Clarissa Pinkola Estés: The Dangerous Old Woman, Part One
Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today I am speaking with Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, an internationally recognized scholar, award winning poet, diplomate Senior Jungian Psychoanalyst, and Cantadora, keeper of the old stories in the Latina tradition.
“CPE” as I call Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, or “Dr. E”, recorded Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype at Sounds True back in 1989. She recorded this audio program with us three years before the book ever reached the bookstores or even found its way into the hands of publishers.
Now Dr. E is launching her masterwork, over three decades in the writing. The Dangerous Old Woman: Myths and Stories of the Wise Woman Archetype, is launching for the first time ever as an online event series at Sounds True… beginning on April 6th. Here’s my conversation with CPE about The Dangerous Old Woman.
TS: CPE, I want to begin by talking about something you call “a psychology of women’s giftedness.” This idea that there needs to be psychology of women’s giftedness and how this undergirds both your previous work, Women Who Run with the Wolves and now, The Dangerous Old Woman. Talk a little bit about this. What do you mean “the psychology of women’s giftedness?”
CPE: If you read psychological theories from the last one-hundred years, you find in the psychology that’s published, there is an emphasis on pathology, psychopathology, and an emphasis on what’s wrong with everyone. Very little is said about the unique qualities of giftedness.
The basic premise of The Dangerous Old Woman as in Women Who Run with the Wolves is that all women are born gifted.
I know the culture wants to sideline groups of people and say they really aren’t gifted. But the culture is holding up crabbed comparison list of ‘attributes of giftedness’ that does not accurately cover the full spectrum nor the nuances of giftedness.
Many people in school are in fact rewarded for ‘learning to sit still,’ for instance, as though that is a talent… rather than learning to imagine or unleashing their imagination… which is a profound talent that is handed down. Even if such a gift seemed to jump generations, or not surface because of active suppression…imagination is definitely a talent that is part of the legacy and heritage of one’s own bloodlines.
TS: So if psychology is normally about psychopathology, how does it change our view when we look at giftedness instead?
CPE: We would place an emphasis on what is within the psyche that is generous of its own nature… of the soul in other words.. that flows like a headwaters of the Amazon. The knowings and imaginations of the soul are not little tributaries; they roar, they rise up… they’re not meant to be a dammed river that is backed up and stagnant behind a great concrete wall.
We would consider the most natural state of the human to be flowing with ideas and useful matters, to rush and eddy and to rise up into the sky just like a real river does when it’s fully alive.
Giftedness is not a quiescent experience; it is an experience of a golden fuse at the center of the psyche flashing, signaling, giving off energic impulses in every direction. Those creative impulses are from the soul: they are received and interpreted by the brain and what some people might call the “ego”. But they are seated in the soul and they come through the ego freely… if the ego is not dammed nor set into a rut of only “this is good and this is not good” and “you are good, but you are not.”
When those useful impulses and ideas are allowed to flow into actual manifestations in so many directions, whether this be raising children and/or creating projects, inventing, painting, dancing or simply ‘being’ …because there is a profound talent to being… one is at home in the soul.
When we’ve met people who– as I have and I’m sure you have– who seem prescient, who have what we might call ‘a presence,’ everything about them appears to be quiet; the way a mountain range is quiet.
You see and feel the magnitude of their giftedness in that quiescence. But they are free; they are not damned nor top-leveled as has been done to mountains in the Smoky Mountain range, for instance, in order to extract the value, the coal, without any regard for the delicate ecosystems there.
The creative life is an eco-system too, and often at its best when it is allowed to flow, to stream, to move in large and small ways, the way mountains move and change and are home to many, the way rivers flow and create and nourish many.
The birthright of all human beings is that exactly: movement, being able to move through and in one’s gifts. Movement with true inhalation that demands gifts and expression of them not be crimped and cramped; that they not be pushed into corners or told that this is the only way or the only two or ten ways to do or be or speak.
That creative force ought not be reduced because it seems ‘too big,’ to some, nor ought it be taught that tiny works, works that take long to bring to fruition cannot also be of great moment, definite usefulness.
Each person comes laden with their gifts… and the revelation of those gifts –the making of the invisible visible– comes from trying one’s gifts on and out.
TS: Help me understand how your work on The Dangerous Old Womanreflects this viewpoint that all women are gifted?
CPE: In the name of all, I would say it like this: as you go along in life, decade after decade, you take on forms and even characteristics of the culture; you take on camouflages to hide your gifts so hopefully no one will ridicule or scorn, or in whatever way, hurt or damage the treasure you are carrying.
