Our group of nine women had been led by our cheerful cook and counselor, Violet, to a wishing stone on the grounds of Crom Castle, in Northern Ireland. Now, wishes wished and the sun setting, we followed Violet again along the shore of the lough and through the lengthening shadows, past the castle and boathouse, and into the darkening woods.
“Come along,” Violet said, urging us to keep up. Well into her seventies, Violet walked faster than most of us, despite being more than 20 years younger.
“Do you think we’ll see the pine marten?” someone asked.
“Maybe so,” Violet said. “We’ll see.” The brown, endangered, weasel-like animal is a rare nocturnal creature that in Ireland lives mostly in trees. One had taken to visiting Violet from time to time.
“She has a way with the creatures,” our guide, Brenda confided to us.
Our pathway curved on through fields and woods, a ten-minute walk to her home, a small house we had seen from our boat ride with the Earl a few days before. It looked like a story book cottage, with a low roof, little dormers, and a patch of pink and white annual flowers planted near the front door. I felt like Gretel or Red Riding Hood, but hoped for a more pleasant cottage visit.
Inside, the faded, floral-papered rooms were stuffed with doileyed furniture and shelves of china bric-a-brac. Small hooked rugs in a floral pattern lay before the two petite armchairs. We found Cynthia, our evening cook and Violet’s daughter, in the yellow kitchen. True to her word, she had brought along the rhubarb crumble, and while we had been at the wishing stone she’d started water for tea, as well.
The first order of business was to see if we could catch sight of the pine marten. Perched on wooden stools or leaning against the 1950’s era red and white enameled table, we watched quietly for about ten minutes in the darkening kitchen, whispering and giggling, until a rattling of the garbage cans outside gave away the animal’s arrival. Violet’s little friend soon nosed up to her window for the ginger snap cookies she usually spread over the sill. Our hostess went out to greet it, speaking to it in a sort of whimper and chatter, and it came to her hand, ate the snack, posed for a few pictures, and then disappeared into the woods.
Once we’d assembled in the kitchen, Cynthia poured our tea. It was made with loose leaves, and as we drank, their wet remains lay in the bottom of our china cups, ready for Violet to work her skills as a seer. It would surely be a cozy, friendly fortune telling, I thought, filled with lots of healthy guesses after five days of overhearing our conversations at breakfast. Happy, successful children, glorious careers and men of mystery… We each took a turn in the living room on a footstool at Violet’s knees while the others gabbed and ate crumble in the kitchen. The rhubarb was tart and sweet at the same time.
On my turn with the fortune-teller, she looked for a long time into the tea leaves on the bottom of my cup and asked me if there was anything I was upset about. I told her I had left my job, but kept starting books and not finishing them and so had gone back to work. I had started three books so far, a business advice book for women, an autobiography, and a long essay about women and religion.
“Well, perhaps they’re the same book,” she said, pausing to think that over. I made a face. “Well, at any rate, that procrastinating is all done for. You’ll start back as soon as you get home. Start the first one, and finish it. Then the next, and so on. You’ll have at least one of them finished in three years.”
“Is there anything else you’re wondering about?” she prodded, patting my hand as she alternated looking into the cup and back at my face. “I feel there’s something.”
Our eyes locked gaze.
I thought of how little I saw my daughters anymore and wondered if there was any way for us to become closer now that they had already left home. I wondered if I had made the right choice to leave my job at the bank and take this philosophical journey. I wondered how much longer I would live, and if I would use the time well. All my good intentions back in high school and business school about making the world a better place, but what had I done?
My friends were chattering in the kitchen. I looked up at the old woman and said, “No, nothing else.”
Violet paused, then tilted the tea cup for another look. Perhaps knowing I had two unmarried adult daughters, she added that there was an engagement and a new baby in the near future, and patted my hand.
“I hope they come in that order,” I laughed.
I did finish one book after I came back home, though it took five years, not three. And I am now nearing completion of my next, with two more sketched out and waiting their turn. And though I was a bit skeptical about the fortune telling that evening–let’s face it, this was mostly a harmless evenings pastime–in the years since I have come to appreciate the role women like Violet have played in men’s and women’s lives over the centuries. The tradition of the wise forest woman who speaks to the animals is part of the Irish and British heritage. Celtic traditions contained many myths about a divine Old Woman. Part Leprechaun, part seer, our Violet enjoyed multiple connections to the spirit world.
In Joseph Campbell’ s classic work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the first encounter of the hero on his journey is with a protective figure who provides him with amulets or magic devices against the dangers he will face. The crone is one of the most common of these protective figures, from the fairy godmother in fairy tales to the Oracle at Delphi.
I find it ironic that we all accept the wisdom of these women in magical old stories, while in real life, older women often become invisible. I’ve come to believe this marginalization is due to our Judeo Christian heritage, which places the woman in a subordinate and undesirable position, starting with Eve being blamed for the Fall. She is assumed to have no knowledge beyond childrearing. (Even a woman’s knowledge of herbal remedies may be turned against her and earn her condemnation as a witch.) The real story is always some battle men are waging with each other. Woman’s role is reduced to that of temptress or baby incubator. Once past reproduction, we are unnecessary. And the lessons of Genesis, Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Timothy give men – both the young and mature – license to ignore the Violets of the world.
But the old fairy tales and myths that are the foundation for the Wise Forest Woman are the stories handed down from our pre-Christian heritage. They speak the truths that come from our human collective unconscious. We know in our hearts that old women have seen much and can teach us much.
On this visit to Crom, I found myself traveling with women who were attuned to their inner spirituality. Our companionship helped give mutual validity to our yearning for a continued place in this world. And I have found that when we throw off the insulting and demoralizing messages of the Abrahamic religions, we become open to the affirmation that there are wise women with wisdom to share. I find comfort in their company.
The above is an excerpt from my book in progress.
See also http://www.shotintheheadbook.com