The spider spirit animal awakens creative sensibilities and reminds us that the past is always interwoven with the future.
©Lisa Levart 2016
photo by:Lisa Levart
The spider spirit animal awakens creative sensibilities and reminds us that the past is always interwoven with the future.
©Lisa Levart 2016
I haven’t seen the film “Still Alice” because my mother has Alzheimer’s disease.
While she slips away into the advanced stages of this ferocious illness, I can’t watch anything that illustrates the journey my family is on. Nonetheless, I applaud one outcome from the film; it is illuminating this “neglected epidemic”.
Maria Shriver in her recent piece “Help Me Wipe Out Alzhemer’s Now” shared these terrifying statistics:
“Every 67 seconds, another one of us develops Alzheimer’s. Women in their 60’s are about twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as breast cancer. With 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day, there will be 13.5 million of us with Alzheimer’s by 2050.”
And there is more: Alzheimer’s is “the most expensive disease in the nation and the only leading cause of death in the U.S. with no way to prevent, stop or even slow its progression” according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Now, add the enormous repercussions it has on the loved one’s families. If you really wrap your mind around this, it can take your breath away. That I can attest to.
First let me share a few of my tangible moments of beauty and grace while navigating this barbed path. I felt great joy watching my mother dance along the Hudson River as I photographed her as a Goddess; shared laughs when she emerged from her bedroom in an especially creative combination of clothes; experienced true love when her face lit up as I entered a room; let tears run down my cheeks as her kisses caressed the back of my hand; and believed my heart grew when I murmured “I love you” in her ear, moments before she fell asleep in her nursing home bed.
Alzheimer’s is having a crushing impact on my family as well. We see savings dwindle from paying for her constant care; careers put on hold to manage her daily medications, physical demands, and energetic wanderings (that often led to a visit with the local police); grandchildren no longer remembering her as the determined, fiercely positive woman she once was; and perhaps worst of all, her beloved husband of sixty-seven years, now guilt ridden and lonely because he can no longer care for her at their home for over half a century.
Five years ago, I photographed my mother (and father) for Goddess on Earth as Meng Po, the Chinese Goddess of Forgetfulness. This sacred myth tells us that as a soul prepares to be reborn, the Goddess Meng Po serves her tea of forgetfulness. Instantly cleared of the knowledge of past lives, Meng Po allows the soul to be made anew and the cycle of life continues.
My mother’s memory wasn’t purged in an instant but in a slow, relentless march toward oblivion. To accompany her Meng Po portrait she had written;
“My memory is not what it used to be. I do forget and I do not remember everything. But my life is rich with daily, weekly, yearly experiences with my husband, my children, my grandchildren and my friends.”
Today, she would not even be able to write her own name. But she is still Greta.
As an artist with ancient mythology embedded in my DNA, I have examined this issue before. I have photographed prominent feminist leaders such as Gloria Feldt, (who portrayed the strong-willed Lilith, Adam’s first wife), and Starhawk (who portrayedMaeve, the Celtic Goddess of Sovereignty). Both women advocate re-envisioning women’s connection to power.
Other ancient myths reflect our contemporary relationships to power as well. Durga is a fearless Hindu Goddess who symbolizes power in all its forms. Durga — whose name means “invincible” — is a ferocious protectress against injustice and all human suffering. Traditionally she is depicted astride a tiger or lion: symbols of her unlimited power. Often illustrated with eight arms, her capacity for action speaks for itself. Durga also has three eyes: her left eye represents the desire to act, her central eye the capacity to follow through with one’s desires, and her right eye, action itself.
“It has been my privilege to be a key protagonist in the renaissance of the Marwari. The confidence to actualize ideals, to remain unimpeachable, to incorporate if you will, at the best of times, the qualities of Sherawali, is a battle and sacrifice all must experience.”
Francesca’s embodiment of Sherawali in the photographs we created portray the symbolic trinity of Durga’s spiritual stages of power.
Far from being archaic, ancient symbolism continues to influence the necessary re-envisioning of feminine power. Durga demonstrates how modern women can use power in its multiple, generous forms as the manifestation of reflection, intent, and capability. Sherawali and Francesca are role models for contemporary women warriors (my conflicted self included) who are looking to add layers of empowerment to their lives. With mythical and ancient symbolism to guide me, I will continue to nurture my passions, practice and embrace tools for empowerment, and take action to achieve my desires.