Thus, a lot of people live silently holed-up with their talents because they feel afraid to bring them forward. Yet, there comes a time in everyone’s life –and I believe it comes as a result of experience after experience of not feeling that life is necessarily bad, but also not feeling that life is good either– that is…a woman feels restricted, restrained by self and/or others, yet at the same time, she feels she is made for something more; that this can’t be ‘all there is,’ that instead her birthright is trying to come to the surface.
So the time comes when we have to shed our camouflages, our protectiveness; we have to decontaminate from the things that have been injected into us by culture that actually obstruct rather than allow the free flow of the creative life of the gifted woman.
This means separating from what we might call, an unobservant collective culture… one which holds the idea that beings can actually live without soul. This is not true. The soul is not only home, soulfulness is one of the greatest talents humans are born with.
TS: What do you mean by “soulfulness?”
CPE: The ego tends to think in terms a little bit like Raven or Coyote, the folk figures in many old stories who are always looking for the bright, shiny object, or always looking to have pleasure of a certain venal kind, or always looking to make money or be important… as proof of soul-value that is not provable in those ways.
That is an ego structure and the reason those ‘fool stories’ are often told as humorous stories in family groups is because we all know people like that. They are us. Pogo “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The ego is not a bad character but can be very undeveloped in that it continues to have appetites for things that are at odds with soul’s longing and yearning and the soul’s ideas. The ego is taught by the culture of its time.
The soul is different, in that it seems to originate in eternity… as opposed to the ego which may be far more involved, like the fool figures of Raven and Coyote, with what the ego dreamt up just a few years ago, or a second ago. The soul has a much broader, deeper, flowing view of human life, which contains meaning, pleasure… but for the soul unlike the ego, that pleasure must somehow carry meaning beyond the ego’s satisfaction alone. And often whatever is meaningful to the soul also brings its own deep and radiant kind of pleasure.
Work and pleasure are to be something that brightens the soul that makes the soul’s little heart beat all the harder that brings usefulness for others also.
Those kinds of creative principles of life satisfy the soul. The gift of creative life thereby is not just given to us, not carried so that one could, for instance, just show it off ….but that the gift is actually given and put together in ways that the soul be continuously nourished… and other people are able to be nourished by a person’s gifts too.
TS: So The Dangerous Old Woman is a woman whose soulfulness is intact, and whose gifts, I love that image that you said, “water pouring” from some kind of fountain head or rushing river. What makes her dangerous?
CPE: The fact that she will not stop or restrict her soulful ways to conform to cultural conventions; the fact that she will not stop because of criticism or ridicule or being discounted or devalued. She will not stop. The way I’d put it is this way:
The Dangerous Old Woman goes where she wants to, she says what she wishes, and no one should try to stop her… or else. She will have a ready answer for them. She’s clearly one who says, “Come with me. Be with me. But if not, stand out of my way; I have a destiny to meet.”
She is not cowed nor does she want to “fit in”… as we often did, especially when we were younger… unless she wants to “fit in.” She cares to be appreciated and she wants to appreciate others, but she’s not willing to amputate aspects of herself or her gifts, in order to be accepted or be found acceptable.
In our culture, as you know, we have images that are given to us on a daily basis about what being wise is supposedly all about… and also images of what being older is about. I find most of the pop cultural images incredibly narrow, unrealistic and unsatisfactory. They don’t jive with the soul’s idea of what wisdom truly is, what giftedness is down to the bones, and what the purposes are for both of these.
So for instance, I’m so grateful for having a remote control for the television so I can turn it off in a millisecond. Every now and then, I turn on the television and I forget that there are going to be commercials about how sick, ill and crippled up we are all going to become; that we have dry-eye syndrome or we have dry leg syndrome or dry brain syndrome or whatever it is that the advertiser would like to pound into our psyches.
What I find fascinating about these incessant tropes on TV is that at the end of the commercials, a voice-over intones: “People who take this product may experience losing their head; they may experience that their legs are gone the next morning when they wake up; they may experience that they are suddenly deaf.”
What’s funny to me (funny as in odd, not laughable) about that declaration is that is already the condition of most gifted people when they are a lot to a little bit younger– and not observant or wise enough yet about how culture has a constant sweep of amputating blade aimed at the gifted.
The voice-over is absurd, for the gifted often have already lost their legs to run hard for their gifts, their work. They’ve already lost their hearing, their ability to hear their own soul voice. They are already blind to their great callings.
And this has been done to them by the culture and its representatives who say There is only one way to prove you are gifted (reader, fill in the blank here for whatever you were taught you ‘ought’ or ‘should’ do, or not do, to be ‘a real success’ in this world by the over-culture’s sight) or even more malignantly: There is not a chance that you are going to achieve whatever it is that you have had the vision for; that your chances for creative life well-lived are only three-fold: slim, fat, and no.
