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.)
Sometimes these posts are like puzzles. I pick up fragments in the course of daily life, and I find they all belong to the same idea. Remember doing dot-to-dot puzzles as a kid? I’m never sure what the shape is I’m working on, but I turn the pieces of the puzzle around until I’m satisfied with a coherent (hopefully!) post. It’s fun.
If I was bent on delivering a learned lecture in this post, I would have titled it “Postmodernism.” I’m not interested in lecturing, though, or philosophizing, or exploring current ideas and trends in a scholarly way. Ick. If you’re not sure what postmodernism is, here’s a link. You can educate yourself and draw your own conclusions—always the best way!
As I researched postmodernism I came across a referral to “post-truth.” Huh? Post-truth is “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” (Oxford Online Dictionary)
Truth is a slippery concept, and I’m not interested in debating whether it’s “real” or not. The tension between objective facts, denial and beliefs is a can of worms I have no interest in opening. I do accept science-based inquiry and methodology, particularly if data can be replicated, the process is peer-reviewed, and the funding is clean and unbiased. For me, truth and learning are dynamic, flexible and organic. What might be true for me today may change tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean today’s truth is necessarily a lie.
I don’t accept that belief and truth are the same, and I don’t accept that feelings and thoughts are necessarily objective facts.
The puzzle pieces I have collected this week all fit into postmodernism, but, as usual, I come at it in my own unique (and slightly off-center) way. Here are the pieces, in no particular order:
One of my four most important values and priorities in making choices is to see things clearly; in other words, not to argue with what is, be in denial, or wholly and unconditionally believe in my own stories, assumptions, and feelings. Understand, I validate, value and rely on my feelings, but I’m very aware they don’t always point to the truth. I might feel rejected, for example, but that doesn’t mean I am rejected. It doesn’t mean I’m not, either. The feeling points me toward something that needs further exploration, that’s all.
When I say “see things clearly,” I mean accepting what is
without fear, resistance, apology, or the need to rewrite or sanitize my
The second puzzle piece is a conversation I had with an approximately 30-year-old man in which I described a relationship that was not working well and what I did about it. His comment was that I was “harsh.” Intrigued, I asked if it would have been better if I’d lied to the other party, or continued the relationship in spite of believing it was unhealthy for both of us. He had no answer for that. I asked if he had a suggestion for a kinder or different way I could have communicated my truth clearly. He had no answer for that one, either. What I was left with was that, from his point of view, it was wrong for me to feel the way I did and tell the simple truth about it, without shame or blame, honestly communicating my sadness, my need to part ways, and my caring for the other party.
I’ve thought a lot about this conversation. As regular readers know, I dislike labels and sweeping generalizations, but I wonder if part of his problem with my choice about ending my relationship has to do with the trend in his generation toward postmodernism; that is, that there is no truth, all stories are equal, and to speak “truth” is somehow hateful, bigoted, and/or mean. I’ve even been told stating the truth is “dehumanizing.” Wow.
From my point of view, identifying and speaking the truth is by far the kindest thing we can do for each other and ourselves. Communicating the truth means we are taking responsibility. It means we have the courage to have a difficult conversation face-to-face, rather than ghosting, making excuses, living a lie, or leaving someone with no closure. It means we are healthy enough to take care of ourselves and manage our time and energy, and authentic enough to be heartful and committed in what we choose to do with our lives.
I realize, of course, that some people use the truth as a club, and take no trouble to employ clear, kind language. Shame and blame and refusing to take responsibility are not truthful. Pretending is not truthful. Making excuses is not truthful. Cultivating a pseudo self is not truthful.
The third piece of this particular puzzle was in a book titled Roadwork by Richard Bachman (a.k.a. Stephen King). Here it is:
“But Mary’s footsteps never faltered because a woman’s love is strange and cruel and nearly always clear-sighted, love that sees is always horrible love, and she knew walking away was right and so she walked …”
I’m a fan of King’s writing, and this quote really caught my eye. I stopped reading, bookmarked the quote so I wouldn’t lose it, and thought about being a mother and all the agonizing choices one makes when raising a child. (The context of the quote has to do with a mother and child.)
It’s terribly difficult (and sometimes terribly painful) to be clear-sighted about our own children. We are forced to make decisions that tear us apart, always striving to do what we think is best and frequently missing the mark. Moreover, having children means we are forced to look at ourselves more clearly for their sake, and that process is humbling, painful, and occasionally terrifying.
I ask myself, is this how King experiences a woman’s love? If so, is it a woman’s love for her child he has his eye on, or a woman’s love in general? Is it terrible love because it’s “clear-sighted,” or because women who love are capable of making horribly difficult choices and sacrifices for the sake of those they love? Is it the love that’s “strange and cruel,” or the clear-sightedness of that love? Or both?
I recently wrote about unconditional love. Is that kind of clear-eyed love “horrible” because it’s so powerful?
