Tiny Stories, Tiny Tales

Persephone’s Fruit

 

Persephone. When I first came across this tale, it felt both scarily foreign and familiar. I couldn’t tell where the dividing lines were, what about this story made me feel like I had heard it one hundred times and what about it revolted my mind as being strange and weird. The idea of Hell springing onto the world and snatching away beauty, promise, youth- that felt wrong. It was foreign to the younger part of myself, the one in denial over the presence of Death. Death should not play a part in this beautiful story.

The sad truth is, for all of us, Death is here and comes in one thousand ways. Your body need not die for the experience to happen, tragedies kick it off. Whether we like it or not, whether we’re naïve to it not, we must die a thousand little deaths in this lifetime. And sometimes…many times…it feels like during the pain and misery, that we will never live again, we’ll never walk in the sunshine, laugh and smile.

The story of Persephone begins with a happy girl, hanging out with friends, picking flowers, making garlands. The ground rumbles and shakes and out gallops Hades through a crack, god of the Underworld. He snatches the girl for his bride and hurls her down with him, down into the black descent of death. Her mother, Demeter, discovering her daughter kidnapped for a god’s bride, goes on a searching frenzy. The Earth falls barren in Demeter’s sorrow, everything withering and dying from her curse.

After a lot of adventures and lots of people dying through famine, Zeus finally grants Persephone’s return from the Dead. She will spend half the year to her mother. For the other part of the year, she must live in Elysium (the vaguely happier part of the Underworld) with her husband.

Long ago, before the Ancient Greeks told this story, older civilizations also told a Persephone style story. This different Persephone went willingly down to the dead, seeking for her King below. Babylonian stories of Ishtar and Inanna also have a Queen willingly make her descent to the below.

Whichever way it is told, the descent into the Underworld is no easy matter. It’s paved with tragedy and sorrow, a sundering of what once was. Persephone ends up in Elysium or “the apple land” as Robert Graves translates it, an orchard island where good people came after death. She spends half the year there, living among fruit and trees. When she arises from the ground, her mother springs to meet her and Spring bursts forth from the reunion.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, writer of “Women Who Run with Wolves” and a fabulous Jungian analyst, walked me through a retelling of Persephone, fleshing out the inkling I had of Persephone’s desire and willingness to go to the Underworld. Desire and resistance are not incompatible emotions and the Greek Persephone’s resistance and her earlier predecessor’s willingness reflect how the two can twine together.

Persephone holds out the apple of promise- for our terrible times of pain and anguish. Death must come for rebirth. I still have no understanding of why this is but I hang onto the hope that it is true. The natural world cycles this story over and again. Life can be beautiful even in the Underworld and just as Persephone is united with her husband, so are we forcibly united with ourselves as we pass through dark times.

As we walk towards the darkest time of the year, Persephone descends with us. The light will come back, Spring will rupture forth but for now, the darkness and all that it carries comes near. It arrives whether we would have it or not and it’ll do its work whether we would have it or no. Necessary and potent, there is work going on at this grey time. A grasp of this season’s inevitably and a belief that all is not lost, that good work is being done, this is the legacy Persephone grants us.

 

crabapples

Comments (6):

  1. Cindi Eaton

    October 16, 2013 at 6:18 pm

    Wow. Thanks for sharing. Love to read your writing Catherine.

  2. leililaloo (Dana Komjaty)

    October 19, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    You write so beautiful Catherine, thank you..i am happy to learn about Persephone.. <3

  3. Catherine

    October 28, 2013 at 8:53 am

    Thank you, Dana dear!

  4. Catherine

    October 28, 2013 at 8:54 am

    Thank you, Cindi. It was a fun piece to write.

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I Have Wine and Moon and Flowers: Reading Su Tung-P’o During a Pandemic

As we watch spring growth overtake last year’s dead bracken and grasses, there is both consolation and brutality. This year’s greenery melds with disease: the emergence of flowers entangles with the blossoming of a pandemic.

While the novel coronavirus rages through communities, our lives have shrunk down to fit the small rooms and little neighborhoods that we must now be still in. What do we do in this diminished space? What do we see?

 

6th Moon, 27th Sun: Sipping Wine at Lake-View Tower

 

1

 

Black clouds, soaring ink, nearly blot out these mountains.

White raindrops, skipping pearls, skitter wildly into the boat,

 

Then wind comes across furling earth, scatters them away,

And below Lake-View Tower, lakewater suddenly turns to sky.

 

2

 

Setting animals loose—fish and turtles—I’m an exile out here,

but no one owns waterlilies everywhere blooming, blooming.

 

This lake pillow mountains, starts them glancing up and down,

And my breezy boat wander free, drifts with an aimless moon.

 

Su Tung-P’o (trans. David Hinton)

 

As the great poet Su Tung-P’o knew so well, we see our own natures in everything. The outside world becomes a reflection of our own states; though if we can still ourselves enough as we gaze out, a depth opens and time becomes immaterial.

A master of reflection and stillness, Su Tung-P’o 苏童 lived nearly one thousand years ago and is considered one of great poets of the Song Dynasty. He led a brilliant and varied career as poet, politician, writer, calligrapher, painter and aesthetic theorist. Due to his outspoken and opposing views on the government, he was jailed and sent into exile on three separate occasions.

