Monthly Archives: June 2014

Magnificent Maleficent



When I was a little girl living in an often confusing and painful world, I took refuge in Disney. For the 30 or so minutes that I was watching Cinderella loving life, loving the birds and the little mice- even amidst the cruelty she endured- I found a way to love the insects that graced my lemon tree and the rivers made by rain moving through gutters. Disney’s land of enchantment introduced me to the magic of imagination. As Cinderella sings, “No matter how you may be grieving, if you keep on believing, the dreams that you wish will come true.” And I believed.

But my most favorite story of all was Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. The graceful Aurora, beautiful both inside and out, accepted and found joy in her fate. Growing up in the woods with three silly fairies, she was the daughter of an undefined king and queen. Everything would have been glorious in the kingdom, and for its golden princess, if it weren’t for Maleficent’s curse. Maleficent was black and green, thorny and steely. She was pure evil. Sitting on her mountaintop throne with a pet raven on her shoulder, her only wish was Aurora’s demise. This story helped shape my life view. It taught me that there was good and there was bad- and I had to choose which camp I belonged in. Being good meant accepting everything with kindness, being bad meant feeling anger or envy or jealousy or any other strong views. Aurora had no strong views or convictions. She was the protected, not the protector. Her only responsibility was to be beautiful, inside and out. I tried to be the good protagonist, but often felt like the evil Maleficent.

Enter, 55 years later, the movie Maleficent. Here the Sleeping Beauty story is told with an entirely different kind of goodness in mind. Different as Eve was to Adam’s first wife, the independent Lilith, Maleficent was a powerful, beautiful winged protector of the wild moor lands and the fairies and creatures who lived there. Her parents died protecting the land from the humans who coveted the riches the land held. She grew up happily amidst the fairies and woodland creatures until, one day, she met a human boy and fell in love. All the trust and innocence of first love washed over her. One day the boy left to find his fortune and did not return for some time. When he returned he used her innocent trust in him to trick her, stripping her of her wings while she was asleep in his arms. The king was rabidly intent upon Maleficent’s demise so that he could mine the riches of her land. When the boy handed Maleficent’s wings to the king he was awarded the hand of the princess in marriage.

The new king and queen had a baby girl, whom named her Aurora. Like in the original sleeping beauty, Maleficent came to the christening and cursed the child saying that on her 16th birthday she would prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into a deep sleep. Only true love’s kiss could wake her from this sleep. The twist here is that, in this telling, true love, forever love between a man and a woman that is felt in an instant, is a myth. “True love” was not something that could actually save a girl.

Maleficent looked on as Aurora grew up to become a beautiful, kind young woman. Aurora had none of the rancor of her grandfather and none of her father’s greed and cunning. Seeing Aurora’s sincere kindness Maleficent warmed to the girl. She tried to take the curse back, but was unable to undo the powerful magic. On Aurora’s 16th birthday Maleficent came to the castle to try and save Aurora from her fate. A fight ensued between the King, now exposed as a dark, greedy, possessed man, and Maleficent, no longer consumed with anger and willing to give her own life to save Aurora. Aurora climbs the stairs into her father’s chamber, breaks open the case holding the wings her father had torn off Maleficent years ago, and returns Malificent’s wings to her. With her power regained, Maleficent won the fight. The kingdom and the moor lands are reunited by Aurora’s good heart and bravery and by Maleficent’s love and courage.

Like Frozen, this new sleeping beauty tale is about a kind of love that is different than the traditional fairy tale, romantic love at first sight between a man and woman. In Maleficent Angelina Jolie, portrays the formerly evil character as a powerful, protective spirit who let her anger get the better of her. She expressed her anger and, in time, regretted her actions. Like Maleficent, Lilith was a dark winged creature. When she was Adam’s first wife, the first woman, she was cast out of the garden for insisting on equality with Adam. The more conciliatory Eve was then fashioned out of Adams ribs, forever making her Adam’s inferior. But even Eve was a troublemaker by suggesting that Adam take a bite of the apple. This story created the illusion that women could not be trusted. These are the stories that shape our girls images of themselves and set up expectations for their future lives.

The Hebrews swept into goddess cultures, conquering them with physical strength and changing the stories to fit their desire for power over women, land and resources. In earlier cultures, gods and goddesses were much more nuanced than the good and evil ones we’ve come to know. They made mistakes and payed for their mistakes, just as Maleficent pays for hers, just as we pay for ours. These are deities we can live up to. The stories created by the conquerors leave many girls and women holding on to feelings of shame and self- hatred. When a human girl looks at Lilith, banished for being a strong woman who demands equality with Adam, or when she looks at the always sweet kindness of the 1950’s Aurora, she feels true goodness is not within her grasp. She does not realize that this sort of “true goodness” is not possible for anyone, that all human’s are subject to greed, anger and delusion, and she feels alone with her shame.

The world we are willing to our children is a dangerous one that will require all the skill, heart and creativity of, not just our boys, but our girls as well. Half the world, just the male half, will not be able to pull us out of this mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. It gives me joy to see Maleficent, a strong, fallible woman, entering into the world of our girl’s imagination. She sets a much more nuanced template for a way of being in the world. This sort of strong, fallible, passionate psyche will be needed in centuries to come. She is a heroine we can live up to.




