipedia tells me that “Hestia doesn’t trouble to find an emblem for herself” (her practical divinity perhaps too obvious and self-explanatory for such grand measures).  “She did not roam nor did she have any adventures” (after all, she didn’t even leave the Hearth for the sacred processions of Gods and Goddesses).  Instead, the divine feminine face of Hestia is ultimately about the ability to dwell firmly and contentedly in one’s place without need of fanfare or external recognition.   She points with grace to the ability to belong to one’s home as a gesture of radical settling into the nurturing role of sitting fireside, at the helm of family life.

What a contrast from the seeker’s heart and the Goddess archetype who flies the expanses of sky and earth: the Woman who journeys, who pilgrims, who ventures into the unknown, who controls forces of nature and vicissitudes of harvests through her ebbs and flows.  I feel the tension in my own experience as I settle into home more often – still pulled to far-away places and drawn to the lures of “doing” and still resisting what I’ve labeled the “specter of routine.”  Yet with the surrender into the rhythm of routine also emerges the deepened settling into place, the ability to actualize dwelling in the best possible sense of spiritual art.

I have not been one who is archtypally drawn to home and hearth, although I see the roots present in my longing to tell the story of where I come from through my family history, the valuing of good food and shared meals, the contentment of creating beautiful, intentional space.  Hestia never called me with her quiet, subtle expression of creative power – and yet she is the one who makes the world go round so to speak.  She, tender of fire, hearth and family, maintains order and feeds life.  She is the backdrop of rhythm in the “specter of routine” (which is of course really not a specter so much as mis-labeled resistance of present callings as a mother).

Of course there is a time for pilgrimage (after all few of us can be as self-contained and rooted as Hestia) – a time when a journey is a necessity in marking a transition or transformation.  Perhaps a great lesson of motherhood is the awakening into realization that journeys can indeed also be profoundly inward into vast regions of the fire of heart and soul.  A journey also lies in this rooted transition towards hearth and home, family and food – where nourishment comes in the form of simple, quiet meals and slow walks up the stairs with sleeping child in arm.  Hestia knows the art of doing each mundane task with great love and as a gift, with no need for recognition or fan-fare.  And still, it is she who keeps the fire of life burning.