Bring your vagina to church

Though I’d already been back once, I could feel the sea tugging at me, calling me home. And then the call came. The one that spoke of loss. Of exodus.

http://www.sandplay.org/symbols/mandorla.htm
Sheela Na Gigs (usually found on Romanesque churches.)

And so, I returned. To the empty house of my childhood friend. Filled with mourners.

The butcher block island in the center of Mrs. O’s kitchen was filled too–with aluminum pans of pasta, which I ignored, because for me it was always ice cream. Cartons greedily opened after school; not one, but two, and sometimes three; especially before or after General Hospital, or in the wee hours of the morning, after a night of drinking. Three of us. Three spoons. Laughter.

“You girls smell like a brewery!” Mrs. O. once said.

“Do you still have the fabric shop?” I asked, attempting to change the subject, exposing my drunkenness.

…Who were we now without these parents?

…Do our childhoods still exist without this landmark of home?

The truth is that our days together in this kitchen eating ice cream around the butcher block were long gone. None of us could tolerate dairy much any more, and didn’t want to. We preferred salt and chardonnay and Italian funeral cookies.

On this day, however, we avoided the kitchen and the butcher block, and gathered on the couch in the narrow slanted sun porch, where we rarely, if ever, sat as young women. We talked with the older sisters who had already been off to college (or to their grown up lives) all those years ago. We worried about the children we left at home. We worried about the children who were grown.

We were 50, or approaching 50, or just past 50, but also 14 and 16 and 18. Time folded onto itself like waves in the sea.

There we were in the pews again. Where we had been 2 years earlier for the death of the same friend’s mother. The same grandchildren filed in, weeping. The same grand-daughter sang stunningly. The same son stood and spoke so naturally of his love; this time for his father.

On this morning, I was met in the vestibule by someone who spoke my name. I looked up from my purse and recognized a highschool classmate who I hadn’t seen since… highschool? And two more class of ’81 alumni, beside her. We all whispered too loud, and laughed too hard, and shared contraband (chewing gum) and “You look great,” and then took seats altogether in one pew, so that suddenly I was on a bench in P.E., being chosen (or not) for a team, or running a relay, or hearing them call out, “Be careful or you’ll get a black eye.”

I hadn’t known that my breasts were “large.” Until someone translated the meaning of that cat call. I’d hoped for “real” breasts for so long. (I had forgotten to stop hoping.)

  Madonna Della Vagina, Gianluca Costantini It wasn’t just breasts that were on my mind during the funeral Mass, but vaginas.

Not my 14 year-old vagina, which I rarely thought about, and certainly never spoke about, especially during Mass (even if ( wasn’t Catholic), but my approaching 50 year old private parts, which was all I could think about this summer.

In June I had gotten some type of rash in the folds of my legs, and it had become infected, tenaciously so, so that 6 weeks later, I still couldn’t wear underwear or it would spread from the friction of contact.

Spread. Without underwear. In a skirt. My vagina open to the altar. Like Madonna. (Not that one. The one from the eighties.)

But why not the original Madonna? She had a vagina too.

In fact, Jesus, up there on the cross, was delivered through it.

It suddenly occurs that my altar-facing vagina is less of a sacrilege and more of a blessing, a rightness.

What if every woman exposed her vagina to the altar?

(A scene from Mama Mia II came to mind.)

Vaginas belonged in church.

Why should I feel ashamed or embarrassed or inappropriate?8739107444_ed224fdea3_z

All of these weeping grandchildren, who once didn’t exist, came to being through the vagina.

Even this priest, in his white robes with the gold embroidery, matching the blanket that covered the coffin in front of him, came into being through the vagina.

In fact, without the Vagina, there would be no “Church.”

Vagina. Vagina. Vagina.

When the Mass was over, we followed the casket out the door to the Hurst, and stood around sharing weak smiles and tears and hugs and renewed promises to visit (beyond funerals.)

Before leaving town, I stopped see my aunt and uncle who offered pastries and fresh brewed ice tea with lemon slices, and lamps–two of them, Tiffany-like, from the garage, where they had been stowed; but only after they told me what they were called, and why they were called what they were called:

C” and “FC.”

(Cunt and Fucking Cunt)

A tale of marital discord and resolution followed: Name calling by the husband; retail therapy/revenge by the wife.

Cunt.

That’s the one I chose to bring home. I’d never said that word out loud before. Never felt it as something familiar, let alone friendly; but after spending an entire summer staring at my ownassessing the rash, treating it, diagnosing it, worrying about it, icing it, thinking about it, sharing its healing and its regression with my husband–the Tiffany lamp, named “C”, smiled at me, from the back seat of her car, as I left behind the salty sea for the fresh, mountain air.

While driving, I thought of the pews where I kneeled with friends, and of the grief I felt in the loss of this friend’s father; not the kind of grief that came crashing in waves, like it had when I’d lost her own mother, but a steady undertow of sorrow–of loss and change–taking me (and my friends) further and further from the shore of safety, of parents, of home.

