Stories We Leave Behind

Many years ago I was in an antique shop where an old suitcase sat open displaying a small mountain of sepia toned photographs. I shuffled the top layer and found three different women: one in lace petting her dog, one standing alone on a broad front porch, and another riding a narrow desert trail. I couldn’t help but wonder who they were and what their lives had been. Aside from the dog’s name, Bruno, written on the back of the first, there was no indication. I took them to the counter, paid my seventy-five cents, and took them home.

Women’s stories. So often ignored, set aside, disappeared, that the individuals who lived them were made inconsequential and the guidance they could have provided to future generations was lost.

It is getting easier. After decades—centuries—of being disappeared, many women’s lives are now being allowed the spotlight. The September issue of Smithsonian magazine features a story on archeologist Ann Axtel Morris, and I just saw an advertisement about women explorers from PBS. In recent writing classes I’ve encountered women who are documenting the stories of their mothers or of women who inspired them on their own journeys. And still others are writing the lives they are living today. They are creating a record for those who will follow.

And it matters.

I recently saw a social media post denigrating Joseph Campbell because the scholar of mythology had not theorized a Heroine’s Journey to compliment his Hero’s Journey. Many commenters agreed with the post, angry that there had been no mythologies to offer guidance as they made their way through the world. Others felt that Campbell’s ‘hero’ was symbolic of all people and was not gender specific even though most of the stories were about men. I could understand both arguments.

As a younger woman, I had been exposed to Campbell’s work through the Power of Myth series, and I liked his breadth of cultural reference and the ideas of the hero’s quest. But there was also a side of me that asked, “So, in all these thousands of stories, where are the women?” I was young, had grown up in a small, rural setting, and had no models of how to be a female that preferred travel and exploration over domestic expectations. I was disappointed that in all the world’s stories, none reflected the way I wanted to live my life.

Campbell taught at Sarah Lawrence College and was married to Jean Erdman, an accomplished woman in her own right, so it was hard for me to believe that he deliberately ignored women in myth. I was right. It just took a while for the information to surface. Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine is a collection of lectures Campbell gave between 1972 and 1986. It explores mythologies based on women, and last night I turned the final page, putting my mind to rest about the scholar. Interestingly, however, the most useful idea Campbell gives us is not from the ancient texts at all but his own words.

“….all I can tell you about mythology is what men have said and experienced, and now women have to tell us from their point of view what the possibilities of the feminine future are.”

Indeed.

Over the past two years, we have become weary. We are tired and pulled from every direction, and writing—aside from what must be done to pay the bills—is easily set aside to focus on more pressing tasks. I do it all the time. But if we can, we need to keep writing because there are generations coming behind us, and they need to know what’s possible. Whether we present it in short stories or memoir, song or paint, it’s up to us.

And it doesn’t matter what your individual story may be, there is assuredly someone out there who will find relief in opening the book, in clicking the link, in seeing the image. There is someone somewhere who is looking for a way forward in this “future” Campbell referred to.

I got lucky. I eventually found women writers whose stories acted as guideposts, women who loved the wilderness and walked the land, who wrote it all down for me to find so that when I finally packed my bags, I had a path to follow. So far, it has been a good journey. I still look at those photos that I tucked away so long ago, and I still wonder about the lives those women lived. I am sure they all had stories to tell, and most certainly—considering the era in which they lived—there was someone out there who needed to hear them.

 

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