It’s easy to introduce this 2002 installment: everything in it is still perfectly relevant.
SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
12 July 2002
“‘From death to life’ I seem to hear my crows say as they fly high above me and perch in the towering white pines, and I believe them.” –Sara Wright
This installment has been delayed, owing to a recently developed addiction: reading through mountains of web-site news and analysis in an attempt to discern, through the fog of disinformation, what is being decided in Washington. They run the world, or try to; I want to know what they’re planning to hit us with next. A simple-enough desire, but you need your own intelligence agency to satisfy it …
In short, I have been ruining my eyesight in the pursuit of phantoms. I don’t know who they’re going to bomb next, and I’m not even clear who “they” are. The only certainty is that “they”—whoever the rotating cast of “they” is at the moment—will do whatever it takes to retain supremacy.
They may, however, have already bitten off more than they can chew. The U.S. currently has military personnel in 177 countries, and Bush is financing his “titanic war on terror” by signing IOUs and printing money. This is like using a credit card to pay the interest due on your other credit-card accounts. Not a sustainable maneuver.
I keep thinking about the fantasies of those in power and how fantasies lead to imperial over-reach and how over-reach can end in sudden collapse. More specifically, I think about how quickly the Soviet Union came apart when its economic machine could no longer support its military machine. One day the Soviet empire was a geopolitical fact, and the next day …
The U.S. government’s war machine may be a high-flying force straight out of science fiction, but it still sucks up resources like a giant vacuum cleaner. What happens when the American economy can no longer sustain the American military?
Nobody knows but the old black crows, she said mysteriously. (For more on crows, see below, an installment of SISB published in honour of black birds, the growing number of Women in Black with their peace vigils, and other perceptive and prescient beings.)
Bon courage and happy reading,
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada
IN THIS INSTALLMENT
•”Crowmothers, Come Home” by Sara Wright
•”The Crowmother Thread” by Sara Wright
•”Crossing Over” by Harriet Ellenberger
•”Crow” by Lynn Martin
• letter and “A Conversation with Fear” by ilit rosenblum
Crowmothers, Come Home
Steel black crows
Dancing blue light.
Arching dipped wings
Feathered to bow.
Beady eyes shift with ease
Peruse rough bark and twig
Circle smooth stones.
Old Woman keening at the well
I listen with fierce attention
Thirsting for threefold vision
Of black winged women
Poised in flight.
Mend the silken silvery thread
Broken so long ago,
Ancient Mothers, rise up —
Shapeshifters! You —
Sing new flesh onto white bone
Craft sharpened beaks out of fish hooks from the deep
Carve all seeing sight
Out of the still nights
Of my imagining
Crow Mothers, please come home.
– Sara Wright
THE CROWMOTHER THREAD
by Sara Wright
Every morning I put out chunks of dry dog food and bits of dried bread for my crows, and then sit with coffee and a pair of binoculars, watching the wily corvids commune with each other, display crow antics and engage in elaborate courtship rituals. A couple of days ago I was rewarded by seeing one crow strip the bark off a half-dead oak branch and fly back over the knoll to its chosen nest site in the woods. Later this same bird, or perhaps the mate, gathered so much deer hair in its beak that the crow looked as if it had grown whiskers! These birds fascinate me. When I found a dead squirrel, I placed it where I leave the other food and noticed that it was two days before any of the crows would get near the carcass. When the first one did, s/he hopped sideways, approaching the dead body from four directions before pecking at it. When I focus on their bead-like eyes, I am astonished. Is it an optical illusion that they seem to peer in all directions almost simultaneously? It feels good that these crows have befriended me. Usually they maintain a healthy distance from humans—with good reason, for they are much maligned.
Often as I watch crows, I think about how they expose the underlying bones of things, not just because they eat carrion, but because they uncover what’s normally hidden in the forest by creating, for example, a frenzy in the air as they circle an intruder, voicing their displeasure with loud raucous cries. Sometimes they mob a tired owl, and I follow their screeching to find the harassed day-sleeping raptor perched precariously on a limb and blinking its eyes in distress. More frequently, I see owls soaring low on silent wings through the trees to escape the crow taunting.