8739107444_ed224fdea3_zI remembered the olive oil in the decanters, the ones in the glass case above the priest’s head, something I’d never noticed before. Three shelves. Three grades. The middle one–a rich, dark green.

Moist.

Wet.

I had expected my return to the sea to miraculously heal the rash, but perhaps it was the Virgin* in my vulva which I truly needed most. A homecoming that transcended parents and place. A turning in, a turning toward, a welcome home.

(Kelly Salasin, August 2013)

*The pre-patriarchal goddess, Hera, would return for a ritual bath to the Spring of Kanathus every year to renew her virginity–her quality of belonging to herself.

(The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Sue Monk Kidd, 1996.)

Madonna art photography:  Gianluca Costantini

More on the Madorla of Mary

and here, too.

the heart’s story

When you begin to touch your heart or let your heart be touched, you begin to discover that it’s bottomless, that it doesn’t have any resolution, that this heart is huge, vast and limitless…

~Start Where You Are, Pema Chödrön

Let me light my lamp”, says the star, “And never debate if it will help to remove the darkness.

~Rabindranath Tagore

Expansion by sculptor Paige Bradley

It was late at night when my son and I were driving home from an evening concert in Brattleboro. “See that bright star above us, Mom?”  he said from the back seat. “What you’re actually seeing is actually the past.  That star may already be dead. In fact, if you were able to view the Earth from that star, you’d see the dinosaurs.”

“What?” I said, frustrated that he expected me to look up at the sky while I’m driving; and wondering what they’re teaching in fifth grade these days, and if it might be true, and what that says about time, and how that might connect with what I was hearing from my heart these past weeks.

I’d suffered a deep loss of innocence recently, but it was the pain of the past that my heart wanted to talk about–speaking to each of its deepest hurts throughout my life. As it told its story, it heated up my chest until it burned like a hot poker.

Perhaps I had neglected it for too long. Perhaps it really needs me to listen.

“How does the heart speak?” my walking buddy asks me when I share my experience. I tell her that mine spoke in pointed memories;  but it also speaks in desire and longing; and in an expanded connection to the world around me.

As we climb MacArthur Rd, I recall a book, Hands of Life by Julie Motz. Though I read it years ago, what I remember so clearly is that this author, an energetic healer, accompanied patients into surgery in a big city hospital.  One man in particular rejected his organ transplant, and Julie was able to shift his body’s response with this one insight:

The new heart wants to tell its story.

With Julie’s help, the man listened; and much to the surgical staff’s surprise, his body and his new heart received one and other.

Recalling this story led me to wonder if the heart was like a fiery star–connecting us to the past while shedding light on the present; which brought to mind my favorite fable about listening to the heart: The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo. In this richly-textured narrative, a young man crosses the desert in search of his destiny:

They crossed the desert for another two days in silence.  …As they moved along, the boy tried to listen to his heart.

It was not easy to do; in earlier times, his heart had always been ready to tell its story, but lately that wasn’t true. There had been times when his heart spent hours telling of his sadness, and at other times it became so emotional over the desert sunrise that the boy had to hide his tears. His heart beat faster when it spoke to the boy of treasure and more slowly when the boy stared entranced at the endless horizons of the desert. But his heart was never quiet, even when the boy and the alchemist had fallen into silence.

“Why do we have to listen to our hearts?” the boy asked…

“Because, wherever your heart is, that is where you’ll find your treasure.”

“But my heart is agitated,” the boy said. “It has its dreams, it gets emotional, and it’s become passionate over a woman of the desert. It asks things of me, and it keeps me from sleeping many nights, when I’m thinking about her.”

“Well, that’s good. Your heart is alive. Keep listening to what it has to say.”

“…My heart is a traitor,” the boy said. “It doesn’t want me to go on.”

“That makes sense,” the alchemist answered. “Naturally it’s afraid that, in pursuing your dream, you might lose everything you’ve won.”

“Well, then, why should I listen to my heart?”

“Because you will never again be able to keep it quiet. Even if you pretend not to have heard what it tells you, it will always be there inside you, repeating to you what you’re thinking about life and about the world.”

“You mean I should listen, even if it’s treasonous?”

“Treason is a blow that comes unexpectedly. If you know your heart well, it will never be able to do that to you…”

The boy continued to listen to his heart as they crossed the desert. He came to understand its dodges and tricks, and to accept it as it was… One afternoon, his heart told him that it was happy:

“Even though I complain sometimes,” it said, “it’s because I’m the heart of a person, and people’s hearts are that way. People are afraid to pursue their most important dreams, because they feel that they don’t deserve them, or that they’ll be unable to achieve them…”

“My heart is afraid that it will have to suffer,” the boy told the alchemist one night as they looked up at the moonless sky.

“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”

“Every second of the search is an encounter with God,” the boy told his heart.. (And) his heart was quiet for an entire afternoon.

That night, the boy slept deeply, and, when he awoke, his heart began to tell him things that came from the Soul of the World. It said that all people who are happy have God within them. And that happiness could be found in a grain of sand from the desert, as the alchemist had said. Because a grain of sand is a moment of creation, and the universe has taken millions of years to create it…

!ndeed.

