When this prompt came up, I knew immediately about whom I would write: my adopted mom Fuensanta Arismendi Plaza (1950-2010). She formed me, healed me, loved me, and sustained me in ways large and small for the all too brief time that she was in my life (up to and including formally/legally adopting me). She was my miracle mother and it’s actually because of her that I was able to eventually make peace with my bio-mother. It’s because of her that I became a human being, that I learned to move in the world, that I gained enough footing to be able to reach out to give others a boost up too. Like some soul deep kintsugi, she carefully put me back together, smoothing out or maybe honing my roughest edges, and breathing life and color and brightness into a life I’d long thought dismal and grey.
We began our friendship, which quickly morphed into a mother-daughter relationship (that’s just how it was, a blessing) in 2004. She had read a poem that I wrote that was included in an anthology and wrote to the publisher who eventually forwarded the letter to me. Her handwriting was so beautiful that I was almost afraid to open the letter. Her regular, every day writing looked like medieval calligraphy! (no joke). The letter itself asked about other things I had written and my theological perspective on a particular issue within our religious community (I’m a theologian) and of course I wrote back, sending her a few pieces. Things blossomed very, very quickly and within the year we’d met in person. I have binders, at least a dozen, of hand written letters that she wrote me and after she died (in 2010), I inherited her binders of my letters too. Even though we were visiting in person all the time, traveling together, and talking on the phone several times a day, we still maintained a lively written correspondence. She was the single most devout person I have ever known. She’s actually venerated as a saint in (at least) two religious traditions.
There’s the famous verse from Corinthians, “love is patient, love is kind,” to which I would add, love rolls up its sleeves and gets to work. I owe my life to this woman, just as much as if she’d given birth to me. She rescued my heart and soul from a profound despair and darkness and …she was my mom. I miss her every day. I won’t say much about her life because she herself was very private and would not have liked it. She was Swiss, attended the music conservatory in Basel, absolutely could not sing lol, taught piano for decades, spoke eight languages fluently, and read at least one more, loved animals, was an avid gardener, and had a calling to contemplative devotion that I flatly envy. She quite simply loved her Gods. They were her reason for being. I think the burden of living, what she once called the pain of the world, was very, very hard for her, but she bore it with dignity doing what she could when she could in order to make it better. I had been a priest for over a decade when we met but she taught me how to pray. She taught me what it meant to be devout. She taught me that integrity and devotion were both choices that we make again and again and again each day of our lives. She taught me the grace of endurance. For all of this and more, I am grateful. Her soul was a star held aloft in the hands of the Gods and its brightness continues to guide me daily. More I shall leave to those who knew her.
yesterday was the anniversary of my adopted mom’s death. I was sick and didn’t have the chance to post about it, but I want to do that today. She was the nucleus of my heart. She knit me together with love and care, taught me devotion and humility before the Gods, taught me to be a person of worth. What I am, i owe to her and I truly believe that but for her care, I would not be here now. I am so incredibly blessed and lucky to have had her in my life. Sometimes people ask me if i believe in miracles and I can only say yes, because I lived one. Hail to you, Mutti, Fuensanta Arismendi Plaza. As Sigyn is to Loki, you are my north star guiding me still. Auf Zeit und Ewigkeit.
Today is the anniversary of my mother’s death and I woke from nightmares of the moment I found out she was dead. Ironically yesterday I was reading Catullus 101 with my students, a poem in which he mourns his brother as he’s returning his brother’s ashes home for funeral rites and grief just washes through the words. When I woke, that is what immediately came to mind, that and the moment I learned she had died, the uncertainty and grief in the eyes of those around me, the moment my heart died.
Catullus talks about crying out to the mute ash of his brother and bids him hail and farewell but ash is not mute, our dead are not gone. I awoke with the knowledge that in having Fuensanta Arismendi Plaza as an adopted mom, and as a deep and dear friend, in my life at all i had experienced something of profound grace, something unspeakably sacred. The world is poorer for her corporeal absence now and so am I; but the echoes of who and what she was, of her holiness, of her devotion remain like ripples on a pond and continue to work their magic. I am the daughter of a sancta and I can only hope and pray that my own soul and character were in some way formed by her.
