The Southeast Wise Women Herbal Conference, founded and directed by herbalist Corinna Wood, took place in Black Mountain, NC the weekend of October 2-4.
Charged with reporting rather than opinionizing, I’ve had to reign in my urge to editorialize. Given Asheville’s recent Waking Life scandal and our moment of conversation about rape culture, that was hard to do.
I’m hoping readers, including you, will take this opportunity to write letters to the editor, naming women’s empowerment as an essential ingredient in the recipe for moving beyond rape culture — a cultural evolution to benefit both men and women.
My longer piece references and quotes from Cynthia Bourgeault’s excellent The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity.
Drawing on what I learned while writing The Woman’s Belly Book: Finding Your True Center for More Energy, Confidence, and Pleasure, the longer piece also considers Mary Magdalene’s body-centered pro-creative power in relation to the sacred geometry of the Holy Grail.
I’m so grateful for the opportunity to contribute to On Being’s outstanding offerings!
Thanks to Maureen Corrigan and her excellent So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, there’s another upsurge of interest in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel.
I’ve been seeing images of the book’s original cover on tote bags and t-shirts. In fact, I’d just finished an immersion — reading So We Read On and then The Great Gatsby — when I was browsing in the regional authors section at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, NC. Glancing down at the table there, I see a scrap of paperboard with the cover pictured here, complete with a cryptic “95 R” jotted on the back.
As bellyqueen, and in The Woman’s Belly Book, I champion our body’s center as the energetic sourcepoint of our courage, confidence, intuition — and creativity. Fitzgerald’s words about writing Gatsby add his own evidence. After completing the novel, he recalled:
I’d dragged the great Gatsby out of the pit of my stomach….
After thoroughly considering the manuscript, Fitzgerald’s editor at Scribner, Max Perkins, sent the author a long letter. He wrote:
And all these things, the whole pathetic episode, you have given a place in time and space, … you have imparted a sort of sense of eternity. You once told me you were not a natural writer — my God! You have plainly mastered the craft, of course; but you needed far more than craftsmanship for this.
That’s the body’s center — the sourcepoint of our creative energy, our connection to transpersonal power.
[This piece is the original version of the article Mountain Xpress posted here.]
The key to any successful enterprise is identifying a pressing need and filling it. Creating Aurora Studio & Gallery, Lori Greenberg has done just that, adding dedication and loving kindness into the mix.
Working at a local crisis stabilization and detox facility, Greenberg observed women and men arriving for treatment. She saw a homeless man clasping his only belongings, his sketchbooks, to his chest. She saw a destitute woman passing her time in the day room sculpting figures from paper napkins, the only medium left to her. Greenberg understood: “Doing art is what kept her stable.”
“It just kept happening,” she says. “I’d see people who were artists, and they lived on the streets.”
Holding a master’s degree in counseling, Greenberg has worked in the field of human services for more than thirty years. Having led expressive arts programs in New England and knowing their therapeutic value, Greenberg thought, “This is Asheville. There must be some kind of art center that caters to folks struggling with mental health issues, addiction issues.”
From conceiving to creating
In 2010, she started looking for such a place. Finding none, by 2012 she had created Aurora Studio & Gallery. Aurora Studio equips both emerging and experienced artists to do their creative work in community, generating the mutual support that sustains their psychological well-being, social stability, and freedom from addiction.
The first classes took place in a West Asheville storefront with a core group of participants and in collaboration with local artists and healing arts instructors. “We’ve been doing classes ever since,” says Greenberg. “Because the feedback from the participants showed that people were really interested, and they kept the momentum going.”
The project has continued to attract participants through word of mouth as well as through the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Asheville Radical Mental Health Collective, psychotherapists, and physicians. Last June, Aurora moved to a downtown space, complete with utility sink and storage, donated by Susan Durrence of Mountain Lights.
Infused with Greenberg’s enthusiasm, Aurora has become a magnet for generosity. Other well-wishers — including Jonas Gerard, BlackBird Frame & Art, Roots Hummus, and Everyone Cooks — have donated paint and paintbrushes, canvases, lunchtime snacks, and special event refreshments. BlackBird Frame & Art volunteered framing for all the pieces in Aurora’s recent group show at the Asheville Area Arts Council.
“The Arts Council and executive director Kitty Love have been very supportive of this project,” says Greenberg. She rates Aurora’s group show at AAAC’s Grove Arcade Gallery as an impressive achievement: “It’s a feather in our cap.”
“Before the show’s opening reception,” she adds, “the group gathered in a circle to share their intentions for the evening, gain strength from each other, and calm any pre-show jitters. Several artists expressed their gratitude for being in Aurora. Another said we could all hold our heads up and be proud of the beautiful show we created.”
