Today is the feast day of Hildegard of Bingen; go to this post on my theology blog for my thoughts on her and spirituality. Actually, the post is less about her spirituality and more about what she was able to accomplish, despite being a medieval woman.
Thinking about her made me think about Julian of Norwich. I'd never heard of her until I taught the first half of a British Literature survey class and wanted to include more women writers. Frankly, there weren't many to choose from. I'm grateful, in a way, because my inclusion of Julian of Norwich meant I had to learn a lot about medieval women and the monastic tradition.
Until I did that research, I would have told you that medieval cloisters oppressed women. But really, they offered the only protection available to women who lived in/outside the margins of society (artistic, widowed, not wanting to be married, weird in any way).
I've been feeling irritable lately, and I know why. I haven't been spending as much time on my writing as I wish I could. I look back wistfully to those times when I had huge swaths of time all to myself. I try to remind myself that I had all that time because my husband was working long, awful hours or because I didn't have many friends or my best friend had just moved or because I was underemployed. Still . . .
I love the lives of these medieval mystics because they remind me of what can be accomplished, even in a life of containment and boundaries. Let's take Hildegard as an example. She was an Abbess, and because being in charge of one cloistered community isn't enough, she founded another. She wrote music, and more of her music survives than any other medieval composer. She was an early naturalist, writing down her observations about the natural world and her theories about how the natural world heals us. She wrote to kings, emperors and popes to encourage them to pursue peace and justice. She wrote poems and a morality play and along the way, a multitude of theological meditations.
She did all of these things, in addition to keeping her community running smoothly. Yes, I'm thinking about Hildegard as an administrator, a woman who could be efficient and artistic at the same time.
During these times when I feel like I'm accomplishing NOTHING as an artist, it's easy to convince myself that I've peaked, as much as I was going to peak. It's easy to sink into a spiral of self-pity and despair: "I should have worked harder on this project, I should have followed through on this contact, I should have taken this job, I should have moved to that place." On and on I can go in this way.
In these times, I try to stop the downward spiral by reminding myself of all I've done, despite my job which takes 40 to 50 hours a week. A year ago, I was just about to get the news that Finishing Line Press would publish I Stand Here Shredding Documents. Of course, I didn't know that at the time. A year ago, I was feeling despair, wondering if I'd ever have anything chapbook size or larger published again. And then, the good news came.
Of course, it's good to assess periodically, to make sure I'm on the trajectory that has the most chance of taking me where I want to go. For a long time, I kept this George Eliot quote taped everywhere: "It is never too late to be what you might have been." Now I smile, thinking that I was all of thirty-two years old when I wrote that quote everywhere. I had just barely arrived at the situation that seemed inadequate.
So today, I'll remember Hildegard of Bingen and her example of what a woman can accomplish despite the obstacles that her society puts in her way. I'll think about the ways that the Church fostered her creativity. I assume that she wrote much of what she did because her religious community had need of it: morality plays, liturgical music, letters that kept her community afloat. I have hope that in later years, I'll look back and see the ways that my work fed me, both literally (with a paycheck) and figuratively (by time off to go to workshops and conferences, by colleagues who nourish me, by giving me the subject of many a poem).
Maybe I'll add some plants to the herb garden today in honor of Hildegard. Maybe I'll listen to some medieval choral music or chant. Maybe I'll write a letter to someone in power to remind them of the imperative to work for peace in our time.
Or maybe I'll write a poem (or finish the one I started a few hours ago).
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