Advent 13: Mother Holle

Do you know the story of Mother Holle? It’s one of the tales recorded by the Grimm brothers. At first glance, it appears to be a moralistic and scolding tale about the good and beautiful and dutiful daughter versus the mean and ugly and lazy one. Ugh.

You can read a simple translation of the Grimm version here. As in so many fairy tales, the mother in the story loves the mean and lazy daughter best, and mistreats the good and industrious one. The dutiful daughter accidentally drops her spindle in the well and climbs down to retrieve it. Instead of drowning, she encounters an entire world down below, helps various characters out of trouble, and dutifully works for an old woman, Mother Holle, cleaning her house and fluffing her pillows. Mother Holle gives her her spindle, sends her back up the well with gold and jewels magically clinging to her clothes.

The mother sees the girl’s good fortune and throws the other daughter’s spindle down the well. But this daughter is lazy and rude and refuses to help anyone she meets in the underworld. She is rude to Mother Holle, who tells her that because she refused to fluff the feather pillows, the snow would not fall in her own world, and so there would be a drought. This daughter returns to the upper world with tar and insects and creepy crawly creatures magically clinging to her clothes.

The defiant spirit in me resists the controlling moralism of this story, the coercive shaming of the reader into good behavior for the sake of reward. Still, there’s something deeper, something more ancient and real going on here than a simple morality tale.

For one thing, scholars concur that Mother Holle seems to be a version of an ancient European goddess, Frau Holla, or the Hulda, an agriculture/fertility goddess whose beneficence was responsible for the health of the fields and crops, for the abundance which kept families and communities fed and healthy through the changing seasons of the year. Industrious hard work by members of ancient communities ensured the health of one’s family and one’s community. Textile work–creating clothing from the fibers of plant stems and animal fur–was an almost magical process, and it was women’s work. Girls with their spindles, from these two daughters to the poor miller’s daughter in the Rumpelstiltskin story, were keepers of this great mystery of spinning straw (plant stems and bits of fur) into gold (beautiful and functional cloth).

The first daughter sensed the needs of those she met in the world of Mother Holle, and she met their needs with her own soul force. She brought her whole self into the adventure presented to her, and did what needed to be done, as a member of the community in which she found herself. And when Mother Holle asked her to work for her, she did not consider herself above the menial tasks, but did them joyfully.

There’s so much in here, but the piece that catches me for today, in this place where I am descending into the well of winter, is to notice that each task presented to the girls in their underworld journey may seem basic and mundane, but each one has a sacred significance, from the spinning they were doing at the very lip of the well to the shaking of Mother Holle’s feather pillows.

Today and in the coming days, how can I shift my seeing, as I observe the daily mundane tasks ahead of me, to feel the sacred significance of each? This stack of grading that threatens to drown me–can I look at each piece of paper as a contract between myself and the student who receives it back from me? Each is a piece of the community bond that we share, and I need to strategize a way to be present for the work.

What work calls out to you today, this weekend, this season, to be done? What is the sacred truth of the most mundane task that you must accomplish?

(At the beginning of Advent, my pastor asked us to hold the swords-into-ploughshares vision in our heads, to look for stories of people choosing that vision. For the next little while, I am going to look for such stories as my daily morning meditation.)

Yesterday I listened to the report on NPR about the group Parents for Peace, about family members of extremists who created a safe group for people whose family members have been part of hate groups. They welcome former extremists into the group as well–former IS members, former Klan members, former neo-Nazis–and they’re spreading a message of care and compassion. Some of the members who have themselves been part of extremist groups are part of other groups that help families stage interventions with their loved ones who are caught in up in hate groups. They hold a vision that there is a basic humanity within people that can help lead them out of a life of hatred.

Encountering Mystery

lily pond

Today’s gratitude list is unashamedly entirely based in the natural world, though perhaps I am speaking of other things as well, as is so often the case, even when I don’t know it.  I find that often the things that catch my attention in waking life are not so far distant from the mythic images and ideas that meet me in the dream world. There are layers of meaning in those images, ideas reaching out to be met and understood. What if we were to see the wakeful, open-eyed world in the way we looked at the dream-world? As though it were a place to encounter Mystery, as if each moment were an opportunity to be spoken to by the sentient soul of creation, which some people call Goddess or God, which I often call Mystery or Beauty (I recently discovered that naturalist John Muir did the same).

In this recent post on her blog, psychologist Sharon Blackie quotes James Hillman: “Psyche, Hillman said, is not in us; we are in psyche. And I believe that if psyche is shaped by myth, by mythical images and symbols, then myth is not in us: we are, in some deep and indefinable sense, in myth. ‘It is not we who imagine, but we who are imagined.’ What if we are not imagining myth, but myth is imagining us?” I love this.  Can you sense Myth, Mystery, God/dess, Beauty, imagining you, offering you a hand at every turn, inviting you to See, to Experience, to Encounter?

The dream worker Toko-pa Turner, in this blog post, titled “Courting the Mystery” (in which she, too, quotes Hillman) writes, “I believe one of the great challenges of our time is our coming back into relationship with mystery. Rather than making an expectation of our needs being met, let us make a courtship of that which we admire. Let us make our lives alluring enough that the mystery might become curious of us! Let us stand with a respectful distance and make an invitation of ourselves, such that wildness might decide to approach us. Let us find ways to pray ourselves to the forest, even when we hear nothing back. Let us keep returning to that silence and allow ourselves to be shaped by our yearning for answers.”

Sometimes prayer is simply the act of paying attention, of noticing the way the world calls out to us, begs for us to respond and interact and participate.  Yesterday was full of those moments for me, those callings, those shining yearning standing-in-the-doorway holy places. And I didn’t go out searching. There they were to be grasped, between the moments of bickering children, of making plans for my coming year, of getting the quotidian work done.

Now the trick is to find them even when the butterflies aren’t flying, even when the hummingbird is not dipping her head to look at me from her nest, even when the day is grey or hot, even when I am emotionally drained or angry or frightened. Beauty is still there.  Mystery is always surrounding us, just waiting to be noticed.

Gratitude List:
1. Listening to the bluebirds welcoming the morning, the song sparrow, the surrounding chorus of birds, the various clubs of cicadas powering up their drones from several corners of the hollow, and suddenly, like a shift in air pressure, the dzip-dzip-thrrrim-dzip of the hummingbird finding the perfect angle into her bottlecap of a nest.
2. Indigo buntings calling to each other across the fields.
3. Monarch and swallowtail and buckeye. Did I say monarch? Yeah, I saw one, dipping her fiery wings as she surfed a breeze over the pear orchard toward me, and it made my heart happy. So happy.
4. So many tiny frogs on the lily pads on the pond, yeeping in terror when we walked too close, croaking in the rushes. The air above the pond was electric with the movement of dragonflies and damselflies darting, and tiny frogs hopping across the lily pads.  And further up, the swallowtails made lazy lines and loops in the sunshine, spiraling all the way to the top of the tallest poplar.  I must have seen two dozen or more yellow swallowtails at the pond yesterday.
5. Watching the bat again, darting impossibly fast in her circling beneath the poplar and sycamore trees. She was so quick, my eyes couldn’t scan her. I could imagine she was winking in and out between worlds. At one point, she came and circled twice around Joss and me where we were standing snuggling. So add to this one the wonder on a small boy’s face at being recognized by a bat in flight.

In Beauty may we walk.