Clarissa Pinkola Estés: The Dangerous Old Woman, Part Two

Tami Simon: CPE, when I think of the image of “a dangerous old woman” the way that I’ve heard you describe her, someone who can’t be stopped, somebody who will speak her mind, I imagine an old woman on a motorcycle or with an old hatchet – that’s what I see. And yet you’ve used the image of the Tree . . . you have this phrase I’ll always remember, “This tree has stood many winters.” The image of the Tree from The Dangerous Old Woman, it communicates different qualities than the motorcycle woman with the hatchet. So I’m wondering if you could help me understand this image of the Tree. Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés: First of all, this: When I was a little girl, I married a Tree. I held a wedding ceremony and married an oak tree in the forest behind our little house. I loved Tree, like fire, and being near trees is the most calming, inspiring, and heartfelt. I understand trees as mothers and fathers, that they literally nurture us (and I don’t mean just scientifically, providing oxygen, which is one of the most merciful things they could do in culture like ours that loves to pollute the atmosphere).

I have always felt trees are Beings; when I read about the “Ents” in Tolkien’s work, as a moving forest of living trees who would actually go to battle to protect innocent lives, I felt that was exactly right. That is exactly the way trees are.

In the old country where my parents came from, my father said the big trees were “Guardian Trees.” There was not a village that didn’t have Guardian Trees at the beginning of the road leading to the little houses. They literally said the sound of the wind in the leaves of the trees or the needles in the evergreens would change if people were coming from a distance–walking or on wagon or on horseback. The Trees would tell when someone was far off but advancing toward the village, and from which direction, and on what kind of conveyance, and sometimes whether they were armed or not. The trees were “Guardian Trees” and they would alert everyone to whom or what was coming next.

They also planted the trees on the opposite side of the road from their houses, so the flowers would grow readily in the dappled shade to be picked for the church ceremonies and long processions to their tiny little church. The trees “guarded” the flowers from sun scorch. This village that my father grew up in was made of forty-six families, so they had forty-six little farm houses they’d made themselves out of mud and white wash. With the flowers they grew under the trees, they would be able to praise Creator and all the Saints every day without having to go very far from the house.

Guardian trees were planted in every front yard and near the wells, so in the summertime these would provide coolness for inside the houses, which already had very thick walls, and to help keep the well water cool. Then in the wintertime, as most of the houses faced south on the bluff, the trees would lose their leaves –and then the warmth of the winter sun, which came at low angles across the plains, would come right into the windows and light the interior of the house in dark of winter.

The idea of Trees being the essential part of life, rather than some extraneous decoration on someone’s lawn… this is how I grew up. We relied on the peach, cherry, plum, and apple trees for real nourishment. We handpicked all their fruits and then canned them in the heat of the summer, steam rising in the kitchen and everyone taking more and more of their clothes off then. . We sterilized all the glass jars and put up all the fruit and then lined it up on the shelves in the cellar. They glass jars glowed gold and red and yellow in the wintertime in the dark and it was so beautiful and glistening. The Trees were considered our helpers and our mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers.

When trees were ill or hurt, no one would think of cutting a tree down. You treated the tree very much like you would treat a person, a relative. You would wrap the broken limb. I remember one time living in the city, not many years ago, when some of the limbs of the young trees broke during a storm, and people wanted to just cut the limb off instead of wrapping it with bandages and a poultice of mud, to put energy into the healing of that wound …because trees will grow scar tissue that actually has little canals in it so nourishment can still run up and down the tree… if you give the tree attention, if you give it time.

In Women Who Run With the Wolves the motif is wolves, and The Dangerous Old Woman, has a motif too that runs throughout the entire manuscript: Trees, what beauty they are; the graciousness they are; what they teach us and what travails they endure. Trees are what I call “S.S.” for “Still Standing.” Just like us. And they are all scarred up, like us, too.

Look at any tree that has any age to it at all. You know, even the young trees: the lawnmower clunked into it at the base. Or somebody ripped the tree’s suckers off, which were just trying to grow out of the lower half of the tree, stripping the tree of its vital bark protection. Insects or other injuries will come to the tree. But the trees most always develop tissue around the scar so though you see the scar, the tree compensates, adapts, heals. The tree continues on nonetheless. Like us.

I have pictures of trees I’ve collected over the years that are literally growing through chain-link fences, that are growing into concrete pipes and out the other side, that are growing in the middle of a lane on an asphalt highway. The trees are intrepid beings, and their only common enemies are extreme weather, insect bloat, ambitious beavers, starving deer… but most of all, human beings. Most trees, however, do just fine no matter how scarred up they become… as do humans.

In that respect, for instance, in The Dangerous Old Woman manuscript, I tell about, “The Late-Bloomer,” Late blooming is an important aspect as we gather more years and become even more dazzling wild-flower bouquets. I find most all of us are Late Bloomers in one way or another. You’re a Late Bloomer if you raise children… because your children, you might say, become your whole creative life in many ways… and you bloom right along with them for decades, including into and through the years of your elderhood.