Although my grandmother died in 1974, I can still see her with a pea-green scarf wrapped around her head, walking out to the field with a pailful of scraps as a raucous black cloud hovered above her. Here she comes, the crows would screech with enthusiasm. I have no doubt that my grandmother’s crows were the best-fed corvids around. Although she was often teased about her fondness for crows, she fed them until she died, and I suspect there was more to that relationship than she ever let on.
Whenever I see crows, I also think about my mother because now she feeds her crows as my grandmother did before her. Sadly, my mother has a life history of keeping herself physically and emotionally distanced from me, which has left me filled with a peculiar longing. Perhaps that’s why I think of our crow connection as a kind of cosmic link—one that stretches across time, space, and my mother’s real need to remain separate from her daughter.
When I was in my thirties and early forties, my mother would sometimes refuse to talk to me because of an imagined slight or because I displeased her in some way. When she finally broke her silence, I would discover to my amazement that we had been growing exactly the same herbs or tomatoes or flowers, or that we had both discovered clay as a medium, in the two years since we had last had a conversation. I never spoke to anyone about this bizarre twist to our unstable relationship, but I always wondered what it meant.
Three years ago last winter, I developed a pain in my right breast, and I dreamed that my distressed and tearful mother came to me, and then refused to tell me what was wrong. I remember most from this period the baffling, mindless grief that washed over me repeatedly like an incoming tide. One night during a body meditation, I distinctly heard a French lullaby that my mother loved, being sung somewhere in the air around me. Soon afterwards my son called to tell me that my mother had been diagnosed and operated on for breast cancer during my three-month depression. I experienced her tight-lipped silence as a crushing betrayal. Breast cancer, as I told her later in a letter, is a woman’s disease. I was only vaguely aware at the time that my body had somehow known about the cancer, and had been carrying the burden of my mother’s grief and probably my own. The day my son called with the news, my birdfeeders were suddenly flooded with crows. Both Nature and my body (itself part of Nature) seem able to channel information in unusual ways.
My personal experience supports the ecofeminist idea that women and Nature are inextricably bound together. It also supports my own idea that Nature carries a kind of consciousness enabling living things to communicate with one another across species. All warm-blooded creatures share patterns of instinctual behavior, of course, and this instinctual connection between species is, I believe, the pathway that links us—bird to woman.
Although the crows themselves initiated the possibility of dialogue with me by appearing here last spring to munch on cracked corn that I had left for the wild turkeys, I was the one who encouraged them to stay. They did stay for a while and then drifted off after my brief absence. Now, though, they are taking up housekeeping in the lowland woods behind the house. Each morning when I feed them, I do so with a consciousness of the invisible but genuine connection between this daughter and her mother, a link the crows may be mediating. My intention this time is to keep the lines open and see what happens. I am trusting that the crows know something I don’t because they approached me first. I’ve also learned that it’s useless to turn my back on a Nature connection. Regardless of my personal views on the creature in question, if any animal attempts to enter into some kind of relationship with me, I know something is up!
I also believe that a live crow can be an incarnation of the archetype of the Great Mother in her crone aspect. If I’m right and crows can be Nature’s choice to express the archetypal reality of the venerable crone, then it makes perfect sense to me that crows can help keep the psychic lines open between my mother and me, because, like my mother, I too have become a crone. But what are these winsome corvids trying to tell me?
