Imaginarium: a place dedicated to cultivating the imagination. And the practice of mythic imagination which I teach is premised on the fact that we all carry within us our own unique inner imaginarium, which in turn forms part of our own unique mythopoetic identity. We are each haunted by different images; we each resonate with different myths or fairy tales, and with different archetypal characters within them. And each of us identifies with different archetypal characters and images at different times in our own lives. How do we uncover those patterns; how do we bring those images to life, and let them work their magic on us?
I’d like to share with you an example of one of those guiding images which once worked its deep magic on me, and which has then continued to do so in an evolving way, for the best part of two decades.
Some of you might know this image and if you do, you’ll also know that there’s something a little different about it. Yes, it’s the wrong colour. We’ll get to that. But first, for those who don’t know it, this is a photograph of a print I have of a painting called “Eagle Woman’, by Susan Seddon Boulet. I’ve had it since the year 2000. I drew a card bearing this image out of a pack, just before midnight on the eve of the new millennium – a pack which was held out to me by a psychic who also told me that I needed to ‘go back to the music again’. I was living at the time in Louisville, Kentucky, and I was a reluctant attendee at a lavish Millennium party thrown by my then-boss, a senior vice-president of the company I worked for. This was an intensely shapeshifting, transformative time in my life, and this night which spanned the wide blue river between one millennium and the next was, symbolically, profoundly important to me at the time. The last thing I wanted to do was spend it at a corporate event filled with people with whom I had absolutely nothing in common, whose values I had never embraced but which I was now beginning to actively, and vocally, reject.
But a friend who was going to the party told me bluntly that this was an invitation not to be declined. We were two of a tiny handful of people from the company who had been so honoured; my absence would be noted. So I made what would turn out to be my last soul-sacrifice to those smart-suited corporate gods: I put on my little black frock, and off I went. Trying to make polite conversation, all the while knowing that being in this place at this time was absolutely not what I should be doing. That this was not who I was. Never had been, and now it was all too intolerable for words. Until I found the psychic, all set up as part of the evening’s ‘entertainment’ at a table in the corner.
When I realised that the card I had drawn from the deck was called Eagle Woman, I had to laugh. Because in December 1999 I was four months into the process of obtaining my pilot’s license – and, as those of you who’ve read If Women Rose Rooted will remember, I’d decided to learn to fly to overcome a fear of flying. As you do, when you’re 38 years old and heading for what seems like your nineteenth nervous breakdown. I’d also happened, just that week, to have completed my first solo flight. That thing I was never going to be able to do, because I had never been that sort of brave. Never thought I’d ever be able to face down death in that way, never really (oh but I did) wanted it to be just me, a tiny little single-engined tin can of a plane, and the unforgiving sky. But I had done it, and here I was now, drawing out a card which bore the image of a winged woman crouching at the edge of a cliff, ready to fly. I put that card down, got up from the psychic’s table, and fled that party like Cinderella at precisely fifteen minutes to midnight – just enough minutes to drive myself home and get there in time for the bells. I felt as if I were running for my life. And as I hurried away from the house and down the dark path to my car, Sarah McLachlan’s song ‘In the Arms of the Angel’ began blaring out of the open windows.
In the arms of the angel ?
Fly away from here ?
From this dark, cold hotel room ?
And the endlessness that you fear …
I had, again, to laugh.
So, I found and framed a giant print of Eagle Woman, and she’s hung on the walls of too many houses since that Millennium Eve. I like to think that she’s reached her final resting place, here on the wall at the foot of my bath in this strangely perfect house I now occupy in the Connemara hills. I guess we’ll see. But here’s the thing about Eagle Woman: once upon a time she was all yellow and gold; now, as you can see, she inhabits a world of beautiful, delicate shades of pink and blue. Her great transformation happened, as did my own, during those four soul-breaking, soul-making years I spent in the farthest western extremities of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. One day, I looked up at her, and she wasn’t yellow any more, she was blue. Stranger things happened to me during those four years; it was the most mythical time of my life. And I quite understand the colour print process, and the ways in which inks can selectively fade. In the grand colour codings of CMYK, she’d simply lost all her Y. She didn’t represent the blazing, golden sun of a south-western desert noon any more: she represented the delicate, blue-tinted dawn. As my own sometimes out-of-control fire was resolving and settling into a steady blue flame through the swift, relentless reckonings of menopause, so it seemed that she’d followed me down that path, too. Because that’s what our guiding images do. Eagle Woman’s own process of becoming just happened to track my own.
When I first set my eyes on Eagle Woman, almost two decades ago in America, I thought to myself, oh! – she looks like some strange, unlikely Native American angel. Now, I see her quite differently. Now, she inhabits the misty blues and pinks of these west-Atlantic waterlands; now it’s a Celtic goddess I see, bird-winged as so many of them were, and bearing the cup of Otherworldly wisdom and inspiration which every one of them carried. Look, she says to me each morning, as I lie in a rosemary-scented bath and smile at her. Do you remember when you found your own wings? Do you remember when you learned, finally, to believe that you could fly? Do you see too that you’re always crouching at the edge of this cliff, that every day of your life you’re testing your belief in those wings? Do you understand that this is a core part of who you are? And do you see this Grail I’m carrying; do you see how we are always the Grail-bearers, we women? That you are a Grail-bearer too?
Eagle Woman still flies, she whispers to me, on good days and bad, in hard times and soft. Eagle Woman still flies.
Eagle Woman crouches at the cliff-edge which gives out into the heart of my unique inner imaginarium. Like all good guiding images, she represents one of the core truths which burns brightly at the heart of my own lifelong becoming. There are other images and other truths, for sure. But we’ve grown together, she and I, as our high noons have resolved into blue-tinted dusks and dawns. I wonder what colours she’ll have taken on in another two decades; I wonder what colours I’ll be offering to the world. But whatever colours we fade to, we’ll still be flying, she and I; we’ll still be carrying the holiest of all possible Grails.