Some of you have wondered over the years why I never post pictures of her. The answer is simple: she *loathed* having her photo taken and if she did not know how important it was for me to have pictures of her, would have asked that they all be burnt when she died. One day she will have a prayer card — numerous people who venerate her as a sancta have asked for one — but only once she agrees and I know it without a doubt through my own divination. She would always prefer that anything of that sort go to Sigyn. So I’m going to end this with a prayer she wrote for Loki, for Mutti was a fervent devotee of both Sigyn and Her Husband and carried Their blessings with her wherever she moved. When I honor her, I honor Sigyn too because she would have it no other way. Today I remember both my beloved mother and the Gods she loved best. Ave, Mutti. as we always used to say: ich habe dich unendlich gern auf Zeit und Ewigkeit.
I love You powerful, and I love You powerless.
I love You young as flame, and I love You
decrepit as the dying ember.
I love You in Your greatness, and I love You
in Your meanness.
I love You in Your beauty, and I love You
in Your hideousness.
I love You changing, and I love You changeless.
I love the force that drives You, and I will love
You if You lose it.
I love You famous; and I love You unknown.
I love You kind, and I love You cruel.
I love You sane, and I love You mad.
Because I love You, show me how to love You.
Today is my late mother’s birthday, my adopted mom. Every year I get her flowers, sometimes cake (she’d never had a birthday cake until I baked one for her one year when she was still alive). I clean her shrine and put out new candles.
Every year I miss her more.
Happy birthday, my miracle mother, ich habe dich unendlich gern, auf Zeit und Ewigkeit.
I wasn’t planning on writing this particular post (and in fact, most of it is revisited from a memorial post I wrote several years ago). I realized this morning though that tomorrow is the anniversary of my adopted mother’s death and I don’t think I’ll be posting tomorrow so I decided to share this again today. We are so disconnected from the Gods, from our ancestors, most of all from each other. It can destroy a soul. I carried the weight of that sickness for more than thirty years, until the Gods blessed me in a way I never, ever would have thought possible: They gave me a mom.
This woman was my heart, my gentleness, the witness to my life. She loved me with the ferocity of a mother lioness. She taught me to live and love and laugh and do something other than bitterly survive. She, for whom life was always such a terrible burden (she felt the weight of the world’s suffering deeply every day of her life) taught me to love and cherish life. She taught me to cherish connection. She rooted me in Midgard and she opened my heart to the Gods in ways I never, ever thought possible. She wove herself into my wyrd (or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the Gods did that) and we ate of each other’s hearts. For seven years she graced my world. For seven years she called me her miracle daughter. For seven years, I had a miracle mother.
People ask me how we met, because almost immediately our relationship became one of mother and daughter. I can’t think about this too much…it’s like a pretty toy with a surprising and unexpected sharp edge and it hurts to think about how easily this meeting might never have taken place (though I suppose in Their wisdom the Gods would have managed to get it done some other way). We met when she read a poem that I had published in an anthology titled “The Pagan’s Muse.” She was immensely moved by it and wrote a letter to the publisher that was later forwarded on to me. I had the opportunity over lunch, years later, to thank the editor of that volume but I don’t think she quite understood the tremendous gift and blessing that she had facilitated. Once I received the letter (which took awhile to wind its way through the publisher’s offices), I wrote back immediately and we began a fast friendship that within a year had turned into something else: we became family. She redeemed the word ‘mother’ for me. (Ironically, because of this, I later found myself able to enter into a relationship with my biological mother cleanly…a tangential blessing I also never expected). What terrifies me to the point of nausea is this: I almost didn’t submit anything to that anthology. Moreover, I nearly didn’t submit that particular poem.