Since 2013, Arts2People — under the auspices of former and current directors Jen Gordon and Aaron Johnstone — has acted as Aurora’s fiscal sponsor. This arrangement has allowed Greenberg to bypass recruiting and managing a board of directors, time-consuming tasks for a woman who keeps Aurora going entirely on a volunteer basis.
From creating to sustaining
Greenberg is not by nature a night owl. But to make her daylight hours available for organizing classes, shopping for supplies, and scheduling visiting artists, she’s choosing to work the night shift full-time, thirty-four hours packed into three nights a week.
Working nights is exhausting, Greenberg admits. “There are times when I think I can’t do Aurora anymore,” she says. “But I’ve wanted to see how far I could take it. And I love every one of the folks that we have. I have deep admiration for them. It’s been a great group of people and it’s wonderful to see everybody grow as a person in different ways.”
She describes how Aurora has contributed to people’s lives: “Some people were artists and they could sit and create art, but they were isolated. And they didn’t have any support. What they really needed was the human connection around something that’s important to them, and to make friends. Other people were doing art because it helped them in their recovery but they didn’t have a lot of training. Those people are gaining support and they’re getting to learn new skills.”
Each weekly four-hour class in Aurora’s eight-week sessions begins with a brief check-in and continues with painting, sketching, or hand-building with clay. A visiting artist may offer instruction. At the end of each class, participants reflect on their creative process.
“It’s not art therapy,” explains Greenberg. “It’s a supportive community in which people do art.”
From the outset, participants have created guidelines that ensure the group will be a supportive experience. Participants agree, for example to come to class sober; be nonjudgmental about each other and each other’s art; respect their own and each other’s feelings; keep confidentiality; follow through with their prescribed mental health treatment; recognize that art is a process, not a destination — and have fun.
Now numbering ten artists, Aurora Studio is at capacity. Over time, says Greenberg, conversations develop regarding difficult subjects such as medication and relapse prevention. With a bigger group, she says, “it would lose its intimacy, the ability for people to feel comfortable sharing.”
When Greenberg has interviewed prospective participants, she hasn’t asked for their diagnosis. “I let people define their needs for themselves when they apply. I look for how somebody might need extra support because they’re not able to attain some of their personal goals for either their art or their social functioning. Aurora helps give them that extra boost.”
Greenberg describes her perspective on mental health: “My take on a lot of mental health issues is that there have been multiple traumas in people’s lives, which then manifest in how they learn and how they relate to the world.”
“We all go through moments,” she continues. “For many of us there are moments — times of upheaval, anxiety, depression. But for most of these folks, it’s been more than a moment. It’s been several years, if not their whole lives, that they’ve not been quite able to function in everyday life in a way that meets their own needs.”
From sustaining to transforming
Safety and friendship are themes that thread through participants’ comments about their experience with Aurora. One woman recalls: “The environment fostered a feeling of friendship and unity among everybody. So I felt like I could express myself freely without being afraid of judgment.”
Another reports: “Since I’ve been in this program I’ve been able to start another art class that is for the general population. As far as I know, I’m the only person in that class who’s recovering.” She’s been able to talk to the class leader and ask for what she’s needed because she practiced communicating her needs at Aurora. The studio became her “jumping off point” into the larger world.
“We came together as a group of strangers,” reflects another woman, “and we ended up as friends, people that you look forward to working with. We concentrated on the work but it was an experience where you knew that people wanted you to succeed. People were encouraging, supportive. It gave me courage and confidence. And I did things I didn’t think I could do.”
Greenberg describes the value of making art in community: “When everyone comes together, there’s energy for witnessing, listening, understanding, respecting. That allows people to turn their attention toward creating, and that’s restorative.”
At the moment, Aurora depends entirely upon a team of volunteers to keep going. Greenberg envisions that continuing community support will allow the program to stabilize and grow. Additional funding, for example, will enable Aurora to offer classes several times each week and serve more artists moving beyond mental illness, addiction, and homelessness.
Greenberg sees herself as an organizer, not an artist. “But I’ve had a huge amount of fun,” she says, “not only having a vision and seeing it come to life but also doing the classes, because lots of times I’ll participate. That’s been great fun for me. So while I’m doing the work of getting this organized, I have a time to play, too.”
Aurora’s recent AAAC opening featured a message from Rita Zoey Chin, author of Let the Tornado Come. A writer and poet, Chin has applied her creative process to resolving the panic attacks that used to paralyze her. She said — and Aurora Studio artists would agree — “Art can save your life.”
An enterprise that provides people in distress a way to save their lives — to bring “something beautiful out of something very dark,” as Greenberg says — is meeting a pressing need indeed.
