Adapted from a talk given by Helen Anthony at the
Glastonbury Goddess Conference, 2014
Kathy Jones invited me to be one of eight older women to offer some “Crone Wisdom” at this Crone Conference. I am choosing to bring you my Crone Wisdom mainly through poetry. I love the work of many different poets. As Rose Flint said in her talk yesterday, most published poets are men. However, things are slowly changing. We now have a woman Poet Laureate here in the UK - the wonderful Carol Ann Duffy. I have included three out of eight women writers in my choice of poems.
Sadly, I myself do not have the gift of being able to write poetry – but poetry (and indeed, good literature) is one of my passions. I agree with Starhawk, who spoke yesterday about the importance of words and metaphors. The other themes of my talk are enthusiasms in old age and networking by older people.
My talk today is like a bunch of flowers - which I offer to all of you. To quote the 16th Century French writer, Michel de Montaigne (1533 -1592) - “I have gathered a bunch of other men’s flowers & all that is mine is the thread that binds them”. Each poem I’ve chosen is a flower. The thread that binds them can be, in itself, an important thing and I believe that the Goddess gave me particular gifts in the areas of connecting, binding together and networking. I love to connect things, to connect ideas, to connect people and to be a networker. As a classic “Virgo Rising” I pay attention to details and I enjoy facilitating all kinds of connections and links - introducing people to new places, to new experiences & to each other. In doing these things, I firmly believe in the saying that - “Success is the sum of a lot of small things - correctly done”.
Growing old, & being old is a privilege and an adventure. You can look forward to this phase after the central years of your life are over. The best “looking forward” poem I know is by Jenny Joseph and it is very fitting for this Conference!
by Jenny Joseph
“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.”
The title of my talk, “Still and Still Moving” is taken from ‘The Four Quartets’ by T.S. Eliot. There are four poems in this work - each one concerned with an element. ‘Burnt Norton’ is Air, ‘East Coker’ Earth, ‘The Dry Salvages’ Water and ‘Little Gidding’ is Fire.
Images of stillness and its opposite, movement, occur in three out of the four ‘Four Quartets’ poems. In ‘Burnt Norton’ (Air), Eliot refers to being “at the still point of the turning world” and he asks: “Can words or music reach / the stillness as a Chinese jar still / moves perpetually in its stillness.”
In ‘Little Gidding’ (Fire), he mentions sound—(a sound): “But heard, half-heard, in the stillness / between two waves of the sea.”
But it is in ‘East Coker’, the Earth poem, that he links stillness with older people. As a preface to this link Eliot writes, “I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you / Which shall be the darkness of God”.
For us it is “the darkness of Goddess”. We meet Her during the time when we are observing stillness in our daily practice. This is a way of becoming attentive to the seeds of wisdom which She has already planted in our souls. Later on Eliot writes, “As we grow older / The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated / Of dead and living. Not the intense moment / Isolated, with no before and after, / But a lifetime burning in every moment / And not the lifetime of one man only / But of old stones that cannot be deciphered. / There is a time for the evening under starlight, / A time for the evening under lamplight / (the evening with the photograph album). / Love is most nearly itself / When here and now cease to matter. / Old men ought to be explorers / Here or there does not matter / We must be still and still moving / Into another intensity / For a further union, a deeper communion.”
The last line is the very familiar statement - “In my end is my beginning”.
Those of us on a Goddess path, or a pagan path, have learned to observe the two Solstices each year. These are brief Standstills of the Sun.
At Summer Solstice - we have the high point—the zenith.
At Winter Solstice - we have the low point—the nadir.
I like to think of the Cycle of the Year as like breathing. Rudolf Steiner famously saw it this way in his book ‘The Cycle of the Year as Breathing-Process of the Earth’ (1923).There is a brief pause, a holding of the breath, at the end of each full breath in and also at the end of each full breath out.
T.S. Eliot also recommends living intensely in that same passage from East Coker. I want to share with you some of my thoughts about living passionately, living intensely and having enthusiasms. I remember sitting down and, for the first time in my life, writing a long list of my enthusiasms in the back of my diary. This was in 1998 when I was aged 55 and coming towards the end of my menopausal years. That list inevitably included both networking and poetry. There is, of course, a very well-known warning in Irish literature about passionate intensity and things falling apart. W.B. Yeats wrote in ‘The Second Coming’ (1919), “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,—————The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” We, the people of the Goddess, have to reverse that. We all have our wild places and our wild pursuits. It is what we hold passionately in our hearts that counts. The sacred work you were born to do is encoded in every fibre of your being and the key to it lies in your enthusiasms. Two years after making that list I first came to this wonderful Conference and it has become, for me, another wild pursuit!
But here I want to challenge something that really disturbs me about this Goddess path as it is taught and lived here in Avalon. There may be others who feel like me? It is the frequent emphasis on “Cutting away, throwing out, discarding, leaving behind those things that no longer serve you”. It’s an important theme of Samhain but it’s not just at the Samhain season that this is suggested. This idea of an interminable series of new starts is, to me, far too simplistic. It rings false and therefore it always makes me groan inwardly. Yes - there are times when certain things and people are better eliminated from our lives, but I believe that these occasions should be very rare.
