I lost a very dear friend a few weeks ago. Jungian analyst Elizabeth Strahan was a woman of uncommon grace and extraversive southern charm: warm, articulate, with an earthy laugh that could light up a room. A terrific teacher and writer, her essay Beyond Blood: Women of That Certain Age appeared in the book To Be a Woman: the Birth of the Conscious Feminine, and the video series she hosted, The Language of Dreams, made the nuts and bolts of Jungian psychology clear and accessible. Lizzie took great pleasure in offering her two cents worth with expressiveness and candor; she loved a beautiful garden, a fine restaurant, a terrific book… and she LOVED to dance. So do I. Anyone who has attended a Jungian conference knows how we normally serious and introversive odd ducks get down on the dance floor. Liz topped us all, moving with perfect rhythm and grinning from ear to ear as we danced the world’s sorrows away. Lizzie and I would look forward to conference dances for months, living for the moment we could do the bump together and giggle our heads off.
Our sister Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes has written in her deservedly popular Woman Who Run with the Wolves about the importance to creative women of having plenty of “little mothers” to support their full flowering. It’s been my own experience that, when we women take to the dance floor together, we support the ungirdling of our most vital and expressive energies and help liberate the embodied lifeblood of us all. Sir Laurens van der Post wrote eloquently of the two dances performed by his beloved Bushmen of the Kalahari in A Mantis Carol: the dance of the little hunger (for food) and the dance of the big hunger (for meaning.)
I was introduced to dancing by my own mama. When I was five, we took hula lessons together, enticing the air with our hands, echoing the rhythm of creation with our undulating hips. That initiation into the joy of dancing with women was a powerful gift from my mother to me, particularly poignant as she suffered so profoundly in her body over the years. The only one of her many siblings to live beyond the age of five, she endured chronic pain, numerous surgeries, and life-threatening accidents. Despite it all – perhaps because of it – she embraced life with a large and generous heart, welcomed anyone who was hungry to her table, rained bawdy humor down on life’s grievous cruelties like the Greek goddess Baubo herself. She lived her life at full-throttle, unabashedly diving into the moment with curiosity, wisdom, and love. The intensity of that love may have driven me nuts sometimes – particularly when I was a teenager struggling to pull away – but, oh lordy, did I know I was loved.
What she taught me about the body was far more nuanced and complicated. Improbably raised at the edge of a Sioux reservation in North Dakota by a couple of Russian Jewish immigrants, she spoke with visible sensual delight of seeing Indian young men arriving on horseback at her family’s creamery and general store, their long black braids glistening against their shirtless backs in the hot summer sun. She appreciated beauty in all its guises – Yosemite was a favorite of hers, another was Bryce Canyon. Unsurprisingly, she liked her Nature big. She treated her own body carelessly, worked way too hard as a waitress, smoked like a chimney, couldn’t be bothered with vanity. She had no idea how bright and beautiful she was – but she wrested the juice from the cactus all the same. Jewel Mathieson might have written her magnificent poem We Have Come to Be Danced (“the wring the sadness from our skin dance, the blow the chip off our shoulder dance, the slap the apology from our posture dance”) just for her.
Being the daughter of Ethel Karson, I guess it was no accident I had the dream that led me to write my novel The History of My Body. My dream began with a scene of a long line of women doing the hula and ended with the audible pronouncement: “It will be your task to establish the Church of Her Body.” It feels like a couple of lifetimes of exploring the realms of embodied living have transpired since then.
Needless to say, there is more than one way to dance our passion for life. My friend the writer and healer Deena Metzger has literally danced with wolves and dances with the voice of the earth in her recent novel Feral; Naomi Lowinsky dances poetry from conversations with The Sister from Below; Deborah Jiang Stein dances her prison birth into giving soul-transfusing talks to our incarcerated sisters; Carolyn Raffensperger dances her Precautionary Principle into environmental advocacy on behalf of generations to come. My young protagonist Fleur danced with physics and the void to birth herself more fully into this world.
And we women have no copyright on the dance. Jung himself danced with the dark depths until the blackness offered him transformational wisdom; my friend Jeremiah Abrams dances with jump time consciousness; Jerome Bernstein dances with solastalgic souls in Living in the Borderland.
Jackson Browne urges us in exquisite song to keep on dancing. That’s what we dancers do, with feeling. Here’s to Lizzie, to my mama, to all of us who keep on dancing until the dance becomes our very own.