You’re a Late Bloomer if you’ve been working for a living in an area that is not kind to your soul. Then one day, because you change livelihoods or you find your way out or you run for daylight, as we say, you then have a chance to develop a whole new side of your gifts –or all of them or any of them– in a way you never have before.

One of the trees that is a late bloomer, essentially a cactus, is called a Saguaro. This is the desert cactus that is most often bullet-ridden from humans with shotguns …perhaps because Saguaro looks like a human being and holds its great arms out… and upward.

It has a long trunk, and grows thirty, forty, fifty, sixty-plus feet high sometimes. But the peculiarity of the Saguaro–besides the fact that it’s a home for so many birds and creatures inside its body, and the fact that it keeps water inside– underneath it’s thick spiny ridges–all these miracles being part of the Saguaro–most interesting part is that it neither gets its arms or flowers for many years, no matter how tall it grows.

The Saguaro can become a mature plant at twenty-five-feet high yet only be a long torso without arms. It can grow for thirty years and yet never have these luscious, gorgeous, cream-colored, juicy blossoms that grow on the very top of its head and the very tips of its arms and fingertips.

Yet the Saguaro goes on and on. It is busy gathering energy and time. It has a destiny that I would say is born into it. It’s hugely gifted. Its flowers are already there but they are in a genome form, and that genome form takes years to develop.

So, many Saguaro do not get their arms until they’ve spent thirty years or more gathering energy. They do not flower for that many years either. But until they do, and after they do, their greatest threat is often, amongst others, extreme weather, a lightening strike, for example, which for us, as an analogy, could mean something like this: “I’ve been ill until death twice in life.” That could be considered a lightening strike: and like the Saguaro’s experience of such, it makes you lose capacity, at least for a while, and then you have to build up energy force again.

Or perhaps comes along a human being who decides to use you for target practice the way some wrongheaded ones use the Saguaro for target shooting. In other words, someone criticizes… they poke, they prod, and they entertain themselves at your expense. But nonetheless, you know the Saguaro grows onward even with bullet holes; it lives on, even with so many attacks to it. It is “S.S. – Still Standing.”

And the Late Blooming woman and man and child are like that too. The drive to grow arms (to reach) and to bloom is inside of us in genome form in the psyche, pushing for us to develop all our gifts. Sometimes it really is a matter of time. We’re gathering the learning, the parts, the strengths; we’re gathering the right moment, the right atmosphere, the ‘good enough’ soil to plant ourselves in, the able root system.

And one day… what never showed above ground before suddenly begins to grow green and beautiful above ground… and we nurture our new arms, our blossoms in fresh ways then.
However, there are ill circumstances that we, ourselves, can allow to interfere with that process of burgeoning.

That’s why I like this story The Emperor’s New Clothes . But, the story is often told in a disparaging manner, like this: “The Emperor was conceited, so these guys came to him saying, ‘We’re going to make you a beautiful suit of clothes. But these were really con men, so they only pretended to make a suit of clothes. But the Emperor, because he was so inflated, couldn’t see through them. He decided when all the new clothes were complete, he would have a big parade. Accordingly, once suited up in his ‘new clothes’ he marched out either in his underwear or fully naked and while everyone else in the crowd was bowing, scraping, and ‘Salaaming’ to him, because he was the Emperor and everybody was afraid that he’d punish them if they disrespected him– a little child in the crowd pointed at the Emperor and told the truth, saying: ‘But you’re not wearing any clothes.’” And the Emperor is shown to be a fool.

That is how the story is usually told.

However, in our family, which is a deeply ethnic family, who mostly couldn’t read or write, we had an oral tradition, which is to tell stories. They not only told stories; they didn’t tell them the way one finds them in old books written about stories. The Grimm brothers, as you know, took stories from storytellers who were exactly like the family I grew up in, I think. The tellers were unschooled people, often farmers or what they used to call “peasants” back in the 1800s and 1900s. But the poor people had these fabulous stories they carried.

So the Grimm brothers and others from the upper classes went to the homes of the old tellers, asked after and listened to their stories, and wrote them down. Then they took them back home and rewrote the farm people’s stories according to their religious and socio-economic beliefs and ideas of the time. So a reader of Grimm’s gets a literally “Grimm version” of the fairy tales. But, if you hear them from living old people from the Old Countries, especially people who come right off the dirt, off the ground where you pull your food out of the ground every day, the stories are slightly different to a great deal different, for story is a living, growing thing in and of itself.

In our family, The Emperor’s New Clothes is told with the emphasis on the fact that people are afraid. That it isn’t conceit of the Emperor that causes him to go blind to those who take advantage of him and who actually cut off his avenues to showing his true gifts. Rather, it’s fear of being thought inferior and it’s fear of being criticized. It’s fear of being found wanting, inadequate.