These voices are already present inside many gifted people. But there comes this time when you’ve had it. The source of the soul is stronger than the babbling culture that keeps braying: “Go this way. No, you can’t go that way, your way. Nobody has ever heard of anybody thinking the way that you think. Stop that, instead do something this culture would already recognize as ‘proper’.”
I would add to that an observation I’ll be speaking a great deal more about in The Dangerous Old Womanonline event that we’re going to do together at Sounds True: It’s not only the culture that sets up concrete dams against creative souls’ gifts, it’s the persons themselves.
Self-poisoning comes most often from the integration of cultural, or parental, or spousal, or school poison. These cause a person think that the ‘weakening thoughts’ they’re having… are actually their own… when in fact they are “Introjects”, meaning sudden hypodermic shots of poison into the creative life force. The body of psyche finds this flood of poison, alien, and reacts, becoming disheartened and ill from it.
The psyche becomes hurt by poison poured into it, and worse, sometimes the psyche when overwhelmed, begins to endlessly repeat the poisonous proscriptions given by others… a self administered toxicity, one might say. Put downs and denigrations that flood the mind with some kind of strong half-life from the original poisoning. This is sometimes set up to be triggered whenever the person attempts to freely dream, hope, create to the Nth degree of their being.
An additional aspect of cultural poisoning that is rarely spoken about: how women restrict other women. I will say more about this in our Dangerous Old Woman online event, but for now I’d say this: There is no one way to be wise. There is no one way to be talented. There is no one way to be gifted. There is no one way to be a woman or a man or a child. There is no one way to be a warrior. There is no one way to be an innocent person. No one way to be a lover or a loving person. There is no one way.
If you count 0-10 as your first decade, I’m in my 7th decade, almost half-way through. And yet, I notice over my lifetime, this phenomenon occur over and over again: women tend to criticize and limit other women… sometimes regarding the way women ‘should’ look or act; what kind of person a woman should go out with; who is a worthy entity to be with, friendship-wise and who is not; what your hair or face should look like; what her art should look like, sound like, how it all ought never be, and what you should always do or what you should never do.
It’s as though some groups have taken on the most malignant and narrow parental voice and think it is their job on earth to try to control the world. Thus, different groups of women sometimes impose harsh strictures and structures on other women, and then reject or shun or sideline those who do not conform to the group’s ‘should always, should never’ introjects.
As I was doing my learning and research, my observations and writings on The Dangerous Old Woman over the last 30 years, I noticed more and more that when some women became a certain age, they no longer talked about how one should pick a spouse or a person to be close to, because most of them already had a liaison of one sort or another, in one condition or another, or had decided that they don’t want to have a liaison, or have dedicated themselves to someone and something they love and which hopefully returns love to them, in other ways. Variety was possible, but also bracketed hard by a certain amount of ‘as you made your bed, so you shall forever lie in it’…. which is a lie in itself, but a common introject.
But one aspect I also noticed, was that many women still tell one another how to dress, who to vote for, what they must think politically, what length to wear their hair; whether they should color their hair or not; whether they should wear this kind of clothing or that kind of clothing. Some form ‘ridicule packs’ against different kinds of women who are their age, in their peer group, who do not conform to what they think is the only ‘proper way’ to be.
This, I feel, has to stop. I think, in most cases, it is not malicious, as in clearly pre-planned way to mock others. Rather, I think of it as a defensive form of unconsciousness that goes hand in hand with having their own gifts of imagination, meaning and soul poisoned early on and long ago.
In The Dangerous Old Woman online event, we are going to talk extensively about Procrustes. Procrustes is an inn keeper who lives at the side of the road. He’s a murderer and no one who comes to his place escapes intact. They are either stretched out of shape or else amputated. This phenomena is given to us by our culture, urging us to act as Procrustes to other people, as well as to ourselves… and to decide that this is the safest way of being, to amputate and be stretched only to a certain shape… or this is the only way of being, or this is the only way I think is right and therefore everyone else who isn’t acting ‘my way’ may not be quite right in the head.
This malignant way of thinking about self and others is given by the culture, integrated into an “Introject” into us, and in terms of wisdom, absolutely must be dismantled because wisdom is broad and deep, nurturing and realistic; both and all.
Wisdom worth having causes blinders to fall away. True wisdom expands our way of seeing and being. Being wise means examining everything that we’ve ever been taught and told that makes us hesitate to think a new way, to create new life, to enact goodness… for us to now ask, “Does this make my life smaller or does this make my life larger? Whatever makes my life smaller, why would I be carrying it now when I have more days behind me than I have precious days ahead of me?”
