Meeting Black Demeter: dreams, grief, ancestry, myth, place, and shortbread cookies.
Early this morning, still in the dark, I awoke from this dream:
Mom is dying - it is her time. She is bald and pale but also in her grace and has a lunar glow about her. When she is ready, she simply lays down and dies. I'm with her and this is right. I have to go do something, and then I make my way to the hospital to find where they've taken her. I approach the entrance information desk, and as I go to ask the force of my tears and my urgency is so great I can hardly get the words out, I can't quite make the words understandable: "Where is the emergency room!"
This dream is perhaps no different than 100 others like it I have dreamed over the last 7 years. What feels different is that it should come again now, when it's been a very long time since the last one, and as I find myself welling up with new explorations of mother grief (through the looking glass of being a mother now) and also swelling with reminders of the importance of grief, how the roots of my healing are in the power and practice of grieving, the fact that a real practice of grieving is what America needs as much as anything else in our collective healing.
In a few days, it will be the 9th anniversary of my father's death, and while some years it doesn't hit me at all, this year - maybe because I'm amidst such great transition, maybe because 9 years is a long time! - I feel the pull to reflect on the fact that I have spent the last 9 years as a grief worker. I think I allowed to claim that title now - or however I want to name it.
In southern California, my grief work culminated in deeply living with the myth of Mestra. The essential question of that story is, How does a shape-shifting daughter who has lost her mother, with the legacy of complex trauma on one hand and the legacy of deep intrinsic power on the other, rebuild the sacred grove of Demeter (whose massacre and Demeter's resulting curse is the family legacy)?
In recent weeks, I've been pulled by dreams and synchronistic research into an ancient, alternative, Arcadian tradition of Demeter which speaks powerfully to mother grief, and in a way that actually feels accessible to me (it leads me into my body, let's say, whereas the familiar version feels heady and superficial, academic). Interwoven here is a complementary myth and deepening of the Mestra work, another fragment of the story of how we recover from complex trauma where the link between mother and daughter has been severed (and not necessarily by death). Here, as in the Mestra story, the link to Demeter is crucial, and the invasive and oppressive father-force of Poseidon is a key mover. Tendrils of story reach up from the land, here in the place called Portland, another place familiar with devouring deforestation. Here is the mother who has lost her daughter, but not quite the Homeric story we have been taught.
Here is the grieving Black Demeter, Demeter Melaine, night mare ("who destroys mercifully"), horse-headed (of "the medusa type, snaky haired, holding a dove and a dolphin"), withdrawn cave-deep in the dripping cervix of the earth. Here is Demeter Erinys, furious and punishing with rage and loss at the hands of those who should be family. Here is Demeter Louisa, who, finally counseled by Pan, takes to the river to bathe and cleanse herself of these other forms. And by this river - the river Ladon, a physical place on the island - there is the ruins of a temple to her daughter - who may or may not be Persephone, because Her name is not allowed to be spoken outside of the Mysteries. But she - The Lady, Despoina - is also horse-formed, a river goddess, inhabits a spring there where the underground river bubbles up. She smiles at me in the dark, has things to teach me. Behind her temple on the island is Demeter's Sacred Grove.
(Black Demeter's title, Melaine, interestingly aligns with a Greek etymology that means Brown/Black and a Britannic etymology that means Golden/Blond.)
All existing images of these Demeters - and we have evidence they existed, one a horse-headed figure carved of wood - have been destroyed.
In this lineage, Poseidon Hippios is an Underworld King and a a river spirit of the underworld. My private name and method for accessing my grief has long been The Underground River.
A few days before I learned all of this, I dreamed:
We've moved - the land is dry. We (my household) come to a place where the river flows in three directions. At the T intersection is the partially submerged remains of a platform bridge that doesn't reach any bank; there grows a rose bush like the one that grows on our new house, and like the bridge it is beautiful but incomplete. I recognize it, "This is the place." Kirsten says we will build our home here, in the T of the river. Later, approaching it again, we ride horses in the river and the water reaches to their chests - the water is clear and sweet.
Portland, the city of roses and of bridges, sits in the T where the Willamette River meets the Columbia River.
Another kind of grief work is coming forward.
185 miles north is the place where my paternal ancestors settled when they came West. They were fruit farmers in the Yakima Valley.
The process of having a son and moving back to the Pacific Northwest has conjured a growing need to track and understand those family roots. They are almost entirely mythic, a mix of hushed stories and story-less artifacts and fragmented historical research. But here is the territory of my father's mother, who was very much inhabited by a spirit of Black Demeter.
She went crazy from grief. She went crazy from menopause. My father scratched out her face in blue ballpoint ink in his first wedding photograph. Her mother erased diary entries about her, leaving only ghost pencil traces behind on the page. She was a profoundly mentally ill woman. She rode a horse and buggy to school as a girl, loved to square dance. She was the first woman in the Yakima Valley to own her own car. She was a stone cold bitch. She persecuted my father's father, called him a communist, locked him out of the house during the McCarthy trials. She kept her family fed and healthy through the Great Depression, living on the banks of the Puget Sound at Alki. These are all the things I have been told or have witnessed firsthand about her. I have my own suspicions, though, my own stories half-spun.
Here is the lineage that reaches back to the Scottish Highlands and the land clearances of the 1800s - which, until I moved here and got the idea to poke around on ancestry.com, I had only a half-remembered guess about. All of a sudden, within days of beginning this research, I had a sudden taste for shortbread cookies and a striking picture of my great, great Nova Scotian grandmother:
There are hard stories here. This is another way to restore the sacred grove, reforesting the family tree - especially with an eye to those broken maternal links.
Mom comes to me in dreams in her luminous lunar power and reminds me that although it is hard and scary and full of feeling, I know how to do this - she is in my blood and has my back, and we know how to do this.
This morning, taking care of Raven, my paternal uncle's Scottish wife, Aunt Bonnie, popped into my head, out of nowhere. I learned last summer that she had finally passed away. I don't know what she has to say to me now, but I wish I had been able to ask her a lot of questions before she died. I know she had a lot to say, had some unique mother grief of her own - and was privy to some of the secrets of my grandmother as her caretaker, even though she was so cruel to her. She was too gracious and old-fashioned to speak ill in her youth, but as she aged she grew more reflective, more liberated from her churchy upbringing, more willing to speak. She was a secret ally of my mother's in a severely patriarchal house. This is one of my regrets, that I didn't spend some time with her while I could. Then, this morning, I got to the cafe for a precious morning hour to myself to write and reflect, and noticed I sat below this art piece:
There are definitely stories here. Apparently, there is a high road and a low road, and they are not so easily recognizable as high or low.
One more recent dream:
Digging through the library at the school where my parents met (he, a married teacher in his mid-forties; she, a high school sophomore and already a survivor). I am told I have 3 years, or 1000 days, to make use of this resource before its time will be up.
Then, walking with Hunter S Thompson (who so inspired me as a young historian), I tell him, "When I was younger I was so enamored with your work, so enamored - but now I am SO GLAD there are these deeper wells to drink from." He picks me up and carries me in his arms, draped with a blanket, caring and tender and protective and in total agreement.
My intention is to keep using this blog to record and share some of that ancestral digging and exploring, now while I can, while i have the support and the inspiration. Already it is weaving in with the spiritual work, the mythic work, the dreaming work, the terrapsychological work of learning from the place called Portland. We'll see what is ready to be woven.