Another Side of Occult Motherhood

by on Oct.14, 2010

button flower

A few years ago, John and I participated in a peyote ceremony in Western Wisconsin presided over by an Andean ayahuasquero who had also apprenticed with some elders in the Native American Church. His wife—a Mexican curandera—prepared the peyote buttons while the rest of us set up our nests in the enormous teepee outside. It was around this time of year, in the vicinity of Samhain, and chilly, maybe even snowing. In the middle of the teepee the designated Firekeeper summoned an architecture that would sustain a strapping fire till morning and accommodate the shifting proprioception awaiting our collective postprandial experience. Outside the teepee, the Roadman was digging a puke pit. Eventually everyone settled in, the ayahasquero sang and smoked over the buttons, we ate them in rounds and sang icaros continuously, without break, throughout the night. (This was a kind of hybrid ceremony, you might say, icaros and Amazonian mapacho traditionally belonging to the realm of Ayahuasca.) The four young children of this shaman couple joined us in the teepee, sometimes singing, sometimes chasing each other and giggling or squirming out of boredom, mostly though they slept because the ceremony didn’t start until 11 PM and ended at 7 the next morning. Their mother, who was at the time 8 ½ months pregnant, did not sleep. Her singing voice mellifluously transcended the baseline arc of sound and spun shapes and animals and petroglyphs in the air around us. Because she was pregnant, she was entitled to the last button, and had, every other round, taken two instead of the one button allotted the rest of us—since she was essentially eating for two, this was the proper shamanic comportment. As far as “queer,” or perhaps better might be “wrinkled” temporality, well time gets all spontaneous and slippery and ruptured and synesthetic in the mescaline field and nobody remembers or cares about schedules. This is more like mythic time: the break in linear consciousness, in spatio-temporal normativity, is pretty much the whole point of the exercise.

In her book Hygieia: A Woman’s Herbal, Jeannine Parvati notes that many women, Huichol and otherwise, wear a peyote button nestled high in their vaginas like a cervical cap. “Taking these [mind-altering] herbs,” writes Parvati, “can give parents an opportunity to feel their world as their children do…become one within the baby space.” She invokes Hecate, Goddess of Witches, as representative of the “dark connection with healing and female’s trimurti with sexual energy. This Goddess suggests that we women healers regain our lost gnosis, our knowledge of the occult and use the tools of astrology, tarot, or other intuitive channels in our diagnoses and ministerings.”

The late enthnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, in his Plants of the Gods, describes an ointment made from a potent mixture of the nightshade herbs Belladonna, Henbane, and Mandrake, along with the “fat of a stillborn child,” that, during the early Modern period especially (although occult relationships between women and plant allies carry on robustly in a continuous present), was “rubbed over the skin or inserted into the vagina for absorption.” A 1324 investigation reported, “in rifleing the closet of the ladie, they found a Pipe of ointment, wherewith she greased a staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin, when and in what manner she listed.” A few hundred years later, another such investigation concluded “the vulgar believe and the witches confess, that on certain days and nights they anoint a staff and ride on it to the appointed place or anoint themselves under the arms and in other hairy places and sometimes carry charms under the hair.” Flight from both patriarchy/”wifely duty” and maternity to some parallel zone released from sequential logic or convention.

For some reason this reminds me of Bernadette Mayer, who describes in The Desire of Mothers to Please Others in Letters, how she felt obliged to cut her armpit hair with a scissors “in a summer ceremony intended to render me less hairy so I could wear shorts and abbreviated shirts in Lenox…I would like to be a mother’s brother like my uncle, what would that feel like?” This was while she suspected she was pregnant with her third child, despite a negative test result from the doctor (“…before I found out I wasn’t pregnant theoretically and scientifically provably though of course I still might be, I had a series of the famous bee-sting dreams. I’ve had them every time I was pregnant and never when I was not.”) Of course her suspicion is eventually confirmed, and by the end of the book she has delivered her son Max Theodore. “Sex and being a tailor,” she writes in the “Gardening in Containers” letter, “I mean a mother is sometimes like two things, the androgynous exhaustion of the limbs isn’t needed and every already learned pleasure and its moment is changed and set at a time when there has been no time of emptiness before it.” In an earlier letter she admits “I wouldn’t mind flying even on the mystical cracking plane, I’m sure I already have.” Dreams, planes, broomsticks…