You know that for all of us humans, ability to fear is a gift built into us for survival… to fear being found inadequate or to be rejected, included. Fear of the latter is in us because we tend to be tribal people, familial people, who enjoy and like to work together with others, at least at a distance, perhaps up close, or at whatever distance is comfortable for us. But, to be rejected means to be shunned by our tribe, which means that we become a lone animal; we become an exile who has no one to depend on except ourselves.

And we are vulnerable then because we have no circle of protection. To be found inadequate means that somewhere, at least in ancient memory in us, we would thence not be rewarded with food, not be rewarded with clean water… or relationship with others; that instead, we will be considered inferior… and therefore unworthy to even be fed. There are many fairy tales about just these situations. They start out with the child, for instance, being thought hopeless or being impaired in some way and therefore they decide to drive the child out, exiling the child to starve to death.

Our family story of the The Emperor’s New Clothes tells that the Emperor actually sees and is a wonderful, delightful, jovial person and full of life… but he has taken on the trappings of being “the Emperor.” But when he is in his private chambers, he is funny and fun and silly and creative and inventive–constantly making things up and making people laugh and enjoying himself and having all kinds of wonderful plans for how the kingdom would be one day if he could only get people to agree with him.

But, the minute he steps outside his chambers and goes into the court, he takes on other trappings–physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually–that he is expected to have. He’s not allowed to be frivolous (frivolity being a major part of the imagination, as you know). He’s not allowed to say things that are on his mind because “people won’t respect you if you do that.” He is allowed to be angry, punitive, and to say who should go where, but he’s not allowed to love or be vulnerable, or to be hurt. In these ways, he’s not allowed to be alive.

So here come these two tailors who say, “You know what? This guy is really afraid to be himself; let’s take advantage of him.” So, they approach him and say, “Emperor, look. We have this beautiful material that we’ve gotten at great cost. It’s filled with gold and silver and has little tiny golden bells on it. It has lace and purple piping over here. Isn’t it beautiful? And look over here; there is just a little tiny strip of ermine to finish off the hem. Isn’t this all so beautiful?”

And the Emperor knows that he can’t see the fabric, but he looks around at his courtiers, his viziers, his generals and thinks, “Oh my god. I will be found unworthy if I can’t see this. Everyone else can obviously see it because they are saying “Oooh” and ‘Ahhh.’” So the Emperor says, “I must have this fabric immediately. You must make me a suit of clothing out of that beautiful, wondrous cloth.” All the court starts to applaud, “Oh good. Yes, it’s so beautiful.” They don’t see anything either, but they, too, are afraid of losing their station in life. They are afraid of being found inadequate and therefore punished because they can’t see the cloth either.

Meanwhile, the two cheats go away and pretend in full view of the entire court to sew, cut, trim, and fit and to have the golden hanger prominently displayed with this beautiful, invisible nonsense hanging from it. And everyone, “Oohs” and “Ahhs” every time the latest version of the suit of clothes is shown, because no one can manage to say, “There is nothing to that; there’s nothing there.” They are all afraid that they’ll be found inadequate, and thereby punished and banished.

Finally the day of the revealment arrives, and the two cheats collect their bags of gold from the Emperor, who has incredible misgivings because he’s saying to himself, “God, I am not fit for my station in life. I’m here to govern the people with love and greatness, with a vision that I carry, but in all these happenings, I can’t see what’s right in front of me.”

The Emperor goes through with the charade. He dons the clothes that don’t exist. He marches through the streets with his whole retinue behind him, everyone “Oohing” and “Ahhing,” and all the people of the kingdom are bowing and applauding. And all of a sudden, in the story my family tells, there is an old woman. The old woman points at the Emperor and says, “Emperor, you’ve forgotten to put your clothes on, the ones you are most worthy of.” And suddenly the spell is broken!

As it’s told in the family for levity: The Emperor looks down at himself and sees his naked legs, arms, legs, and chest, but he can’t see much more than that because he has a big belly. He turns and runs and his courtiers run after him, trying to shield him and cover his body. He runs all the way back up to the castle and calls for the old woman to come before him.

Everyone advises the old woman, “Don’t go! It’s going to be ‘off with your head.’ You’re never going to come out of there. Once you go in there you’ll never come out alive.” But, the old woman says, “No. I’m going because he needs my sight.”

She appears before the court and the Emperor says, “I want you to tell me again what you told me before.” And she says, “Emperor, you’re not wearing the clothes that are made for you, and you alone—the clothes that are worthy of your station in life.” And the Emperor understands she means by “clothing” that he is not wearing his own true thoughts.

Rather, his feelings, ideas, his insights, and visions, are not properly clothing his life… not only so he can express who he is, but his ideas and visions for the benefit of all others. In his own righteous “clothing.” he is the one who will make life decent, and with good principles, for all others around him.