(Francesca Kelly is seen with Sushil Kumar, a horse trainer and tent-pegger from Dundlod, India.)
What would the Goddess Isis call on us to do as ISIS — the militant terrorist group — threatens to bulldoze our global cultural heritage?
For Goddess on Earth, Crystal Johnson, an environmental strategist and founder of ISES (Integrative Sustainability & Environmental Solutions) portrayed the Goddess Isis. To accompany her portrait, Crystal wrote:
Life is a beautiful journey for our soul’s experience and expansion. By aligning with Isis energy, I find that regardless of what is happening around me, I feel a great sense of peace, clarity, guidance, protection and love. That is comforting especially while the collective consciousness of humanity is at the current level and the resultant changes are occurring on Earth.
Crimes to our sacred history are tragically being committed by a different ISIS; an acronym for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Less than two months ago the ISIS militants invaded Nineveh, one of the oldest cities in antiquity. Nineveh contains over 1800 important archeological sites and is forever woven into history as a major center for the worship of the Assyrian Goddess Ishtar. The ISIS occupation of Nineveh poses a disastrous threat to these sacred sites “…the virtual certainty, in fact — is that irreplaceable history will be annihilated or sold into the netherworld of corrupt and cynical collectors,” wrote Christopher Dickey on July 7 in his Daily Beast article, “ISIS is About to Destroy Biblical History in Iraq.” Disturbing news of this rampage surfaced on July 25, when militants leveled the tomb of Jonah, a site of holy pilgrimage.
“Increase public awareness of the situation!” was the plea to come out of the July 8 panel discussion “The Implications of the Current Fighting for Iraq’s Cultural Heritage.” A vocal, critical mass of public opinion is our only hope for saving our global heritage.
In this decisive time before the imminent destruction of our common sacred sites, let us all call upon the protective guidance of Isis: the oldest of the old, mother of all mothers and The All-Seeing Eye. Let us reclaim the true name and meaning of Isis. With lightning speed, let us spread our collective wings, awaken the world to the crimes being committed and raise the roof before it’s too late.
Darkness comes early as Solstice draws near. Lights are lit in windows, on trees, inside houses and along streets. We seek their comfort and warmth during these short days and long nights. The last month of the calendar is here and we eagerly anticipate the rebirth of a new annual cycle. We make merry during this time and yet, there is also an opportunity to acknowledge and honor the darkness: the darkness outside and the darkness within.
Love, bliss and joy. Fear, anger and rage. All of these are part of being human. Positive and negative make a whole. Without our darkness, we are incomplete.
“I must also have a dark side if I am to be whole,” Carl Jung wrote.
Susun Weed, shamanic herbalist, author and teacher, doesn’t run from her dark side — she embraces it, using it to help others make changes in their lives, to become more authentic and more powerful as women. For 35 years, Susun has been a ferocious advocate for women’s health. Her five books, the Wise Woman Herbal Series — including titles on childbearing, menopause, breast health and sexual/reproductive health — are treasured by millions of women worldwide. Susun shares her encyclopedic knowledge of herbs and health through her website and workshops at her Wise Woman Center in Woodstock, New York and throughout the world.
Little did I know that when I contacted Susun to participate in Goddess on Earth, I was to also learn a powerful lesson.
The Goddess does not only embody light, joy and nurturing love. In her other aspects — as Durga, Ereshkigal and Guabancex to name just a few — she is a Goddess of unbridled rage who follows no rules. She is a warrior who takes no prisoners and who demands that we confront the darkness within, the parts of ourselves that are not kind, pretty or nice.
For Goddess on Earth, Susun chose to portray Baba Yaga, a terrifying female shaman from Slavic mythology. Ancient, wise and fierce, Baba Yaga lives in a hut that stands on chicken legs and which twirls like an ecstatic dancer. Baba Yaga flies with the wind and frightens many, but she helps those who approach her with courage and truth. In the book Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes, “Baba Yaga is fearsome, for she is the power of annihilation and the power of the life force at the same time.”
Susun and I met in upstate New York on what turned out to be a bitterly cold, wintery day. During the photo session, her uncompromising stance and piercing gaze brought shivers down my spine. Like Baba Yaga, Susun is a formidable life force.
“I have nothing to lose: age has taken it all from me and revealed my true treasures… I am surely the most fearsome thing ever seen, ever imagined. A powerful old woman at home with herself,”
Susun wrote to accompany her Baba Yaga portrait in Goddess on Earth.