I’ve mentioned before somewhere on this blog that in the Tarot deck, which has pre-Christian roots, The Devil symbolizes authentic experience. This indicates to me that dealing with the truth is not a new challenge for human beings. Postmodernism is just another cyclical iteration we’ve come up with as we struggle with the truth, misinformation, outright lies, authenticity and pseudo self, the sincere desire of many to be kind and compassionate, and the equally sincere desire on the part of others to control cultural narratives and (dis)information. I’m the first to admire and practice kindness and compassion, but taken too far they become enabling, denial, codependence, pseudo self and abdication of our own self-defense and needs.
The last piece of the puzzle was this link I received to a piece of satire about the “divisiveness” of truth. Satire is not my gig (I have a sneaking suspicion it’s above my head), and I don’t normally enjoy it or pass it on, but this was certainly timely, and it demonstrates the (to me) crazy thinking that postmodernism can lead to.
It seems to me truth is connecting rather than divisive. I’m wary of anyone who responds to the presentation of an objective or science-based fact with a rant about divisiveness. It seems to me that those who seek to persuade us there is no truth anywhere, that whatever we believe is Truth, are the ones who are actively divisive. Critical thinking is not about hate, fear, control or manipulation, it’s about seeing the world around us with curiosity and clarity.
So what’s the deal with the demonization of truth, or
authenticity, or honesty, or facts, or whatever? Does it have to do with
technological cultural influences? Is it connected to our broken educational
system? Does our decreasing literacy (TLDR—too long, didn’t read) play a part?
Do our burgeoning health problems, poor diets and ever-increasing toxin loads
affect our ability to think well?
Have we become so fat, lazy and comfortable that we simply don’t want to make the effort to learn, explore, reflect and think critically?
Are we so entitled and selfish that we reject unpleasant or unwelcome truths that might threaten our status quo?
Sometimes the truth is painful, inconvenient, and difficult to hear and say. Are we so precious, pampered and cowardly that we need everything sugar-coated and artificially flavored and colored in order to deal with it, never mind if it’s truth or lies? (Have you watched any commercials lately?)
I don’t know. The only power I have is what I do with my own life. In my own life, endeavoring to see things clearly, to understand, to excavate what’s true for me at any given point in time and put it into effective, clear, responsible language and action, are paramount. Objective facts matter. History matters. Science is important. I value literacy, learning, education and professional expertise.
I’ve spent much of my life people pleasing and enabling the destructive behavior of others. I’ve spent much of my life assiduously cultivating what I thought was an acceptable pseudo self. I lacked the courage and support to face my own truths in the privacy of my head, let alone speak them to others. I allowed others to bully, manipulate and punish me for seeking objective facts. I allowed myself to be the target of gaslighting and projection.
Dolls, like clowns, have a long and powerful history of symbolic meaning for human beings. We think of most dolls now as playthings for children, but dolls have always been much more than toys.
The old word for doll was “poppet,” related to the English word “puppet.” In many cultures, dolls were used for spiritual rituals and magic, and as oracles. They are perhaps most famous as tools of black magic, but were also used for healing, fertility, and romantic and protective spells. From the Far East to Africa to the Americas, dolls have been an important social instrument for centuries.
There exist in the world a small handful of haunted dolls, both in museums and collections and for sale on sites like eBay. Several horror movies have been inspired by famous haunted dolls, such as Robert and Annabelle.
As a child I didn’t have dolls, and didn’t want them. A toy
doll to mother and care for was not nearly as much fun as a pet, of which we
had an abundance, and nothing was as lovely a plaything for me as a book. Some
things never change.
No, I didn’t have a doll until I was nearly 50 years old, when I decided I needed a very specific kind of doll for a very specific reason. Most traditional dolls were handmade out of whatever materials were available. As a child of the twentieth century, I went shopping online, trusting I would know her when I found her. I already knew her name.
I wanted a new doll resembling myself. I looked at hundreds of dolls, mostly hideous, plastic and cheap, trying to find good old-fashioned rag dolls or soft dolls. There are some, but they’re few and far between. Alas, there are no dolls depicting (ahem!) maturity. Most of them simper, lowering plastic eyelids over improbably shiny blue or brown eyes. They have equally shiny and synthetic hair and frilly clothes. It was a little like shopping for candy in the candy aisle during Halloween. Slick, artificial, patently synthetic color, all sugar and no substance. Certainly, I found no dolls with even one grey hair or crow’s feet around the eyes. I thought about making a dried apple doll, but it was a fleeting thought. For some reason, that wasn’t quite what I wanted.
I persisted until I found a plain rag doll with brown yarn
hair tied into two bunches with ribbons and blue eyes. She wore a yellow dress
and white felt shoes on primitive club-shaped feet.
I grew up doing all kinds of embroidery, cross stitch and
needlework, but I never learned to use a sewing machine or do practical things
like make clothing, so I had to ask for help to get more appropriate clothes
made. I found a young woman who sewed and asked her to make my doll a pair of
denim jeans and some kind of a top. I told her the doll was for a niece of mine
who was something of a tomboy and a mountain kid. I didn’t want to admit the
doll was mine.
Dolls are commonly used for therapy for adults and children.
