Meditation on Mothers and Death

Eshu’s Vision

Crows with iridescent rich feathers
swoop in layers in front of my windshield. 
Their chatter hales down like hard pellets
fallen from an August rain cloud in this October month.
I drive into furious black wings, expecting they can be swept aside, made invisible,
that they have not chosen me, but  only like me, are weary after night flight across a sleeping continent.
 
Their black pea eyes refuse to blink.
They push roughly against air forcing me to breathe deeper
like the first time, out of the birth waters,
trying to catch that first breath of air.
 
On this umbilical highway each exhalation releases:
wings rise and fall to earth,
these messengers of Eshu, bring divination, falling like rain,
blur my vision in embryonic thin air.
 
Finished, they fly east to the ocean.
Sunrise reflects like water and oil on wings of charcoal.
The space behind my heart darkens, while nigredo feathers fallen to earth,
predict my mother’s death.

The summer is only beginning, though these hot, humid days suggest August, rather than the light touch of warmth that June most often brings.  For the last several months I have been thinking, actually more ruminating about mortality, and to say it in what seems a more blunt manner, dying.  This is the close personal death—not the distant one of a collective ritual such as Catholic extreme unction or the death of an actor playing someone dying in a movie. It is not the hearing of the death of an actor who has been immortalized on the screen.  I question.  How could he die?  How old was he anyway—surely not that old? Then I remember the years since I first saw him on screen.  I realize that the difference of our age is not that great.  I might be closer to death then I think.  Of course I am because I cannot know the minute nor the hour.  This thought makes dying seem so very close to me. As if I will die. Can die—soon.   For these few seconds I know this and think I can actually feel my body dying.

I have begun with my own mortality but I also want to talk about mothers and our holding and lose of them.  In a soft way, like a small pocket of lightly swirling cove water, under the ocean, I have been thinking only about my own personal mother’s death, and so a patient came not too many days ago, because she is in mourning about her own mother’s recent death.  Of course, every one who walks through the analytical door is carrying a gift, a contributing reason for my existence as I am for theirs. They are each bringing something I must hold with love and bear with courage.  This is because I have forgotten and need reminding of my necessary life work.

I wonder if it isn’t too mournful and dreadful in some way to be thinking about death in the summer.  Doesn’t it belong in a dark month, a rainy, cloud-driven late January day?  As a depth psychologist I can safely say not—it’s all right to bring the darkness anytime as it never really leaves us.  Yes, there is safety here but there is also safety in wanting the light—the beautiful light of a blue-sky June day.

I struggle with wanting both—because I actually need both.  It does remind me of what appears as a paradox to me of having someone bring you into the world, be your first place of heart connection, all the while having them die, and yet still be with them in memory. This is for all the years the rest of my life. This might seem so simplistic in thought but it holds a great importance in how I feel my life and feel into my life.

This apparent eternal connection to life and mother, even through her death, sometimes even more so because of her death, interweaves through my life and that of my patients.

As I read through pages of author discussions in service of writing a book on what I have called Archetypal Grief—African American mothers losing their children for generations due to slavery, and the emotional pain of such losses, I feel myself to now be living within the phenomenological field of mothers and death.  But like many things, I feel myself to have been chosen in this moment because I have chosen a topic—a theme, that wants to be expanded upon and yet carries the weight of intergenerational trauma that remains today.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a pioneer in the field of writing about death and dying, begins to inform my writing work—allowing me to develop an idea for a new model of consideration.  This idea is that something changes the model of grief with intergenerational dying and mourning caused by an archetypal event such as slavery.  It is almost as if a mother, and all the enslaved future daughters she births and their daughter’s daughters, moving down the maternal line, will have no place for denial or bargaining as regards death.  Emotionally, there can only be room for anger, depression and acceptance.  This is what can frame the lived experiences of mothering slaves bound to death through birthing and intergenerational child loss.  I’m speaking of this because it has threaded through my consciousness for the past year as I write about enslaved mothers.  I also know that it lives in me as a member of this cultural collective.

Working Hands
 
Sunset red next to
azure blue
next to
spring green,
the colors
of the quilt
stream,
an unchecked flow
of
colored river 
gradually meeting shore,
the working brown
of my grandmother’s
hands.

This past Mother’s Day was a May Sunday in the middle of the month. I performed a short ritual in remembrance of my mother and all of the women of my matriarch lineage. I also remembered the women on my father’s side of family.  This day designated for mothers is not the only one in which we think about the women who have given us life.  In speaking of the mother archetype Jung says:

Like any other archetype, the mother archetype appears under an almost infinite variety of aspects….First in importance are the personal mother and grandmother, stepmother and mother-in-law….or a remote ancestress….The qualities associated with it are maternal solicitude and sympathy;  the magic authority of the female;  the wisdom and the spiritual exaltation that transcend reason;  any helpful instinct or impulse;  all that is benign, all that cherishes and sustains, that fosters growth and fertility.  The place of magic transformation and rebirth, together with the underworld and its inhabitants, are presided over by the mother.

C.G. Jung, CW, vol9i, para. 156, 158

As I consider the passage of my own mother into death, I think more of my own to-come experience of dying.  I think about how we can be afraid of dying. As I age, I realize I am in the category of one more likely to die.  This is sobering.  It doesn’t seem to matter how much presence death has when one is younger—in the twenties, thirties, the later years adds a different quality dimension.  How I can be afraid of it, and how each patient who discusses dying of a parent, friend or stranger is actually referencing their own death.  I believe this is why we must consider wisdom as we age.  It seems an important exchange—a trade-off, a softening offered against the hard edge of ego consciousness leaving the body.