I believe that on one level my crows are reminding me of the ancient relationship between women and crows, one that has recently been hidden behind the veil of patriarchy. I think that if we develop our connection to them, the crows can help us reclaim our lost woman ground. Barbara Walker confirms this intuition when she says that crows represent the third form of the Triple Goddess (Great Mother), her death aspect. But why the death aspect? I think the answer can be found in crow behavior. This third aspect of the Triple Goddess is about seeing what’s hidden, and getting down to the bones of things, literally picking the bones clean, and preparing for new life. Crows have remarkable sight—a ground way of seeing; they peer beyond the obvious, just as old crones see what others miss. Crows ingest decaying matter and, by doing so, create space for the new; crones not only prepare for death, but assist others during the transition from death to new life. Crones have knowledge of the future, and crows prophesy. Both crows and crones inhabit the edge places: crows hang out at the edge of forests, and crones live on the boundaries of the known and unknown. Perhaps mediating this crow connection can help us as women to reweave the original powers of the Great Goddess, especially the powers of death, back into our Woman Psyche once and for all. To reclaim death is to reclaim the crone in ourselves and to reclaim our own woman ground. Can’t you almost see those three old women who not only spin and weave, but know when it is time to cut the threads?
On a more personal level, I believe that my crows may be trying to mend the broken link between my mother and me. Perhaps the crows are letting me know that underneath the apparent physical separation and emotional distance between this mother and her daughter, there exists an unbroken and ancient connection … and that by listening to my crows, I am able to reach through the veil to pick up that lost thread. My mother sent me a crow feather for my last birthday—maybe her crows have been talking to her too.
Crows are also said to be messengers of the gods, and this oracular or prophetic quality is another of my personal associations with the crow. In fact, I was wary of crows for years because it often happened that crows (or other black birds) appeared during times of painful transition, as they did the day I was told about my mother’s cancer. It doesn’t surprise me that the first stage in alchemical transformation—the nigredo—is often represented by the crow, since one of the bird’s trickster/creator-like characteristics is shapeshifting, and this nigredo is the first stage of change. “From death to life” I seem to hear my crows say as they fly high above me and perch in the towering white pines, and I believe them.
For the Pacific Coast Tlingit Indians, Crow is a central divinity figure, and in other Native American traditions Crow is a sky god associated with the winds (of change?). Jamie Sams, who created the Animal Medicine Cards, sees the crow as the shadow side of reality. For me, Crow embodies both light and dark, life and death aspects of the crone/Nature. In fact, it seems to me that Nature displays genius when she personifies herself in crow form to spin and mend the threads, to prophesy, or to expose the bones of things! Crows are also seen as soul guides, and my favorite crone, the Greek goddess Hecate, is sometimes depicted with a crow. Thinking of Hecate returns me to wondering about the hidden meaning of my own personal crow connection, which I suspect has a lot to do with learning surrender to the wisdom of the archetypal crone and her instinctual ways of knowing.
Today I continue feeding my crows to participate in the wonder that is Nature. I feed them because I feel psychically and physically linked through crows to my mother and to my grandmother, and because something about this woman connection goes beyond the veil that separates life and death. When I feed my crows, I am consciously putting my life in Her hands. It’s at this point that I let go, enter the “Great Mysteries,” pick the bones clean, create new beginnings, and cackle with those wily Crowmothers who are older than time.
When I was little,
my mother bought me a Golden Book,
and each night we read the story
that repeated the words,
but the old black crows.”
Crows know everything
because they eat everything.
Crows bring good luck,
especially in travel.
I ask it be a world-wise crow
who calls me
to the other way.
– Harriet Ellenberger
carries on her back
all we don’t know.
she cleaves the sky
into rough edged nuggets
even our blind palms can read.
Have you noticed
she feeds by the side of roads
in between arriving and departure,
her tongue harsh
as if the message she carries
has traveled from one soul to another?
Despite the infinite winds
she is our third eye
until we look up
– Lynn Martin
LETTER FROM ILIT ROSENBLUM, 9 MARCH 2002, NEW YORK CITY
I found your letter and package of writing as I returned from a trip to Jerusalem & India in mid February. Finally I attempt to send a response.
I am completely mortified at the events storming around. Mostly I feel a stunned silence inside me. Fear.
