Persephone has hold of me. I know I’ve written about her before, but she won’t let go. What is it about her life, characterized by the journey to hell and back, over and over again? Light to shadow, shadow to light. Jung wrote that in order to truly individuate—to mature into our full self-expression–it is important to integrate the shadow side.
What is the shadow? The shadow is patched together of the ugly brutal truths, the parts of ourselves we’d rather deny or ignore. Syria is a shadow right now, use of torture by our military is a shadow, nuclear poison washing into the sea is a shadow.
So why would we want to integrate such a hideous reality? Wouldn’t it be better to rise above these things?
Persephone says no. When I listen to her–rarely, because I don’t want to , because the things she says are hard to hear–this is the message:
Look at life. Look at the very nature of life. You are born only to die. To continue living, you must kill, incessantly. Day turns to night. Summer turns to winter. Women bleed, and ripen, and bleed, and ripen. Life itself is an interplay of these two forces, death and renewal, abundance and scarcity, light and darkness. It is not just across moments, but across time—the most fertile land turns to desert, the most barren life blossoms into genius, entire species rise and fall. If you are to understand life, if you are to understand yourself, you must understand and accept the barrenness, the darkness, the death. Otherwise you are a half-creature, living in denial of what is.
I know that land becomes fertile because glaciers crush the living rock to dust. I know that trees grow tall because they are anchored in the rotting corpses of thousands of trees that came before. I know that we ourselves are made of bits of long-dead star, stars that were born and expanded and died. This is how it is.
This time last year I was deeply in love, so in love that I could not conceive of a life that did not include my beloved. The sun of that love cast an inky shadow I nearly drowned in. Now I see, thanks to the ever-loving @$%&*^% internet, that my former beloved has found someone new, and it throws me into a Gordian knot of relief, joy, despair, fury. That’s true.
Also true is that this time last year, I marked out a circle on the front lawn and covered it in cardboard. Everything that had been growing there, deprived of light, died. I piled death after death upon that cardboard: decomposing leaves, clippings of hair, scraps of vegetables. This morning I took this photograph of that circle:
Clearly, there is something in life that loves death! The challenge for me is finding how to live with it without succumbing to it; how to celebrate joy and light and evolution while understanding shadow and misery. How to fight for a life of beauty and freedom without denying that it will, of necessity, incorporate loss and despair. How to try and change the brutalities of this reality while accepting that there will inevitably be another six months in hell after the blooming.
So Persephone sits on my altar alongside a pomegranate made of clay: the goddess of spring and light, the wife of Hades. May I gracefully integrate the shadow, as she did; may I remember to bloom in the season of blooming. When I am brought into the darkness against my will, as she was, may I find a way to be sovereign within it, as she did. May I continue to pray that all beings be happy and free, even in the knowledge that joy and freedom will always be ephemeral. May I celebrate them all the more for that understanding.