In my explorations, I’d run across the idea of working with one’s inner child
many times, and I knew making a doll to represent oneself is a common
therapeutic activity. As I’d never had any meaningful kind of relationship with
dolls, this didn’t attract me.
Until it did. I’m not sure exactly why my interest in dolls
changed at that particular point in my life. All I can really say is that I was
suddenly ready to figure out if I could love myself. A doll seemed an obvious
way to externalize the parts of me that felt so chronically unloved and
unwanted. Beyond that, I really didn’t think. I just felt the need, and obeyed
When the clothes were ready (jeans, a T-shirt and a zippered sweatshirt), I dressed the doll and cut her brown yarn hair short. After spending most of my life with long hair, I’d recently cut mine, more as an act of rebellion and self-mutilation than anything else.
I cut the doll’s hair with a mixture of anger, resentment and grief, and a strange thing happened. Instead of looking at her with loathing, I had the completely unexpected and spontaneous thought that the short hair was cute. It wasn’t ugly. It didn’t make her look like an old hag, used up, dried up, sexless and powerless. That’s what I saw when I looked in the mirror at myself, but when I looked at the doll I saw something else entirely. As a child I had begged to be allowed to have long hair. I was eventually allowed to, when I was old enough to care for it. This was reasonable, as my hair is thick, curly and unruly, to put it mildly. For years, though, as a slim, short-haired, active child in the same tough jeans my brother wore, I was taken for a boy.
Somehow, looking down at that helpless rag doll and the short ends of yarn scattered around her, it seemed I was looking at a version of myself that’s long vanished, except in memory, and I didn’t hate her. She wasn’t loathsome. She merely had short hair. I’d meant to hurt her, even mutilate her, but her innocence turned a hostile act into a reluctant feeling of wanting to protect her from any who would seek to hurt her, including myself.
This was a powerful moment. It was so powerful that I
doubted myself. What would people say if they knew I’d bought myself a doll and
lied about it in order to get the clothes I wanted for her? What would they
think of me? What did it say about me, these feelings of self-hatred mixed up
with an uneasy need to protect? Protect the doll from me? Protect the doll from
others? Protect myself?
I was confused, embarrassed and compelled. I kept the doll
with me as I moved around my little log cabin, not to handle, but just to look
at. Occasionally, I talked to her, in the same way I talked to the cat I
belonged to at the time.
Then, one day, something distressed me. I was trying to calm
down and think more clearly, and I saw the doll, sitting propped on a table. I
picked her up and held her against my shoulder, patting her back and swaying on
my feet in the age-old motions of comforting a baby. I had worked for years
with chronic and terminally ill children and their families as a young woman
and then raised two kids of my own. I love and understand children, and the
familiarity of holding one again made me weep.
I was also instantly comforted, as though I myself was being held in spite of my age and ugliness. I’ve been aware all my life of the longing to be safe, secure and loved in someone’s arms, a longing I rarely admit, always endeavor to bury deep, and feel much shame about. Something about holding the doll assuaged that longing. In a strange sort of way, I was holding myself, or at least some part of myself.
I can’t explain the neurophysiological effect of being able to hold and comfort my doll. Perhaps a neurologist or a good psychiatrist could. What I do know is that it’s been enormously and unexpectedly healing. The gnawing need for nonsexual physical reassurance and affection has been something I’ve learned to live with, never revealing it or expecting to have this need met. If I could not find it as a young, reasonably attractive woman, I’ll surely never find it now. I can’t hold myself, but I can hold my doll. I don’t always treat myself with unconditional love, but I can give that to my doll. In fact, I’m incapable of giving her anything else. I’ve always found it much, much easier to love others than myself. Loving others is a beautiful way to live, but it’s not always reciprocated or even recognized for what it is, and much of the love I’ve given has walked away from me, never to return. With the doll, somehow my love comes back into my own starving skin and heart.
I’ve had the doll for about six years now. I’ve turned to her in times of fear, insomnia, emotional pain, panic attacks and PTSD. I’ve wept with her (and perhaps for her), rocked her, kissed her, practiced Havening with her, snuggled her and slept with her in my arms. Until now, I’ve kept her presence in my life a secret from all but one person. She’s been more useful to me than any psychological therapy or pharmaceuticals I’ve ever tried, with the single exception of emotional intelligence coaching.
I’m writing this post now because I thought it would be fun for Halloween, haunted dolls being a thing in our culture. As I write, however, I’m slightly sobered. I’m not prepared to debate whether haunted dolls or haunted anything else are “real.” The belief in such things is what fascinates me, along with the history of such objects, investigation into this kind of phenomena, and the way it captures our imaginations. What I will say is that if an object or person can be haunted or possessed, I would assume intense energy or emotion is associated with such possession.
It’s not hard for me to understand why dolls, like clowns, have so captured our imaginations. I’m quite certain that my doll is the most intimate object in my life. I would never want to see her in another’s hands. God forbid she ever takes it into her head to talk about my demons and vulnerabilities. I don’t mind if she wants to move around in my attic space, though, or even look out the windows, as other haunted dolls are alleged to have done.