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Baba Yaga/Mother Earth, Sculptural needle felted and mixed media and Vasilisa, the Brave, Sculptural needle felting and mixed media in 2019 exhibit.
What helps us through our dark times?
Recently a participant in the Befriending Our Shadow class mentioned the impact that my Baba Yaga and Vasilisa dolls had on her. She has been going through the painful experience of accompanying a close friend through the last stages of a terminal disease and then her death. What could she do to support her friend when there was seemingly nothing left to do? And what could she do for herself to ease her way through her own grief?
These concerns were all exacerbated by her not being able to be with her friend during this time of COVID. She resonated with the helplessness of one of the central figures in the story, Vasilisa, but also with the way this character receives help. She said, “when I translated my experience into Vasilisa's encounter with Baba Yaga it was enormously comforting to me. The story helped me see how helpless I felt in the face of my friend's impossible demands and where I could turn for help.”
The Baba Yaga and Vasilisa Story
Here is the story, in the way that I understand it. There are many variations and in Russia, it is a very common story, as familiar to Russians as the story of Hansel and Gretel is to us. A young girl, Vasilisa, is given a special doll, by her dying mother. Her mother tells her to keep the doll with her always. The mother dies and the “wicked step-mother” forces Vasilisa to go to the woods to get fire for the hearth from Baba Yaga. “Everyone” knows that Baba Yaga, the “wicked witch,” lives in the woods and kills anyone who visits her who cannot answer her questions or perform the tasks she sets them. The evidence of this is the skulls that grace the outside of Baba Yaga’s house and that Baba Yaga wears around her neck. Vasilisa is frightened but she goes anyway. The doll secretly tells Vasilisa the answers to Baba Yaga’s questions, so that instead of killing Vasilisa, Baba Yaga is obliged to give her a flaming skull. There is more to the story, including what Vasilisa eventually does with the flaming skull.
Accompaniment in Times of Grief and Loss
Dying and illness can be a time of isolation and the pain of this isolation can exacerbate the pain of the grief itself. The story of a mother giving a doll to her daughter upon her death symbolizes the passing on of comfort and guidance, from one generation to the next. The story also reflects how we as women can mature into a new way of seeing when we have experienced great pain and sorrow. The doll that Vasilisa receives symbolizes the internalization of her mother’s wisdom and nurturing presence, and of her maturing into her own sense of agency.
Another level to the Baba Yaga story is how we can all access an infinite source of inner guidance when we are faced with losses such as illness and death. It reminds us that we are not alone. The dying mother gives Vasilisa part of herself, which Vasilisa then internalizes and then is able to use in her communication with the scary Baba Yaga. This second exchange between Vasilisa and Baba Yaga is another form of internalization of wisdom. Scary and harsh as Baba Yaga is, she helps Vasilisa by giving her the flaming skull, a symbol of fierce wisdom, which Vasilisa is then able to make her own.
Facing Powerlessness and Death
One of the most difficult aspects of facing the death of someone we are close to is our powerlessness. We feel powerless, both because we are reminded of our own deaths and because there is nothing we can do to help. Death is scary to look at, especially in the dominant culture where there are no rituals of acceptance of death as a natural part of the cycle of life. Death and grieving are relegated to the shadows in our society.
During a large-scale crisis, such as the one we are currently living in, we are forced to face losses on many levels and yet, still are left with inadequate tools to process these losses. Stories such as Baba Yaga can help us to find ways to wrap our minds around these impossibly challenging realities, by, for one thing, reminding us of our interconnectedness. The many archetypal roles in the Baba Yaga story, “maiden, mother, crone” are all interconnected parts of the cycle of life.
We can be the young child, in her fear and helplessness, we can be the mother, providing guidance in the form of a symbolic doll to our own inner child and our mothering self and then to others who are suffering in grief and loss. And we can also be the crone, softening in response to the answered attuned to our questions and then providing fierce wisdom and power to our younger self. We can align ourselves with all these self-identities, and recognize the ways in which they are all one.
What can we take with us from this story?
No matter where you are along this continuum of a woman’s life, you can benefit from this story. Think for a moment of a time when you have felt loss or grief and have been comforted by those who represent these various archetypal roles. And can you think of a time when you have been able to find these archetypes within yourself? If we can make room in our lives for rituals that allow us to experience grief and loss, we begin to have the inner spaciousness to be there for others as well.
Perhaps you can challenge yourself by creating an image of your inner Vasilisa, mother or Baba Yaga, by drawing it in your journal or maybe making it into a doll. Or you can visualize one of these powerful figures and imagine what she would look like or where she would live in your body. Or you may respond to this story by journaling the ways in which you feel a connection to each of these archetypal representations of a woman’s life stages. We need each other but with a sense of this outward support, we can also have access to symbolic reminders of what can help us through dark times of sorrow and loss.
A participant in the “Befriending Our Shadow” e-course described a dilemma she was facing in choosing a theme for her doll. She said, “I have some ideas but nothing feels right.” I asked her to describe one of the ideas that didn’t feel “right,” and she said, “one aspect of my shadow is ‘feeling like a couch potato’.” But she thought that idea was too superficial and on one level, maybe this was true. She didn’t want to settle for the “easy” thing, she wanted to get to something more real and meaty.
