As is often the case, when I first finished this painting, I had little knowledge of the insights it held in store for me.
The first revelation came when my husband commented that the fish to the left was not in a natural position, that it wasn’t moving. Often the very section of a painting that doesn’t make sense holds great jewels to unearth about what lies in the deeper layers of the psyche.
I knew that I hadn’t drawn the fish wrong, but that I had to pay attention to it, the way the woman in the painting was. She seemed to be a little withdrawn, peeking through the plants with a resigned expression. When I tried to feel into her, what came up was sadness. After a while I realized that it might be about the witnessing of my mother’s life that seemed to be captured by the metaphor of the inactive fish: letting the waters carry her, not moving of its own accord, not dead, but certainly not filled with life energy or directionality either. My mom had been diagnosed with dementia around the time this painting came through, and I remember feeling angry instead of compassionate, somehow thinking it was her final act of embracing helplessness. Irrational for sure, but emotions are not required to make sense.
Then I started reading about Persephone and discovered what it is like to be a daughter of Persephone—a daughter of Persephone that has a lot of Athena in her.
There are two phases to Persephone, the Maiden who is beautiful, carefree, naïve and dependent, and the matured Queen of the Underworld who reigns over the dead souls, guides the living who visit the underworld, and claims the things she wants for herself.
The chapter on Persephone in Bolen’s Goddesses in Everywoman was like a description of my mother. I believe humans are too multifaceted and complicated to fit into categories and yet, Maiden Persephone who didn’t mature to be the Queen of the Underworld fit my mother as I knew her. Thinking of her as a Persephone woman somehow began to ease my resentment toward her. There is power to how myths personify human characteristics that makes it seem like archetypal energies are at play alongside personal choice. This makes it a little easier to forgive transgressions.
I probably needed an active, confident, caring mother and instead had an eternally youthful, compliant in action, passive in attitude, young at heart girl, who remained unaware of her desires or strengths.
We were watching the Olympics together during my last visit, and I remembered her saying she would have loved to do what the various athletes were doing. Something I had heard a million times growing up, “I would have loved to”… When I was younger I thought she really was too old to start things or felt bad that she hadn’t had the opportunities. Later I realized that she lacked the passion, will or strength to go after the things she would/could have enjoyed. She always told me she would have loved to ride horses the way I did, and I realized she was in her late thirties when I started, so could have easily given it a try. My father who was seven years older then her had, and stopped only after he fell and broke two ribs. She would endlessly complain about not getting to do things, and then when the opportunities arose, did not follow up. The maiden is described as uncommitted to things, not only goals but relationships as well.
Pretty much everything that wasn’t going right in my mom’s life was dad’s fault. There are men who do not encourage or allow women to be active of course, but this was not the case. My dad was always proud whenever anyone engaged with anything with commitment.
I remember her explaining that she never celebrated Christmas because dad wasn’t into it. It didn’t occur to her that she could have initiated and carried things out for herself. That she could lead or fight for things that mattered to her. But that is not in the archetypal make up of a Maiden Persephone.
The tragedy of passivity is not knowing how we can rob ourselves of the pride we could feel when things go well, which happens at least as often as it doesn’t. It remains somewhat baffling to me when women who have opportunity and options do not use them when so many don’t have the privilege. And of course this is not a gender specific problem. And of course things are different when there are mental / health problems.
Jung says: "I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become". I’ve always believed that it is a mixture of the two. Nature and nurture impact us deeply, and we can learn and grow through our experiences, the good and the bad, as opposed to letting them trap or control us. We can all lead lives consciously and choicefully, but it does require the desire/drive for it. And the willingness that it takes to do the work of awareness. People often view going to therapy as a weakness, but in reality it is for the brave of heart.
I often credit my mother for my becoming a psychotherapist as I remember growing up listening to her problems and forever trying to come up with solutions. It was many years after I became a psychotherapist that I realized that she maybe never wanted things to be different, that her complaints had been a way to communicate and relate to the people and world around her, and that it worked for her.
The role of therapist is that of listener, meaning maker, witness, while change and transformation remain in the hands and will of the client. The potential to change from maiden to queen resides in every Persephone. The want for change, however, each one has to find within herself.
Sibel Ozer is a licensed professional counselor and board-certified art therapist currently doing private practice in downtown Ann Arbor. She started her career as a clinical psychologist working with earthquake survivors in Turkey. She continued her work in the United States in hospice, hospital, and private practice settings further specializing in grief, loss, and trauma. She is a certified EMDR practitioner and a graduate of the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland. She gives experiential workshops nationally and in her country of origin (Turkey) on different art therapy topics. Visit www.sibelozer.com, call (303) 905-1109, or email email@example.com.