As I write now, I wonder about my own purpose on choosing this meditation on mothers, death and dying. It feels not like swimming in a spiral of self-aggrandizement but more like a spider traversing her web.  Seeking a place to belong while knowing that all is at once home.

Blue Pearl
 
Stepping outside of the hospital where she had just died,
my arms have become wings.
 
Blue pearl surrounds my heart
and moves in the birthing motion of a star,
unencumbered by fear of loss,
now desiring only a child’s life.
 
I am warm with sunrays.
All false joys are tossed away like disappointing fruit,
fallen next to discarded sorrow.
All of it waiting to be washed away by the next rainfall.
 
Ocean stone shines cerulean glory,
pierces doubt, recovers with winds of truth
any falsehood about love,
and it’s power to heal all that hurts.
 
Caresses heartbreak.
Breathes tender.
Like the velvet softness of aged skin.
 
Sapphire reflects upon itself,
star to star,
captures my breath,
recreates it pearl by pearl.
 
And by this I know you have arrived safely.

AUTHOR

Fanny Brewster Ph.D. M.F.A., is a Jungian analyst and author of African Americans and Jungian Psychology:  Leaving the Shadows. (Routledge, 2017). She is a faculty member of the Philadelphia Jung Institute and can be reached through www.fannybrewster.com

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Grief as Anger

           BW Grain

One of the most recognizable stereotypes of African American women is that of the Angry Black Woman.  I believe that this image of Africanist women has grown out of the Collective’s need to have a Feminine upon which to project strength.

Following the decades after slavery and the plantation system where black women worked in the fields, birthed and lost their children, took care of the children of others and suffered being a mothering slave, it seems that the American psyche would find these women to be strong of character.  This is oftentimes applied to black women—that they are strong.  But sometimes this strength is mistaken for anger—thus the angry black woman stereotype. Stereotypes exist because there was once an image, language, a story that created in our consciousness a tangible remembrance.  The recollection becomes solidified as a stereotype.

When I think about the stereotype of the angry black woman I begin to search deeper, looking for something else that resonates with what has risen to the surface.  But before going there it might be important to see why an African American woman might be angry.  The emotion of anger within ourselves can sometimes make us afraid.  We cannot tolerate the uncontrolled welling up and intense heat of the energy of rage or anger.  We can be equally afraid of the release of this anger.  I’m thinking of a situation that might cause one to be angry and yet be out of touch with how to express this anger—to have it suppressed for the sake of one’s survival. Just for a moment imagine that you are a female child born into slavery in the early 1800’s.  Your mother has birthed you and returned to the cotton fields within a month of your birth.

She sometimes comes home to breastfeed you when given permission but otherwise, your early infancy is spent in the care of an elder in the shack where you may have been born.   You might easily be cared for by a young boy if there is no elder woman available. As an infant, you continue to live with others in the shack who may or may not be biological family.  As you begin to get older you are given chores to perform in the white family’s house or in the fields.  These are minor chores and do not take up much of your time as you can still find time to play with the other small white children of the plantation owner.  The day eventually comes when you are no longer allowed to play with these children.  At the age of 8 or ten you must take on more serious jobs—you become a night-pillow for the mistress or worse yet for the master.  Your body, that never really belonged to you, now becomes recognized by you as being the possession of another. Suspicion of the ownership of your mother’s body is now finalized in your mind as you understand that she too belongs to a white master.  You find that your skin color makes you a slave.  You are told that this is how it is and how it will be for the rest of your life.  Imagine that this is your life—for the rest of your life. Imagine your anger.

The idea that slavery happened so long ago and has no place in our cultural thinking today is a part of  America’s Shadow.  It is difficult to bear the thoughts of what life must have been like back then but this is a necessary part of the healing of our American collective.  We wish to forget and we cannot forget.

When we remember and attempt to make some changes good can happen—a civil rights movement emerges which does not end in another civil war; voting rights are guaranteed by law; segregation ends.

But we cannot shine enough light onto the shadow for too long and so once more we sit at the edge of shadow awaiting the next racial storm to begin.  We have had our Ferguson and all the deaths of Black men and women by policemen within the last five years.  I believe that our cultural complexes are so activated by fear and anger that we have a great difficulty staying with patience for understanding what might help us heal our American racial Shadow.

We can understand our anger, our guilt. What of the grief that lives under the anger?  What happens to the emotion of generations of former slaves?  Jung says that our history is in our blood.  The DNA that we live with identifies us as historical and archetypal human beings.  If I feel into how my ancestors before me lived, whether through mirror neurons or the spirit of ancestors, how do I carry the traumatic emotions such as anger and the underlying grief of centuries-old slavery?  I think that we could be angry but we must also hold a deep place for grief.  So when I hear about the angry black woman, I am also trying to hold psychic space for the grief-filled woman.  Where does this grief emerge from and where does it go?  I think that at this point it could be just enough to consider that such a thing exist—an underlying grief that rests within the bosom of generations of African Diaspora women.  This grief can appear as anger.  Why not?  Within the clinical setting oftentimes the emotion of anger covers sadness and sorrow.  What would make this unlikely in a cultural group that has survived 400 years of slavery?  What is the archetypal grief of a mothering slave? These are questions that I ask myself because of the American life that I lead—both personally and professionally.

Biography

Fanny Brewster, Ph.D., M.F.A. is a Jungian analyst, PAJA member and Core Faculty with Pacifica Graduate Institute.