You may be facing something like this in your day-to-day life….you have a big project that you want to attempt, but every time you start, something keeps you from taking the first steps. You just can’t figure out the “right” way to approach it. After careful consideration, you have enough self-insight to realize that your search for the right thing may be a way to avoid getting started. But then it occurs to you that the very most important next step is to take a very long nap. Most likely this means you are dealing with some aspect of the shadow. Nothing wrong with naps of course.
First thought, best thought?
There is a saying, ‘first thought, best thought,” and in the example above, the participant and I discussed how even though “couch potato” could in one way be seen as a superficial theme, there may be something deeper, if she became willing to delve below the surface. We are dealing with shadows here and they can be notoriously trickster characters. They can hide in plain sight or they can morph into the opposite of what you think they are. We can spend endless time searching for the “right” way to do things, yet sometimes we do just need to jump in. Sometimes the first thought is the best thought. Sometimes you have to be willing to do the dance with the shadow, to hold it lightly.
Are you a planner, comfortable with detail, or are you a jump-in-feet-first kind of person?
Another challenge for this participant, a gifted and highly skilled artist, who is especially good at carefully planning out her artworks, might have been that her planning skills were getting in the way. Because we are in the realm of the shadow, a place where planning can go out the window, where our highly skilled and experienced left brain mind has absolutely no idea how to proceed. What to do then? People who are more comfortable jumping in head first and without a plan may have a slight advantage here, but maybe not.
The shape-shifting shadow has a way to get at the non-planners as well, leading them into a path of confusion, with idea after idea piling in on top of each other, higgelty-piggelty. Someone who “usually” approaches problems without a plan, when facing their shadow, may most need to learn to set up parameters, structures and boundaries. Take a moment and consider which is your habitual way of approaching problems? Neither way is better than the other-they’re just different. Side note, what I have noticed in myself is that there are areas of my life where I tend to be the feet first jumping in kind of person, ie with art-making, especially doll making. But out in the real world I tend to be more of a planner.
Maybe this idea is the start of something bigger but you just need to chip at a small piece of it to start?
I don’t know yet what the end of this story was for this participant. Was the couch potato idea the way to go? Maybe this idea was a non-starter and yet maybe it was instead a doorway to something more profound. The idea here is that we have developed strategies for dealing with the usual problems in our life, the things and tasks that occur with regularity. But when confronted with something completely new, we have to start from scratch. And at first it can look like just one big huge couch potato weighing down on us. How to get started? Maybe we just have to start with one tiny bite out of the potato.
Starting where you are
What would that look like? In the class we did an exercise where we looked at the layers of the shadow. You may have tried something like this yourself, a dialogue with your ideas.
1. Use your dominant hand to ask questions and respond to the question with your non-dominant hand.
2. Write down one layer of your "shadow"-a part of you that you are wanting to ignore and ask, "why does this bother me?"
3. Keep going with "why" questions to see what is underneath the shadow.
4. Eventually you may get to some sort of "gold" some insight into what your shadow might be hiding from you.
This is best done in a spirit of lightness and without any expectation of definite answers. Eventually you may get to a place with new information and even possibly a place where you feel a sense of connection and ease.
“What is meant for you cannot miss you…what is not meant for you cannot hit you”
I am participating in a program that is led by a Sufi healer, Mark Silver and he recently shared with us an idea from his Sufi lineage. The idea was profound and yet simple, “what is meant for you cannot miss you, and what is not meant for you cannot hit you.” This idea resonated with me deeply and I have been thinking of it ever since. We spend so much time trying to figure out what the right actions might be, to take this path or the other path. To focus on one area of a problem or another? To work with this person or someone else? ad infinitum. But instead, what if we can just rest into opening the door right in front of us? What if we just trust that we will be guided as we take the steps along the path?
This doesn’t mean throwing away our thinking mind, or planning mind. This part of our brain is extremely useful. But it does mean using our thinking mind in conjunction with a pretty good relationship with the mysterious and the unknown. My highly visual mind sees an image of someone walking hand in hand into the sunset with a very large but strongly grounded on two feet, potato. I wish them well.
Goal is wholeness
Because ultimately the goal is wholeness. That’s what we really want. What a gift it ultimately is to be faced with new paths and new problems, because if we didn’t have that, how would we grow? I have a couple new ideas for e-courses in the works but I’m not ready to talk about them yet. The Befriending Our Shadow class that I talked about above, will be offered again in the spring. I have had several people ask me about in-person classes but those aren’t happening any time soon, with the levels of infection going up across the country. Sending love to all of you and hoping you are able to stay safe and comfortable but that you are also finding ways to challenge yourself with new experiences. Lots of love.
Transformative Healing Dolls
I've been making dolls for about five years now. I believe that dolls serve as representations and reminders of the best part of ourselves. I am exited to share with you here my learnings about new methods and techniques for doll making and healing. So glad you are here!