TS: CPE, I’d like to ask you a personal question, if that’s okay, which is on this topic of women’s giftedness and how women have been squished and silenced and not allowed to fully express themselves. This is obviously deeply personal and deeply important to you. It’s not only something that you see in the world, but it is clearly a torch that you are carrying for your own reasons as well. I’m curious if you can talk a little more about that and why this is so deep and true into your heart as something that needs to be addressed head-on.
CPE: I grew up in love with poetry and some of the poets of my time were Marianne Moore, Gwendolyn Brooks, and the ‘beat’ poets: Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg. They talked about ‘the best minds of their generation’ being destroyed, whether by drugs or alcohol or too much intellectualism, too much overlays from society; by whatever means.
Those, in my generation, were the people who were my elders. Poet Ezra Pound, some thought him father of modernist poetry, though I completely disagreed with his political beliefs, was literally because of his those and his perceived low value as an artist, forced to be institutionalized for over a decade as an insane person. But, he was obviously a wild person, a man of great heart and not insane at all. But he failed in some ways in heart too, and even so, didn’t conform to the over-society of his time.
Also, Frances Farmer, a gifted actress was of that time, and she was also institutionalized and done terrible damage to as a result of not believing or acting in certain ‘acceptable’ ways. In our time also, lived John F. Kennedy’s sister, Rosemary, who was literally lobotomized at age 23, this ordered by her own father who couldn’t tolerate her wildness. It was first said she was ‘retarded,’ but there is no proof of this. Then she was labeled as having ‘moods,’ as she’d begun to sneak out at night from the convent where she’d been sent to be live-in educated.
Pictures of her show a lovely, lively young woman. She was made into a creature who could not talk, institutionalized til she died in her late 80s. Now, these many decades later, some speculate she in fact had what is called in our times, attention deficit disorder…or perhaps something like a depressive disorder that even back then was able to be treated with medication in order to ease that person’s back and forths.
But also in reading about her life, she sounded like a darling girl who was curious and impulsive. So was Salvador Dali. And so was Picasso. But, if a family has no open water for a person gifted differently than themselves… well I saw in my growing up years, that gifted people who didn’t conform were often labeled as misfits, rather than as talented. And too often, carved down into a tiny life too small for any living soul to wear.
All these I’ve named, and many more, were wild natural beings, and they loved life… but they were born at a time when everybody was ‘supposed to be seen and not heard,’ especially if they were female. So, growing up in that atmosphere, I heard and saw the lives and stories all around me wherein the culture said, “These people are not good. These people are bad” when in fact they seem like the people who brought real life and livelihood to the idea that we are on Earth as incredible, one-of-a-kind, precious human beings, that we are brought with gifts that are endless in their bounty and imagination.
It was a time when if the rare person of an acceptable enough race, education, social class, were able to unleash their gifts, they lifted the soul up in ways that could never be imagined by corporate ego back then. The corporate culture of the time was focused on, “Go exploit a group of people; get them all to work for you on the cheap and unhealthy, then take the money you earn off their labor, and go do something ‘good’ with it for people… who are not your workers.”
There was so much landscape, when I was growing up, about that kind of world view. And this was the cultural milieu that I learned about by the time I was a teenager. But when I was a child, because I was the child of immigrants and refugees, I was seen, as many of us were, as “not good material” by those who were our educators.
When I have gone back, as an adult, and spoken with teachers who are still alive, and looked into records that were kept when I was a child at school, it was appalling to find and know that as young children, it was already decided that we were not intelligent enough or smart enough; that we were too slow, too stupid, and too backward to be thought able to develop as creative beings.
It was decided before we were even in high school, that we would be put in a certain dead-end educational tracks that meant in effect ‘no further education’ beyond possibly high school. As a result, all the juiciest, most rewarding classes were withheld from us and we were shoveled into the vocational tracks, even as most of us were saying, “Wait, no, I’d please like to go to college, is that alright with you?”
It wasn’t alright. So, I was trained to be a typist. After high school graduation, I had a choice of being a secretary or going to hairdressing school. I loved hairdressing school. It was my first culturally-approved profession. I loved working with people.
What I found myself doing was telling my customers stories, listening to the people, and trying to help them see in ways that were larger than the life that had been set before them as ‘the only life’. Nowadays, I joke around that I used to work on the outside of people’s heads, now I like to work on the insides of people’s heads… and hearts.
The issue of being thought less of and having all my people thought of as ‘less,’ and having no one ever imagine beyond what was beyond the end of the road where one lived– unless one came from a certain kind of background or a certain kind of parents or racial or ethnic or economic group– that seemed to me like a huge waste; like trillions of showers of sparks in little young children, everywhere being doused instead of being channeled to light up the sky.