No, it’s not a pretty phrase. But it’s a fitting name for a set of institutions and ideas that steal away women’s pro-creative power through physical violence, social shaming, and economic exploitation.
In The Woman’s Belly Book, I say pro-creative power is our body-centered power to promote creation — through childbirth, yes, and through life-affirming ways of being in every dimension.
Creating a cultural paradigm beyond rape is what Kim Duckett’s about. How does she do it?
“I take women to Hel and back,” she says.
Her vehicle for visiting goddess Hel is reviewing — and rewriting — the ancient Greek myth of Persephone’s descent.
“Stories lead to the heart of healing,” my recent article in the Mountain Xpress, Asheville’s weekly newspaper, features Kim and her work.
For whatever reason, the newspaper has shied away from relating the horrific aspects of the conventional myth to current events in the culture at large. I invite you to read the article here and add your comments online. Tell us: How is revising the myth of Persephone important for you, your family?
Here’s some background:
Kim Duckett, a.k.a. Woman Who Follows Her Heart, is an ordained Priestess and a shamanic ritualist rooted in the mountains of western North Carolina.
Holding a doctorate in Transpersonal and Spiritual Psychology with a focus on Feminist Theory, she’s taught women’s studies in college and university settings for thirty years. She also co-founded the rape crisis center, now known as Our Voice, that’s been serving the region’s women and men for more than forty years.
The Wheel of the Year as an Earth-Based Spiritual Psychology for Women names Kim’s forthcoming book. Those words also name the teaching she offers to women as she travels throughout the nation.
Kim describes her teaching this way in the International Journal of Transpersonal Studies:
The Wheel of the Year as an earth-based psychology for women is inherently feminist and also based in transpersonal psychologies. Women explore the turning points, or holydays of the Wheel, on both spiritual and psychological levels through a wide range of modalities that engage body, mind, emotion, and spirit.
The Wheel of the Year focuses the first year of Kim’s Sacred Mystery School, a three-year curriculum in women’s spirituality. With the arrival of the autumn equinox, she invites women taking part in Mystery School to update and personalize the myth of Persephone.
Kim knows, as famed mythologist Joseph Campbell did, that myths validate and preserve a culture’s social and moral order. She knows, as Campbell did, that myths must change to keep pace with changing times. “Myths are teaching stories,” she says. “So it’s important to ask: What are they teaching?”
She begins by presenting women with the conventional version of the myth: Hades snatches maiden Persephone, rapes her, and imprisons her in his underworld realm.
Does this scenario sound familiar? So many of us have similar stories.
Finally breaking through to national awareness with New York magazine’s July cover story, scores of women have alleged that comedian Bill Cosby did Hades over decades, holding young women captive in an “underworld realm” of drug-induced loss of consciousness. They’ve alleged that agents of various cultural institutions aided and protected Cosby, keeping his actions secret, allowing him to continue.
Drawing on Charlene Spretnak’s research, reported in Lost Goddesses of Early Greece, Kim inspires women to recognize alternatives to the Greek myth as it’s usually told, including versions pre-dating the ones validating rape culture.
In a circle of mutual support, expressing themselves through dance, poetry, and drama, women create their own versions of the myth. In these, Persephone chooses to descend.
Each woman acknowledges, as Persephone does, her need to deepen. She chooses to move inward, to re-member and re-collect herself, to be with her inner wisdom. In the deep, dark, womb-like realm of goddess Hel she finds a place for rest and replenishment. She meets not Hades but Hecate, the wise woman within.
And then she emerges, refreshed. She embodies greater clarity, more vitality, and a renewed sense of purpose. She returns with a mythic guide to her own well-being.
What’s more: Women rewriting the myth of Persephone as woman-affirming stories of descent and return build the foundations for a generative, peaceable culture of life.
How do you rewrite the myth of Persephone? I invite you to add your own story, your own comments, here.
A Year and A Day Sacred Mystery School for Women
Lost Goddesses of Early Greece
Your body’s center, sheltered within your belly, is the one-point through which you address your body as a whole. It’s a principle of physics: A motive force applied to your body’s center moves your entire form.
As I write in The Woman’s Belly Book:
What happens to the center happens to the whole…. When your belly center leads you into action, your whole body moves easily, gracefully, almost effortlessly. The whole of you moves as one.
Your body’s center is also your center of being, the one-point where the matter and energy of who you are converge. It’s the one-point from which your physical and emotional expressions emerge.
The best actors enact this truth. They entirely embody a character, bringing the physicality and emotionality of a particular — however fictional — person to life. They deepen into their body’s center and bring forth an individual. They don’t give us an impression; they give us a genuine experience of another human being.