I hear the news today and bow to my guardian angel. I was sitting in that same café in Jerusalem many times during my visits there. Just a few steps from where I stay. A contested square in Jerusalem by the Prime Minister’s walled residence. Where many hundreds of right-wing demonstrators arrive weekly by busloads to urge the minister to escalate his already unrestrained violence. And where several dozen women in black stand vigil every Friday afternoon, after which we would go to that same café and hang out.
How am I to conduct my life as these storm clouds are gathering? I think about us in the ’80s, knowing of the storm coming. Now here it is. I see Talibans everywhere. I saw them crash-land in New York, I saw news of them in India, and I see them all over Jerusalem. Always violently demanding more violence. Always cloaked in God and righteousness. Always welcomed!
Aside of this, I have my life here, a pretty monastic life. I teach yoga in my small apartment to about a dozen people, up to four persons at a time. I study and practice and go out dancing.
In Jerusalem my mother is slipping rapidly, and whenever I can, I go there to sit with her & witness the gradual dismantling of her life.
There is so much more, of course. Maybe we’ll get to meet and catch up.
Thank you for “She Is Still Burning.” I’ll send you something I wrote for my students during the months after 9/11 …
A CONVERSATION WITH FEAR
by ilit rosenblum
Then the young warrior said, “How can I defeat you?”
Fear replied, “My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face, then you get completely unnerved, and you do whatever I say. If you don’t do what I tell you, I have no power. You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me. You can even be convinced by me, but if you don’t do what I say, I have no power.”
– Pema Chödrön
Today we are all challenged by fear. Instead of escalating fear with speculations about the next strikes, we can stop and take a deep look at what is. How we feel. What we do. Our assumptions about our own safety in a world overrun with aggression and injustice. Looking into our collusion with this world-order by our actions and inaction.
As I look inside myself, I see my own response to fear. I see how I make a grab for some ground. I give in to old patterns that feel good only by their virtue of being old, familiar and unsuccessful. Even in that same old defeat I feel comforted that something does endure—old habits endure!
As these patterns operate inside me, I see around me the same debilitating cycle of fear and habitual responses. Nations are flexing their muscles, inflicting greater violence in response to violence, heaping suffering upon suffering. Everywhere aggression is raised a notch, fanning fires of hate, aggression and violence.
To soothe my spirit I take myself out to the beach. Even there fear follows me. On the horizon battleships and overhead planes landing and taking off every few minutes. Each time I see a plane overhead I fear it will fall out of the sky. And right away I think of those for whom the roar overhead brings inevitable explosions, fires, death and suffering, daily for weeks on end. Our suffering will not end by bringing suffering to others.
Fear stops me in my tracks, again, and I plummet, and the ground is shifting.
The good news is delivered by Pema Chödrön in her book When Things Fall Apart (Shambahala 1997). “The only time we ever know what’s really going on is when the rug’s been pulled out and we can’t find anywhere to land” (p. 8). “Consider it a remarkable stroke of luck. We have no ground to stand on and at the same time it could soften us and inspire us. Finally, after all these years, we could truly grow up” (p. 117).
To have the rug pulled out from under our feet is a classic Buddhist call to mindfullness, to be present and to look deeply into what is. Where we encounter fear is where courage is found. The trick, says Pema Chödrön, “is to keep exploring and not bail out” (p. 5). This is a crucial and fruitful time when we can choose “to open up further to whatever we feel … rather than to shut down more” (p. 84).
Pema Chödrön’s advice is clear and practical: “the very instant of groundlessness … is the seed of taking care of those who need our care and of discovering our goodness” (p. 9). We do not set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people’s hearts.
“What truly heals is gratitude and tenderness” (p. 100).
I thank my teachers and their teachers and my students and their students.
Editor’s note: Ilit Rosenblum is an artist/writer with a background in environmental research and community work. She has been teaching yoga since 1997. After receiving her letter, I reread an essay she’d written on Rosa Luxemburg’s life and writings (I. Rose, “A Passion for Revolution: Rosa Luxemburg, 1871–1919,” Trivia: A Journal of Ideas 10, Spring 1987) and discovered that, in it, she had been as prophetic as the woman she was writing about.