This I saw time and again growing up. The harassments and demeaning of the people from the old countries, the driving of gifted immigrants and refugees into menial jobs. And in particular I think amongst the girls, the young women in high school were intelligent, gifted, insightful, and creative … and yet we were all being told that we should somehow take on the habits of someone who didn’t show above ground very much, unless it was pre-approved beforehand. Some rebelled and were scarred up but found freedom eventually.
Some tried, but were pulled back and punished. Some by conforming lost their ways and died in spirit. Some never questioned, just went on singing the one-note given to them, one that put them to sleep instead of helping them to thrive fully alive. And some, many, made the zig-zag trip through the mine field and are still coming into their own power at last. They are now the beloved late bloomers whom I see everywhere I travel. What was in them once has not died, just been put to temporary sleep. They are snapping awake in droves now.
Yet, back in childhood, watching some of the best people of my generation be cut off at the ground level so that they never grew above ground… do you know I grew up in an old orchard and the orchard trees don’t fruit if you cut their flowers off, if you prune their limbs in the springtime when they already have those little white bumps on them?
Those are buds for leaves and flowers that are yet to come. If you cut the limbs off or amputate the flowers …then the juicy, beautiful, warm fruit, hand-picked that is so nourishing, it will never come. If you cut the flowers off, there will never be fruit.
Thus, I watched, time after time, the children I grew up with, also being channeled into the factories as young adults, where fumes killed them young, or into hard labor where injuries were so common, or into service, or into the lower ‘bland but you get to drive a nice car’ professions for life…when in fact, they were carrying the lights of futurity inside of them.
The tradesmen and tradeswomen who had real craft were often the very few who had pride of place, peace and talent in their works, something the soul took huge satisfaction in, the crafts of the hands… yet these were still too few and far between, and never were they thought to be combined with broad education in other fascinating areas where the creative force also finds true home.
What is the way of learning the wonders of the world when you live not in the greater world? Reading. Yet, none of us were supposed to read James Baldwin, among others. I went to Catholic school so the Pope far away in Rome had a long list of books and films that we were never supposed to see or read as well, or else, we were told, we would lose our faith and then our souls. None of us were supposed to read anything that wasn’t “pre-approved.” We were essentially enrolled in a course entitled How to become and remain a stunted but not burning bush.
Yet, witnessing the punishments that came to the young of my time when many decided to dress differently, look differently, read differently, think differently, I felt I could never forget… meaning watching those who retained the creative spirit and loving the heart of human beings who were so young …but also witnessing those egregious ones who literally cut all flowers off the young tree whenever they could, or else pruned the child so cruelly to within an inch of their lives, then leaving just one little tiny flower at the top to prove they were merciful. I say this not in bitterness, but as a record of reality. This was the milieu I grew up in.
TS: Do you think in a sense, CPE, that The Dangerous Old Womanas a work is a work of our time, meaning here in the 21st Century; that it’s something that culturally, we may not have been able to receive previously?
CPE: I do. I think there has never before has there been a group of women who have walked the face of the earth that is as enormous as the group of women living right now… who have capability, access to knowledge, and the ability to implement it.
I feel that we are at a turning point that is huge… that in many places worldwide, women have refused for some time now to be forced into marriages, relationships, and livelihoods, into spending their days defending themselves. And have instead, turned slowly to eke out places of peace where they can create, where they can truly be alive, where they can develop their soul natures, where the ego learns to follow the soul rather than the other way around.
I am positive of this, in part, because my work is published in 36 languages and I hear from readers worldwide. They write to tell me what they’re doing and thinking and the content of letters is often very different in the last ten years than it has ever been before. I think, across the world, women have a sense that they are not alone. How did they learn this? Through images= imagination. Through books. Through films. Through stories in the new oral tradition, that is social networking.
I think a great part of this phenomenon has occurred via the breaking down of some of the gatekeepers. Whereas once you could not write an op-ed piece about what you really thought unless the gatekeeper of your local or national newspaper said “Yes, we approve, okay, we’ll run it.”
Now there’s the Internet. We all have been unmuffled. You can say whatever you like, just like any ‘dangerous woman’ of whatever age. You can unleash your creative life in whatever way… and there are ever so many ways of doing this, in multimedia, on and off the Internet. There are many ways to communicate and let people know that you are carrying beauty into his world, and one no longer has to wait for a gatekeeper to approve, to say it’s ok.
