blog description

Old women talk about old things: history, myth, magic and their
checkered pasts, about what changes and what does not.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Crone Shamanism

The warmer weather has brought back the evening chorus, the insistent shrill calls of all local amphibians. Their voices call out to each other and to us as well, reminding us of the sacred trust between human and creature.                             
Through the centuries many people have explored ways of opening lines of communication between us and animals. Shamanism is a contemporary spiritual practice that opens that doorway and is respectful, playful and creative.
The term "shaman" comes from a Siberian tribal word and it indicates a person who is able, in an altered state to leave her or his body and travel to other realms. Shamanism is fundamentally a way of viewing Nature as alive and interconnected with us.
In ancient cultures around the world the shamans were the healers, priests and artists. The shamans, either women or men worked ritual with the forces of Nature, with the assistance of their spirit Guides, Helpers and Power-animals.
As mediators between the community and the Great Sacred Mysteries they were responsible for the survival of the group.  This was no small thing…. It was a great thing and an integral part of everyday life. As society became "civilized" and increasingly distant from any close relationship with Mother Earth shamanic practices faded away.
Our contemporary form of western shamanism would not be possible without the work of Michael Harner. Beginning in the 1950's Dr Harner, an anthropologist, researched and developed the study of core shamanism, published the book "Way of the Shaman" and  went on to establish the Center for Shamanic Studies. The shamanic journey was developed into a safe, easy and accessible form of altered consciousness facilitated by the rhythmic percussion of the sacred drum which allows a form of trance, a reverie, a crossing over into non-ordinary reality. There is seeing in the dark with the eyes of the heart and a willingness to be surprised as the experience unfolds.  
The shamanic journey experience is on opportunity to use our amazing human ability to balance logical rational thinking with wild playful creative imagination. Sometimes the solution to a problem comes from being illogical, irrational….. thinking outside the box of our ordinary responses.
Frog speaks to me of abundance, renewal and the importance of clean water. How clear is my understanding? How well is my inner fluid flowing?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Civil War Spy

Mary Bowser

During a sesquicentennial year, battles and generals of the Civil War continue to get most of the attention. In the past I felt some of the heroic women deserved their own story, and I have blogged about a female soldier and Dr. Mary Walker. This time I'll continue with an almost totally unknown spy by the name of Mary Bowser. Her birth date is unknown, but it's believed that she was born in 1839. She was born a slave to John Van Lew in Richmond, Virginia. Upon his death in 1843, Van Lew's wife freed the slaves, but it was in name only due to the terms of his will.

Van Lew's daughter, Elizabeth, became the head of the household in the 1850s. She was aware of Mary's intelligence and sent her North to be formally educated. Mary became a missionary to Africa, and returned to Virginia to marry Wilson Bowser, a free black man. Shortly afterward, the Civil War broke out.

Elizabeth Van Lew was part of a major spy network in Richmond, and she frequently resorted to a routine that gave her the appearance that she was crazy, earning her the nickname "Crazy Bet." She briefly appears in my novel Honor & Glory. Her greatest achievement though was using Mary Bowser as a spy.

Not only was Mary highly educated, but she had a photographic memory. She assumed the role of a slow-thinking, dull-witted servant. Van Lew managed to get her to serve at social functions held by Varina Davis, the wife of the Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Eventually, she was hired full time and worked in the Davis household, serving meals. Because of Mary's education and memory, she was able to work invisibly, reading any papers.

She relayed the information to a baker by the name of Thomas McNiven who made deliveries. In his recollections that he relayed to his daughter, he only used Mary's first name. He mentioned her photographic memory and that she could repeat everything she saw on the President's desk "word for word." Mary's full name wasn't revealed until 1911 in Harper's Monthly Magazine by Elizabeth Van Lew's niece.

Her [Elizabeth Van Lew] method of reaching President Davis in his least-guarded moments is evidence of her genius as a spy and a leader of spies. The Van Lews had owned a negro girl of unusual intelligence; several years before the war she had been given her freedom... this young woman was Mary Elizabeth Bowser, was now sent for; she came, and for a time was coached and trained for her mission; then... she was installed as a waitress in the White House of the Confederacy.

There are no records as to what happened to Mary after the war, but in 1995, the United States Army finally recognized her contribution and inducted her into U.S. Army Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame. I won't post the photo commonly believed to have been Mary Bowser because it's a hoax. While the woman's name was Mary Bowser, she wasn't the same Mary Bowser, who had served as a spy during the Civil War.

