Emily K. Grieves, Teotihuacan, Mexico
I am racing to gather my thoughts for you before the words fall away. I have just returned home from a week in Oaxaca, Mexico, where I co-facilitated the “Awaken the Great Mother Within” journey, and I am so filled with images and impressions, colors and sensations, that I wonder how I can gather them all to share with you. I will begin by saying that Oaxaca is a blessed land, a rich fertile land, a land of art and an innate creativity that seems to grow from the soil itself like corn for tortillas or agave for mezcal. It is a powerful but sweet energetic vortex. The people are noble, proud indigenous people who dignify their roots, their traditions, their languages, their beliefs, their ecology, their culture and their artwork. I have never seen a people so peacefully and lovingly present and grounded in their identity. The lilting sounds of Zapotec sing through the market place as braided women in embroidered aprons and woven huipil dresses sell their creations and negotiate their wares.
As we sat in our opening circle for the journey, and the women who had gathered shared stories of their lives and what had called them to journey to Oaxaca to explore their connection with the “Mother” (physical, real, earthly, imagined, divine), I listened to my own story. I heard myself say that I struggle with the discipline of a practice. I have trouble keeping up with a regular way of maintaining my devotion. All my best efforts to pray the rosary or to meditate or to chant mantras end up falling by the wayside after a few days or weeks. Even as those words fell from my mouth, I realized the frequency with which I call a deep circle of women together to pray and explore Life and the Divine Mother. Every three months or so, I create a journey or retreat like this, and I realized that this is my practice. This is my body of work as an artist. This is my way of keeping my connection alive, of reconnecting, of cultivating my devotion and fulfilling the Mother’s mandate for me, the mission She has given me – to live in Her embrace and to help other women find their way home into Her arms.
We entered into the dark underground chambers of the 2000 year old Zapotec temples at Mitla. Mitla was created as a representation of the Underworld, where the Lord and Lady of Mictlan ruled over death and the afterlife. I had never been to Mitla before, and my co-facilitator had told me that one of the chambers was tomblike and had a dark heavy energy that was hard to shake. As I entered the tunnel leading to the chamber, I was struck by the fetid odor and the pressure of the air. My friend was choking on her breath, and whispered “isn’t it so heavy, like death?” I felt into the energy and while it took me a moment to put my finger on it, I suddenly had a sense of recognition and certainty. This was the energy of birth. This was the stain of amniotic fluid, blood, labor pain, tears, piss and shit, placenta, the pushing of life through a dark passageway toward a point of light. The energy of birth and death are essentially the same. I looked at the symbols carved into stone all around me on the walls. They were all symbols of water. Water, the stuff of life. We are born into it. And when we die, water flows in the tears that are shed for us.
The ancient peoples of Mesoamerica seem to have universally held the belief that death is but a birth into the next life. They often buried their dead in the fetal position. They buried babies and small children in clay pots as if returning them to the womb. Symbols abound representing the death gateway as a birth gateway. When we emerged from the “tomb” chamber at Mitla back into the blasting sunlight, we moved to another set of downward stairs that led into another chamber in the middle of which rose a great pillar of rounded stone known as the “Column of Life.” This was a place that held an energy of joy and light, almost ecstatic as it rippled across my skin. I realized that this column of life was a phallus, rounded at the tip as if penetrating the vulva of the subterranean chamber itself, entering into the Earth herself and inseminating the spark of new growth, a new life. I felt as if the cosmic ovum choosing cosmic sperm could be each one of us taking part in a greater whole. The integrity of life depends on our choosing, on our saying yes to life. Ultimately it doesn’t matter on what side of the life/death coin our experience falls, but rather on our answer to the question that always is: are you saying yes?
After our visit to Mitla, we visited a natural wonder of petrified waterfalls called Hierve El Agua. If our excursion at Mitla took us into the Underworld, Hierve El Agua took us into the Upper World, into celestial realms, but with the continued experience of water as the primary symbol and reminder of life. Imagine waterfalls that have flowed laden with minerals for millions of years, slowly calcifying into hard rock formations that look like boiling water. Imagine this place honored as sacred in pre-Hispanic times. Imagine that at the top of the cascade, rivulets of water still bubble through cracks in the hard surface, pooling and flowing in a million year old urge to birth from the inside of a dark Earth into the Light. I stood in soft water at the ledge where a vast expanse of valley and mountain opened before me and felt the sky hold me at the meeting place.
One of the highlights of our visit to Oaxaca was a journey to Teotitlan del Valle, a village famous for its indigenous rug weavers. We had the opportunity to visit the home of one of its most illustrious families who have maintained the art form throughout generations. They still make all their own natural dyes.
