After presenting “The History of my Voice” last week at the Health and Spirituality Network meeting in Toronto, I discovered this little two-part monologue that I had written several years ago. It emerged out of the insight that the myth of Persephone’s abduction into the underworld and Demeter’s search for her lost daughter reflected the search for our own submerged selves. In my voice presentation, I was (and am) actively recovering that part of myself who sang as a child. Back then I assumed that my singing voice would be a source of spiritual strength throughout my life. I never imagined that it would withdraw.
This fictional story expresses one woman’s call back to the part of herself that she lost in her youth, and her soul’s mythic response.
Somewhere in my late teens, I lost access to the dearest part of myself. The earth opened and swallowed her up, Persephone-style.
Before that submergence, I had been determined to hold onto my innocence. No way was I going to drink, smoke pot, or get knocked up. I refused to go and see The Exorcist with my friends. I’d be a virgin till I married. I’d fall in love with the man of my dreams, travel the world, have an acting career and a couple of kids. Unlike my directionless friends, I had a life plan.
Then my Dad died and my Mom fell into a depression that just kept on depressing. My elder sister left home, and there I was, suddenly, packing the house, paying bills, organizing a move to a more affordable apartment, and using my newly minted driver’s license to ferry my mother to grief therapy sessions.
I took a year off school and worked at Denny’s to bring in some income. I wrapped myself in a superwoman cloak and steeled myself in the knowledge that I was stronger than everyone else. My older hippie sister had hooked up with a musician and she told me by phone that she couldn’t move back home because she couldn’t handle being around my mother, the Downer.
I said: “You can’t handle the Downer because you’re stoned all the time.”
“One day you’ll find happiness,” she purred. “Then you’ll understand.”
‘I understand that you’re a selfish bitch,’ I thought. But I held my tongue. I was above that.
Above grief. Above moaning over lost dreams. I told myself that I was just putting my dreams on hold for a year. A year is the length of time it takes to heal the wound of a spousal loss. That’s what I had read.
One year passed, then another. My mother had not improved. She’d become worse, actually. She went into this place of “nothing matters” and refused to come out. “What do you want to eat tonight, Mom?” Doesn’t matter. “Do you want to go to church tomorrow?” Doesn’t matter. She’d been devoted to her church friends, but after a year of not mattering, they gave up on her.
I wanted to say, “Snap out of it, Mom. You’re starting to really piss me off. Let me move on. Let me have my life back, you narcissist.”
But of course I didn’t say any of that. It didn’t go with the superwoman outfit. To be honest I didn’t even feel my anger. Even today I find it hard to access. I can name it, sure. But I can’t feel it. I can’t reach down into that place.
My mother didn’t do well. After three years of severe depression, she went into a psychiatric hospital and now she’s in long-term care.
I’ve buried the feeling of abject failure, the guilt, and deepest of all, the grief that I couldn’t get my mother to live for anything, even for me. Ha. See how good I am at naming things? My therapist tells me that I know myself very well. But ask me if I’ve ever cried.
I tell myself, life is harsh. Earth is not for sissies. We don’t get the life we fantasize. We get the life she wrote, whoever she is.
I finished high school by correspondence. I took a few acting classes after work and got signed on with a talent agency. I do mostly radio and TV commercials and I draw the rest of my income from catering. I married once but couldn’t have children for mysterious reasons. My husband was a family physician who really and truly wanted children and he was really and truly disappointed that I had failed him. It made me crazy to feel weak and blamed for what I had no power to change. We buried all this stuff until it burst the surface, Vesuvius style, when my GP happened to mention my husband’s low sperm count. I beg your pardon?
That very same evening, I met my husband at his favorite restaurant. It took three gin martinis to find my otherwise reliable radio voice. “Why didn’t you tell me that you have a low sperm count?” I growled. He was a discreet, polished man who hid all his private affairs, bluebeard style. He wore suits he called ‘investments,’ with high thread counts and silky sheens. His cheeks flamed.
“Put a lid on it,” he muttered. “This is neither the time nor the place.”
“Really. Is that so?” I was feeling something at last. I was a force of nature, not to be meddled with, not to be put in a jar and told when and where I could come out. He shrank in stature as I rose to my feet. A tiny man in every way, without the spine to admit his failures. A tiny man throwing his weight around, scorning his barren wife, blaming her for his misfortunes, and then whimpering on the shoulders of his mistress. Had I not been so furious I would have enforced the rule of all women: protect the male ego at all costs, it’s the most fragile thing in the universe. But that’s just another lie promulgated by the patriarchs whose god I hold directly responsible for the murder of the race.