Kim Murphy

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Memory of Scent

I sometimes study and take mental notes of the way a writer describes what a character smells. But more often than not, I have to admit that I skim over these words to move onto the action. At the same time, I understand the power of scent to evoke memory. In my experience, when I am assailed with a scent that takes me back to a particular time and place in my life, it's a physical feeling as much as a cognitive recognition of a moment in my history. Here are a few that stand out for me.

1. Boxwood 
 This may well be my first scent memory.  I am a little girl and I'm standing in someone's yard.  I have the impression of  tall trees, possibly cedars or pine, a high wooden brown privacy fence, patches of sun and shade, and this strong odor. For years I didn't know what this smell was, but if I'd catch a whiff of it, I was standing in that garden, again. I have sort of a love/hate relationship with boxwood's vaguely sweet but mostly skunk-like bitter qualities. 

 2.  Lavender 
My mother introduced my sister and I to "smelly goods" early on.  Perfume and cologne were an integral part of getting dressed up. Talcum powder (whether it was baby, Bismoline or the scented kind in a circular container with a big colorful puff) was liberally applied after a bath (especially in the summertime).  One of Mom's signature scents was Yardley's English lavender. The soap was so strong you could smell the lavender through the cardboard box. Heavenly. Recently I read that lavender is supposedly an aphrodisiac for men. Which made me laugh to myself because it only evokes home and childhood for me. Then, again, also on the list were pumpkin pie and cinnamon. . .  Okaaay.  I think we're getting a little Oedipal here, and that's a topic that's not part of my essay.

3. Coconut
Yes, I realize most people think beach and suntan oil. For me, this scent is all about Christmas. This scent transports me back to being in elementary school and helping to make coconut snap cookies. Brown sugar, Brer Rabbit molasses, butter and canned coconut. The "batter" mixture was so thick, it could stop the beaters on the electric mixer. So this often required prolonged, manual hand mixing. I felt so privileged and grown up to be helping to make one of my favorite cookies. It never occurred to me that it was the amount of labor involved that prompted my mother to put me and Dad to work.  When I changed my diet about six years ago, I started to cook with coconut oil. I throw some in with vegetables or use it on the rare occasions when I fry or saute something. There's always some left on the spoon, so I stick in my mouth. Tasting and smelling coconut oil is a simulateous sensation. And I'm back in the kitchen at Christmastime.

4. Spearmint 
The smell of mint tea reminds me of summer days at my Grandmother's house. It was an old brick row house with a nice sized back yard (for the city).  Grandma had a green thumb, and so apparently, did my Grandfather.  They grew tomatoes, flowers and rhododendrons. We used to forage for johnny jump ups and the spearmint leaves that grew wild in the grass or the flower beds. We'd bring handfuls of mint to my grandmother. She'd put them in a glass pitcher, pour boiling water over them and add sugar.  I can still picture sitting at the kitchen table with its grey and white swirly formica top, impatiently waiting for the steeping tea leaves to turn the water a pale yellow.

5. "Ocean"
 I call this one "ocean" with quotes because it's that salty smell that we always started to  smell in the car on the way to the beach. (We were later informed wasn't really the ocean per say, it was actually the sewage in the water). What a way to demote a favorite childhood scent that evoked the whole vacation experience. 

6. Paint
This one is about being 14 and on my first trip to England.  I stayed with a penpal in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and her family's home was a city rowhouse and their oldest daughter's bedroom had recently been painted (or redecorated, as they described it). The odor of the paint stayed with me for years after. It still takes me back to England and the Ince house.

7. Peppermint
Again, a smell that I readily identify with a time and a place and didn't know the source of the scent until years later.  This one is from  my dorm room, sophomore year at Muhlenberg college in Allentown.  My roommate, Rachel was addicted to her peppermint chewing gum.  The smell sends me right back to that room, and I can picture all the details – the floral pattern on my comforter, my posters on the walls - (and hear Rachel snapping her gum while she sits at her desk, studying).

What smells whisk you back to your past?