However, old habits die hard. Fear of being scorned or not being approved of by ‘x,’ fear that one is not enough; fear that whatever one says… it’s already been said (I assure you it hasn’t been said in your own unique original voice in a way that sounds/ looks like no one else’s)… fear that there is nothing new under the sun (Of course there is. This ‘nothing new under the sun’ was a favorite trope of a prominent teacher during my psychoanalytic training, but prominence or fame doesn’t make something true that is and has been forever false.)
There’s something new under the sun every nanosecond; millions of things new under the sun every moment of every day… (the jillions of beautiful and tempestuous and dark glass chips of our world change contact points constantly, like a kaleidoscope making new, never-before-seen patterns every moment. Look. And, see). Yet, all these fears can still stop a woman from saying, dancing, bringing her piece to the world, even though she has this one precious thing now that was denied to her by myriad gatekeepers most all her life: she now has easy access to the larger world.
A gifted woman can stop herself from expressing her gifts, by listening to those who have a much smaller view of life. Or by listening to those who want no competitors and hope to dishearten all comers. This holding oneself back, is still an issue because all of us were programmed in some way and have often never til this time, had a chance to run to daylight, as they say, to break though completely.
The image that I understand and think is the preeminent image for the gifted, is The Dangerous Old Woman…because she goes where she wants to, says what she wishes, whatever comes straight up out of her bones. And she is a loving, decent person who cares deeply about the life and the soul inside others, inside creatures, inside this earth.
She is also a person who will not always mince words; who is not always predictable; who is absolutely not the doddering old woman with tiny pin curls (unless she chooses for good reason to be so); nor the know-nothing (again, unless she deems this has merit for a time, or forever).
The latter when not filled out, are caricatures shown time and again on television, in films and in humor books. Humorous enough sometimes, but a genuine elder is far more complex. And dangerous.
Neither is she the wise old woman sitting atop the mountain who knows anything and everything. She is, instead, a being in process and that, is the most dangerous thing of all; to not be pinned into one form only; one idea only; one way only, but instead to spin oneself into whatever shapes, aspects or disguises one wishes… and often will learn best by, in and from– each day, with self-inquiry and reflection watching.
TS: I know that in the whole body of work that is The Dangerous Old Woman there are many, many stories and poems. I’m wondering if you could share just one to give us a feeling about it right now, how the archetype of The Dangerous Old Woman operates inside of us.
CPE: I’ll tell you two. First of all, there is an image at the beginning of The Dangerous Old Woman, which is a 700-page manuscript that I finished over a 30-year period of time. There was a specific image that I had received in my mind early on when I first started working on this manuscript.
To back track for a moment: I had decided in my doctoral studies the area that I wanted most to specialize in was understanding what elderly people knew about life that had meaning. I had two criteria. They had to be over 70-years of age, which now seems very young to me, (laughter) and they also had to not have been to college and may not have even been to high school.
So I interviewed seventy people over age 70, most of whom did not have high school and definitely did not have college. I talked to them about what mattered to them most and what they learned over their lifetimes. Some people where wheelwrights, some people had truck farms; one person was ‘a traveling man,’ meaning ‘a tramp’ who had no permanent home and loved to ride the rails and be on the open road. People came from many different walks of life and ethnic and racial backgrounds.
What I understood from them was that it’s a handmade life that is not a set of worldly principles exactly, rather an eternal set of principles, and a long list of attributes that you get to choose from to hand-make your own life in your own way that fits for your gifts, your soul’s longings, your intellectual capacity; your ability to be and to love and to care for this world, to care for others and for yourself too.
That was the beginning of the work that became eventually The Dangerous Old Woman. As you might imagine, I fell in love many, many times with the old people. My mantra at that time was, “Don’t die. Don’t die. Please don’t die, I love you.” And of course, each and every one of these dearest souls, flew off the planet. I grieved hard. But also, they imbued me with the sanctity and the simplicity of their lives, according to what they, themselves thought, plumbed, discovered through trial and error, but also through their gifts of great heart.
Like Seamer, the fellow who traveled on railroads and underneath the box cars and sometimes in the boxcars, what meant everything to him was the camaraderie on the road, and the blue sky overhead and the stars at night. He was so imbued with all of that, that it hurt him to be in the city with all of its cacophony; with all its noises.
I felt like he was in his right mind. We have made so many adaptations to be alright with not even seeing the mantle of stars at night that are constantly streaming down and blessing us.
We have become content to be light-poisoned by living in the cities. But, he was carrying an essential wisdom and sanity that would serve us to remember that our souls long for what he longed for too, in some respect or regard. In order to be sane and whole and healthy, we would need a portion of that too, open road, blue sky, mantle of stars, camaraderie of the fellow travelers, just like he did.