They still card and spin the wool by hand, and labor for months over a single rug woven with an understanding of the meaning of each symbol. Learning about the plants, flowers, minerals, and insects that gift their color to the dyes and watching the working of the shuttle through the loom made me realize that the people here on this land literally weave the Middle World, our experience in this physical reality, into being. They stand at the passageway from the Underworld to the Upper world, and make their existence by hand, investing their time and labor and expertise and knowledge into the tapestry of life … not just for themselves, but for all of us. They live a life of careful attention.
They live a life of intention. They honor the magic in their work and understand the privilege of alchemy. They live a life of devotion to the tradition that binds them to the elements of the Earth. They pulled strings of white yarn from a metal pot of sickly greenish-yellow liquid with a big two-pronged wooden fork, telling me that the dye was indigo, from a plant grown on the Isthmus. With the glee of little boys, they told me to watch carefully, that as soon as the air hits the yarn, an oxidation process would begin to affect the dye. I noticed a color change, as the yellow turned to green, the green to turquoise, and the turquoise then began to darken and take on bluish hues. In a matter of just a couple of magical minutes, the color settled into the beautiful rich dark blue we know as indigo.
All things come full circle. I had dreamed the idea of painting on shawls, called rebozos, months beforehand for this circle of women in inquiry of the Mother. The rebozo is a quintessentially female garment. It is a multi-faceted garment that accompanies women throughout their entire life – it rocks babies, carries children, warms the shoulders in winter, covers the hair at mass, and wraps the masks of the dead. It is useful and beautiful and inextricably linked with femininity. The first time I wrapped one around my shoulders many years ago, I immediately felt like a goddess, and I felt like my female ancestors must have felt, sitting around the fire telling stories or stitching the hem of a dress or moving the soup in the pot. I felt a connection to the ancient world, to traditions that had been forgotten, and the shawl was there for my remembering. I felt like Mary. I felt Biblical, as if I could sit in an olive grove and hear my sisters talk of God. I felt indigenous, as if my Celtic and Germanic foremothers whispered into the weft of the fibers across centuries of tilling the soil and brewing herbs into medicine that I was one of them. I was of the Earth.
As I dreamed the painting of rebozos into reality, I thought of Mari, an indigenous Nahuatl-speaking woman from Atla, Puebla, who I had bought some blouses from a few years ago. She makes gorgeous hand-embroidered blouses from natural woven muslin and come down from her village to sell them around the pyramids here. I remembered her having some lovely rebozos, too, thinking their simple cream color would provide the perfect blank “canvas” for our painting project. I imagined that if the women gathering for the journey could paint an image or symbols of the Mother on a rebozo, then wrap it around their shoulders, it would feel like the Mother Herself was enfolding them in an embrace. I hadn’t seen Mari in a long time, but as soon as I thought of her, it was as if I conjured her up by magic and she soon crossed my path. I ordered a bunch of rebozos without embroidery from her, just woven natural cotton with the hand-knotted fringe, and she had them ready a month later.
As soon as I had the rebozos, I started playing around with painting them to see if the project would work with my group. I quickly realized how difficult of a task it would be. The open weave and natural cotton absorbed too much paint, in spite of the special textile paint I had gotten. Painting an image of the Mother would be beyond technically challenging for beginners as I myself struggled as a seasoned painter with decades of experience. I dreamed back into the idea that had sparked the project and remembered that what was important was the sensation of being held by the Mother when we wrapped the rebozo around our shoulders. I realized that if the shawl was a color other than white, then it would be easier to make intentional marks and symbols representing the Mother as we experienced Her presence.
I decided to dye the rebozos indigo, a process that took me weeks. I felt the rebozos should be blue as this color is so often associated with the Divine Mother’s mantle, visible in painting after painting of Mary in particular. In the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, her dress is red to represent the earth, and her mantle is blue as symbolic of the heavens. We seek all our lives for connection between heaven and earth, and I felt that indigo blue rebozos would help us bring that connection a little closer. This was long before I ever imagined that I would see the actual process of natural indigo dye in Teotitlan. I bought indigo dye at the fabric store and carefully dyed each rebozo individually, boiling big pots of water, rinsing the starch out of the fabric that Mari had used to keep the fabric crisp and smooth. I stirred the dye and moved the bubbles. When I finally pulled each rebozo from the indigo water to rinse and hang them, I was horrified that the hand-knotted fringe had become a tangled mess. I worked for a long time to slowly and carefully unravel the tangles on each garment. Once the freshly-dyed rebozos were dry, I painstakingly ironed them as best I could.
As I reflected on the entire process of creation, from Mari’s efforts of weaving and my work to dye and iron and prepare them, then the work of the gathering women to paint them, I was reminded of Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ writing on the handmade life. “The handcrafted life is very much like this. It takes a lifetime to accomplish. It emerges from a small and infinitely exquisite piecing together of one’s inner and outer lives, these being crafted, played, woven together every day, every week, every month, come summer, come winter, the same. The overall magnificence takes many years. It cannot be fast-forwarded. So, when there is a hunger in the psyche because not enough love or nourishment is forthcoming from the outer world, then there is a temptation to seize at things that might relieve some of the suffering. But the shortcut, the easy way, always falls apart. Then one returns to the handmade life. One has to pick it up painfully, and piece it back together, holding the overall pattern in one’s mind, but working patiently, piece by piece.”