In this season of dwindling light, let us turn inwards and connect with the most enduring parts of ourselves: the parts with the courage and tenacity to weather cold winters and all of life’s challenges. Age-old, unapologetic and fierce, Susun and Baba Yaga are inspiring figures who remind us that there is no time for petty distractions like Being Pretty or Being Good or Being Nice. It’s time to get on with the real work of becoming real, becoming women of power, becoming complete. We are not just light but dark, not just pretty but awesome, not just smiling but weeping, shouting, raging, fearsome. Baba Yaga reminds us to reclaim those dark places where our real treasures lie. In this way, we become whole.
In this season of short days and long nights, we turn inwards — seeking sustenance in the holiday rituals of our families and communities. For many of us, it’s a time that brings us into deeper engagement with the traditions of food and cooking that have been passed down through our families and friends. It’s also an opportunity to reaffirm our connections to our communities, and the ways we nourish and give to others.
This month I photographed the natural foods chef, educator, and food activist Bhavani Jaroff. She is the founder of iEat Green, a motivational, educational organization that “acknowledges the pleasures of the table, and promotes eating as a social experience for families, friends and co-workers.” iEat Green is founded on a passion for delicious foods, healthy lifestyles and reducing one’s global footprint.
For Bhavani, the link between cooking and social consciousness is deeply important. Since 1993, she has organized and served a home-cooked Thanksgiving meal to the homeless in Rufus King Park in Queens, NY. Last year, over 600 less fortunate people savored a feast prepared by 125 volunteers. This annual ritual is one that brings people together, volunteering their time and skills, in service to their community. Bhavani recognizes the sacred potential of food and cooking to bring people together, and to challenge social injustice, economic unfairness and food inequality.
For Goddess on Earth, Bhavani chose to portray Annapurna, the Hindu Goddess of harvest and the kitchen. In India, she is the divine mother who feeds and nourishes the hungry, imparting the delicious and healthy food she cooks with holiness. Often depicted with a spoon and jeweled vessel, images of Annapurna are placed in kitchens and restaurants throughout India. She symbolizes unending abundance and food as the sustainer of all life.
On choosing to portray Annapurna for Goddess on Earth Bhavani wrote,
“When I am in the kitchen, or when I am teaching about cooking, the most important thing I talk about is imparting the food you are cooking with the secret ingredient of love! So much of the food we eat today is void of love and nourishment, that is why, as the Goddess Annapurna, I encourage growing our own food, harvesting our own food and cooking our own food with love, and then feeding everyone.”
Like Annapurna, Bhavani is an inspiration to find the sacred in the mundane acts of cooking that we undertake every day — often without recognizing them as rituals. And yet the story of this Goddess highlights the life-giving importance of food — just as Bhavani’s work illuminates the potential of cooking to build stronger communities and address social inequality. May the sacred myth of Annapurna and the passionate activism of Bhavani, inspire us all to prepare the food we serve ourselves, our families and our communities with a healthy dose of love.
For everything there is a season. In some parts of the world, Fall means bringing in the crops and returning to the abundance of the harvest. In urban cities across America, though, it’s time to attend conferences, workshops and symposiums! Last month, I even participated in two different NYC events in one day, the WIE Symposium (Women: Inspiration & Enterprise) and the Women’s Leadership Summit. Both conferences brought together dynamic women speakers that inspired the attendees to embrace their power and be forward-thinking leaders. While these goals were surely met, I heard another message as well: gender equality is stagnating.
Why is gender parity so hard to achieve? The writer Tabby Biddle addressed this question in the United Nations Dispatch with her column “UN Leaders: Are You Thinking Enough About Gender Equality?” Tabby wrote: “As a global culture, so many of us have internalized the maleness of God, or Allah, or Buddha, that we have undervalued or dismissed our feminine nature… If we don’t nurture the fullness of life within us — the feminine and the masculine — this will stunt our growth not only as individual human beings, but also collectively as a global civilization“.
The belief that God is male has underscored human civilization for thousands of years, and we see evidence of that in the countless images of God the Father and in language that describes God as “He” and humankind as “Man.” I believe that as long as our society focuses primarily on male images of the divine, humanity’s imbalance will continue unresolved. This is why I am driven to create photographs of contemporary women portraying the Divine Feminine: to restore to public consciousness images of women in their power, diversity and undeniable embodiment of what is sacred.