At the end of the story, the old woman is rewarded with the bags of money that were given to the two cheats who had been found out, were hauled back in and held before the Emperor, who banished them to a kingdom that, in our family we call Ürvesdé. This is “the place of the mirrored palace,” where you are constantly looking in the mirrors and finding fault with yourself. So the two cheats were banished to that part of the netherworld. And that is how the story The Emperor’s New Clothes ends.

In archetypal ideation, the idea of clothing symbolizes the thoughts that we “wear” each day, the ways we show ourselves to the world. It’s a little bit like persona. How people dress is often how they want you to know them. Like when we go for a job interview. One time, when I went to interview for a job at a university… for I had this idea to create a syllabus to teach the very first accredited “Psychology of Women” course, in the Western United States, about 1975, for I had this radical notion that there was truly a real “psychology of women.” There were other people across the world imagining similar at the same time; it eventually became a phenomenon.

But I remember when I went to the interview and how I dressed so carefully in my polyester suit that I had purchased at Goodwill. I made sure that my skirt came down below my knees and that I looked ultra-conservative. I carried a naugahyde briefcase that I bought at the Goodwill also. It had real chrome trim on it. I’m sure I looked like a lady truck driver who just got off her truck. But I was trying so hard to say, “I know what I am talking about.”

But, this naugahyde briefcase, cum polyester suit- I think it was mint green, I hate to say, but I think it was… I was trying to be ‘this person.’ I was trying to show not exactly who I was but who I thought might pass through the eye of the needle most easily without being thought too much of a camel. When I look back at that time, I think they actually hired me because my idea was good and I think they tried hard to overlook the fact that I was wearing a mint-green polyester suit with a naugahyde briefcase that weighed about ten pounds empty.

But, that is what persona is. It is an idea that we have about what will be most acceptable to other people. In the Late Bloomer, the gifted woman, she is often wearing clothes that are non-existent or don’t fit right, are worn backwards, or are not telling the truth about what her gifts and talents really are. In other words, she’s wearing ideas and speaking words, making gestures, acting in certain ways, and even having relationships and compatriots, compadres, in certain ways that don’t really reflect what she is made of, or what her real visionary world is made of.

I’ll talk more about this in The Dangerous Old Woman online event, but each aspect of The Emperor’s New Clothes story shows us ways we block or detain ourselves. The first way we can occlude our own gifts is by presenting ourselves to the world untruthfully. This is one way of communicating in, to, and from the psyche, to yourself, to others… “I am unworthy as I am. I’m not a visionary or the gifted person. I have to go forward in a crouch of some sort. I have to be defensive or defended. I will not be accepted unless I see as others see.”

But, in reality, the gifted person often doesn’t see the way other people see. And as we see in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” in one way, in street talk, the Emperor “won’t call B.S. when he sees it.” I have to say, part of the creative life is calling B.S. when you see it. If it isn’t working, if the connection isn’t right, if the vessel isn’t right, you have to call it like it is …so you can unfurl your gifts freely again in this world instead of butting up against the same obstacles, self-imposed or other-imposed, over and over again.

That is a “Late Bloomer’s conundrum,” you might say. The Late Bloomer has to come to terms with the cheater in the psyche, the ones who says, “I’m going to make something and look how beautiful it is.” But it’s just an idea based on a fancy, and doesn’t come to fruition: lots of waving and sewing motions in the air… but so far, nada, nothing.

The cheaters come from the part of the psyche, that wants something for nothing, that wants to be accomplished immediately perhaps, the part of the psyche that bows and scrapes and says “Oh yes” to other people’s expectations.

But thankfully, in us also, and most of all, there is the old woman, the truth teller. (To my spirit, and perhaps you can see this too, in symbology it doesn’t matter whether the story has a young child speaking up or an old woman speaking out, because they share a common rootstock of blurting truth: in this, the symbols of an old woman and a child are almost identical.

You remember what Picasso said when he was asked, time and again about “the secret to his creativity”? Picasso lived the homemade/ handmade life to the extreme, although maybe something could be said more about his lack of social development. Yet, he was completely free as an infant…a creator. His answer to the questions was something like this: Be like a child. Think like a child. Draw like a child. Act like a child. See like a child.

This is what the old woman enacts also. She has . . . it’s not exactly innocence; it’s the wisdom of innocence “to say it like it is.” Remember, I said “the old woman goes where she wants to, says what she wishes. No one should try to stop her…” because she carries this bounty, this huge bounty, which actually helps things proceed and progress, rather than to stay stuck.

Essentially, the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes in The Dangerous Old Woman manuscript is about the thieves that thieve from us, thieve our creative lives in ways that prevent the creative force from unleashing itself entirely. There are, you might say, transitions we all may face in burgeoning creative life as Late Bloomers, but I would also say that there is no such thing as “too late.” There isn’t. It is never too late to blossom. You’ve likely, metaphorically, already spent your thirty years gathering and seeking. You can blossom right now by opening the phalanges on the edges of your being: the flowers are right under the skin.

