After the Storm It rained three days and nights, and now everything seems new. Except this metaphor, but think of this: it isn't one. Marsh marigolds, their satiny leaves like pale green heart-shaped moons in the not-quite-light. The usual paths blurred by busy rivers. The morning undeniably alive with sweetness: white scent of daphne, perched on the damp plainsong of the varied thrush. Cyclamen: violet vernal pools. Even the daffodils—which poets have loved so long and so intensely, I am tempted to ignore them. Especially the daffodils— that bottomless, smooth yellow, throwing its ruffled shoulders back, and trailing, proudly, its translucent husk.
These last few months, I am moderately obsessed with labyrinths. I don’t know why, and I’m not “doing” anything with this obsession. Letting it have its way with me, I guess. There’s no project here, and no goal. All the same, it’s taking me some unexpected places.
It drew my eye, for example, to a block print depiction of Mary (as in: Mary the Mother of God) in a curious aspect: Our Lady of the Underworld. She’s pictured holding in her hands a great cathedral (casually, like she’s just made it out of legos). Her eyes are weary. The designs on her robe remind me of a supernova, or a black hole. And a massive labyrinth twists and folds and compounds into something like a halo behind her head.* I admit to having no idea what any of this represents, but it’s got ahold of me.
I have begun to understand the last year or so of my life as something of an Underworld journey: a traversing of death—of the ego; of old selves and old wants and old understandings that no longer serve, but did not wish to die and be transformed. And an attempt to return, with whatever lesson or skill or memory I need to carry forward. It’s not a path I went looking for; it came for me.
Mary showed up right when that understanding crystallized. I come from a Christian tradition that makes relatively little of her, so this showing up has been a surprise. I’ve got nothing to make of it, yet. I’m watching and listening, walking, and emptying.
You could argue the whole world is in the midst of an Underworld journey—with COVID alone, not to mention Everything Else. Folks have: the mythologist Martin Shaw has said it before, and he returned to the subject in his newsletter this week. He was pointing out, among other things, that the Underworld is where we live now, sometimes rather comfortably, and perhaps we have forgotten that an equally essential part of the myth is always the return.
If that sounds interesting to you, read Martin Shaw, or read some ancient myths. My own thoughts on the subject haven’t been around long enough to be worth passing on.
Before I understand something, I’m usually writing poetry around it. Not “about” it, and any resonance becomes legible only after the fact. I composed “After the Storm” while walking in my waterlogged Portland neighborhood last week. I wasn’t thinking about anything; I was standing with the doors thrown open to see what might amble in. (You can’t force the Divine surprise that is a poem—or a revelation, realization, inspiration, or moment of deep joy—but you can make yourself ready in case one is looking for you.)
I’m not always very good at this, but the invitation is a practice, and whether I “succeed” or not, I respect and value that practice.
On that day, something wandered in that did surprise me, and that strikes me now as in conversation with ideas about the Underworld, about death and the Resurrection, about how literal all of that also is. (Maybe not in the dogmatic sense my culture taught me either to revere or to scorn.) About how surprising all of it is, as well.
My spiritual advisor asked me recently to look at a picture and say the first thing I noticed. The picture was of some daffodils, and the first thing I noticed was the faded papery husk, hanging on amidst all the glory. The poet Joyce Rupp calls this husk a shroud. That day after the storm, I saw those shrouds everywhere, in the flesh, and I stopped to bow. Literally, which probably looks pretty weird, but the practice is a worthwhile teacher.
I’m not at all sure the poem is “done,” but it seems to have something to say that it wants to say now. Since my job is to serve the poem, here I am making it a whole little bed to plant itself in. And with any luck, grow. Maybe sow some seeds.
*The print of Our Lady of the Underworld is by Kreg Yingst, commissioned by author Christine Valters Paintner, who is writing a book on the names and titles of Mary.