My mother wouldn’t have considered herself a healer but she did bring healing to me. We made me a person and I grew up under her care. That’s the best way that I can describe it. There’s a German saying “Ich bin gut gebildet.” She did that for me. So let me tell you a little bit about her, just a few simple things, minimalist brush strokes by which to flesh out a life.
Her name was Fuensanta Arismendi Plaza. She was born in Paris, grew up in Venezuela, Italy and many other places. She considered herself Swiss by choice and nature (and indeed held Swiss citizenship of which she was tremendously proud). She spoke seven languages: English, German, Basel German, French, Italian, Spanish, and could read Latin. She had taught herself a smattering of Armenian and in her youth had studied ancient Greek. She called me “wombat” after a book that we read, that had a messy little wombat as the main character (I’m no house keeper!). I called her lemur, because she fell in love with the animal after watching “Madagascar” (and she said her eyes, with their inevitable rings from her nearly constant insomnia looked like lemur eyes). She loved to garden. She was passionate about protecting the earth and its animals. She was what in German is called a ‘putz-teufel:” a cleaning devil. Cleaning her home was her meditation and a devotional act to the Goddess Sigyn. You could eat (literally) off her bathroom floor. She was Heathen before we ever met (indeed, that was why she picked up the anthology that led to our meeting). She claimed kinship to Andvari and opened my eyes to His wisdom. She belonged to Loki and Sigyn and loved Them dearly and through her devotion she inspired me and many others toward greater love for their Gods. I taught her how to keep an altar. She was a holy woman.
She always said that she wasn’t an intellectual, that her gifts and joys lay with housekeeping, cooking, and gardening but she was better read than anyone else I ever met. She attended the Basel Conservatory of Music and was, for many years, a piano teacher. She loved medieval music especially, though it was not her area of study. Her singing voice was so bad (though she had a phenomenal ear) that she was one of only two students in her class excused from singing classes. Music was another language to her, a very sacred way of engaging with the world. She loved the operas of Benjamin Britten, the works of Dufay, Buxtehude, and Schütz. She loved Bach, particularly when played by S. Richter. She introduced me to the singer Fisher-Dieskau and also honed my love of counter-tenors. One of her favorite pieces was the ‘libera me” from Verdi’s requiem. I learned not only to listen but to hear through her tutelage.
Her favorite poets were Wendell Barry, O. Sitwell, Oscar Wilde, and Edith Sitwell. With all my warrior medicine, I surprised the hell out of her by loving the poetry of Wilfred Owen. She taught me to treasure children’s books and fairy tales, telling me as I got older, I’d turn to them more and more leaving the more serious stories behind; that there was wisdom in those tales that should not be overlooked. She loved my god-daughter as her own and they played often. She taught me about wine, developing my palate to the point that I considered becoming a sommelier and good food and wine were things that we enjoyed throughout our travels; and oh, we traveled. Once, as I was delayed at the airport while I was heading off to a major shamanic ordeal, and it looked like I wouldn’t be able take the flight, I called her and as we were talking, I said in frustration “I never get to go anywhere.” The cry of a child, I’ll admit and someone who spent most of her adult life very, very poor. She told me later it broke her heart and then and there she determined to take me to Europe. She did too, telling me that if I was going to teach ancient history, I needed to see the places about which I was teaching. I saw Paris through her eyes and fell in love with the Seine. She was proud of me until the day she died and inspired me to be a better human being.
She wrote with the grace of a medieval scribe. Her every-day handwriting was a thing of exquisite beauty. She told me when she was about twelve, she decided she didn’t like her handwriting and so she taught herself to write all over again, developing a hand that put most calligraphy to shame. She loved to cook. She had tremendous grace and graciousness. She was also the single most disciplined (and stubborn, oh my GODS, stubborn) human being I have ever met.
She taught me that grace and service happened by attention to little things, not in large, overwhelming epiphanies. She taught me that love was about the day to day choices. She taught me to pay attention to, cherish, and respect the small things in life and to do them exceedingly well. After her death, she continues to inspire many Heathens and Pagans of my acquaintance and we all look to her when our work becomes difficult. She mastered the grace of loving well.
