A month ago, I embarked on my first trip to America in eleven years, for a series of teaching and lecturing engagements. Those of you who are readers of my books will know that I lived in the USA for over five years, leaving at the end of 2001. And it was a strange thing, to think of being back after so long in a country which I once thought of as home – but which, over the years since I’d left, had become utterly incomprehensible to me.
But the reason I decided to accept some of the invitations I’ve increasingly found myself receiving is that a surprisingly large percentage of the people who take my courses and sign up for my retreats are from the USA and Canada: to my surprise, I find that it’s close to 80%. There’s such a strong yearning there, it seems, for a sense of continuity; for an authentic exploration of ancestral roots and the wisdom of the old ways. And that’s something I’m very passionate about: connecting people back to their old lineages, and showing them how to bring that tradition home and incorporate it into the wisdom which emerges from the very different places where their feet are actually planted. And so there’s still a link, it seems, between me and that big old island out west which isn’t going to be broken any time soon.
Before travelling, I found myself filled with a curious mixture of excitement and trepidation at the idea of being back in America again. Excitement, because my time there gave me so much that was rich, and because so many of the people I met there have remained in my heart. This is a country which once nourished me in innumerable ways; I wanted above all to sit in some wild places and tell them a few good stories about what’s happened to me since I left. I was hoping that the land would think I’ve made good use of those gifts it gave me, so many years ago. Because, as those of you who’ve read my novel The Long Delirious Burning Blue will know, it was in America that I finally learned – in every way that matters – to fly.
And trepidation? Well, for reasons that are undoubtedly very obvious, given the current political climate. I left America horrified at the fact that George W Bush had been elected president; I was going back to a country that had voted in Donald Trump. Like many others with attachments to the USA, I was both horrified and angry – at the same time as feeling dismayed on behalf of all the good people I know over there, who were utterly distraught at the way their country seemed to be heading.
But over the past several months I’ve been filled with immense admiration at the way the women of America, in particular, have begun to really fight back. And please understand – that’s not to say that men haven’t been resisting too. But we women still find ourselves living in intensely perilous times – times that are uniquely perilous for those of us who inhabit a woman’s body. And when we see the ugly misogyny which is still so blatant in the popular discourse, so entrenched in the mindsets of the old white men in black suits who hold almost all the power, then we know all too well that the world of The Handmaid’s Tale is only a few steps away. And that’s not just true for America. I live in a country which is still controlled by white men in black suits – or black frocks with lily-white collars. But women are slowly regaining their voices here, too. This year’s vote on abortion rights is evidence of that.
Over the past few days, just as distraught as you all are by the ongoing series of spectacles in the Senate, by the words of Donald Trump, by the fact that anyone like Brett Kavanaugh could ever be considered to be suitable as a supreme court judge – I’ve been heartened by report after of report about all the women who refuse to give up. Who resist, each of them in their own ways. By marching, by sitting in, by organising politically and drumming up votes for people who espouse alternative politics. By writing and shaming and telling their truths and refusing to go quietly. By, more than ever before, showing just how resolute American women can be.
I firmly believe that, in order for real and lasting change to happen, things have to get really bad first. Because then, we know what’s actually at stake – and it’s everything we care about, everything we want to be. Then we see the people who hold the power for who they really are; we see not only the structures but the individuals who hold us back. And when that happens, the veil gets so badly torn that no-one can stitch it back together again. Thank god. The brave women of America for sure understand that now. And they’re simply not having it any more. Hold on, sisters – we’re with you.
A couple of years ago, I had one of those Big Dreams that Carl Jung liked to talk about. The ones that you know matter, even if you can’t always figure out why at the time. I had it while I was leading a women’s retreat on the Beara Peninsula, in the south-west of Ireland. Beara is the country of the Cailleach Bhéarra, the local representation of the ancient figure known as the Cailleach: the maker and shaper of the land in the Gaelic (Irish, Scottish and Manx) mythic tradition. In my dream, I was part of a raggle-taggle band of people who represented the resistance against some vicious patriarchy or other. There were men and women in my group of freedom fighters, but it was an all-male military which captured us and locked us all up in a seemingly impenetrable prison.
As he turned the key and locked us in, I said to the prison guard, ‘You’d better watch out. She’s coming.’ He laughed. I nodded. ‘She’s coming,’ I said. ‘And when she does, she’ll walk right through these walls, and they’ll crumble round your feet.’ He laughed again, but then a distant sound, like the sound of thunder, began to grow closer, and louder. We all looked up to an open sky that had once been a roof (in that wonderful way which happens in dreams), and a giant woman in a black, hooded cloak loomed suddenly over the prison. The military clustered around the gates, reinforcing the locks – but that old woman just walked right through them. And all the prison walls fell down.
She’s coming. Can you feel the archetypes rising, calling out to us? Can you feel the return of the Old Woman of the World, the one who won’t be denied any more? And the brave women of America are going to walk alongside her, and pull the damn walls down.