The new year is all about new beginnings, transformations, resolutions and improvements. But I wonder in our haste for the new if we allow loss, death and endings, symbolised by the dying of the old year, to penetrate our hearts? I was struck by the phrase in Clarissa Pinkola Estes book ‘Women who run with the Wolves’ (p114) that to let die is not against our nature only against our training. Perhaps too often we don’t pause and enter the bargain of death, darkness, loss and sacrifice, instead we fear and avoid them. When we allow our dark side to be heard and visible, we gain a freedom that we no longer need to push aside those aspects of ourselves – we don’t need to fear and feel the despair of entering the dark woods of repeated failures and mistakes. I love the idea that we walk into the dark woods with a stride not a scurry.
As I child I used to love the story of Persephone. I was transfixed, as only a child can be, by the illustration shown in my ‘treasury of bedtime stories’. I remember lying there drifting to sleep in that dream like state of imagination and staring at the detail in the picture. Persephone was the beautiful daughter of Demeter the Goddess of the Harvest. They travelled the world together bringing with them bountiful harvests and ripening everything they touched, until one day Persephone ventured far from Demeter and explored alone on a mountainside. I loved the scene that followed…the earth was ripped open and out shot Hades on his black chariot. Enchanted by her beauty Hades snatched Persephone and took her back to the underworld to make her his wife. Despite what appears to be an abduction Hades loved Persephone and wanted to make her happy. But instead, Persephone languished in the underworld dreaming of returning to the safety of her mother and the light of the world above. I always felt sorry for Hades and irritated that Persephone wouldn’t even try to see if she could be happy in the underworld. Hades knew that if Persephone could be persuaded to eat she would have to stay in the underworld. Eventually, Hades tempted her to eat some pomegranate, but Persephone would only eat six seeds. By consuming the six seeds she must stay with Hades for six months of the year, symbolically our autumn and winter and for the remaining six months return to be with her mother giving us spring and summer. The story tells us that eventually Persephone grew to love Hades and no longer hated her time spent with him in the darkness of the underworld. And so, the alchemical cycle of life, death, life was established and there’s no cheating or escaping from that cycle, we live a life of constant loss and gain.
I wonder, if like Persephone we could grow to love our underworlds? I remember how Hades beautiful dark palace was both intriguing and alluring to me as a child. I have always had a melancholic love of the autumn and winter and imagined how bland life was for Persephone, always in the light of spring and summer. What if we don’t imagine the new year just in terms of gain and better and improved versions of ourselves; but instead, we enter a bargain to dwell in the underworld for six months? I love to walk during the winter as the dusk draws in, there is such a peaceful drear that settles across the earth. Not distracting myself away from the death and decay feels like a significant metaphor for entering that bargain.
Every transformation is as much about loss as it is about gain, but how often do we consider what we’re going to let die instead of focusing on what we gain? It’s like we assume we know what we’re losing doesn’t really matter. However, so often we’re stuck in our goal of transforming, that I wonder if maybe our ability to transform and shift is held back, because we’re not prepared to enter that bargain and let something die. Instead, we try to have more and more, yet inevitably our resourcefulness and time are finite so something must be lost, if something is to be gained.
I’ve come to know that my underworld is a place of discomfort for me, where I cock up, where I’m slow, I don’t make effort and I definitely don’t add value to a situation. But I’m not prepared to enter the discomfort of honestly admitting what those things provide for me, I’m not willing to embrace the bargain, only the gain of shedding them. What do I really lose when those things die? I suspect that what dies is the bit of me that doesn’t have to try and make the effort. Despite what I might wish when I imagine my best self, there is actually a part of me not willing to allow that underworld to die and fully disappear. I sense a danger, whatever place I’m in, either underworld or the light, in that moment that is the only place that exists, it’s like I can’t imagine the opposite. This stuckness and over identification denies the cyclical nature of existence, remember Persephone was six months in both realms. But at the start of the year when I ponder my resolutions, I inevitably don’t imagine myself inhabiting both places.
This year as I contemplate the new year I’m going to more fully enter a bargain. I’m going to ask myself; ‘what’s dying when I try a new habit or way of being?’, ‘am I prepared and ready to let that die or is it something that needs more honest attention?’ ‘Is my imagined transformation really all or nothing, or will it be more cyclical and require me to be more flexible like Persephone, open to inhabiting more than one world?’ Finally, can I be OK with (and not fight against) that messy and confusing ambiguity which inevitably feels more like my lived experience.