Perhaps the sand and the stars and our hearts (and even our sons) are in one big conspiracy to help us listen.

Kelly Salasin, February 2012

April 19th

Little by little, and also in great leaps,

life happened to me…

~Neruda

Chocolates on my pillow, Santiago

Once considered a “world” traveler, I’ve been homebound for close to twenty years now–rooted on a dirt road in rural Vermont with two boys and a husband.

Imagine my surprise when I found a family-friendly, part-time job with an “international” organization in the small town just down the road.

Within months, this new position extracted me from snow and mud and motherhood, and transported me over the Andes into the vivid metropolis of Santiago, Chile–on the opposite side of the globe–where south is cold and spring is fall.

Within days of immersing myself in work and a foreign culture, I was completely taken aback by the appearance of a 10 year old boy on SKYPE who called me: “Mom.”

Behind this child stood a kitchen sink and an entire household which once had been my familiar.

My new life was made up of twin beds, a simple desk, a closet safe, and my own bathroom–in addition to 40 new friends from around the world, and extended lunches with bottles of local wine.

Like the tectonic activity of Chile, a week later, my reality shifted once again, as I abandoned the 4 star hotel, the 5 course meals, and the 16 hour work days to explore Santiago on my own.

Pablo’s Bed, by Kelly Salasin

I slept on a futon, ate on the street, and walked until I had blisters–even on the bottoms of my feet.

Each morning as I closed the gate on the small apartment lent to me by a new friend, I turned toward the Andes and made the mile-long walk out of this quiet neighborhood to Santiago’s safe and speedy subway.

Often cloaked by fog, and other times obscured by the tunneled vision of a traveler with map in hand, I was caught by surprise by the reappearance of looming mountainous beasts, who soon became my friends.

At night, in the cool mountain air, I drifted into sleep, alone, comforted by the full moon rising in the East, just as it would over my bed in Vermont–5,000 miles away.

Each day I was treated to new delights of sight and taste and texture…

It would be in poor taste to mention the dogs first; but I must. They were everywhere. On their own. Not bothering a soul.

I envied their independence when I thought about their fellow stateside “pets,” stuck behind fences, harnessed by leashes, and eating out of a bowl.

These friendly freedom lovers howled late into the night and slept through the mornings, just like the people of Chile.

It was pointless for an early riser like me to venture out before 11 am to find something to eat, just as it was pointless to try to fall asleep before midnight when Chileans were just finishing their evening meal.

However, if it’s something sweet I wanted, I need not try at all. Treats, of all kinds, abound in Santiago. From pastries and candies, cakes and cookies, chocolates and caramel fillings, the Chileans love confection–even in their drinks.

One classic (and confounding) every-day beverage was Mote con Huesillo: a drink of dehydrated peaches with stewed barley served in palm syrup.  This glass of floating debris, did not tempt me, but I did succumb to another infamous beverage of Santiago–the TERREMOTO.

This fermented wine based “cocktail” is accompanied by pineapple ice-cream served in a one-litre cup. It may be the strongest drink I’ve ever had (and I came of age at the Jersey shore.)

Terremoto literally translates as ‘Earthquake’ since you are left “with the ground (and legs) feeling very shaky,” before you’ve finished your first.  From the looks of the bar where it was served, many had indulged in even more.

Indulgence seems to be a Chilean characteristic; and I, for one, will miss the grand meals served with plenty of wine. I will also miss the warm greetings and single kiss on a cheek shared by all. I’ve had to restrain myself from continuing both of these traditions now that I’m back home.

Though I departed on the 18th, I didn’t arrive home until the next day. My husband met me outside of customs, and we made the drive from New York to Vermont alone so that we could enjoy the renewed awareness of each other–without children.

Paradoxically, Casey and I shared another significant journey on this same date, 18 years earlier. That ride home was from a birthing center, an hour and a half away, where I miscarried our first child at the three month mark.

A gorgeously sunny spring morning mocked that unbearable loss in April, while a gloomy overcast day belied the joy we felt in today’s sweet reunion, following two weeks and an equator apart.

On the long drive home from the airport, we stopped along the coast and shared a mid-day meal complete with wine. Over coffee and dessert, my husband wondered if I felt different from being abroad again. I checked inside, and Whitman’s words came to mind…

I am large. I contain multitudes.

At 47 years old (and young), my alternately expanding and contracting sense of self now includes… three backpacking trips to Europe, the love of two men, the loss of two pregnancies, the gift of two sons, a house to call home, and an enamoring trip to yet another side of the globe.

How all these pieces belong in the same story is as curious to me, as how Whitman’s words emerge from time spent in Neruda country–that is, until I discover that Pablo kept a photo of Walt on his desk; and how I, in my last hours of wandering the streets of Santiago, found myself standing in front of Neruda’s house…

Kelly Salasin, April 19, 2011

Previous post in the series: AWE

Follow up post: Palm Sunday