There are places in the world that I shall never go again if I can help it—they would be barren places without her there. Her presence, the memory of our time together is too deeply imprinted on my consciousness to allow me to go there without pain. Carmel, CA, where she lived for over a decade (throughout the time she was in my life) is one of those places. Paris—which I saw first through her eyes and likely will never see again; parts of Italy. Going to Zurich, where she and I spent a great deal of time, a few months after her death (inevitable due to business demands) was it’s own special agony. I stayed at the same hotel she always visited and the entire staff lined up as I was having breakfast and came to pay their respects to Frau Plaza’s daughter. She was our memory keeper. She *saw* people, truly saw them and gave me something of the knack for it too. But there are places that I can now go only because of her. She encouraged me to go back to school and in fact, paid for my schooling. I broke down and cried like a baby when she offered. I could never have afforded to go on my own and I was deeply ashamed of my lack of a degree. I have my degree because of her. I have a life.
Her presence has been tremendously strong the past day or so. It’s been so immensely comforting to feel her so very close again, as though I could almost pick up the phone and call her. I miss her voice, high, with its elegant Basel accent. (Amusingly enough, despite the elegance oh, she could cuss like a sailor—a delightful thing to hear, even with the cognitive disconnect it initially caused!). A friend sent me two photos that she only recently found of a bunch of us having dinner together and in it my mom and I are laughing over something, a moment of shared delight. Those photos were such an unexpected gift, a treasure. In the two years after she died, I have found myself wanting desperately to collect every possible fragment of her life, every fragment that might remind me of her, carry a bit of her energy…it’s only recently that I’ve been able to put that painful desire aside, to realize that she is there, bound to me by something greater than blood: by a connection forged in fierce love. What are things in the face of that? They do not hold anything of her.
She has her own ancestral altar in my home, in addition to being represented on my primary ancestral shrine. In life, she dressed very plainly. It was part of her devotion to Loki. He called her his quiet pool (her name literally means ‘sacred pool’-in fact, there’s a bottled water company in Spain called “Fuensanta” which was very amusingly odd to see when we were there) and requested that she dress in calming colors: browns, dark greens, dark blues, blacks, grays, whites, and beiges. But she loved pink (a color we both associated with Sigyn) and craved that color with an almost painful intensity. She never wore it though, in obedience to Loki’s request. So now I festoon her altar with pinks: flowers, offering bowls, altar cloth…all a glorious panoply of pink. I give her all the things she loved but was too disciplined to eat overmuch in life: pizza, gourmet breads, gourmet cheeses and fine wines (the wine she did allow herself). I light candles and offered incense. I sit with her and talked of many things, and of how my life has unfolded since she died (not that she doesn’t know…I talk to her all the time and her shrine is never, ever inactive). I tell her not to fret—she always fretted about me so. I told her how I missed her, every moment of every day. Most of all, I gave thanks to the Gods for forging this connection, for bringing us into each other’s lives.
Connection is a lifeline. It’s a very sacred, blessed thing. When you truly connect with another human being, when you are truly known and seen (and know and see in return), when someone shares their life with you in whatever authentic way, it has the potential to transform Midgard. It is something to treasure. It is something to value. It is something to remember, always. I remember Fuensanta. I remember my adopted mom. Sancta.
My friend and colleague Kenaz Filan has just posted a beautiful memorial to my adopted mom, Fuensanta Arismendi Plaza. She is venerated by many of us as a sancta and the intensity of her devotion to her Gods, especially Sigyn and Loki knew no bounds. I wish that I had that level of devotion. Her example continues to inspire me and many others.
Love you Mutti!
Read Kenaz’s piece here.