I remember reading once how the San Francisco witch Z Budapest showed her young sons her vulva and clit while they all took a bath together. “Neato!” they reportedly responded. I’ve also heard and read lots of stories from pregnant and parent teens (some actually pre-teen) during the ten years I worked with them as an artist-in residence—their stories are not quite so neato, but certainly occult. It takes some witchcraft to manage motherhood when you live on the streets, or in a shelter, or with your baby’s daddy’s cousin, or maybe even your pimp, and your own mom is in jail or generally “somewhere else,” or she simply banished you and your big bizarro belly that, with some errant pubes, spills like a parasitic twin out of your skinny jeans; and plus you’re still in high school or middle school where they’re teaching you how to type and “resolve conflict” and get on Medicaid and find clinics that administer the Depo shot for free, as well as how to pass the standardized tests or appropriately neutralize yourself on job aps so that you can “improve your lot” and “contribute to the community” and other such platitudes presented as hoops you’re entreated to jump through en route to what you readily predict will be nothing more than your own enslavement. These girls know how to form a coven.

I was a single mother for the first 10 years of my daughter’s life and hardly ever went to sleep before 3 or 4 AM. I wrote upstairs in an unfinished attic while she slept, and I rose alongside of her spasmodically awakening body (luckily she liked to sleep in, sometimes until almost 7!) to tend to our physical needs etc. before taking her (in the infant-toddler phase) to either my Mom’s house, or to the Montessori “preschool” I could only afford two days a week, while I went to school and worked as a medical transcriptionist (both full-time). Those were the days! Once, as I descended from the attic wondering how I would quell the manic poem-produced vibrations enough to get some sleep—probably, toward that end, I had finished off a bottle of wine at the very least by then— so that I might refrain from, for example, flinging a kitchen chair down the basement stairs at my Mom’s (as I had done one morning when my exhaustion-fueled rage inadvertently leaked out from beneath my maternal hem), I heard the distinctly occult sounds of birthing labor coming from under my bed, to where Nora had, as she always did, migrated during my attic absence. (One day while I was doing the dishes, or maybe cleaning a toilet, and for a moment lost track of my child’s existence, I suddenly heard her crying “Mama! Mama!” from some distant locale, as if she was radio-ing in from another planet. I finally found her where I’d least expected to find her, so tiny under the towering attic rafters and all out of context, plopped down amidst a flurry of papers (poem drafts produced at the time on a manual typewriter), having ventured into that mysterious habitat that so preoccupied and hoarded her mother. Most of the disheveled pages were newly marked with ribbons of scribble, and her fingers, including the two she liked to suck, were ink-smudged blue. “Look Mama, I wrote you a pomey.” [For more of Nora’s adventures in pometry, I recommend a quick glance at “Poetry, Why Me?”]) But back to the clandestine birth business: maybe it was even a full moon on that particular night, who knows—and who knows why our cat Zerlina chose to deliver her kittens directly under the sleeping dreaming energy of a two year old girl-child (who remained remarkably, blissfully undisturbed by the goings-on under the bed.) I woke Nora up for the occasion, and together we witnessed first one, then another, then a third slimy, squeaky, near-hairless kitten emerge from the fur cloud of Zerlina’s crumpled black body. (On a side note, a cat’s litter can often include offspring from more than one sperm donor, depending on how adventurous she is during the hours of her heat. This phenomenon was evidenced in our 3 very different-looking kittens.) While the newborns wormed their way to Zerlina’s nipple sprawl, she set about eating the afterbirth and tongue-scraping the kittens clean—taking the birth detritus back into her body. Nora and I dragged the blankets and pillows onto the floor so we could ride out our last few hours of sleep in close proximity to this glimmering scene. When I woke later that morning I found that the whole clan of us had become all wrapped up in each other, as if rafting on birth dew and abandoned by time—mewling, nursing, cradling, leaking.

