- Heresies of the Holy
I stretch an aspen leaf, mottled, rotting, moist with the vanishing hail and snow of last night between my thumbs and forefingers. Some 20,000 years ago, our primitive ancestors blew into the hollowed bones of the dead, or across the stems of plants they could bore into with their stones, and heard, for the first time, the holy voices conjured into being with their own breath, a manifestation of the spiritual world the men found so transforming that if a woman—I have read this—were to touch such instruments of the gods, she would be strangled. Or poisoned.
Early winter morning beneath Nipple Mountain, the rutting season of the wapiti—“white rumps,” what the Indians named the elk that range past our cabin in altitudinal migrations. I want to say what Thoreau said: “The morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation . . . uninterrupted.” But last night I read the poems of grieving from a woman I knew when I was barely 21, a poet I was in awe of, ten years my senior, a woman who this year climbed at the age of 60 to the top of an East Coast football stadium and jumped. And I wondered why, this death neither good nor swift, and I thought of her leaning back in her chair that one far day ago at a writer’s workshop in Iowa, stretching her young and beautiful body through the air as if it moved through water, freed from gravity or weight, and how my then-lover, who would soon scorn me, watched her breasts swell beneath her white sweater with so much longing.
This morning, exhausted, filled with something nameless, I heard the bull elks bugling across the valley. Fog, low clouds, the dark mottled gold of aspen leaves half in air, half on ground, and the mountain grass stiff and [End Page 47] bleached with this new frost, I followed the old cow trails to stand here above the valley where a dark swallow of Douglas fir stretches down from the granite boulders that hold me.
What is grief? Or more specifically, an aging woman’s grief?
A Navajo once told me that if a menstruating woman nears a man who has pierced himself in dance, his blood flowing too, she interrupts his communion with the Spirit world, and so must leave. And though my husband’s Jewish family has never said this to me, I know that in the Book of Leviticus, a menstruating woman is considered niddah—a term of “separation,” of “ritual impurity”—and, thus, untouchable even to her husband. Unclean, the Bible says, if her flowers be upon him until the white cloth of the Hebrew eid she wipes herself with stays unsullied for seven days after.
Flowers. Menses. Life-essence, the prehistorics called in wonder the letting of this wise blood, the only time human blood sheds “without wounding,” they said. And Adam. The word comes from the ancient Mesopotamia term adamah, “bloody clay,” or “red earth” of the woman’s body. Yet I remember the shame of my daughter when she was young and her menstrual blood spilled strong and unexpectedly when she was riding her bike blocks from our home. This blood that cycles with the moon—if no artificial light disrupts the rhythms of the body, the woman bleeds on the dark of the moon, and on the full, ripens, her eggs bursting from her ovaries into primordial existence. But even then, in a woman’s reproductive prime, when she is most in sync with nature and man, it seems she is cast out again and again from the spiritual world, whether that be native or modern. In Emerson’s essay “Nature”—though, yes, it can be argued this is a matter of nineteenth-century convention—it is man whom “a wild delight runs through” in the presence of nature, man whom the “currents of the Universal Being” wash through, man who is “part or particle of God.” Not woman. Man, Adam, through whom the Bible says, death entered all.
Wordsworth said it is impossible to speak of grief or loneliness when you are in the...