I’ll give you a for instance… I thought I was going to be a lawyer three years ago and was accepted into law school. After a little while, I realized that I had lost my mind. I wanted to go to law school because I wanted to know the stories, because all legal precedents, all Supreme Court decisions, are stories… like dreams or fairy tales are stories also. I love stories. But, also, as an activist all these years, I wanted more direct voice in policy making and legislative decisions.

But what I also realized, in addition to learning some truly wonderful principles about the law (for instance, that the law is not about wishful thinking about what it ought be, but rather the law is the law as written to this point; that is, “what currently, is” very Buddha-like), yet, I also learned I would have to turn off an enormous aspect of my psyche and my heart to only follow “the one way” the law is taught, and the narrow way the law is often interpreted and executed. I felt this kind of development was not my best gift. I withdrew from law school and I felt that what I wanted to do at school in order to help other people could also be done without having a legal degree, and I determined ways to unfold that.

Yet, when I was carefully thinking over going to law school, I was nattering to myself, “I’m old. I might die before I finish law school. And who knows the future of what’s going to happen.” But, what I realized was that it was going to be four years of hard work, almost full-time work, and that four years from now I was going to be as old as I was going to be, regardless, with or without a law degree… so I may as well go to law school. That I ought not to let my years on earth interfere with a creative impulse to “go see,” to “go out” as Maria Montessori would put it.

That is how I made the decision. I’d be four years older with or without a law degree, in any case. In other words, my age, my delicate health, and all the other challenges I have in my life were not to be part of the consideration. The only consideration is that I wanted to learn. I felt compelled to ‘go see.’ And if I finished, I’d finish. And if I didn’t finish, then I wouldn’t finish. But, I would learn. And, I did learn very valuable insights. So, that’s one example in my own life of being a Late Bloomer. It was an idea that I had for many decades to be able to have the legal power to help change the sway and drift at the federal level in terms of human and civil rights. But, for certain, there are other powerful ways to do the same outside law school, ones I’d been enacting all my life and adding to as time went along. One is unequivocally rendezvousing and supporting those lawyers who carry similar visions for creatures, earth, and humanity… those who have ace skills at forging ahead legislatively and as clarions. I’m blessed to know several such souls who fight for the righteous tirelessly and have much effect.

Oddly, our impulses to “late bloom,” I think, are actually “right on time.” I don’t think they’re “too late.” I don’t think they’re “too early.” I think so many things that occur in life are destiny. And we catch up with destiny. And sometimes pursing the very thing we seem compelled toward teaches us something completely different that we had not realized was the whole point in being driven to that moment, that class, that life course, that book, that endeavor, to begin with.

In other words, we learn to feel the nudges behind our shoulders or the pushes at our waist to move forward in this or that particular direction… to bloom. In matters of destiny, this pressing from behind is insistent, doesn’t go away.

Yet, many people don’t feel strong directive pushes. They feel instead that they want to love more; they want to be more at peace; they want contentment; they want to help others; they want to ease the way for others; they want to protect life in one way or another. Those are also talents to be developed. Those are also strivings to fulfill one’s destiny. Destiny may not be acts, huge projects, far-flung whatevers. Destiny may be much more a way of being, a way of our being in this world that satisfies the soul.

Almost all of us find, as we become older, that we may not decide to go to school or to go into a new livelihood, or whatever it might be, but that it is endemic, important, and absolute in our lives to hear the call to love more; to pursue peace more; to ease the way for ourselves but sometimes mainly for others who are within our reach too.

And that these strivings are late blooming also, in most of us, because the time comes when we cross a line in life. (In The Dangerous Old Woman manuscript, I call it “crossing the crone line.”) This is a point in life, when you realize, amongst other things, that your life will be less and it will become smaller without the elementals of love, peace, contentment, helping, easing, protecting, creating, resting, building, being; that these are like the new fruit on the old tree that is the sweetest because it is based in and grows up out of love, mercy, and peace…

TS: CPE, I want to ask you one question about something that I think stops many people. I have seen this in my own life and many other people’s lives, stopping oneself from fully coming into “blossoming,” which, as you mentioned, is made up of this fear of rejection and humiliation. If someone has that fear –and I think we all do–but if they say “I’m afraid, and this is what is stopping me,”–what can they do?

CPE: It depends on where the fear originates. You have probably met people who have had wonderful childhoods. I am delighted when I meet people who do. It’s like meeting a person from an alien planet. Remember the Academy Awards one of the men who won an award, Michael Giacchino, said his parents always encouraged him to be different, to follow the bliss, so to speak (as Joseph Campbell put it). He said his parents were always ready and waiting to give him resources to try out his next favorite invention.

