Sunday, January 31, 2010

Traveling with Pomegranates

When I saw the book Traveling with Pomegranates on the store shelves, I knew I needed to read it. The black cover features a carved wooden statue of a maiden in a blue dress, a Greek column and half a dozen pomegranates, I was certain this was a story of Persephone. I was not mistaken, though it was also a lot more than that. I recently finished the book by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor and I was very pleased that I had. It showcases several trips, to Greece and France that Kidd and Taylor took together over the course of several years. Each woman felt a deep inner struggle and they were in search of answers. Since their journeys brought them to Greece, it was only natural that they would both find symbolism in the myth of Persephone and Demeter.

I read this review at the Christian Science Monitor that criticized Kidd and Taylor’s propensity to describe exactly what the symbols in the myths meant to them. The reviewer thought maybe they should be allowed to make their own connections:
“Admittedly, it’s an interesting premise. The problems lie in its execution. While both authors draw some genuinely interesting parallels between their experiences and the timeless stories of their host countries (the myth of Demeter and Persephone is particularly apt), neither is willing to let the reader make his or her own interpretations as to what their meaning might be. The result is akin to being beaten with a pillow; repetitious and, in the end, unaffecting.”
I disagree – this is a book specifically about Kidd and Taylor’s own journeys. The deep introspection and their own interpretations are essential to understanding the story. It isn’t about *my* journeys to Greece and France and how the symbols of Demeter, Persephone, Athena and Mary affected me, so I want to know some of the details about Kidd and Taylor’s experiences.

I was most touched by a certain struggle felt by Taylor at the beginning of the book. She had found what she thought was her life’s passion on a trip to Greece while in college. But between that trip and a second trip with her mother, her future appeared to be unraveling. It was how Taylor handled this situation that I could most identify with. When she received a rejection letter from her graduate school of choice, her method of coping was to not tell any one about her inner struggle. She didn’t tell anyone about the letter or about conversations she had with her advisor. She just took these as personal rejections and filed them away, slipping deeply into depression. The truth was it was slightly comforting to me that someone else dealt with their own pain and struggles that way. Not that I advocate sliding deeply into depression, but that I also deal with my own pain this way.

It is certainly a bad habit. I do have a tendency to bottle things up. I remember a time years ago when I needed a minor surgery. I told very few people and just wanted to go in, get out and get it over with. When some friends of our sent flowers I was actually upset, I didn’t even want them to know what was going on much less feel sorry for me in any way. Those flowers symbolized a lot more than “Get Well” for me. It was like an admission of weakness. There are things that have happened in my adult life that I have never even shared with my own mother. Truth is, I am still not ready to share those things and I am currently comfortable with that decision. I don’t know that I will ever be.

Taylor’s story made me think of a part of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. In the end, when Demeter asks her daughter about her ordeal, I have always felt that Persephone was less than truthful to her mother.

“Indeed I will tell you, Mother, the whole truth.” She starts. After a lengthy description of what had happened she adds,
“When I picked [the Narcissus] in delight, the earth gave way from beneath, and the might Lord of the Many Dead sprang out. Hades dragged me most unwillingly under the earth in his golden chariot; I shouted and screamed aloud. In all this, though I grieve, I tell the whole truth.”
In Persephone’s words, I have always felt there was really only half the truth. Like she wasn’t telling her mother about the feelings she really had. I could see her looking down, never meeting Demeter’s eyes during this entire exchange. Knowing full well that she willingly ate the pomegranate that Hades offered her – not just because it was the food of the dead but she knew that it was the symbol of marriage, a gift given by a husband to his new wife. She knew that with the new deal struck by the gods she would now have to spend as much time with her mother, away from her new husband, and that it was just easier to let her mother believe that she too was upset about the situation. Each year, though, she dutifully returns to the underworld where she is revered as Queen. Just like my own experience and like that of Taylor, it isn’t uncommon for daughters to withhold information from their mothers.

The book is a lovely introspective read. It seemed to me to almost be a sequel to The Dance of the Dissident Daughter. However, it was the addition of Ann Kidd Taylor’s voice that really added a depth to the journey for me.

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