Saturday, March 28, 2009

Feminine Journey -- Vanessa Reid

_Hymn to Isis_; Fancott, Edmund

A thick, yellowed husk of paper curling at the corners as if folding into a womb: worn, not weary, it archives eras, centuries, civilizations. Its cloth is woven from a pride of trees. It is of the earth, but so very light. Like the depth of a lake, swimming to its own slender shorelines, its thick centre slowly recedes outward to its own searching corners that become tentacles.

I touch it, stroke it, smell it. It is ancient, hand-drawn. Place names are written with cursives and characters. The tiniest details are etched with artistry and delight: bright green hills, the hush of desert, vast “snowlands”. Forests spread like liquid over continents, stopping only at cliffs and fjords to then plunge into shades of turquoise. The map sings birds in their flight patterns and whistles sea creatures in their habitat. It sketches lavender temples, charcoal sites of beauty and battle. A spider’s web of connected particles, these places, passages are woven together by time. Its ribs, skin and bones holding together heaven and earth.

Exploring the map’s surface, I move my fingers tentatively to deep crevasses, sarcophagi holding dark wounds; blurs of crashing materials, forms -- living creatures, abstractions bound together in a violent dance. Embracing, they whirl in ecstasy; defacing, they fall. Turmeric stains, saffron scent, and metallic undertones characterize this bleeding ink. It is a work of art -- a timepiece -- this living map of worlds dreaming, breathing, dancing, colliding. What is this invitation, this invocation -- this opus that has landed in my hands, already raw from my own travels?

No signatures or emblems of ownership or authorship grace deface the map. The makers have left beautiful white spaces, untouched, expansive, and at the centre… I am breathless. There are simply no words to describe…

Is it my turn? Do I dare?


My brother, Dylan, grew up reading fantasy novels, playing Dungeons and Dragons, devouring history books rough with conquerors, battles, quests. Where was my quest? What kind of journeying, companions and honour awaited a girl like me, a little sister? My world seemed so, well, here. Now. Immediate. It was a world of soccer games, playing outside, canoe camping and friendships with real people who I could hug, laugh, dream with, confide in. Every so often Dylan invited me into his big, mysterious secret world of goblins and wizards. We created a character, a thief this time with a magic cloak… off we would go. But I wondered really who were my mates in these and other yet unmapped adventures of camaraderie, discovery and myth-making?

When I was twelve, I read The Hobbit as well as the illustrated version of Watership Down. I was moved by these adventures about saving what was “good”, acting courageously for self, community and standing up for what was right. But I did not see myself in these books whether as author or as its heroine -- I was neither a rabbit nor a hobbit.

It wasn’t until I read a book of a very different kind that I began to slowly understand. Then, it was possible to feel the unfolding of what it was to have a quest, a heritage of mystery, wisdom -- of human and mythical proportion, and come to know a community of wise, courageous people.

It was a poem in book form called Hymn to Isis, it was about goddesses, oracles, seekers. And it was written by my grandfather.

My poet-sage-artist grandfather, whose final contribution to this world was this sacred ode, a history in poem to Lilith, Eve and Isis. Edmund or Granpy, an English-born bohemian father of four (my mother, a sister to three brothers), died of throat cancer after birthing a radical expression of love to Woman. He waited until I was 6 months old before leaving this world. The book was published a few years later. I like to believe that he conceived this poem, sang it to and through me as I was developing my own beginnings of life, rendering my own map of the past and future, while swimming, swirling, being unveiled, in my mother’s womb. He sent his words through me, I sent my reply through him.

Sensual, luscious, luminous undulating language, I have grown up with Hymn to Isis forming and informing me in almost every stage of my life. The lessons of learning, yearning, of loving, revealing are slowly being uncovered as I see more deeply into my own self. “How can I teach you,” whispers Isis, “you who knows so much yet knows so little beyond your self?”

As an inquisitive, spirited teenager, these three aspects of woman enthralled me: Lilith, wild and luscious; Eve, the keeper of the house; Isis, goddess of fecundity, all-powerful. But I really loved Lilith, “proud unconquerable, the fire and the fury of love and lust, not I rejected Adam, he too mortal fell from my onslaught, an empty husk…” This changed everything -- Adam’s wife before Eve? She was too much for him! With the sexy language, the evocation of feminine power, the diving deep into the sinews of relationship, well, I rarely read the whole poem through. I found I did not have the patience for the seekers’ stories to the temple of Isis; I wanted to be Lilith.

As a young woman in university, I found the poem again, discovering the symbols of myth that are universal in literature and the history of goddesses. I used what I saw as the central theme to the book, love and reciprocity, in an essay on Canadian Literature in my first year English class. “No gift is greater that the receiver, no heaven beyond the love of the lover, no hell lower than love lost in lust.” This was my grandfather’s book! In the library! A Canadian author!

In second year, I found feminism -- as a course of study, and as a community. In cafés while skipping class, my girlfriends and I talked about what we were reading, and how it reflected our own lives. At the time, I secretly wished I could appear on Oprah and say something very clever and important to an apparently ignorant, patriarchal world. We cut our hair when we broke up with boyfriends, whispered, roared, loving our communion. Feminism was an affirmation of my own burgeoning beliefs on equality and expression, the personal and the political. These courses were exciting, uncomfortable, life-changing, and I saw the connection with my own mother’s struggle for rights, equality, policy, language, with this new language of my generation “identity politics” and “third wave”. Hadn’t both my grandmothers been pioneers and gone to university in the 1920s? But while I devoured this literature, clawed my way through post-structuralist theory, and drank too many cafés au lait, I was most drawn to this long, rich, and painfully invisible history in which women were central characters.