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Mom's Easter Egg Hunts

One of my mother’s glorious traditions was the Easter Egg Hunt. I say glorious because my mother was glorious with the creativity and artistic flair for color and form she brought to any celebration – big or small. And the Egg Hunt became quite big, over the years.
                We have pictures of the eggs and girls adorning my Grandmother’s Mary Street yard. I, my sister, and our cousin are in our Easter bonnets and matching coats. We are holding our baskets and usually smiling, in various stages of glee and remorse. My best memory is actually the sounds accompanying at least one of these events. I am saying, “I found one!” and as I run through the cool spring-green grass I hear my sister say, “It’s my turn!” What follows is a jumble of let-her-have-it-you-have-enough’s and cries and groans and awwww’s. The pictures cannot catch visual representations of this sordid behavior. But this event was not my Mother’s creation. My clearest memory of her initiative comes years later.
 Mom had decided that we were too old for wicker basket sports, so she announced that this would be our last hurrah. I woke that morning and immediately spotted a green plastic egg – in my bedroom! Twisting the halves apart, I wondered how she had managed to put it in my room during the night. I was a notoriously light sleeper. Then all thoughts except “Surprise!” flew into the softly lit morning. A folded piece of paper and 2 or 3 M&M’s fell into my open hand. The paper held a clue! I may have put on slippers and a robe, I can’t remember. I know I started for the stairs as there was a hint about the kitchen, I think, and Mom stood at the bottom. “You have to wait for Bobbi to wake up. Come down and watch TV but don’t look around!” Once again she vastly over-rated my ability to follow directions or curb my curiosity.   
After groaning and rolling my eyes, I sat in front of the television and examined the room through slit lids and barely noticeable twists of my head. I thought. There was one egg with mismatched colors (half was blue and the other half yellow – another miracle of the plastic invasion) sitting on the mantle, behind a ceramic basket. When my sleepy sibling finally shuffled down the hall from her downstairs bedroom, I was off the chair like a shot. I was just about to open the lovely blue and yellow ovoid when Mom proclaimed, “your eggs are the solid colors. Put that back!”
“Well, thanks for the warning,” I whispered, just loud enough for her to hear. Bobbi managed to look incredibly sleepy and pouty at the same time. We had skills.
The rest of that morning was one of the best holidays I can remember. The clues were wonderful – and numbered, for us or Mom I do not know. Each egg was a riddle, challenging our ability to interpret metaphor and recall the blueprints of our home. Achieving the end of the search is still a sensory event. I was in our bathroom (upstairs and next to my room, again). The warmth and soft pink of the light was so comforting. Our linen closet was just the upper half of the wall and its double doors opened with white-painted brass knobs. That clean, freshly washed smell met my face as I leaned into the soft piles of folded terry-cloth and spotted the basket in the back corner. There was very little candy in its plastic grass filler, but a gift-wrapped present leaned against the wicker rim. It held a beautiful ceramic statue of St. Francis of Asissi. Tall and slender, the saint’s wreathed head was bent to touch a fawn that melted into his robe. A bird perched on his shoulder. The figures were colored with a brown and green glaze that melted over the forms. It seemed to have been made just for me, and my Mother’s recognition of that overwhelmed me with her love. I told her how much I loved the statue and the treasure hunt, actually in awe of her skill for pleasing even me - the most cynical and irritable member of our family. I don’t know when I gave up St. Francis’s long-treasured, chipped likeness but would love to have it back again.
There was never a second to Mom’s ultimate Easter Morning. It couldn’t be matched if she’d tried. Bobbi and I started to help with the Egg Rolls at church after that. There was always Easter Candy around the house for dinner, sometimes even a bunny or two. The white chocolate was my favorite. Then for many years there were ham dinners and red-beet eggs to eat, and the confections disappeared until…
Grandchildren. Mom and Dad united forces as soon as Bobbi’s daughter Katie could crawl. We started indoors for the first year or two. Then we were outside in the yard – forsythia in full bloom and tufts of garlic grass waving in the breeze. When my son Woody joined the fray we heard the I-saw-it-first’s, and whines, and also the laughter of short people chasing colors and chocolate. The fun even branched out to include the neighbors’ kids. Plastic eggs reappeared while cleaning up the yard in the fall.
Finally, on those brisk spring mornings, Mom had to sit, wrapped in blankets, and referee. She gave audible clues to the underdogs, and ordered the taller hunters to surrender some plunder to the shortest basket bearers. It was a charmed day, really. We often stared in wonder at the children who stopped picking up eggs and took a bumbler’s hand, saying “look – there’s one!” The chocolate was a sidelight after all.