Stuck at home


A neighborhood friend just adopted a 2 month old puppy. Let me back up a bit here and say, my friend is in her early 70s. Her kids have grown up and moved out of the house and her husband died a couple of years ago. She has been alone in a house empty of other life forms (except the occasional ant, spider and mouse) for these last couple of years. Understandably, she felt hesitant about bringing a new life into her home, knowing that to do so would curtail her movement out into the world. A puppy needs lots of companionship and care. Leaving on a trip, even just an overnighter, requires finding a place for the pup-easier to arrange than leaving a child, but still, one more consideration.

During the first week of the puppy’s arrival, my friend left her home often, leaving the little guy alone for up to 7 hours one day. Her rush to the door reminded me of how, when I was a young mom with an infant, I felt trapped by what was supposed to be this adorable little bundle of joy-and guilty about my urge to escape. Although I truly loved my baby, just as my friend loves her puppy, I wanted to run away. In times like this, a woman alone in a home with crushing caretaking responsibilities has a choice. She can get the hell out of the burning building or stay and burn along with everything else. There is convenient parenting advice by “experts” she can use to support either decision.

In Bali a child’s feet do not even touch the ground until his or her second birthday. There are always people around to hold her. In contrast, 19th century Germans were advised to ignore a baby’s cries, believing that responding to their cries would create willfulness. The German parents felt that they were developing more independent and resilient adults by leaving the babies alone to cry it out. These two very different approaches to parenting create two very different cultures. Both cultures believe their way is the best. How do we choose a parenting style and, once we’ve chosen, how do we know we are not just justifying our own prejudices and desires? I’ve puzzled over this for years and discovered a few things along the way.

In indigenous cultures, such as Bali, there are always parents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, brothers and/or sisters, around to hold the baby. Little ones sleep curled up snug beside a warm body with a beating heart. William and Martha Sears called this approach Attachment Parenting, and have written many books about its value and how it is accomplished. The 4 key components of Attachment Parenting of infants is:

Co-sleeping- either in the same room as parents or (with appropriate safety precautions) in the same bed. This may involve having bedtime occur on the child’s, not the parent’s, schedule.
Feeding on demand- allowing the child to set the timing of feeding (whether breast- or bottle-fed), along with self-weaning.
Holding and touching- keeping the child physically near, whether through cuddling and cradling, or by wearing on a front- or backpack arrangement.
4. Responsiveness to crying- not letting the child “cry it out,” but instead intervening early in the crying bout, reacting to the child’s distress before it gets out of control.

As a young mom I struggled to find the best way to deal with my baby’s crying. The piercing sound of a baby’s cry demands attention. The urge to respond to the cries of an infant has evolved over ages, for survival reasons. When the little one is in distress and unable to defend himself, he needs an adult’s protection. The piercing cry alerts the adult to the infants need. Whereas it is instinctual to respond to the cries of our young, ignoring those cries is more of a societal creation. One is the way of the gut, the other is the way of the mind. There is more ease when following our gut instinct. Anyone who has tried to go about their business while a baby is crying can attest to this.

Puppies, and babies have no sense of “now” or “later”. To a baby, being left alone is akin to exile- one of the worst punishments that can be doled out by any tribe. Their cries say, “I am all alone. I don’t feel safe, help me!” Studies on responsive parenting show a wide range of psychological and physical benefits derived from comforting the infant with our presence. For example, studies show that infants raised this way have lower stress levels, cry less often, feel more connected to other people as they get older, and show higher levels of empathy.

It takes a village to raise a child, but what if you don’t have a village? Or, what if your village is crazy? Ideally, we have people around to help us when we feel drained. But many of us are raising children in less than optimal circumstances. Given that we can’t always find our community when we need them, how do we deal with feelings of being trapped and lonely while tending to the seemingly endless needs of a young, vulnerable life?

I was one of the people who had a hard time finding support when I was home with my baby. Staying in the burning building when I most wanted to bolt became, by necessity, my spiritual practice when I was a young mom. Bit by bit, who I thought I was, and what I thought I wanted out of life, burned in the fire of my responsibilities. What remained was an emptier, vaster self. Being able to bear the burning was largely the result of my Buddhist practices. These practices offered a perspective that eventually made the staying interesting, even enjoyable. In the end, I feel like a deeper, happier person for the burning.

In contemplative traditions, such as Buddhism, there is a period of “entering the cave”. The monk enters the cave with his or her practice of mindfulness, watching each moment-boredom, fear, anger, hunger, discomfort, elation- with curiosity and interest. A young mother’s cave is her home. There, she practices meeting the moment as it is, without judgment. In Vipassana this is called choiceless awareness. In Zen it’s spoken of as not picking or choosing. We are where we are and have what we have-now what? Just that simple turn of the lens creates a completely different experience. The discomfort of staying when I wanted to bolt became just one more sensation to experience, neither good nor bad. Eventually the fear dissolved and the space that binding fear had occupied opened up. A world of infinite possibilities within my small life was revealed.

Another perspective the monk brings into the cave is the understanding that everything is always changing. No need to get wound up about feeling trapped, it’s only a temporary situation, as is our child’s infancy and their dependence on us. In what seems like no time at all, children are weaned, go off to school and live their own independent lives. If, rather than running away from feelings of being trapped or bored, the parent becomes curious, asking, “How do I experience this discomfort in my body?” “What does it look like up close, then closer?” “What else is in this moment, apart from my interpretation of the moment?” there is an opportunity for real enjoyment.

Infancy, childhood and adulthood go by in a flash. May as well sink into the now of the experience and drink in whatever is found there. It doesn’t matter if you’re a monk in a cave, an artist in a studio, an executive in an office, or a mother or father in a home-it’s all just one moment after another. This is your life. Enjoy the burning!