Moving through the various “soul lives” of elderly people who didn’t have intellectual ways of saying things but were just plain straight-forward, down to earth, you know, down in the dirt, people… this led me then, as I went into my psychoanalytic training, to remember an image I had seen in one of Jung’s books that I thought was an apt metaphor for the The Dangerous Old Woman manuscript.
What I had seen was an alchemical image in one of the Collected Works, an etching of women who were turning into trees. I believe there were seven of them and one of them was slender, a sapling with a couple of leaves. Then the tree next to her was a little bit thicker and twisted a little in the waist and bark, with more leaves. Then by the third, forth and fifth trees, the trees had larger canopies, with a few flowers on the tree’s branches. And then so on. Each tree successively more mature, more filled out. Finally, the oldest tree is a little bit wizened looking but in fullest bodacious flower, more gravid than all the rest, most full. Most radiant.
All these trees characterized seemed to me as women with dear faces. I thought, “Wow, that’s it! We are young in spirit forever. We all have a few blossoms at first, and then by the end, a little bit innocence and a little bit vulnerable forever, but laden in blossoms.” We have inside of us, as we acquire more years, a more sturdy sense of self, we have broader spread of knowledge and deeper roots; we have more canopy and more thoughts and ideas that are pouring out of us ion flowerings.
We go through all these stages and it’s not as though we leave one stage and go into the next – we take all of our precious and best parts of previous selves with us.
We become not a tree exactly but we become a forest, a forest that has at its center the old woman tree. Finally, at some point in our lives, we begin to feel the potential and the meaning of the seventh tree, which is beautifully laden, flowering, fruited, the oldest and most lush woman we have ever been.
I was so happy with this recalled image, I wrote about it in my Introduction to The Dangerous Old Womanmanuscript, (which isn’t called “Introduction” it’s called “First Words”,) about this ecstatic image. It took a long time to parse out each chapter thereafter; as you know, thirty years is a long time, and I mean that with some levity and a lot of gravity.
But, when I came to doing the footnotes, endnotes actually, because as you know in my work I add a whole other book of notes so that people can read those at their leisure as a body, and hopefully they will be as enlightened or heartened, and as entertained by the notes as they are by the content of the manuscript itself. I like to write this way; it’s my signature style: stories within stories within stories, with the notes being stories within the greater story itself.
So, as I was going in to endnote this image of the seven women-trees, I went back to the Collected Works, which by then numbered about twenty-five volumes of big, black books. I began looking for the image, the alchemical drawing from long ago… but, when I found it, I thought I had made a horrible mistake. At first I thought maybe I hadn’t found the image yet because ‘this can’t be the right drawing, it doesn’t look right.’ And then, as I looked through all the books again, I mean literally page by page went through all of those big black books, some of them being five hundred and more pages long… I saw that the ‘not right’ image was the only alchemical image of women as trees and what the sole image showed was this…
The young tree in full canopy. As the trees became older, they lost their canopies, lost their leaves, and were bent over until finally the very last tree, the seventh woman-tree was an old, old woman bent over with only one pathetic leaf atop her hat, and the saddest look you could imagine on her face.
I wondered, “How could I have seen what I saw when in fact I didn’t see what was on this page?”
The only explanation that I can offer is that I saw what is true, has always been true…rather than what people used to think about age and wisdom, and age and women; that I saw what truly is true — that as we gather more years we gather together each stage of our lives, and each one is a beautiful and meaningful stage of growth…
That there is some breakage, but we also withstand many storms. There are scars that come, there’s no doubt. But that by the time that we are in the final stage of life where wisdom becomes so possible and often, so daily, and lots of things we have carried so long and so far, come to flower now, finally at last… we are full rather than weakened or a mere shred of what we once were; we are at our strongest, our biggest, our brightest, our most beautiful, our most blossoming.
And yet I looked at the picture that was in the book in actuality and I said, “Yes, this too is true.” This poor last soul who is bent with the weight of pain and time and bereft of care. In any culture any person is raised, there is sudden death. There are death matches that go on throughout our lives but this is no ending point where we are reduced to being one little leaf on top of our heads forever. No, no, that’s not it at all; absolutely not.
That would be against everything the soul and the spirit know and believe. What is true is that that may be a point in life where we have been knocked really hard and we’ve lost our innocence or our idea of what life could really be. And we’ll have to face a harsh reality and it brings us down. We feel juiceless, empty and as though it’s too late, we can’t possibly flower; we can’t even leaf out. What’s the use? But that is not the ending and not even close to the ending point.
