Sitting on the porch of our rental house on Tybee Island, Georgia, I hear the morning calls of cardinals and the raucous caw of a crow in the palm tree whose fronds brush the screen of the porch. Across the dirt road, beyond the palmetto and live oak and Spanish moss, glimmers the water of the marsh, where a snowy egret slowly descends. The air is briny and heavy. I feel my body melt into the chair. Time has slowed and me with it. We call it Tybee time.
We rent a different house on the island each year, and this year there was a bonanza. The house was loaded with books. I don’t mean the usual shelf of worn paperbacks, but stacks on every horizontal surface, in window nooks, stacked precariously on shelves, coffee tables, bedside tables. And what books! Really good fiction and non-fiction by Anne Lamott, Louise Erdrich, Barbara Kingsolver, and many more. I had brought a load of my own, enough for my daughter and me. But there is nothing like the thrill of looking through someone else’s stash. I couldn’t settle on a book until into my hands tumbled Sue Monk Kidd and Anne Kidd Taylor’s Traveling with Pomegranates. It was a book I didn’t know I was hungry for. After one page, I was riveted.
A memoir of both inner and outer travel, I was particularly taken with Sue Monk Kid’s description of coming to terms with aging, of letting go of a younger version of herself. She describes going to Eleusis with her daughter Ann, and feeling the grief both of the loss of her daughter to adulthood, and the loss of the inner “girl” in herself, the inner youthful energy. She writes: “How did this happen? Where did time go? Where did we go? Those other selves?” Yes, I thought, exactly. Where did we go?
Contemplating the myth of Demeter and Persephone (as well as Demeter’s mother, Hestia), Sue makes a sacrificial gesture of cutting a lock of her hair and dropping it into the well at Eleusis. She had read that if one accepts aging, there is the potential to grow into the fullest version of oneself, and that is her intention. But to do that, she has to feel this grief, to descend into Hades herself, to submit to the dark.
Here at the beach, in this place of liminality, of the meeting between consciousness and unconsciousness, between solid ground and mutable water, I stand on a similar threshold. Because I had a child late, facing into old age has been somewhat delayed for me. But as my son leaves for college, I am becoming more and more aware of my age. I want to face it gracefully and with consciousness, but like all of us, I shrink from the task. Where are the guideposts along the way? Change is inevitable, but transformation requires engaging with the process.
For Sue, she found strength in a new relationship with Mary in her many guises. Having rejected the plaster pastel version of Mary–as I did–she had resorted to a cosmic idea of Mary. But in her distress and need, she craved a more personal encounter. With each encounter with Mary in Greece and France—as Isis, Panygria, or the Black Madonna—she experienced a deepening in her understanding of the mysteries of a woman’s life. In the narrative of Mary’s life, she limned the patterns of every woman’s life. One aspect of a woman’s life is found in the visitation to Elizabeth, which Kidd sees as the necessity of seeking community with other woman. This resonated with me, as I had a pilgrimage of my own to make.
My friend Susan Murphy is one of the world’s premier aerial dancers. After a successful New York career, a West Coast career and then establishing a successful trapeze company and school in Athens, Georgia, she moved back to the coastal marshes of her youth. I had been trying to get down to see her for years, and here was my chance. For me, Susan has been a soul sister, someone I can go deep with. I had had several dreams about Susan the month before. Like Mary visiting Elizabeth, it seemed somehow fated. So I headed down the highway to her marsh studio.
She lives deep in the marsh, and time seems even slower there than in Tybee. We talked about spirituality, poetry, nature, aging, and especially the matrilineal legacy. We talked about where we had come from and what we would leave behind. She is caring for her aging mother, as is just about everyone woman I know. Even though she was tired, she graced me with a poem and dance she had created in honor of her grandmother and great-grandmother. As I watched, it seemed like the embodiment of the Hester-Demeter-Persephone triad. “Dance is the expression of the Spirit,” said Isadora Duncan, quoted in Pomegranates.
That is what I did on my summer vacation. I hope you enjoy Susan’s poem below. May the book you need falls into your hands sometime soon, may you encounter someone with whom to share your spirit, and may you dance.
My Precious One
Dearest darling girl
My Dearest Susan
Through the years Grandmama began each of her many letters to me with those endearments. Can you imagine? Her love was all-embracing and unadorned. Every day she blew though her whole reserve.
Grandmother never felt comfortable at stand-up cocktail parties. “I couldn’t be on my feet that long,” she said “and because I didn’t drink, I never knew what to do with my hands.” But she knew what to do with that big ol’ heart of hers. She knew what to do with that big ol’ heart of hers. Her radiant love flowed out of her, an artisan well of life-giving waters. Grandmama….
Now my great-grandmother, Munzie, was one of the first women lawyers inGeorgia in the 1930’s. She was one of the first civil rights lawyers in the South.
Munzie would say to me: Don’t just FEEL. Put your feet to the fire with all those feelings. Put your feet to the fire with all those feelings. And follow your heart, you’ll suffer either way.
I dance for Grandmama’s unquestioning heartbreaking devotion.
I dance for the love she, as an orphan, never had yet somehow
found to give
I dance for my great-grandmother’s fierce pioneering spirit
and the love she voiced in her tireless fight for
I dance for the vision they had of a better world…a world of fair
treatment for all and unremitting tenderness for the one.
I dance for the pain of their unfulfilled dreams.
I dance for the possible fruition of their spirit, living in me.
I dance for all their genes, humming in my body.
I dance for the genes I pass on, a different way than blood.
I dance in sadness and joy, remembering and honoring, their lives and
I dance…yes… believing in a better world…believing that the walls that separate
us could start tumbling down.
I dance for the possibility of our hearts opening to kindness, compassion and love.
I dance for you.
I dance for me.