October 2008

I just reread Mama Day by Gloria Naylor, one of my all-time favorite books. You talk about your primal earth mother, matriarch, offspring-protector, healer, midwife, and southern woman – that’s her! Mama Day, the title character, is a direct descendant of the Mother of all Days, as Naylor puts it. 

I’d been thinking of rereading it for quite a while, years perhaps, with that idea just bobbing around in the back of my thoughts. Even though I find it easier to talk about books than real life, I rarely read them more than once. What pushed me to pick up a copy was an article in the New York Times (10-21-08), “Under Maryland Street, Ties to African Past.” Archaeologists in Annapolis unearthed a “bundle,” as in a wrapped up collection of objects that a practitioner of West African religion left at the edge of a street, circa 1700. The archaeologists found it notable that it was distinctly African rather than African-American. They also said it was left out in the open, rather than hidden, and made two very interesting observations:

Dr. Leone said the bundle’s visibility suggested “an unexpected level of public toleration” of African religion in colonial Annapolis. Most of the artifacts indicating that the practices were conducted in secrecy came from 50 years later. According to articles in a newspaper of the period, white people in Annapolis engaged openly in magic and witchcraft, of the English variety.

“So both European and African spirit practices may have been more acceptable then,” Dr. Leone concluded. “That changed after 1750 with the growing influence of the Enlightenment.”

What did my Scots-Irish great-grandmothers know? Did they swap secrets with their African counterparts before the Enlightenment clamped down on unsanctioned use of the supernatural? Mama Day and her community are African-American, but she in her strengths has a lot in common with the southern women I’m descended from.

In Mama Day, Naylor conjures up an archetype of pure female power – fertile, riding the wind and waves, wresting freedom from owner / husband / patriarch, and departing in a fireball back over the ocean.

Early cartographers conveniently missed the island home of Mama Day and family, somewhere off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, leaving it outside the flow of time and history. Naylor makes many references to time moving slowly or not at all on Willow Springs. At one point a character overcomes infertility by, in part, slowing down. She gets less busy and gets more done.

The family traces its origins to time outside history. An asterisk on the sixth child on the family tree at the beginning of the book leads to the note, “‘God rested on the seventh day and so would she.’ Hence, the family’s last name.” The title character is descended from the seventh son – off the edge of the chart, where footnote shades into myth – of an entire brood somehow conceived and borne in a thousand days, which start around the time that the ancestress killed the husband / owner / patriarch. Details are lost to legend because that ancestress “don’t live in the part of our memory we can use to form words.”

Naylor also uses the Days’ island paradise home to evoke that one story about the couple in the garden with the snake. Just as the novel parallels The Tempest, only with a strong female lead, it also invites a reconsideration of humanity’s relationship to the Garden of Eden. Snakes twine up Mama Day’s cane. At one point a character suggests, “Let’s play Adam and Eve.” Despite being a great guy, that character doesn’t make it out alive, due to a failure of belief. He is Enlightenment all the way, which is his undoing.

Mama Day restores some of the magic that’s been lost to the world. I always knew I wanted to be the magical type of mom, but somehow I thought it would be automatic. Along with Motherhood 1.0 came a few new widgets – being able to detect a fever, waking up just as they needed feeding – but there’s a whole lot that I think was supposed to be handed down via oral tradition, that got squelched out by the Enlightenment. 


Science and religion need each other, or maybe it’s that the future of life as we know it will depend on science and religion learning to love one another. My observations from a reasonable amount of experience with both world views are that:

1) They really don’t have to be contradictory. They just need to be respectful.

2) Science alone doesn’t offer enough hope or ritual to support coordinated social change. Not everyone seems to need religion, but some of us do. (Substitution of organized sports for religion is a whole separate discussion.)

3) Religion needs much better program evaluation. What are the effects of a given belief system? Does it really deliver on its promised benefits of membership? Is it sustainable? How does it treat women, men, children, and disadvantaged groups? What would the world be like if everyone practiced it? So far I believe one of the most widely tested and validated beliefs for generating a good quality of life that you should treat other people the way you want to be treated. 

Peace on Earth. That’s the goal. Or at least, it should be.

I just reread The Dance of Life, by E.T. Hall, and discovered how much it has influenced my thinking over the years. I have no idea why or where I bought it at some point in the 1990s, other than it must have looked interesting.

“I have come to the conclusion that the human species lives in a sea of rhythm, ineffable to some, but quite tangible to others.” (170-171)

At times I describe myself as a “rhythm junkie.” If I’m at an exercise class with music, I move to the beat, and it drives me nuts on the rare occasions when teachers don’t. If there’s music in a store, I have a hard time not moving to it. I was in a drum and bugle corps in high school — we’re talking decades ago — and still drum out the cadences. I love to watch my son play the trombone. He starts with foot tapping and is soon moving his entire body.

Hall suggests that there is a fundamental pulse driving the life of the earth. Individuals and cultures and places also have their own beat(s). I work, for instance, on a campus that is agriculturally oriented, and the pace there is remarkably slower — not in a bad way, less frenetic — than the main campus one mile to the west. I’ve told people facetiously that you can feel the deep, slow pulse of the earth while you walk across East Campus. Maybe I meant it.

Hall draws from his own and others’ experiences working with indigenous cultures. A key point is that American/Europeans (AKA we white folk, or Anglos) view music (and time) as originating externally, delivered via inspired composers or lucky bands that had a big break. In contrast, some African and American Indian cultures view music as originating internally. He also mentions that Africans tend to be aware of a much broader spectrum of communication than Anglos, who overemphasize words. And not only do different cultures have different beats; they have entirely separate concepts of time.

“Only a short step separates the rhythmic sea in which all people are entrained and some of the more contemporary theories concerning precognition.” (p 178)

The Dance of Life also delves into metaphysical observations. Hall describes the phenomenon of synchronicity, and connects it back to Jung, who is credited with first describing it. I think of synchronistic times as dropping down into a layer that’s closer to some primal Source, where patterns are a little clearer and entropy has had less effect. Non-random timing is one of the first signs of being in sync with this deeper beat, and shared thought content is part of it, too. 

A lot of people who know me have heard about my “shared field” theory, this idea that people sharing space or intent essentially log into common psychic space (cyberspace being a rich source of metaphor) and sync up with each other, like a more exclusive version of Jung’s collective unconscious. It’s not uncommon for people rooted in this common space to seemingly independently have the same idea at the same time. I often really can’t tell whether someone is picking up my thoughts or vice versa, or maybe we’re all tuned into the same intrinsic beat. Rhythm seems to be the underlying transmitter of thought, emotion and intent. And maybe emotion is a medium that allows for transmission of thought, because the phenomenon certainly seems stronger when there’s a stronger emotional connection with people.

Some scientists say that human experience is eventually going to be boiled down to a good understanding of stuff like neurotransmitters. I’m thinking binary code may be a better bet. God may not play dice with the universe, but She may well tap dance. 

If anyone knows of anyone who is following up on Hall’s work, I would love to hear about it. Meanwhile, I’ll be trying to find the common pulse that connects us all.