The soul and the spirit come roaring back. They may come back the way a spark throws itself onto dry wood and suddenly there is a glowing ember and maybe it remains that way for the rest of life; Life Force fully evident in small ways. Often the ember becomes a flame. Or it might come roaring back all at once like a river that punches against an old concrete dam and finally the dam gives way and the river flows again.
New life and a burgeoning of the life force comes to different people in different ways at different times of their lives. But I am certain that the seven women trees, beginning with the young sapling who has a few leaves and by the time of mid-age has much more canopy and flowers and that the final stage of fullness of psyche…the fullness of development of the female psyche is to be in fullest flower in her own cycles, and to be in full age whatever one’s age is, to be in fullest wisdom regarding whatever wise knowings one carries. That is the glorious ultimate that we’re all growing toward.
TS: It seems significant, CPE, that in light of the previous comment that The Dangerous Old Womanis a body of work that might not have even been able to be published until now, at this time in our world, that you would remember the image in a different way than you actually saw it. Almost like that was part of the process of a new image coming into being. I’m curious what you think about that.
CPE: I didn’t used to quite understand when I was young-young, but do now have a definite sense that there is a time for things to come into being in their own time. There are also the dwindling of old archetypes and the bounding up of new ones by mysterious means in the psyches of some, and in certain parts of culture wherein groups and individuals still pay attention to the timeless and to the soul.
A pragmatic example: Women Who Run with the Wolves was twenty years’ in the writing. I sent it out 42 times before it was finally published. So for twenty years, I wrote and I thought the manuscript was done several times during that time but I kept adding to it. When it finally was published, it was published by a publisher who had already rejected it twice before in years previous.
Time had to pass. A different kind of time than clock-time. I have often felt that the time wasn’t right for it to be published at year 10 or year 15 or even year 18; that 20 was exactly the right time, culturally, but more than that, in terms of a kind of morphic resonance…. First x has to occur in order to set y into motion.
I sense in the same way, that the time for The Dangerous Old Womanmanuscript to be unleashed is right now. I think ego speaking versus my soul, would be more task-oriented and say, “But wait, you’re done, now it should be published.” No. That’s not the way it is meant to happen.
To publish in print first is not the destiny of this manuscript. That’s not my destiny either. This is my destiny: to be here with you now; to be with our listeners at the fireside with The Dangerous Old Woman in just in a few weeks time here and to be together and to deliver it the way I was given it which is orally… to tell of her, teach about her wild and wise ways in the oldest way possible: in the oral tradition amongst a gathering of souls.
TS: You were given it that way meaning you heard it or received it?
CPE: I “hear and see and sense” my work from so many sources, from actual living people as I mentioned regarding my doctoral studies, and relationships with the old people in my own family (My parents and elders being more than twenty years older then my peers’ parents and elders), and from people whom I will call the ancients.
Many writers/ artists who are colonized by the invisible realm of ideas, will not say they are. They fear what others of narrow experience in the arts will think of them. And they are wise in a way, for scorn and ridicule can disarray the delicate transmitting and broadcasting arteries.
But, there is a conscious force that occurs in every deep creative life. It is you yourself, your sensibilities, your powers of perception and observation, but it is more than you. If you are lucky, and if you can bear it, if you are in somewise built for it or strengthen yourself for it, and if your soul has agreed to it, no, has received an imperative about it… then you will sometimes bending over your creative works, suddenly find yourself entertaining angels.
I feel old enough, brave enough –meaning committed– to tell all the secrets I know… in my works. There is more reason to tell what souls need to hear to go forward in strength in this wondrous mysterious life as able travelers, than to protect knowledge out of fear of the billy goat under the bridge. I do not feel scorn and ridicule the way that most of us were taught to fear it when we were young and so cut our power in half or down to a quarter or two percent in order to try to protect the gift.
Part of that comes from having so much scar tissue now from all kinds of assailings and all sorts of criticisms all of my life, that it’s almost laughable now if someone says, “I scorn what you have done.” It’s sort of like, “Ha ha, tickle me further, make me laugh more” (those of you who are cradle Catholics know one of our core stories about the so good-natured saint being roasted on the spit by his tormenters, who laughs and says Turn me over now, I’m done on this side.)
It’s not in the false bravura of the ego, but rather in the solemnity and flashing lights of the soul, that I do know this is the right time and this is the right way in which to bring The Dangerous Old Woman into the world and directly to those who are gathered at the fire.
TS: There is so much more to talk about which we’ll do in Part Two. Thanks, CPE. This concludes Part One of our conversation. Once again, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés will be launching a new series on The Dangerous Old Woman: Myths and Stories of the Wise Woman Archetype at SoundsTrue.com, a live event series beginning on April 6th.
For more information, please check out SoundsTrue.com/courses.
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