While traveling in Morocco this past summer, I met Vanessa Bonnin, a journalist and photographer living in the ancient city of Fez. Although born in Australia, Vanessa has worked in Morocco for many years. For Goddess on Earth, she chose to embody the pre-Islamic earth Goddess Al-Lat. Known as “the Mother of the Gods,” Al-Lat represents the earth and its bountiful fruits. One of the three chief Goddesses of Mecca, her shrine and temple in the city of Taif was destroyed on the orders of Mohammad in 630 AD.
On choosing to portray Al-Lat, Vanessa wrote:
Living in Fes, the religious heart of Morocco, I see the daily evidence of female subjugation by men and Al-Lat is essentially the first female who was subjugated by Islam. I connect with her spirit on a number of levels, the primary one as an Earth Mother who represents fertility. I feel that being in tune with the earth — which gives birth to all that sustains us — is vital to life, well-being and our collective future.
If we can all look at the Divine through both a feminine and masculine lens, contemporary women will be one step closer to reclaiming an internal sense of personal power, for indeed to everything there is a season: a time to plant, and a time to uproot what has been planted. In restoring the female vision to our modern conception of the sacred, I hope we can uproot from our collective consciousness the idea that access to the Divine only comes through masculine channels — and in doing so, we may plant the seeds of political, social, and spiritual equality for future generations.
Anarchy. Pandemonium. Disarray. These are just a few of the synonyms for the word, “chaos.” But buried even deeper in chaos’s etymology is a sacred myth — that of the Goddess Khaos. Khaos (or Chaos) was one the Greek primeval goddesses and gods to emerge at the creation of the world — her name literally meaning, “the gap, the space between heaven and earth.” The universe was born, this story tells us, out of a chaotic mix of primeval elements. Perhaps it is this fundamental commotion that Friedrich Nietzsche referred to when he wrote, “One must still have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star.” He could equally have been channeling the forces that have inspired the life and work of activist/journalist Kathy Eldon.
I was made aware of Kathy’s work by watching a video of her addressing the Forbes Women’s Summit of 2013. She spoke of the period of time after her 22-year-old son Dan, a photojournalist working for Reuters in Somalia, was stoned to death by an angry mob. She was broken. But from this dark place of anarchy, she found the strength and power to establish, in his honor, the Creative Visions Foundation — an organization that fosters activists and artists who shine light on social causes. It’s not about the individual, she said in the Forbes talk, it’s about collectively coming together: “When we listen, we cooperate, we collaborate and we co-create.”
Kathy’s boundless energy, vibrant passion and deep reservoir of humanity radiate out of every pore in her body. When I later heard her speak at The Herb Albert Educational Center in Santa Monica, her authenticity brought the audience into a cohesive tribe of creative brethren. Kathy’s ceaseless excitement for life has helped enable, with Creative Visions, the realization of over 200 trailblazing projects through the provision of resources and critical guidance.
We met to co-create Kathy’s goddess portrait at a beach near the Creative Visions offices in Malibu, California. On choosing to portray the Goddess Khaos for Goddess on Earth, Kathy wrote:
To the distress of those around me, I often appear to be surrounded by chaos. Until I read the Nietzsche quote, I thought this was a terrible thing. Now I embrace the disorder as a vibrant space of pure potential, perfectly suitable for birthing a dancing star.
In the Heart of Life is Kathy’s new, soon-to-be-published memoir. Comedian and actress Rosie O’Donnell writes of the book: “Kathy inspires women to believe that they can do more than simply survive: they can thrive and passionately create the lives of their choice.” Indeed, let us all be inspired by Kathy’s vision and the powerful Goddess she has chosen to embody — and hold a space for the potential that lies within disorder and chaos for unbounded creativity, inspiration and transformation.
Until June 12, Facebook classified nude photographs of women who had undergone mastectomies as pornographic. This standard protocol was reconsidered after Facebook received an angry petition, with more than 20,000 signatures, concerning their censorship of the SCAR Project page. Under pressure, Facebook revised its policy toward these unflinching images of cancer survivors, but a wound still remains.