Better by far, in my view, is to integrate as much of life’s experiences and emotions as you possibly can and take them forward with you to enrich your old age. i.e. Eliot’s -“a lifetime burning in every moment”. I propose a process of Evolution rather than Revolution. I recommend a process of Synthesis rather than continually starting with a clean sheet of paper. I suggest that you remember rather than that you dismember parts of your life-experience. I am playing with words but I am also serious in my advice.
The same You lives inside your body, mind and spirit as you age.
The young girl, the middle-aged woman, the old woman (or man) - inside it is the same person. There is continuity of experience and emotion. It is seasoned wisdom that warns us not to burn our bridges behind us. It’s true in professional terms and true generally. We are often told, “You can’t reach for anything new if your hands are still full of yesterday’s junk” but you can stretch your hands or you can get a bag or a back-pack or a van or a house — to keep all the so- called “junk” safe? And eventually, with time, it will become priceless antiques and will be valued as such!
There can sometimes be confusion between things or people we must decide to leave behind and things or people who leave us in the natural course of life and death. The latter situation is described by the brilliant American poet Mary Oliver at the end of her poem, ‘In Blackwater Woods’: “—To live in this world / you must be able / to do three things: / to love what is mortal; / to hold it / against your bones knowing / your own life depends on it; / and, when the time comes to let it go, / to let it go.”
Another poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, writing in the poem ‘Ulysses’ expresses the thoughts of the aged Ulysses/Odysseus and his men, who spent ten years trying to get back home to the Ionian island of Ithaka after the Trojan Wars. Ulysses says to his men, his sailors: “I cannot rest from travel: I will drink / Life to the lees”. He goes on to declare, “I am a part of all that I have met; / Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ / Gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades / For ever and forever when I move.” Tennyson then states his faith in older people, “You and I are old; / Old age hath yet his honour and his toil; / Death closes all but something ere the end, / Some work of noble note may yet be done.”
In his poem ‘Ithaka’, (1911), translated by G. Valassopoulo, the Egyptian poet C.P. Cavafy uses the same story of Ulysses/ Odysseus and the metaphor of travelling towards a desirable destination as a model for journeying through life. His main point is that the traveller should take plenty of time to savour the journey because the rewards are bestowed more by the voyage than by the destination: “…Be quite old when you anchor at the island, / rich with all you have gained on the way, / not expecting Ithaka to give you riches./ Ithaka has given you your lovely journey. / Without Ithaka you would not have set out. / Ithaka has no more to give you now. / Poor though you find it, Ithaka has not cheated you. / Wise as you have become, with all your experience, / you will have understood the meaning of an Ithaka.”
Finally, I want to quote from our own Priestess Poet & Crone—Rose Flint, and from the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Those of you who use We’Moon Diary will know that Rose’s beautiful writings have introduced each season in 2014. This Imbolc, she wrote that Brigit was “lighting the green fuse”.
Dylan Thomas also wrote (in ‘The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower’:
“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age——.”
What a brilliant image! Even old age can be green and fresh!
It is difficult to choose my all-time favourite poem by Rose Flint. There are so many. But ‘Women making bridges out of nets’ speaks to me of my life-task as a networker and for this I say, thank you, Rose. As my closing words of this talk, I will read it in full.
Women Making Bridges Out of Nets
by Rose Flint
We have a part in building each other’s bridges
over this next river. Our words feeling out
these shaky structures, their delicacy and strength,
the naked places where we need a spar to shore us up,
a warm touch to earth us through these uncertain months
of storm and fire. Gifts we give go soul to soul,
make us real, even in these new unwieldy bags
of aging skin.
Gifts of beaded parrot feathers
blue as tomorrow’s magic wing.
Angel cake at Lammas. The wine
you didn’t drink alone. A red silk shirt
so wintery, and bright
as any blood.
We all cry the river.
Sometimes it seems we only swim upstream
like salmon homing in to die
we struggle, leap impossibilities;
somehow get past our children’s traumas,
our mirror’s fickle alterations, our cloudy loves.
Sometimes we flow like drowned fish-wives,
slide down to the ocean with only our mouths’ faint sigh
above the dreaming wave.
But one of us will call, throw out a lifeline.
In sunset kitchens where adult daughters
glide like strangers or come and go, breathless
as shooting stars trailed with quickly fading light
we talk the dark; place the knots and threads
of our own experience; remind each other
that salmon are considered wise.
Others crossed before we came, left signs and stories,
coded metaphors of witches and their transformations.
We leave gardens, rituals, recipes – faint ghosts
of our bridges in silver lines fine as flying hair.
Our daughters may understand, and follow
– but each day the way is newly made.
It’s a round dance and we touch fingertip to tip
as we spin towards our separate, secret destinations.