Monday, May 2, 2016

Ruth Krall's Inanna’s Way: A Personal Journey into the Underworld — A Book Recommendation

I've been walking in the past weeks with some family members as they deal with the diagnosis of someone in their particular family circle who has recently learned he has serious cancer. Taking this journey with these loved ones (to the extent that I can as a cousin and someone less affected in a direct way than they are by this diagnosis) has had me thinking a lot about sickness, suffering, healing, and journeying on all of those paths in our own lives and along with others. 

As I've been walking along with my family members, I found Ruth Krall's book Inanna’s Way: A Personal Journey into the Underworld extraordinarily helpful and moving to read in the past few weeks. Ruth had notified me and others that she had uploaded this book to her Enduring Space website some time ago, and I downloaded it. 

Ruth wrote Inanna's Way to capture an important spiritual, psychological, and physical journey that occurred in her life when she found she had endometrial cancer, underwent surgery for it, and then discovered that the surgical wound would not heal after it herniated and she underwent a second surgery to repair the hernia. For a considerable period of time, she had to live with the trauma of not only having been diagnosed with cancer and having undergone surgery, but of living with an open wound as her body slowly knit itself back together — and as she carried on her very active daily life.

In the process — one whose challenges are almost impossible to imagine, for those who have not had to deal with such a situation — Ruth forged spiritual resources to help carry her through the grieving-healing process. She has written and shared Inanna's Way in the hope that these resources and her account of how she walked through an intensely dark period in her life and found herself coming out (a transformed person) on the other side may help others. As the afterword to her book indicates, she's a deeply private person when it comes to opening her inner life to others. In publishing this book, she knows she takes a risk, since there are those who inevitably look for any revelation about our private lives to twist and try to use against us — something I learn on an almost daily basis to the extent that I reveal myself to others through this blog and other statements I make online.

I applaud Ruth and am grateful to her for taking this risk. Reading her book in the context of my own current journey with family members struggling to cope with a dismal cancer diagnosis has made a difference — a considerable one — in what I am able to say to them to show my solidarity, and in how I view the journey they are making and on which I'm accompanying them.

As some of you may know, Inanna is the Sumerian goddess of war and love, whose sister Ereškigal is in some ways her polar opposite, her antithesis, and who is herself the goddess of the polar opposites of death and of birth. Or is Ereškigal one of the aspects of Inanna herself, as some myths would have us imagine? Inanna descends into the underworld, a descent in which Ereškigal is implicated, and then has the unimaginable challenge of finding her way out of the shadows and back into the light.

Using a combination of guided meditation wedded to imagery, of mask-making, and of poetry-writing, Ruth captured her own version of Inanna's journey, as she lived with the aftermath of her cancer diagnosis and surgery, and with the open wound, the abdominal seroma that would heal only when it chose to heal, when and as Ruth's body undertook to heal itself. As can be imagined, living with the sense that one's own body is rebelling against itself, against oneself, demands unfathomable psychic and spiritual energy.

This book is in many respects an account of how Ruth mustered that energy. It replicates, through photos, the masks Ruth made as she walked through her own version of Inanna's journey through the underword. These are amazing artifacts, deep, complex emotion made solid in mask form. Each mask is accompanied with Ruth's equally moving poetry about the particular phase of her journey in the underworld captured by each mask.

I'm writing this summary, in short, to recommend Ruth's book to you. I know very little about guided meditation and the use of imagery in this spiritual-psychological practice. What little I do know I learned, oddly enough, from the well-known biblical scholar Marcus Borg during a semester in which I had a fellowship to read and write at the center for religious studies Borg sponsored at Oregon State University when he was chair of that school's religion department. 

This was a period of my life in which I was walking through my own slough of despond as I tried to figure out how to live true to myself as a gay man living in a partnered relationship of many years, while we both taught theology in Catholic universities. The struggle to negotiate all the complexities of that tightrope act while keeping my mouth shut about who I was — since speaking out and telling the truth was not an option permitted by the walk-the-tightrope rules of the Catholic academy — almost did me in psychologically and physically.

My sabbatical fellowship, which I had imagined would be about reading the work of Martin Luther King and of liberation theologians, comparing them, and producing a book about this (and I did accomplish all of that), became a semester of psychological-spiritual journey, in which I worked with a pastoral counselor who was skilled in dream analysis, and in which I journaled about that experience and dealt with coming-out issues.

I discussed some of this with Marcus Borg, who knew the counselor, though I was not forthcoming with him about what was really at the heart of my particular journey that semester. I didn't tell him I was gay and dealing with hard questions about coming out of the closet while being a Catholic theologian teaching in a Catholic university. Because Borg was straight and married, I had trust issues, frankly, about sharing that personal information with him, though he may very well have divined more than I told him.

In any case, it was in the context of discussions we had about pastoral counseling and the use of dreams and dream imagery (along with journaling) that he told me about how he himself employed guided imagery coupled with meditation as a tool for healing, and about how he believed in this practice as a method of healing — of helping body and soul work in tandem to heal. I was impressed by what he told me, and I have used the techiques he described to me, on and off, since that period in my life.

I'll very definitely continue to do so after having read Ruth Krall's eloquent book Inanna's Way. Here's Ruth's conclusion, explaining why she decided to take a leap of faith and share it with others:

By creating the manuscript and masks of Inanna's Way, I began to tell the story of my wounds and of my strong desire to regain a full and joyous life. My particular story as a particular woman blends into Inanna's archetypal story of violence, illness, loss, suffering and dys-ease. In beginning to share the poetry and masks outside of my immediate friendship group, I found that these themes became visible to other men and women as they too dealt with various forms of personal suffering. 
During the past several years (while the Inanna’s Way poetry and mask photographs rested on my office shelves) I kept asking myself and I kept asking colleagues and friends, Is this simply a personal story for close friends and family to understand? In an elongated process of questioning my own motives for releasing the story into a different world than the private one, I decided that if Inanna's story or my own story could be useful to other women and men who have lost a their own sense of a trusted and beloved body, then it was important to leave behind my intense personal sense of privacy in order that women or men who needed her story could hear the story of the Goddess Inanna for themselves.

I'm certainly grateful to Ruth for deciding to share this powerful narrative in such a public way. I suspect many other readers will be, too, after they've read Ruth's book.

(Later: please note my comment in response to Ruth in the thread below that I had intended to tell readers how valuable Ruth's rich, extensive bibliography appended to this book is.)

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