I spent hours in the McGill University library looking up women’s myths and symbols, the ancient stories of female leaders and goddesses whose lives were courageous, and stood or fell for an important cause, virtue, country. They were religious, political, common, from all parts of the world. It was so thrilling. I wrote articles for International Women’s Day in the ‘McGill Daily’ and designed tattoos according the meaning of a Celtic or pagan symbol, imagining the sisterhood I was connected to through this necklace of women through time.

In my final year of my undergraduate degree, Hymn to Isis came to life once again, in an independent video project made with three girlfriends. They read the poem and loved it, we sprinkled Jeanette Winterson’s modern myth-making into it and ta-da! Our video connected Eve, a contemporary young woman, with her Lilith and, ultimately, her Isis. We played with lighting, time, slow motion. We shot beautiful images of Eve walking through the snow of a ruined church in Montreal and then merged her into her Lilith self through music and a velvet costume change. In a final scene, this Eve is invited into a circle of candles in her apartment by the hand of Lilith. She sheds her old self; and together, naked, they dance to ancient drumming and the ululation of a songstress beating their passage through Time into Self, collapsing into Isis: three in one, one in three. How we got Tracy’s roommate to act in this, I don’t know, but we were breathless in our creation, very determined. We screened it for our class of nine and only our professor, who perhaps had an appreciation for the abstract, the complexity of our storytelling and editing (and likely for the risqué scenes,) gave us an ‘A’.

Isis, in her slim hardcover, her dusty rose envelop illustrated with whimsical line drawings of women with wide eyes, third eyes, flowers and butterflies has been my constant travel companion. She came with me on road trips across Arizona and through the Canadian Rockies, has come with me to bed, under the dim of morning discovering “the intimacy of the quivering senses poised on the brink of ecstasy, the ebb and flow, membrum erectum, membrum pendulum…” with a boyfriend while we tried to invent what might have been the “500 ways known to the Chinese and the 50 secret ways known only to the Emperor”. She flew off my bookshelf to be read over the phone in a flirtation with a boy who ran a bookstore and zoomed across oceans and time zones to India, in 1999, the first time I went there to work. “Bring a favourite book,” they advised, “something that will ground you should you feel lonely or overwhelmed.” I would be there for close to a year with an Indian non-governmental organization, working with the most marginalized communities for social justice and social change. Hymn to Isis came out one night, in the intimacy of a shared moment: my anchor, my compass.

I had brought The Hobbit, too, but it was Isis that initiated an intense bonding with my female roommates one dusty evening after a week in the chaos, colour of hope and despair of Indian social justice work. Our male roommate, Graham, was gone to the field, so Michelle, Betty and I sat together one evening after celebrating Shabbat with our ritual meal of kosher Pizza Hut. The roar of rickshaws and clang of urban cattle outside our window accompanied us on this hot night in Ahmedabad, the old capital of Gujarat, in central India. We were there through an internship with Aga Khan Foundation Canada, one Jew from Montreal, a pragmatic atheist from Harrison, BC, and me having come only with my questions about religion and faith. Working in a Jesuit-founded secular organization, I found myself seeking.

“I will read you my ‘favourite’ parts,” was my introduction. I searched for the beautiful poetry. But, they asked for the whole book. I had never read it aloud, in its entirety and it was hard not to become emotional. Many aspects of the poem became more pronounced to me in the process -- the beauty of its wholeness, of the stories of seekers going to the temple of Isis, the questions to the goddess, and her power in knowing when to reveal, when to conceal.

It was my second cry for a grandfather on this trip. The first was my grief reading in an email from my parents that Pere, my dad’s father had died peacefully of pneumonia in his 92nd year. I did not go home for the funeral, having just arrived in India. He and my grandmother had lived there in the 1950s. He was Canada’s first High Commissioner to a newly independent India. I knew I was where he would want me to be; in a place he and Nana had loved, into which they had poured their dreams and hopes. It became my mission to embark on a pilgrimage to their old house in Delhi. In some circular way, I was simply continuing the work that Pere had begun 40 years before; he in diplomacy, and me, his youngest grand-daughter, in community development.

Tears have also come when thinking about my mum’s father, the one I had not known in person, but who in spirit spoke to my deepest place. It would have been a shock of recognition -- that both of these men would have guided me to this one place. This realization has come only recently. The memory is vivid: I was 29, on the cusp of discovering the fire of articulating and manifesting one’s purpose in the world. Swirling with questions and hungry for experience, I found in India a rite of passage. Not surprisingly, the experience burned me bright, left me raw, pushed me to see my purpose more clearly.

During those days, I did not have the words then: “pilgrimage”, “quest”. I saw only the epidermis of my map, and it led me back two generations to my socialist, diplomat grandfather whose driving passion, greatest fear, was to ensure there would not be a Third World War, in his lifetime, ever. It became apparent how I was stepping into the path that he in his time of fear and hope worked so hard to lay down and that in my own time, with my own resources, would build on that inheritance. It was a call into the river of public service. This was visible to me in the context of concrete injustices in man-made structures.

What lay under that river, was this other inheritance, a deeper tributary -- its source more mystical. There was another call to another kind of service, but I did not recognize it then. “To lift the veil of Isis is to pierce the heart of mystery.” Only after another rite of passage, laying myself bare -- burning and raw again -- with family, friends, in my own community, and touching the shores and core of India once again, would I skin a second membrane to this map, and the invitation-invocation that Isis held to me. But that is another story.

I am Isis
The gift of the gods is given freely
But the oracle speaks in riddles
So that fools can wallow in their folly
And the wise shall understand
But who shall proclaim the majesty of woman
I am Isis

Edmund Fancott
Hymn to Isis
With line drawings by Susan Fothergill
Peter Martin Associates

Vanessa Reid is the executive publisher of ‘ascent magazine’. She has travelled extensively and now resides in Montreal.

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