Yesterday, June 26, 2015, was a complicated day. While news rolled into feeds and across television screens about the Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of gay marriage and President Obama prepared to give the most embodied speech of his presidency–an elegy, more than eulogy–I sat in a coffee shop trying to write a book. For liberals like me, for people with gay family members like me, for people who want to believe in the promises of justice like me, the day lived as tight-chested contradiction, simultaneous confirmation of our “reservoirs of goodness” and our long droughts of darkness.
The book is not going well. I’m at that point where I know what the book can and should be, but I’m overwhelmed by all the ways I might fail: what if I don’t have the talent to live up to my idea? what if no one will publish it? what if I’m neglecting my 8 month old child for a pipe dream? what if I’m a fraud?
As it does, the universe offered up some answers–or if not answers, at least lodestones. I’m writing about my childhood, about my childhood friend, now dead, and our summer friendship. It’s a book about female companionship, female trouble, addiction and agriculture, and it’s a narrative of the place that produced the abomination that is Tom DeLay as well as Leadbelly’s song, “Midnight Special,” a black folk song and prison-lament. The book is also a retelling of the myth of Demeter and Persephone with particular attention to an often neglected character, the water-nymph, Cyane, who witnesses Hades’ rape and abduction of Persephone and whose grief dissolves her into a mute pool of water.
Yesterday, I reread Ted Hughes’ translation of the Rape of Proserpina (Persephone’s Roman name) as well as Joseph Campbell’s take on Demeter and Persephone as goddesses and their role in the Eleusinian mysteries–the Greek cultic mysteries that most likely birthed Christianity’s sacrament of communion and the idea of a boy savior, the idea of resurrection and life after death.
I sat perched at a countertop overlooking Montrose and Westheimer in a building that once housed the most famous gay bar in Houston’s history. On one side me sat a young man whose forearms were vibrating as he scrolled his Facebook feed, his face barely containing the joy crawling under his skin. On my other, two young women studying medicine, one of whom said about the SCOTUS decision, “Kill me now.” In more ways than one, I sat in the space of struggle.
While reading in this space, a space bloated with history and change, I read about the etymology of Persephone’s name. In Latin, Proserpina means “to emerge or creep forth,” while her Greek name, Persephone, comes from the words for “destroy” and “murder.” Birth and death inside the same goddess. Of course, Persephone is the queen of the underworld, the chthonic earth, after her abduction, but she also returns to herald in the spring on the telluric earth–the upper earth–on which we live our daily lives.
Then I went home to watch Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, the reverend and senator slain in last week’s racist terrorist attack on a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Because we don’t have a normal television (much to the chagrin of our family members), we had a hard time streaming it. Apple TV didn’t want to cooperate, nor did our iPad. I kept hearing snippets–“gun culture,” “grace,”– before getting the dreaded spinning circle on the screen. Finally, I resorted to my phone. Just as Obama repeated twice the words “amazing grace,” UPS showed up at our door with my Amazon order of Carl Kerenyi’s “Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter,” and our dog lost his shit, barking wildly though the window.
“Don’t wake the baby!” I yelled at him, then “Shit. I just want to watch this.”
I turned back toward my phone and Obama wasn’t speaking. His head was down and then he lifted it, set his jaw square, and began to sing.
My husband was opening the front door to get my book.
“Oh my god, he’s singing Amazing Grace,” I said, and started to cry.
Our front door hung open, the dog stood at point on our beige couch, the baby stirred upstairs, and my personal writing project beckoned me from a brown package on the stoop, but the world stood still for a second. Our president’s voice carried the despair and regenerative faith that live side-by-side inside our American story. It was his best moment as our country’s leader.
According to Joseph Campbell, the Eleusinian mysteries represent the Sacred Way–the hero’s journey that we all must make, individuals and nations alike. Demeter, goddess of the seed and harvest, stands at one side of the threshold between our everyday life and the abyss, and her daughter, Persephone, goddess of death and spring, stands on the other. We travel life to death, death to life, one mother to the other, again and again. In many of the sarcophagi from the period, the heroic traveler receives a cornucopia that represents “that vessel of our own psyche out of which the crop must come, out of which the flower must bloom, and the figure carrying it can be a child or an old man.” Yesterday it was definitely a man.
And this the age-old challenge of which he reminded us: how to hold it all in our hearts? The horror and the hope? How to rise to the call of that hard journey through death toward consciousness and renewal without our despair drowning our voices? How to honor our human need to celebrate and mourn?
This is the deep mystery. The beautiful, sacred way.