After his experience in jail and subsequent exile, his poetry evolved and deepen and his surviving work reflect his delicate, painful relationship with loneliness and desolation.

 

Moon, Flowers, Man

 

I raise my cup and invite

The moon to come down from the

Sky.  I hope she will accept

Me. I raise my cup and ask

The branches, heavy with flowers,

To drink with me.  I wish them

Long life and promise never

To pick them.  In company

With the moon and the flowers,

I get drunk, and none of us

Ever worries about good

Or bad.  How many people

Can comprehend our joy? I

Have wine and moon and flowers.

Who else do I want for drinking companions?

(trans. Kenneth Rexroth)

 

To help alleviate the sufferings of a difficult life, he became the devotee of Zen Buddhism and his poetics reflects the practice of the “beginner’s mind,” the ability to meet each experience with equilibrium and a “spontaneous and crystalline responsiveness.”

 

At Seven-Mile Rapids

 

A light boat one loan leaf,

a startled swan two oars—

 

water and sky are pure clarity

reflecting deep. Waves smooth,

 

fish roil this duckweed mirror

and egrets dot misty shorelines.

 

We breeze past sandy streams,

frostfall streams cold,

moonlit streams aglow.

 

ridge above ridge like a painting,

bend beyond bend like a screen.

 

Here I think back to

Yen Tzu-ling’s empty old age,

 

lord and recluse one dream.

Renown’s empty then as now,

 

just mountains stretching away:

cloud mountains erratic,

dawn mountains green.

 

Out of his poetry emerges a beautiful balance, the ability to look at both joy and sorrow with gentle tranquility and wry amusement.

 

At Brahma-Heaven Monastery, Rhymed with a Short Poem of Crystalline Beauty by the Monk Acumen-Hoard

 

You can only hear a bell out beyond the mist:

the monastery deep in mist is lost to sight.

 

Straw sandals wet with the dew of grasses,

a recluse wanders. Never coming to rest,

 

he’s simply an echo of mountaintop moon—

light coming and going night after night.

 

(trans. David Hinton)

 

Su Tung-P’o’s poetry illuminates the beauty and loneliness running throughout ourselves and Nature. His work becomes a sort of map for this strange new world we find ourselves in: isolated yet surrounded, weary but still observing, cut off but yet deeply involved.

 

After T’ao Ch’ien’s “Drinking Wine”

 

3

 

This little boat of mine, truly a lone leaf,

and beneath it, the sound of dark swells:

 

I keep paddling in the depths of night, drunk,

pleasures of home, bed, and desk forgotten.

 

At dawn, when I ask about the road ahead,

I’ve already past a thousand ridges rising

 

beyond ridges. O where am I going here,

this Way forever leaving ever returning?

 

Never arriving, what can we understand,

and always leaving, what’s left to explain?

 

(trans. David Hinton)

 

Tides of Snow and Ice

This winter has been a continuous series of freezes and thaws: it’s the warmest winter on record, the tenth one in a row. A more usual winter starts with a deep freeze and then stays cold for months. Instead, snow falls, piles up and vanishes; rises up again and retreats, now falling as rain, swelling rivers and creeks. Rain and snow mingle together until everything runs with water; hillsides and flat-sides are coated in a deep, dark mud.

I stopped on my walk today, halted by a sudden flash of gold. The sunset rays were falling into a tiny puddle spanning the space between the root and trunk of a maple. The puddle reflected gold and silver on top and below was dark mud, black and brown, full of microorganisms and other tiny creatures unseen by the human eye. I briefly considered putting my hand to the shining surface. It beckoned, winking like a diamond, but pull of my walk was irresistible and I continued forward. 

Mud is for March and April, mud so thick and heavy that it can pull shoes off and make them disappear like a magic trick beneath the solemn and still brown. Mud in February is a strange slight, an awakening that shouldn’t be occurring yet. It’s all the more cruel because even though the temperatures rise, they inevitably dip into the single digits and everything freezes solid. Many times I’ve spotted squirrels and tiny birds on the creek’s ice, searching for openings to drink from.

During this particular thaw, the creek casts off ice, it’s center opening like a dark cut. The water sings as it cascades over the rocks, proclaiming it’s momentarily relief from the grip of winter. In Scandinavian folklore, there is a belief that given the proper offerings, a creek could teach a human how to play the most bewitching music. I crouch down near the creek, record a video of it singing on my phone and replay its music in the evening while lying on the couch. I should give something in return for the pleasure of its song and I consider. Perhaps some lavender buds I have stored away for a certain recipe, or a small pinecone I keep on a shelf to admire, or birch bark I retrieved from a favorite tree cut down years ago. 

The next day I return, and after waiting for a few dogs and their owners to pass by, I crouch next the side of the creek and sprinkle lavender buds into the small, clear stream. The buds vanish as soon as I drop them into the water– as if they never existed. I drop some more in and the same occurs; they’re gone before I can blink. The current flows by, washing over stones, fleeting by banks of mud, until it vanishes around the bend where the pine trees tower overhead.

As I gaze at the water, first downstream and then upstream, my own self quiets, stills, and momentarily dissolves into the landscape. The relief, though short, is palpable. Alone becomes together and perhaps that is what’s this practice of thanking the creek has been about all along.