Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Journeying in Virgen Territory

A happy confluence of events sparks today’s blog. The first is the long-awaited arrival of Clarissa Pinkola-Estés’s new book, Untie the Strong Woman: Blessed Mother’s Immaculate Love for the Wild Soul. You may know her by her first, blockbuster achievement, Women Who Run with the Wolves, one of the most positively empowering books for women ever written. The second event is the annual Washing of the Sarongs, in which all thirty-three receive ablutions. How these two happenings commingle is what I’m about to tell you.

As I explained to you in my post of August 15th,  sarongs are the foundational garment of my summer wardrobe. These lovely yards of batik-dyed rayon make me happy, not only because they are so easy and graceful to wear but because they are simply beautiful. Their colors are exquisite and their designs captivatingly alive with natural forms, including fish, turtles, dolphins, salamanders, butterflies and flowers. So, when the Autumnal Equinox passes and the days grow cooler, I reward my sarongs with a ritual washing and ironing, before laying them away in a drawer for yet another season, ready and waiting for more travels in Virgen territory.

This time, as I’m ironing (18 down, 15 to go!) I’m reflecting that these are far more to me than mere garments. They’re friends who have traveled near and far with me, and participated in some of my life’s most rewarding moments.

The red salamanders were a favorite scarf in the icy winds of Zurich and the Highlands of Scotland; the teal and indigo shell-scattered one saw me through a rousing, net-less volley ball game involving a half-inflated ball, in the depths of Barrancas de Cobre; and the finely scatter-printed putty and teal one soaked up the sun with me, one whole, long summer in Aix-en-Provence. As I handle the soft, cool suppleness of each garment, memories flood in, and that’s where Untie the Strong Woman enters the picture.

Dr. Pinkola-Estés’s new book is a celebration of the powerful and ever-present love of the Divine Feminine and, by association, the strong women and men who love her, in return. It got me thinking about all the powerful women and men that my sarongs and I have encountered, over the years and the thousands of miles of travel. I began to feel that these people are connected to me, intimately and enduringly, through bright rayon bonds over which the vital love of the Mother leaps like an electric spark, keeping relationships of love and respect ever renewed, even across great gaps of time and space.

For example, on one of our annual trips to Mexico, my dear friend and traveling companion, Javier, and I found ourselves deep in Chihuahua’s Copper Canyon, in Tarahumara territory, in the little mud brick village of Cuiteco. Javier has family scattered all through the Canyon, and this time we were staying with his cousin, China, in a gracious old adobe home, with wide pine plank floors, that China’s father had built in the 1920s. It’s one of my favorite places on earth, with its deep, sheltering porch giving onto a country flower garden; its pink plastered interior walls where a gato montés, a mountain lion, stretches its feral hide and Tarahumara baskets hang ready to hand; and its smoky comal, from which tortillas of astonishing deliciousness are served up each mealtime by Margarita, the Tarahumara maid. Meanwhile, the cracked bronze bell in the adobe church tower clangs the hour and donkeys bray in the streets.
 I was sitting on the porch writing in my journal, one afternoon, when Javier suddenly announced we were all going down the hill a mile or so, to a friend’s house. I was lounging in my teal and indigo sarong and wanted to change but Javier, ever impatient, would have none of it. We were going NOW. So off we went, China, her sister and niece, Javier and I, to the home of an elderly friend who lives in an adobe house fronted by an ancient apple orchard, on the banks of the river Urique. On the other side of the river, the copper red cliffs of the Barrancas de Cobre rose straight up for a thousand feet, radiating the afternoon sun in a fiery glow.

We found an old volley ball among the lilies of her garden and, with her 12-year old neighbor, Sarita, began an impromptu volley ball game, while Javier chatted with the neighbor and China’s sister sat fanning herself in the shade of the porch. Sarita and the niece made up one team, while China and I were the other. She and I were viciously competitive, racking up victory after victory, smacking our crones' hands in a high-5 and laughing craftily, after each one.

It was in the midst of a leap, arms held aloft to block a serve, that I felt my sarong shift suddenly and I knew nakedness was imminent. With a yell, I called for Time Out, turned my back on all assembled, opened my sarong wide to the afternoon, then rewrapped it tightly. This operation had to be repeated several times during the combat, each time to good-natured hoots and jeers.

Finally, our energies flagging, we all collapsed in the shade of the porch, while the elderly but ever-hospitable neighbor poured her homemade wild berry liqueur into tiny, hand-blown glasses. The tumult of our game subsided; the rush of the river and the river wind through the apple trees and pines carried us into deeply tranquil conversation; and the immensity of the sheer red walls, the exposed sinew of the Great Lady, Mother Earth Herself, caught and reflected last light, as we finally trudged homeward. Javier and I agreed that it may have been the happiest afternoon of either of our lives. And he still teases me about the sarong.

Those women, with whom I could barely communicate in my pidgin Spanish, were so gracious to me and so loving. And the same has been true in each of the homes where we have stayed over the years, as we gradually have made our way along the snaking paths of Copper Canyon or through the byways of Old Mexico. In each home there is an air of profound serenity, and in each, an image of La Virgen de Guadalupe hangs in a place of prominence. Throughout Mexico, in fact, from north to south, the Virgin lies at the heart of a religious sensibility that encompasses Catholic Christianity, but has its roots in great antiquity when La Que Sabe, She Who Knows, was, as Pinkola-Estés points out, the center of worship. Small wonder that She and the sarongs are ever entangled in my mind and heart, a colorful river of human doing, being and loving.

The sarongs have doubled as shopping bags in native markets, where women bent and wrinkled beyond their years sold luscious fruits with welcoming, toothless smiles. They have been shawls amidst the rainy ruins of the Valley of Mexico, where Indian women still bring flowers to shrines desecrated by Conquistadores 500 years ago, and sister volcanoes Popocatépetl and Pico de Orizaba lie cloud-shawled and mysterious on the horizon. And I’ve slept sweetly through the night beneath my sarongs on remote, chilly beaches and used them for towels, after swimming in the surf of la Mer, Mère Ocean.

They’ve even been scarves on the Paris Metro where a woman once nodded coolly and murmured, “Jolie!” Pretty! A high compliment coming from a woman among the most sophisticated in the world. Through the years these companions have frayed at the edges, faded in sun and salt water, and become wrinkled at the bottom of string bags and duffels. Yet, wherever we go, the sarongs and I, women universally recognize them as something pertaining to them, to the Feminine, to something indelibly tied to a woman’s deepest knowing.

They are a bright rope extending around the world, wrapping us all in its embrace; or the flags of the Divine Feminine, flying high. They embrace numberless women in beauty and grace, as do saris, huipils and all the other yards of bright fabric, often hand-loomed and -dyed, with which women around the world choose to dignify and beautify their bodies and their souls. La Que Sabe smiles, I’m sure, when women wear them -- as I will smile when the last one is smoothed beneath the iron and laid down for a winter’s rest -- with satisfaction. 

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