Tom Hanks is not my favorite actor, although I think he did a splendid job as Chuck Noland, the stranded FedEx exec in “Cast Away.”
Whatever my opinion, he does know acting.
In fact, he revealed acting to be a body-centered practice when he said this (at 1 minute, 2 seconds) after receiving the Kennedy Center honors in 2014:
“I hope the look on my face was reflecting the honor and pleasure I had inside my belly.”
You know how action movies usually include some kind of chase? Usually it’s one car chasing another through tight alleys or the turns of a parking garage. Depending on the period, the chase might launch itself on foot, on horseback, or through interstellar space by starship.
One of my yet-to-be-finished screenplays lays out a skateboard-and-bicycle chase.
Yesterday, my spiritual journey (and my career as Belly Queen) took on the flavor of an action film: Driving my red Honda Element, I chased a white Ford Explorer through the streets of Asheville.
I was on my way home when I noticed, and deciphered, the license plate on this vehicle in front of me. I so wanted to get a picture of it. One hand on the wheel, one hand rummaging in my purse for my smart phone, I more or less kept my eyes on the road. The Explorer kept pulling ahead and out of camera range. I passed the turnoff that would have taken me home and kept going, praying the traffic light at the top of the hill would be red.
The light was red, but the Explorer was turning right on the green arrow. I followed, hoping the next traffic light would be red. It was. I whipped out my camera and clicked just as the light turned green and the Explorer veered left onto the interstate. I followed, not sure that the snapshot I’d taken through my windshield had captured the plate.
Once on the interstate, the Explorer pulled out of sight. I took the next exit and went home.
Thank you, synchronicity. Thank you, bestower of grace. Thank you, personalized alert system that messages me however it can.
Yes, gratitude. Yes, I’m grateful.
I’m currently in love with Barbara Fredrickson‘s book Positivity (Random House, 2009). Gratitude is one of ten positive emotions she champions. Along with joy, hope, interest, pride, serenity, amusement, awe, inspiration and love, the felt sense of gratitude leads to human flourishing — feeling “more alive, creative, and resilient” as she says.
The key to flourishing is embodying these positive emotions three times more frequently than negative emotions, which she identifies as various shades of anger, fear, contempt, and shame.
What do positive and negative emotions have to do with belly wisdom? How do positive emotions such as gratitude relate to deepening breath and awareness into our body’s center and energizing our hara?
My friend and Integral Bodywork originator Everett Ogawa says that, for him, lowering the breath into his body’s center leads him into a bigger circle of understanding. He recognizes how life is so much larger than any human can comprehend. In the presence of such enormity he’s thankful for whatever may be the span of his life, his tiny place in the great scheme of things. And he’s moved by compassion to devote his time to helping others. Deepening his breath, gratitude becomes a whole-being experience, a felt sense of the precious gift that is the body, that is life itself.
Witness Everett’s expression not only of gratitude but also of awe, inspiration, interest, serenity, and hope.
These and the other positive emotions that Fredrickson names are forces of attraction, connection, and bonding, linking us with others and with our essential selves.
In contrast, her roster of negative emotions are forces of separation, distancing us from others and from our essential selves. (James Joyce describes one of his characters: “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.”)
My hunch: If we need to get all bioscience about it (and I’m not sure we do), the negative, separating emotions follow from the cranial brain’s capacity for analytical thinking — a.k.a. sequential sorting and ranking and judging. The positive, unifying emotions follow from the gut brain’s capacity for simultaneous synthesizing and encompassing.
With all of psychology’s current fascination with neuroscience, the goings-on between the cranial brain and the rest of the body, I’m waiting for the day when these investigations expand to include the gut brain, the enteric nervous system.
[Be forewarned, this paragraph gets technical.] Cranial brain and gut brain communicate with each other through the tenth cranial nerve, the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve also connects cranial brain and heart. Current fascination with neuroscience includes detailing the vagus nerve’s role in, for example, heart health and social engagement. Fredrickson’s research suggests that positive emotions increase a person’s perception of social connection, which in turn increases vagal tone, an indicator of physical health.
Energetically, emotions such as joy, serenity, and love reflect a state of being in which a person’s life force (prana, chi, ki) is flowing fully and freely. Emotions such as anger and fear reflect a situation in which life energy is stuck and unbalanced — too much in one place, not enough in another.
Deepening awareness into the belly, energizing the body’s center with movement and breath, activates the hara as our central powerhouse. Our body’s center serves us as a dynamo, generously pulsing life energy through our whole body and being.
With our hara-powered life force flowing fully and freely, we’re susceptible to feeling all kinds of positive emotions. Chances are that we and our lives will flourish.
For that, for the dynamo of life energy centered in our bellies, I’m grateful.