The day before we were to paint the rebozos in the garden of our host casa in Oaxaca, I was out exploring the city. I tried to withdraw money from an ATM, but the bank system didn’t work. As I walked the streets hunting for another bank, synchronicity led me to see a sign on a building ahead of me. It was the Museum of Oaxacan Painters advertising an exhibit called “Arte Empoderando a las Mujeres” – “Art Empowering Women.” For 23 pesos, I had to see what it was all about. My jaw dropped to the floor when I climbed the marble staircase and peered into a gallery of 100 rebozos, all painted by women with images of women’s experience, of women’s life. The dreaming thread that led me to the painting of rebozos in Oaxaca had woven us into a common tapestry of life and of the land, a Mother who welcomed us all into the colorful folds of Her shawl. I sent my circle of women to see the show for inspiration right before we painted our own rebozos. We gathered then at rented table under the bougainvillea blossoms and meditated deep into the sensation of the Mother’s arms wrapped around us. Each woman painted her symbols quietly onto the indigo fabric, listening to the singing birds nestling around the terrace, pulling needle and thread into simple embroidered shapes of stars and roses, moons and suns, and even the words “Amor.” We sat by candlelight that evening, hugging our shawls close and feeling loved.
On my final morning in Oaxaca, I visited a church down the street. I walked into a hand-carved ornately adorned sanctuary, bathed in gold and light. A woman patiently worked on restoring relief sculptures and columns high on a scaffolding to the left. I turned to the right into a chapel that called me and found myself standing in front of the Virgin of the Rosary. A shaft of sunlight beamed through a side window, illuminating my hands as I raised them in reflection of the Virgin’s hands, delicately holding Her mysterious circle of beads. Every time I stray from devotional practice, I find my way back to Her. She calls me back into Her devotion and reminds me that the rosary is not about how diligently or how frequently I say specific words of prayer to Her. The rosary is the circle of Her heart. The rosary is the pillar of light that runs from Underworld to Heaven, wrapping our Earth into a round embrace. The rosary is the circle of women that I called to remind myself, to remember collectively, that we are Her daughters. The rosary is the circle of birth, life, death and rebirth that is Her greatest gift to us. The rosary is an art form, a thread of color, a woven tapestry, a prayer spun on our every heartbeat and beyond. My rosary, my body of work, my devotion, my art, is to connect to Life, to be in and of its Creation.
I receive the knowing
that I am part of all things in this world.
My direction is toward the doorway
in between all things. My experience is to allow
myself to stand in certainty
in that doorway between worlds,
to be as present as I can. The doorway
is a gate to dreaming the in between.
How do I stand there firmly? I am a pillar.
A pillar of light. I consume the darkness.
The shadow is my meal. I offer the plate
served with soil and worms and gravel and clay.
I offer the dish of divine compost into the fields.
May they grow ripe corn, glittering like citrine
on the stalks. May the leaves lie cupped like hands
against the shaft, holding nourishment
to the light. May we walk together with eyes
open to the gleam of sky above, sun raining
kernels of light into our cells. May our cells open
like embryos to the insemination of life
into our souls. I stand on the brink of skyward
shores, leaping into vast landscapes of Sierra Madre
mountains, my mountains that have bound me
to the heavens all my life. But here they have sprung
waters for millions of years that run laden
with minerals, turning flow to stone, so that I may walk
on water in my final days. I am doing this not
only for myself but for you, for your mother, and all
the mothers who came before us. Mother, may you
feel the healing I am becoming. I remember
the time before the land formed, before
the ancestors walked upon it, and I remember
the end, when all was released back into water
and fire and powder of earth, dissolving into air.
The end is at the beginning. I have always said, death
is a birth, the passage the same, the rush of water, the pressing
of matter, the bursting of breath. There is air at the end.
Respiration. Inspiration. Spirit.
Nothing and All.
Copyright 2019 Emily K. Grieves
As of 2004, Emily K. Grieves makes her home in Teotihuacan, Mexico, where she has painted murals at the Dreaming House Spiritual Retreat Center and has created a body of artwork influenced fy the cosmological imagery left in the ancient murals and by her relationship with her Muse and the Divine Feminine. In 2014, she opened her studio, Taller de Arte El Refugio, in Teotihuacan.
Emily is a certified Intentional Creativity Teacher in the Color of Woman Method developed by Shiloh Sophia. She is a member of the Intentional Creativity Guild, an international organization that promotes intuitive artistic expression as a way to make positive change in the world. Visit her at www.EmilyKGrievesArt.com