What I really loved was that he looked right into the camera and said to those watching, that if they did not have parents like his, that he wanted to encourage them now. In essence he said to all within reach: “Go ahead. Invent. Create. Go do it all.”

I thought that was so beautiful and so bountiful from a person who had been given so much, and he turned it right around and gave it to others whom he recognized as not being able to have what he had; that for many, childhood was long over, in more ways than one.

But isn’t that true? That something in us keeps listening for people to anoint and bless us on our way and that’s what he did. He blessed and anointed anyone who has the heart to listen to him, who is still longing to hear that it’s alright to create, to look different, to be the same as, to be however one is called to be. It’s alright.

Whatever it is that brings your gifts to life and makes your life larger instead of smaller, more meaningful instead of vapid-broad, and allows you to reach and touch others within your reach… all those are good things that something in our psyche is waiting to hear. The click of the opening of the gate that signals: Go! You are free!

Some people, too many, I’m afraid, have had just the opposite experiences when they were little children. Children are porous and wide-open. They take in everything good, bad, or neutral, but they take it all in. Unfortunately, poison goes in so much easier when you’re young than when you’re older and more experienced. Many people have messages in their minds still from early childhood that say things like, “Don’t be important. Don’t make a scene. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Don’t have crazy ideas. Don’t move, don’t dance, don’t wiggle, don’t jiggle, don’t this, don’t that…”

They may have alternate messages lodged deep in the psyche: “Yes, it’s alright for you to create–but only this way.” Or, “You have to do it but you have to have a degree to do it.” Or, “You must do it, but you shouldn’t have a degree to do it.” Whatever or whomsoever says, “You must never create thus and so goodness, or you must always ‘produce’ only this one way,” tends to be far busier building a dam on the headwaters of the river, rather than knowing and loving, up front and up close, the creative fire inborn into all souls.

Thus, some people fear, now as adults and as teenagers, to make a move that is not pre-approved. But people often need to, far more often, listen to wisdom of those experienced in being good, and in being free…. people like the Dangerous Old Woman, who are good teachers.

Listen to people whose hearts are truly filled with love, and I would say preferably people who are carrying some scar tissue because they as a result are far more likely to know, truly know. They didn’t learn wisdom and freedom out of a book or imagine it out of the sky. To listen to what they say and to replace those old messages in your head with their messages, with life-giving messages, and to believe, to have faith that there is a plan greater awaiting.

My grandmother used to say, “Listen to me now and believe me later.” To believe what is being told to you and at some point to stop saying, “Yes, but my mother/father/culture/church/teacher/friend said . . .”

If I had believed what my teachers told me, God bless them, when I was a child, I would be in pieces still. I never would have been assembled as a human being. I would have just been a shambles, and not that I wasn’t for a while, because children take it hard when you criticize them and hurt them. They take it hard when you tear up their creative work or burn it, or throw it away. The creative works of children are often what we call their “self-object.”

A self-object is something that is important to us for deep reasons. We might have made it or someone special gave it to us or maybe we found it, like in the woods or somewhere in nature. And it means a great deal to us, but to someone else it just looks like a stone on the window sill. Among native people’s worldwide, these were sometimes described by observers as fetishes and talismans. Among the people they were often just called bird, wing, claw, turtle, sky, containing entire stories and sagas inside the one small word.

I visited Georgia O’Keefe when I lived in Taos and she lived in Abiquiu. I was told I couldn’t possibly go see her because she didn’t grant audiences to people like me who were “unimportant.” I was nineteen-years-old and I had just moved from my little town of six hundred people to Chicago, and then to Taos, New Mexico. When I saw Miss O’Keefe’s paintings, the paintings of white flowers and bone pelvises that you could see the desert landscape through, I was stunned. It was like lightening struck. “Oh mio Dio, my God!” I wanted to know this person. “Who really painted these?” I wondered. It turned out the painter lived not far away. And she was a woman, probably in her late seventies at the time. At the time I thought she was ancient.

A gallery dealer who dealt with her on a regular basis was going to see her and I begged to be taken along. But he sternly harrumphed, “Oh no, no, no. You can’t go. It’s not possible. Miss O’Keefe doesn’t see people like you.” (haven, there was no .ms back in those times and I never use that appellation now, people are miss, mrs , mr, doctor, etc. The east coast feminists forgot to consult us latinas. )

Miss O’Keefe painted paintings that were already sold before she painted them. . . She had a long waiting list of “collectors” who took whichever painting she’d just produced. If the collector decided not to take that newly fresh painting, then they went to the end of the waiting list that was hundreds of people long. People at the end of the list might have to wait for years or until Miss O’Keefe died to purchase a painting. Anyway, that was the scheme at the time.

Since I was barred from seeing her, instead I wrote her a letter. I was so taken with her I wrote her a letter on magenta-colored paper, in part because that’s the paper I bought on sale at the five- and ten-cent store—and in part because of the color. I loved the color and so I wrote on it with broad-point black ink pen.

