"Always remember who you are. When you begin to forget -- tell the old stories. Make up new stories to help you recall who you have been." ~ Barbara Ardinger, Secret Lives
As I grew into my intuitive abilities, I wanted to be the old woman on the hill. I wanted to age into being a spiritual commodity, whose battle-earned wisdom was sought after and valued. I imagined that every now and then someone from the village would climb up to me and say, "I brought this apple for you. Would you accept it in exchange for insight into a problem I'm having?" I prided that very simple, yet profound vision of the Wise Woman. As a budding shaman the image gave me something to aspire to, thus work toward. Eventually, I realized that my adoration of the Wise Woman archetype was born of a lack of spiritual and shamanic mentor, but also of a lack of a connection to the Sacred Feminine in my mundane life.
In her latest novel, Secret Lives, Barbara Ardinger explores woman's journey through time, culture, sexism, spirituality, aging, and even death. With artful skill and meticulous Neolithic detail, Ardinger's characters across time show that the ancient feminine journey isn't that different from the modern one.
Despite its quite dramatic story focused on a group of aging witches in 1980s-90s Long Beach, California, and their loved ones, the novel isn't without wry humor. Brainy readers will recognize in its carefully layered magical realism pointers to such metaphysical pioneers as Arthur Waite returned as a Muppet, and H.P. Blavatsky embodied as a talkative cat.
Although strongly rooted in a Pagan worldview, the old women in Secret Lives face the same issues of old age that anyone faces. Ardinger is very candid in stating that she writes for a well-educated neopagan audience, though she wishes to impress upon all readers, "No matter who you worship, the general issues of old age are ahead of you: getting sold out of your home, facing poverty and sickness, Alzheimer's, young physicians who don't care. The wars in D.C. are doing nothing to help any of us. The best thing we can do is find friends."
Cycles and how we cope with them are major themes in Secret Lives. I asked Ardinger how cycles have shaped her relationship to Goddess, and she described a more fluid relationship than is often depicted of the Feminine Divine. She suggested that gods and goddesses have cycles too, and they learn and grow with us. "We move [through the stages of our lives] all the time. A maiden can manifest motherly aspects, a mother, queenly aspects, a queen, cronely aspects, and a crone can recycle as a maiden, or act like a child if she wants to."
In addressing the cycles of personhood, Secret Lives tackles those of the rise and fall of civilizations, systems. Mythologies change. Gods become God. I asked Ardinger, specifically, where the transition from Goddess culture to patriarchy fits into our understanding that pattern of change. Was it just another shift, or was this eradication unique in the chain of our cultural evolution? Again referring to stages of being, she says, "In the book one of the characters says that, like the moon, the Goddess waxes and wanes and waxes again. That's always made a lot of sense to me. Nothing is static, not even the Goddess."
Of the Goddess waxing in her own lifetime, Ardinger notes, "I'm old enough to remember the women's movement of the 1970s and 80s, and the rebirth of the Goddess via the works of Starhawk, Z. Budapest, Riane Eisler, Elinor Gadon, and especially Marija Gimbutas. The movement waxed and came to full."
With such issues at the fore, what does Ardinger want readers to take from Secret Lives? "Don't mess with grandmothers who do magic! They're smarter than you are. Make friends with them. Learn from them. Do interesting things with them."
Of her hope for the novel's impact, she goes on to say, "Baby Boomers and their children and grandchildren can look at these magical grandmothers and perhaps see their own grandmothers. Then they'll see that old age is not automatic debility! Sex is still possible (and fun). People can learn new things. There are new adventures ahead. Old women tell dirty jokes. Why shouldn't old age be more fun than earlier parts of our lives?"
Enjoy reading Secret Lives along with the Free Reader's Guide at Ardinger's site. And when you stand at the foot of the mountain of troubles in your life, wondering where in the world divine guidance is going to come from, look up. Ardinger reminds us, there will always be a Wise Woman at the top of the hill eager to share her experience and wisdom. For that matter, there always has been.