Exploring the F-word in religion at the intersection of scholarship, activism, and community.
Author: Mary Gelfand
Mary Gelfand is an ordained Interfaith Minister and a Wiccan High Priestess. A former board president of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS), she is an experienced teacher of Cakes for the Queen of Heaven—adult education program focused on feminist thealogy and the Great Goddess. Mary lived in the southern part of the US for most of her life, until the chaotic year of 2005 which swept in major personal changes. She now lives on 2.7 acres in Maine, with her husband, 4 cats, and many wild creatures. Her spiritual life is rooted in the cycles and seasons of the natural world which are so abundantly visible in New England. She reads and teaches about feminist theology, the Great Goddess, mythology, mysticism, patriarchy, and the mysteries of Tarot. As a fiber artist, she enjoys weaving tapestry and knitting gifts for strangers and friends.
Last May I had a vision in the shower. It wasn’t the kind of vision I like to have—where the Goddess and I dance across a meadow with flowers springing up as we pass and cool breezes bringing sweet fragrances. This was the kind of vision I’d rather not have, but probably needed to. This is from my journal.
Something happened during my shower recently that feels relevant. As I stepped into the shower, a phrase thrust itself into my mind: “I was forced to watch them die and it was all my fault.” As I ‘stood’ there with water pouring over my body and that statement vibrating in my brain, it attached itself to a scene where I was the spiritual leader of a community that came under attack. I was forced to watch the women and men who believed in what I taught as they were executed. Many of them were friends and relatives. I was restrained and couldn’t intervene to save them, or join them in execution. Having to witness this was part of my punishment. Instead I was carried to a bigger town, publicly humiliated and beaten, and then executed in some painfully unpleasant way I can’t recall–probably because I don’t want to.
If you’ve ever had a Tarot reading or played with reading cards yourself, you’re probably familiar with the work of Pamela Coleman Smith, illustrator of the great-grandmother of all contemporary Tarot decks—The Rider Waite Smith Deck. First published in 1909, the illustrations in most contemporary decks are direct descendants of Smith’s work. Yet most people who engage with Tarot are unaware of Smith’s significant contribution to the world of Tarot. In my eyes, Pamela Coleman Smith is an Unsung Heroine.
Small, perfect, magnificent! The creature lay in Mark’s hand, unmoving. Stunned or dead—we couldn’t tell. Some birds recover from impact with our sliding glass door and some do not. This was a hard hit—I could hear it from another room—and as I gazed at the beauty of this bird—a blue-winged warbler Mark said, I felt pretty sure the Goddess would call home it soon.
As I write this, fall equinox—Mabon to some of us—is two days away. Already here in Maine the days are noticeably shorter. The dark times are upon us now. Daylight will diminish minute by minute until winter solstice when the sun will grace us with nine whole hours of light before the Wheel of the Year turns and the days begin to lengthen, almost imperceptibly. The anniversary of my first husband’s death is a few days after equinox so this is always a hard time of year for me as I face into the darkness and the inevitably of death.
During late summer a few years ago I had a vision. I know it was summer because it was hurricane season and there were several active storms in the Atlantic & Caribbean. Since I grew up in Florida and lived in New Orleans for many years, I have a lot of experience with hurricanes.
In this vision, I found myself seated at the side of the Great Mother Goddess looking down thru a portal at planet Earth. The Goddess looked at me and then turned back to the portal. She put a finger out and touched a place on the planet with a spark of light. Then She turned to me and said, “The energy must be discharged!” She repeated this multiple times and ultimately put her finger on planet Earth five times, each time touching a spot where a hurricane was active.
Despite the distances involved, throughout my adulthood, I regularly visited my parents. As their home was small, I often found myself seated at the kitchen table with my mother while my father watched TV in the adjacent living room. During those visits, it was not unusual for my mother to come and stand behind me and begin working her fingers into my thick dark hair.
I knew why she did this—she was looking for my scars, hidden under the abundance of my hair but still visible to those with patience. Two scars are hidden by my hair. When I was three, I received a glancing blow from a horse’s hoof which cut my scalp causing it to bleed profusely. When I was six, I fell out of a tree in our back yard and cut my scalp again. Maternal fingers remembered where those scars should be, and Mom would weave her fingers through my hair until she found each scar. Then she would lovingly stroke each spot several times and return to her seat. Even at the time it seemed like she was offering a blessings to my wounds.
A few years ago I encountered a Norwegian folktale titled “Prince Lindworm.” This tale was completely new to me and aspects of it have lingered as I contemplate the future of my country.
In “Prince Lindworm,” a childless Queen wants an heir and follows the advice of the Wise Woman she meets in her garden. The Wise Woman tells the Queen where to find two magical roses, instructs her to eat only one, and warns that she “will be sorry” if she eats both. The Queen, of course, eats both and gives birth to twin boys. The elder child emerges as a serpent or lindworm and immediately disappears into the forest. Only the Queen witnesses this birth and, as this is not the child she wants to parent, she remains silent. The second boy is beautiful and healthy and grows into a fine young man. When he is of age to seek a wife, his path is blocked by his unknown exiled brother, Prince Lindworm, who has grown into a massive, repulsive serpent and claims his right to have a bride first. The Queen admits her failure to follow the Wise Woman’s advice and the kingdom must cope with the knowledge that the heir to the throne is an exile.
Over 20 years ago, I randomly came across the following passage from Sonnet X by Edna St. Vincent Millay:
Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour, Rains from the sky a meteoric shower Of facts . . . they lie unquestioned, uncombined. Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill Is daily spun; but there exists no loom To weave it into fabric
I was just learning to spin and weave and so was struck by this passage. I’ve been contemplating Millay’s words ever since.
Weaving is a fascinating process that the ancients in many cultures believed was a gift from the Goddess. Before the Industrial Revolution, clothing was valuable because of the sheer amount of both labor and skill necessary to create it—tasks that were primarily delegated to women. The process of collecting, cleaning, and preparing plant or animal fiber to be spun into thread or yarn is a lot of work. And all you have now is spun fiber. It still needs to be dyed and used to warp the loom—a tedious and time-consuming process. Next the weaving itself—dancing the shuttle in and out across the width of the warp—over one, under one, over two, under two—or some more visually appealing pattern which is also more complex to do. Finally, the woven fabric must be measured, cut, and sewn to make a garment.
When I moved to Maine from New Orleans 15 years ago, I was delighted to discover how many birch trees were on the property where I lived with my new partner. Previously I had had little contact with these beautiful white trees, other than in pictures and stories. The name always evoked images of birch bark canoes and messages to fate scrawled with bits of burnt wood.