I want to move our conversation away from politics for a moment to touch on two threads that I’ve been seeing emergent in Paganism and Polytheism lately. Firstly, we’re having an ongoing conversation about miasma. Apparently some Pagans think we should jettison the whole idea because it might lead to people equating it (inaccurately) with sin and thus feeling badly about themselves. Now ritual pollution is a thing, and keeping clean of it when approaching the Gods is important in many, many Polytheisms. I’m not sure why this is such a difficult concept in our communities today, but apparently it is. What are your thoughts on ritual purity and the community?
KENAZ: I think the idea of “sin” as “wrongdoing which lessens the wrongdoer before the community and the Gods” is entirely appropriate to Polytheism and Paganism. Of course moral and ethical codes are flexible: of course they change and develop over time and as circumstances change. But that doesn’t mean we should jettison them entirely or that the highest and best of all moral teachings is “do whatever you want so long as nobody gets hurt.”
In John Beckett’s latest Patheos article about Paganism and sin, his definition of “sin” owes more to his daddy issues and authority complexes than to the way Christians use the word. For example, the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia offers a clear and detailed definition of sin from a Roman Catholic perspective. And while I’d disagree with some of it (I obviously don’t think things which lead people away from Catholicism are prima facie sinful, for instance), I’d say there’s a fair bit there, which could be of use to Polytheists and Monotheists alike. Contrast this with Beckett’s knee-jerk rejection of “Sin” because it must be CHRISTIAN and therefore bad.
I also think that Beckett et al are missing an important point about miasma and ritual pollution: it exists whether or not you acknowledge it. In Ifa osgobo is a tangible thing, which can stick to people and places and wreak havoc until it’s addressed. I got touched by osgobo after a friend committed suicide. I didn’t get it because I was a bad person: I got it because I lit candles in his honor without making appropriate precautions. (Spirits that die violently or in an agitated state can bring osgobo with them and this has nothing to do with whether they were good or bad people in life).
GK: I like some of John Beckett’s writing, but I do think this piece misses the mark significantly, especially leading in with dismissive remarks about piety.
Moving on though, I was always taught that Osogbo are actually a family of spirits and as such deserving of respect, including the respect of taking appropriate precautions around their potential presence. I think your example really highlights how one can be doing everything right but still miasma, pollution, or osogbo can still happen. It’s a natural thing in many respects for which we have clear cut protocols.
KENAZ: I have encountered miasma in other situations, which were strongly positive. The life change, my daughter’s birth, was wonderful and transformative — but I found myself out of alignment and struggling to redefine myself. And I think that could have been avoided had we had available the historical childbirth and post-childbirth rituals that helped welcome baby and parents to their new roles in their community and incarnation. But that was something I missed because (that damn Monotheism filter again), I still equated miasma with negativity, impiety and sin. As you wisely stated on your blog, miasma doesn’t have a moral payload: it can be incurred by sin or impiety but that is not the only way it happens. So that is something we definitely need to keep in mind — and something which would help prevent the types of abuses Beckett appears worried about in his essay.
GK: It definitely doesn’t have a moral payload (i like that expression). It’s not equivalent to sin at all. I feel like I need to say that over and over again for my readers, because it’s probably the most insidious misunderstanding I’ve encountered lately.Miasma does not equal sin. If you take nothing else away from this conversation, please please take that.
On a different topic, I’ve seen comments in several places to the effect that theologians and spirit workers and mystics like myself, like certain of my colleagues have a competence that makes people feel small. One post on tumblr (of course) actually accused one of my colleague’s writings of giving readers PTSD because they felt they couldn’t live up to the standards set by this writer for herself in her own practice. Of course, instead of setting better goals for themselves and allowing such writings to inspire them, a remarkable number of people chose to complain about how it made them feel bad and so they couldn’t read anymore, even years later, even though the spirit worker in question wasn’t telling people what to do, but was talking about her own practice. I’m wondering your thoughts on this.