I wrote something like this: “Miss O’Keefe, they tell me that you don’t see people, that you’re very temperamental, that almost nobody can get close to you, but I don’t believe that because I’ve seen your paintings. You’re in love with the Universe. You’re in love with humanity and nature. I just wanted you to know that your work is beatific.”

I signed my name. And I mailed it to Abiquiu. One didn’t need an address at the time because Abiquiu was so small; only Miss O’Keefe and a few other people lived there.

In about a week I received a letter back from Miss O’Keefe. She wrote, “There is great merit to maintaining certain myths about one’s life. You come see me any time. Honk the horn at the driveway and my gardener will let you in. My secretary and I surely enjoyed your letter and the color of the paper you wrote on.”

Oh my goodness. I think I was irradiated. I became atoms instead of molecules that all held together in a form. I was so excited.

And I did go see her and what I saw in addition to Miss O’Keefe were her self-objects. Self-objects are things that mean something to you that may mean nothing to anyone else, or just seem lovely but decorative, or unnecessary entirely. Her self-objects were bones and stones. She had gone out to the desert and up into those white-faced cliffs near Ghost Ranch, and she had picked up stones …and there they were on every single windowsill she had that overlooked the Pedernal.

Miss O’Keefe was enamored of what was contained in pieces of old wood and in stones and in bones she found in the desert. In that part of the world, you could walk through the desert and find literally hundreds of bones in a single afternoon. These were her self-objects that gave her comfort; they surrounded her life and protected her. They were talismans of her creativity. They were an understanding between her and the basic simplicity of the atoms that were in those objects. If someone looked at those and said, “Oh, look. She has stones in her windowsill; let’s clear those out. They are unimportant,” this would damage her soul-psyche connection.

These self-objects were an extension of her own life-force. And children are that way, too, with the things they create and bring close to them. They see them not as that old teddy bear that doesn’t have eyes anymore. They see that as that teddy bear who is a former arctic explorer who lost his sight because of the blinding sun for years and years. You try to take that little teddy bear away from that child because it’s old, it’s worn out and falling apart, you’ve washed it ten times and it’s not going to make it to the next day.

But if you do, the child will be pierced with pain because the raggedy little blind bear is a self-object. Some people might refer to such a relationship between self and object as “sympathetic magic.” I think it’s somewhat patronizing to call things in that regard, as though one stands outside the idea that we are connected to each other and to many parts of the universe, in so many different ways: atomically, molecularly, energetically, psychologically, and spiritually, neurologically.

When I saw Miss O’Keefe had those objects and she understood them as part of her own living life-force, then I understood too what had happened to so many people and still continues to happen to so many people when they are young.

They are told that their life-force resonances with nature, with creative works, with objects… don’t matter, that they’re just this thing, whatever that thing is. That being obedient to one idea is far more important than creating the many. That having relationship with and to another that is meaningful only to that individual person, is foolish, and especially foolish if that “other” is a creature, a part of nature, or… a stone or a bone.

Yet what psychoanthropology calls self-objects are to others called more clearly perhaps, los santitos y las profesoritas, little saints and little teachers that teach and protect and comfort. The little teachers often have entire stories embroidered around them in order to bring them close to the human being, in order to not stand outside of that object, but rather to be with it, feel into it, to admire its creation, to learn from it.

Those who might scorn such ideas are often also people who want no one else to drive their cars, use their tools, and those who would be bereft if someone suddenly cleaned out their private workshop. Most of us innately, though perhaps unconsciously, understand the idea of the “amigos,” the little teachers, the little saints, being near seeming inanimate things in ways that make us feel more of a piece and at peace… that allow us to utilize our relationship with them to locomote forward, to create, and to learn.

So your question was about what to do about fear of rejection, of being ridiculed, and it goes back, I think in part, to self-objects. Begin to replace messages in your mind with messages of goodness that actually come from people who know, people who are related to creative life for reallies, not just drive bys. Go to the–La que sabe, “the one who knows”–rather than people who don’t know what the heck they’re talking about.

Secondly, surround yourself with self-objects. Think about what gives you comfort and juice, what when you look at it you go, “Oh man!” I have a purple piece of metal in my drawer. I don’t know where I found it… somewhere in my travels over the years, a flea market perhaps. I picked up this piece of piercing blue-violet metal and every time I look at it, my heart soars.

There’s something, either the color of it, the sheen of it, the depth of it, the radiation of it that lifts my heart. I feel happy! For me, that’s a santito, a self-object. For other people, they might look at it and say, “That’s a scrap of metal. Throw it away. You can’t use it for anything.” But if they did throw it away, I would be sad. For me, the color of it is perfect. It matches something inside of me and lifts my heart. What it is, I can’t explain exactly and I don’t want to really, because it’s like asking a bird to explain how it flies; the bird just takes joy in flying.

Another way to defeat fear of ridicule is to, of course, look at the source of the ridicule, that is, the ridiculer… and educate yourself more about jealousy and envy that comes from other people. So much ridicule is actually envy… over the fact that you are different and unique, while they are, perhaps, still not yet free from being all tied up in their girdles, in their circle-stitch bras. They believe they have to conform to a certain shape… or else.

There may be ridicule and scorn aimed also when you seem, right or wrong, like a competitor who is going to knock the ridiculer off his or her ill-won or poorly won pedestal. The ridiculer often carries a heavy fear of their own: that you’re going to somehow exceed them or show them up because they are playing by “broken rules” and you are not.

Learning about the force of envy–which is essentially a vulgar kind of love of accomplishment rather than a soulful love that creates in order to pour forth– will help free you from feeling so wounded that someone criticized you.

There is critique, of course; that can be valuable, but I will tell you there is a big difference between a critique that means to diminish another person and critique that seeks to make your life bigger rather than smaller.

A person who gives positive, even if hard to hear critique does not choose to nor want to wound you so you are disabled by the criticism. They literally want you to blossom even more. Those are the people to listen to because so often they are filled with great love. Their constitution is to love beings into life, not to criticize beings to death. In those whose constitution seems to be to criticize only, you can probably be sure that they are unhappy in other significant areas of their lives as well.

The point is not to become so armored we don’t feel pain, but rather to develop discernment. We can qualify how others judge us or our works. We can ask ourselves, for instance, “Does this person qualify in my pantheon of who has the right to criticize me? Who is helpful to me and who is not? Who cares about my work and my ideas and who does not care at all except for their own clique? Who is destructive to not just me but to others of my kind?”

You learn to qualify what to let in and what to leave out. This is part of maturing as a gifted person. Ultimately, let no one stop you. Your reply to any and all is to thoughtfully pick the nourishing poppy seeds out of the dirt pile, as at Baba Yaga’s house, and also to rumble: to continue to blast forward, creating in full force.

TS: There is so much more that I’d like to talk to you about and that we could talk about, and hopefully we’ll get another opportunity at some point. But to end our conversation, you mention this idea of “the power of blessings” and what it means to receive a blessing from someone who believes in you, someone who can see the potential for your giftedness, the possibilities and the ways it can express itself. I’m wondering two things: One, if you can just talk about how it is that you see that blessings work. Why is it that they are so powerful? And if we could, end on the note of receiving a blessing?

CPE: Oh yes, that’s really good; thank you, Tami. In holy words, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, every holy book, the blessing that is withheld is deleterious to the hero or the heroine. In the Hebrew scripture, for instance, there is a story about the three sons, and the father refuses to bless one of the sons. In fairy tales, which are a kind of scripture all of their own, there are often three daughters or three sons who vie for the blessing of the father, or as in Shakespeare’s King Lear, the three daughters, who are refused blessing unless they act a certain way to show the king he is loved by one daughter more than the others.

In all these stories, the patriarch or the matriarch, who is supposed to be doing all the blessing freely and generously, is self-centered in some way. They say, “No, no. You have to please me. You can’t develop yourself. You have to please me, adore me, make me feel something I want to feel. Whoever is the one who pleases me most will receive my blessing.”

That is an evil way to live. That is not even close to what humans are made of or for. That is an injured human who withholds blessings from other people. Let’s just put it this way: if you sprinkle water on people, which is part of the Buddhist blessing for instance and also part of the Catholic blessing . . . if you sprinkle holy water onto people in order to bless them, though it will fall on everyone equally… some will see it as “Ah, this feels refreshing. This feels divine. This feels so good. This energizes me.” Others will say, “Eh. I got wet, I don’t like it. Give me a Kleenex – I want to dry off.”

Different people receive blessings different ways, but I guarantee that gifted people are waiting for the blessings over and over again. That’s why I always think of this in people when I create poetry or stories or as I write, because I know that blessing is nourishment for the soul. The ego might do all sorts of things with the blessing, but a true blessing is heard by the soul. Here is a blessing for all who are within our reach:

I wish you well on your way. I do not occlude or obstruct you. I wish for you the best of yourself; that you be safe; that you be kept from harm; that you be able to unfurl your truest potential, your truest soul, in life this day, this moment; and that you be watched over and come back to me safely always.

That is the essence of blessing. “You are a good person, a worthy person who is loved and cared for and I will watch as you cross the bridge, until you are safely on the other side. And I will wait for you until you come back home again.

TS: Beautiful.

I’ve been speaking with Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés about her new masterwork, which will be launched for the very first time as an online event series, a six-part online series on The Dangerous Old Woman: Myths and Stories of the Wise Woman Archetype. And it will begin on Tuesday April 6th. Come join us at the fireside. CPE, thank you.

CPE: Well, thank you, Tami. Thank you so much.

TS: Soundstrue.com. Many Voices, One Journey.