According to Decision Resources, an industry analysis group, 458,000 women worldwide die annually from breast cancer and more than 100,000 women in the U.S. undergo mastectomies each year. Angelina Jolie put a celebrity face to this crisis and fostered an important dialogue about the painful choices women must make when confronted with the specter of cancer. Unfortunately, most women must also fight this mortal battle while painfully confronting the cultural perception that their bodies are no longer attractive.
Of course, Facebook is not the only arena where women’s bodies are intensely sexualized. The media collectively spreads the message that “a woman’s value and power lie in her youth, beauty, and sexuality” as expertly demonstrated by Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s filmMiss Representation. My personal mission for the Goddess on Earth series is to show commanding images of contemporary women in all their diversity and power, and contribute to the much needed shift in our society’s limited portrayal of women. The participants in the series are empowered and validated by letting their deepest selves be truly seen by others. In turn, by observing humanity in all its variety, we the viewers become awakened to our commonality and interconnectedness.
Sherry Lawson was born and raised in the Appalachian Mountains and is now a therapist. I met Sherry at the Where Womyn Gather conference in Pennsylvania this past June. While attending a workshop I led on Goddess archetypes, Sherry found that Lilith most resonated with her life’s path. In Jewish and Christian mythology, Lilith was Adam’s first wife and was created, like Adam, from the earth. She saw herself as his equal and refused to be submissive to him, choosing instead to flee the Garden of Eden. Seventeen years after being diagnosed with stage IV cancer, Sherry connected with Lilithʼs struggles, fierce independence and personal conviction.
“In 1996, they told me I had stage IV breast cancer. The doctors and many others including my partner seemed to think I was going to die, but I hadn’t made my mind up yet. I went to the mountaintop and fought for my life, like a mama bear protecting her cubs. I identify with Lilith because against all odds, she stood her ground”.
With the defiance of Lilith, Sherry’s triumphant stance and unapologetic display of her body confront our cultural narrative on what it means to be female and beautiful. I share Sherry’s photograph and story with you in part because she wants her life lessons and scarred body to be heard and yes, seen. Her integrity and dignity in the face of life’s struggles command our full attention. She draws us into a contemplation of strength and vulnerability, beauty and scars and in her image, I hope, we can find deeper insight into what it means to really be whole. So with an open heart, I urge us all to validate her journey together and see where this courageous shero will take us.
During my recent trip to Morocco, there were times when it seemed like I had stepped into the movie Blade Runner. I was bombarded by a hectic energy — an ancient way of life adapting to and colliding with the 21st century. There were women covered head to toe in black burkas riding in donkey carts, young and old men in long, hooded robes checking their cell phones, bloody goat heads displayed haphazardly by meat vendors, and lost tourists photographing their surroundings to help remember their way through the Esher-like streets of the old medinas. I experienced all this while dodging a barrage of motorcycles plowing through the crowds. Was I reacting to sensory overload, the juxtaposition of the old and new, or the disorientation from encountering an unknown culture?
One woman who would applaud my “fish out of water” experience was Farah Cherif D’Ouezzan, the Founder and Director of the Center for Cross Cultural Learning in Rabat, Morocco. I met Farah on the first weekend of my adventure, and she gamely agreed to be photographed for Goddess on Earth. One of the many joys of photographing women for this series is its basic premise — the subjects themselves choose the sacred myth they connect with, and wish to embody for their portrait.
Farah’s choice of the Queen of Sheba is one of the few women immortalized in the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. As the 3,000-year-old story goes, Sheba was a powerful and educated leader who traveled a great distance to question, test, and learn from the famed King Solomon. She converted to Solomon’s monotheistic religion and brought this new faith back to her people. Farah sees Sheba as a bridge builder, someone connecting different religions and asking fundamental questions such as “Who am I?” and “With whom do I belong?”
After we photographed, Farah shared why she chose to portray the Queen of Sheba:
“I have always envisioned Sheba as a strong human being who can bring the world together, a power able to overcome all challenges to accomplish impossible missions and make dreams become true. Queen of Sheba belongs to every culture and every community and draws all of them to come together peacefully.”
In Morocco, I travelled from the beautiful northern mountainside village of Chefchaouen to the sands of the Sahara. But out of all these well-formed wonders, it is the Moroccan culture that will leave the longest lasting impression upon me. My original feelings of being alien and lost in this colorful world slowly gave way to a more nuanced and personal understanding of the Moroccan way of life. It is due to women like Farah and the ever-present influence of the Queen of Sheba that these kind of cross-cultural revelations are possible.