“You have a low sperm count!” I hollered. “You made this all about me — you blamed me! Well, now your secret’s out. Everybody knows it!” I referred him to our audience of diners and made my exit. Stage left.
After that evening in the restaurant, my life changed. I stopped wearing flats. I dumped my grey shaded shirts and trousers and slipped into jewel tones.
My husband demanded a divorce. I refused to grant it, then waited six months and served him with the papers. Our friends were alarmed. Dora the dermatologist met me for tea before the final settlement. She was concerned about my terms for the obvious reason that she was my husband’s (supposedly secret) mistress. “Don’t you think you’re taking a huge chunk out of an already wounded man?” she asked. “I’ve never seen this side of you.”
I burst out laughing. “That’s funny, because I see all your sides!”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not on some “storm-the-patriarchy” mission of vengeance. I just want to know, before the lights go down, who I am and what part of myself I have torpedoed. I want to feel something, like I did when I was a kid. I wrote poetry in my teens. I read deep books; wept real tears, grew gardens in the wasteland. I laughed, too.
I want her back.
I had a note from my mother the other day. It came by courier and was delivered by a god who called himself Hermes. He said he was related to my husband.
“I didn’t know that Hades had any relations,” I said, noting his tall, impressive figure. He wore an indigo suit, a golden tie, and a charcoal fedora that threw a shadow over his face.
“Your mother has been looking for you,” he said in a mellow baritone voice. Undelivered messages skittered across his lips. I wanted to kiss them.
He gave me the folded letter. It was wrapped in a red ribbon.
“She wants you back,” he said.
The letters of my name flowed across the folded page. P e r s e p h o n e. I hadn’t read anything for as long as I could remember. I had only watched performances, staged by the shades. Shadow plays.
I put the note in my skirt pocket and when I looked up to thank the dashing god, he had vanished.
I shut the door, traversed the vast foyer and climbed the marble staircase to my room. Hades had given me the left wing of the mansion with the freedom to arrange it any way I wanted. I had my own servants. Shades. Functionaries, highly skilled to perform their roles. They were faceless, of course. Here, only the gods have faces, and Hades is the only god I know.
Hermes’ half face felt like a kind of salvation. He had come and gone too quickly.
I sat on my bed and slowly pulled on the ribbon that tied the letter. I had forgotten the years before my abduction. I was sucked into the underworld just after my seventeenth birthday. I was picking flowers in a meadow with some friends when the earth ruptured and split. I tumbled down a cliff and was caught by some force that whisked me into a black limousine. We plunged into the abyss, racing through gate after gate. Hades sat in the center of the seat across from me, a red-clad, black-bearded satyr, merry and magnetic. He took up most of the space in the car and drugged me with his charm.
The next thing I knew, I was in a mansion, sitting on a white canopied bed in a blue room. There were silk roses in crystal vases on the dressers. Their ice-blue petals had been woven with tiny diamonds and they shimmered in the moonlight as if they had just come out of the rain. I touched them to see if they were real. They were.
A shadow stepped in from the hallway. “Are you pleased with your room?” she inquired. I have since come to know the shades. They are the banished souls of mortals who live in the upper world. They dream their dreams. They keep their sorrows. They bear their truth.
I turned the note around in my hand, trying to recall the face of my mother. At first, I couldn’t read the words. There was a hotspot in my eye, left by Hermes’ bright tie. That golden colour isn’t something we see down here.
The letter read:
“Where did you go, my daughter? We never had time. The world has become a wasteland. I want you back. Please come home.”
I sat on my bed, confused about home. Where is home? Am I not home? I am Queen of the Shades. I am loved by Hades. But what do I meet in the mirror? Not my face. No face. He has so charmed me that I have considered myself a goddess. I am not. I am a shade, served by shades who live in thousands of rooms lit by secret, unrealized treasure.
I tried to focus my gaze on the letter. I could feel my mother’s longing. It hurt my heart. But I had forgotten life above. Hades had taught me to hate it. He once said, “We who have no sunlight are lit by what the mortals won’t see.” He doesn’t wish to release that light, and who can blame him? And why would I wish to return to a place where people are blinded by daylight and live in a dream?
I won’t tell Hades about the letter. I will keep it a secret, though Hermes might spill it.
Strange. There’s a new presence in the blue room. An hour glass has been placed on the table in front of the window. Tiny crystals are falling through the funnel, making a delicate music on their way through. How did the hour glass arrive, I wonder? It wasn’t there a moment ago. And now, I am quite certain, my time here is running out.
Artwork by Arthur Hacker (1858-1919) and Georges Seurat (1859-1891)