KENAZ: There’s a very real danger of creating ego-driven hierarchies in a spiritual community. I’m a better spirit worker than you because I can horse Gods; my Gods love me more than you because I’m a Godspouse and you’re not; I hang on hooks and whip myself for my Gods while you just light candles for yours. And all that garbage is worse than useless. The important thing is your relationship with your Gods and your ancestors. If They are happy with your service, then you are doing things right. Even if those things don’t involve Ordeals or Sacred Kingship or Horsing or anything exciting like that. When you start seeking those things for glory or excitement or power, you take your focus away from the Gods. And that’s the first step in a long spiral downward.
GK: I’ve actually seen this quite a bit and it’s troubling. I tell people: do the work your Gods give you. If you’re an ordeal worker great. If you’re not, also great. I’m not quite sure why there’s this need to do the flashiest (and most dangerous) of practices when apparently making an offering of water and maintaining a regular prayer practice is too inconvenient. It makes me ask: are you doing these things for your Gods or for yourself? Do the work you’re given to do. If the focus isn’t on the Gods, then none of it matters. What’s the point?
KENAZ: That’s exactly it: when you start chasing titles or looking for attention (human or divine), you’re taking the focus off the Gods. That’s one of the things I learned from Fuensanta. She had this laser focus on the Gods above all else: it was about Them, not about the world recognizing her devotion or her piety. And if you have that focus, you’ll find yourself in right relationship with your Gods and with your world. That doesn’t mean things will be perfect for you, but it means you will be in a place from which you can put your trials in a proper perspective and fulfill your responsibilities to the Gods and to the community.
GK.: There it is. I aspire to her level of devotion and piety. I really do, every god damn day and every day I fall short. Still, I know what devotion can be and what it looks like to live a deeply engaged devotional life and that inspires me to keep trying.
Today my mother was born, Fuensanta Arismendi Plaza. She was fierce and bold, fierce in her devotion to her Gods, wise beyond words, and she was the miracle presence that transformed my life. Every year when her birthday comes around I always want to write something beautiful and profound, something that would give some indication of how important this small, bird-like Swiss woman was in my life and every year I fail. I sit down at the keyboard and all I can think is “she’s gone” and all the ancestor practices in the world won’t bring her back. Oh make no mistake, the ancestor work keeps me in contact with her and it’s lovely but it’s not having her here in the flesh and I miss her every day. In many respects I think she took part of me with her when she died and I’m only now finding my way back to the living.
I have reams of letters from her, huge binders that I keep carefully secured in a duffle. I sometimes think I should post some of them, share the beauty of her mind and soul with others but I haven’t been able to bring myself yet to read through them all again. In time, it will come. In the meantime, I give her offerings of flowers. She loved flowers, and made a point to buy organic ones. She loved pink but had some clothing taboos from her Gods and so was very rarely permitted to wear it. She was sensitive to color and it would nourish her quite a bit. Her home was bright and airy, milky whites, sweet, muted yellows, and a stone hearth that was her household shrine. It was a holy place for me and I grew up there in so many ways.
She loved her gods fiercely. Those are the words that I think she would want as an epitaph and they are true and her devotion fired others in theirs. I wish to carry her legacy on, never, ever giving up on my service and commitment to my Gods (and after her death it was close). That is the legacy she has left me, never giving up on my devotion to the Gods. It’s the thing she would, I think, want me to emphasize the most about her: first, last, and always, she loved her Gods.
Now, I’m going to stop typing and go out and get her some flowers.
I’ve been thinking of Mani tonight. Friends of Mani has been sharing prayers and thoughts on Him and I’ve had my mother’s initial thoughts on this God running through my head ever since. She was so wise in the ways of devotion; I wanted to ask her thoughts on our moon God when I was writing my first book for Him. I wanted to include something from her because she had a way of stilling herself and reaching for the essential core of truth in all the ways of being with the Gods. I wanted to know what she would say and she gave me a brief description written in her elegant hand that changed the way I looked at Mani forever. I’ve included it in my most recent devotional to Mani too, as well as that first book, but I am moved to share it with you here tonight.
this is by Fuensanta Arismendi Plaza: