In the old tales, young women are sent on dangerous quests that involve learning to sort one thing from another. One such teacher is Baba Yaga, about whom I’ve written previously. Baba Yaga is a crone, and when she can be bothered, she teaches too-sweet maidens how to sort poppy seeds from dirt, how to cleanse, and how to cook.
This is to be understood metaphorically, rather than as a statement of appropriate gender roles. Take a deep breath, all you feminists!
The idea of discernment, or the ability to tell one thing from another, is essential to living effectively, and, much like restraint, we are losing touch with it in today’s world.
Sorting poppy seeds from dirt, or wheat from chaff, or mildewed kernels from wholesome corn, is not something technology can help us do. It doesn’t require equipment, money, strength, or a college education.
It’s a hopeless task, of course, to sort poppy seeds from a pile of dirt in one night with no light and no help, but in stories it’s a task that must be done if the maiden wants to live. Usually a magical animal or some other helper arrives; symbols of the maiden’s intuition, kindness or compassion. Interestingly, the maiden often sleeps while the helper(s) accomplish the task.
Metaphorically, this indicates that our civilized, rational, logical intellect must step out of the way and allow creativity, faith and intuition to guide us. Fairytales and oral tradition map our subconscious, our shadow, our deepest and oldest foundations, the places where our primal wisdom lies. Sorting one thing from another takes time and close examination. Discernment involves our senses and our feelings as well as our intellect. It demands our consent to peer closely, and accept what we see. It can’t be done in the presence of denial. Fear clouds discernment, as do distraction, an unwillingness to be wrong, ideology, and an inability to think critically. Gaslighting, projection, distortion and deflection all work actively against our ability to see things clearly. Those who are unwilling to venture into terra incognita are unable to practice discernment, which involves learning and adaptation.
Modern life doesn’t require us to sort poppy seeds from dirt, but here are some places in which discernment is vital:
Differentiating between truth and lies
Distinguishing between friends and not-friends
Recognizing the difference between power-with and power-over
Realizing the difference between our beliefs and needs and those of others
Differentiating between love and abuse, or love and control
Distinguishing between kindness and enabling
Realizing the difference between useless and useful
Knowing the difference between what makes life easier and what makes it harder (simplicity and complication)
Understanding where our power is and where it is not
Noticing differences between words and actions (major red flag)
Differentiating between our own ghosts, struggles and wounds and those of others; in other words, do we take it all personally or blame it all on others?
Knowing the difference between our authentic selves and our pseudo selves
Recognizing the difference between what truly makes us happy and what the culture insists should make us happy
Discernment is not prejudice, hate or bigotry. The ability to tell one thing from another is a basic skill. I remember watching Sesame Street in the 60s when I was a child: “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things doesn’t belong.“
In this era of “alternative facts” and postmodernism, our ability to discern is taking a beating, and those of us who persist in attempting to clearly see and understand our world, ourselves, and others are often targeted on social media. Interesting, that a skill four and five-year-olds can learn is becoming demonized.
Practicing discernment. My daily crime.
(Go to my Hanged Man page for a story about sorting poppy seeds from dirt. Scroll down to Baba Yaga and Vasilisa.)
Scrying is “the practice of looking into a suitable medium in the hope of detecting significant messages or visions.” (Wikipedia)
My laptop has developed the Technical Flu and is in the shop. I’m chagrined to discover how much I depend on it. It’s the only portable device I have, as I still resist the pressure to obtain even a cell phone. Suddenly, my access to music, DVDs and the Internet is restricted. I know, it’s a first world problem, but I’m not complaining. I whined for the first few days, but as I sit down to write this post what I mostly feel is a kind of grateful wonder.
In my laptop’s absence I find a lot of quiet. Without my usual entertainment and distraction, my ears, eyes and attention are freed. As I work on the second book of my series, I’ve picked up a sketch pad and colored pencils in order to create a map of my very complex world where the myth, fairy tale and oral history of several cultures meet and interact. Without access to my one-dimensional outline on my word processor, I recognize the need for a two or even three-dimensional model to truly show all the connections and correspondences of the series. I’ve discovered new depths to my creative vision and work and considered new ways to approach it.
Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash
Folk and fairy tales often speak of depths. Caves, tunnels, wells and stairways descend to other places, magical underground kingdoms where evil beings lurk and flex their destructive forces and unexpected but powerful animals or crones or fairies save the hero or heroine. Gypsies, oracles, shamans and seers scry crystal balls or pools of water, smoke, fire, mirrors or stones. Runes whisper messages. Tarot cards reveal enigmatic insight.
We are in the depths of seasonal darkness now. In two weeks the light begins to return. Here in Maine the day starts to fade at 3:30 in the afternoon and an hour later it’s full dark. What do the depths of darkness hold? What lies between the stars? What dreams unfold behind our eyelids during the long sleeping hours? What lives, hunts and dies in the winter-bare forests under the moon? What stirs in the dark sea’s deeps?
If we could separate ourselves and all those around us from our tech and toys, if we could all free our eyes from the screen and our ears from the noise and look, clear-eyed and undistracted, at those around us, what would we see in one another? If we were forced to sit quietly at a window with nothing but a chair for company, what might we discover in the world around us? If we stand naked and alone in front of a mirror and look into our own eyes, what looks back at us?
What lies in the depths of longing and loss? What lies denied and amputated in the deeps of a soul? What waits to be rediscovered or reclaimed, healed or released?
Some of the deepest, darkest, coldest and most fearsome depths in my life turned out to be only ankle-deep after all. Ankle deep and unpleasant, but, once challenged and understood, pathetic and sad rather than powerful and terrible. Shallows pretending to be depths. A leech or two instead of a sea monster.
Other shallows are so seductive, so enticing, so shiny, that we joyously bare our feet and run into them, gradually wading farther and farther from shore, our attention captured, our gaze fixed on their captivating surface, and there we stay until we die.
All my life I’ve been told I’m too intense. I’ve never known exactly what that means, and the criticism never fails to both hurt and irritate, especially as I can’t get more information. Asking probing questions is simply an example of my obnoxious intensity, it appears.
I wonder this morning if what people are expressing is discomfort with my love for the depths, for the dark where miracles happen, for the hidden thing, be it dreadful or dazzling. Questioning is falling out of social favor. Political correctness shackles and gags us. The shiny shallows are the place to be, where text messages, emojis and ‘likes’ glitter and frolic and algorithms and ideology teach us what to think, believe, value and buy.
Photo by Ryan Hutton on Unsplash
I can be seduced by the shallows as well as anyone, and have several times been fooled by them, but somewhere inside me resides a wild thing, a female creature that glories in the power of the dark and deep and always returns to passion, emotion, and creativity. I want to dive into the night sky and swim naked among the stars and nebulae. I want to see and be seen, hear and be heard, know and be known. I navigate with a mouthful of questions and an insatiable curiosity. I don’t want life to be pretty and distracting and shiny. I don’t want all my dreams to be sunlit and filled with flowers and kittens.
I want life to be as it is, smelling of musk and blood and starlight, dark and powerful and magnificent beyond my puny imagination. I want the hot eroticism of life and the torn flesh of death. I want to embrace the unknowable, kiss the lips of mystery and reclaim and wield the full power of my fear.