6 comments for this entry:
  1. Joyelle McSweeney

    Wow, amazing thanks for this matrix! I’m laughing junking how this compares to my birthing my girls at the hospital here in So. Bend, everyone laboring(ie nurses, me, machines, Brett Favre on TV)

  2. Danielle

    Indeed, amazing! & Sarah, yes, the teen mother, exploited site of social conflict would have to get pretty occult, wouldn’t she? There’s the whole class dimension to heteronormative time–it’s set up on an approved workday, 9-5 (no graveyard shifts!), it relies on a particular income bracket, it assumes a progression from elementary school to the cubicle, etc.

    I wonder how this corresponds to Kate Durbin’s stuff about teenage girls and demon possession:

  3. Danielle

    Indeed, amazing! & Sarah, yes, the teen mother, exploited site of social conflict would have to get pretty occult, wouldn’t she? There’s the whole class dimension to heteronormative time–it’s set up on an approved workday, 9-5 (no graveyard shifts!), it relies on a particular income bracket, it assumes a progression from elementary school to the cubicle, etc.

    I wonder how this corresponds to Kate Durbin’s stuff about teenage girls and demon possession…

  4. megan m.

    wow indeed! beautiful, fascinating post; so much here. thanks, sarah!

  5. Lucas

    Sarah, thanks for “taking the time.” You’re so good at that. So interesting how you end up at abandonment of time through cross-species contact (kind of like me and the birds, I guess). What happens when you hold your pet’s gaze.

  6. Sarah Fox

    You just reminded me Lucas that my last transitional episode with a cat pet also occurred under my bed, when Eve died this past summer. . .yeah, it was cool to have & to hold her gaze during her death. What happened was that all of a sudden time became sacred–the profane (media possession and otherwise) has no influence on the trajectory of death. There are few things more captivating.

    Danielle, the teen mom is among the most maligned figures of American culture–the schools where I worked either had their “teen parent program” cordoned off in some dark, isolated corridor, or they were specialty schools serving only this particular community of outcasts (one such school, located on the 4th floor of a social services high rise, is neighbored by “Hennepin County Mental Health Services.” Another–now closed–had an at-large principal and eventually lost funding, obviously, for all arts programming, but also media & technology, EVEN THEIR LIBRARY SHUT DOWN! I will take a look at Kate Durbin’s thoughts on demon possession in teen girls, maybe it’s applicable. The urban teen moms I’ve worked with live so far outside heteronormative time that really, they don’t even know that it is. Having a baby, for many of them, was the most normal, natural thing to do, and may also have constituted–consciously or not–their radical and total rejection of the mainstream (that had never welcomed them anyway.) I have a lot of passionate thoughts about teen moms, and their important role in cultural disruption; their steeliness, and forthrightness about all their inevitable failures and rages and transgressions. . . But I’m about to have a party so I’ll have to save it for another day.

    Oh Joyelle–yes, hospital birth (all birth really) is indeed a group effort. I’m a doula, and have attended many hospital births–in some ways it kind of is like football, everybody huddled around the delirious birthing woman: cheering her on, holding and yanking back her knees, obsessively consulting the monitor screen to assess the contractions, heart rate, blood pressure, pulse, etc. occurring in the bodies we’re all rooting for (the whole event–so interior and primal–projected on that neon field), everybody constantly looking down at her profoundly distorted and profusely leaking vagina, screaming hysterically to her when the slightest snatch of scalp hair bobs out (as if she had the presence of mind at that point to waste her awareness on such details). . . Here again I could go on, but I keep forgetting that I’m about to have a party. Was Brett Favre on two different teams for each girls’ birth? I remember Sandanistas refusing to give up their guns when Nora was born, and the next day was the Oscars. Peyote is a lot like birth actually, I always think–both of them altering physical processes that, once set in motion, can’t be paused or rerouted, profound possessions ripping normative time to shreds.

    Wish you could all come to my party! We’re having a fire in the backyard, probably the last one of the year.