I was talking about wine the other night, and spirits of the land, and the many different ways of rooting oneself in an awareness of all the indwelling spirits of the places in which we live and move and I remembered something I learned a very long time ago.
I’m a bit of a wine snob. I was taught by my adopted mother, for whom wine was one of life’s sweetest pleasures. She had a very discerning palate, and with her training, i developed a palate that, had I chosen to pursue it, would have enabled me to take a sommelier’s training. This was one of the grace-notes of Midgard, a pleasure we both shared.
Until she came into my life I’d never liked wine. I hadn’t been exposed to much and didn’t realize that a palate is something that must be cultivated, and that as it was cultivated it would expand and perception would deepen and a whole new world of taste and flavor, aroma, and insight would open up. When I asked my mom to teach me about wine, she took to the task with a vengeance. Over the years that we were together, she gleefully exposed me to some of the best wines in the world. It was, at first, an uphill battle! I have a sweet tooth and at first, that carried over to a dismaying degree into my choice of wines. I found anything not cloyingly sweet too bitter. So she solved this by starting with the best dessert wine she knew and very slowly and very, very patiently, moving my palate away from the sweet. My taste for reds and whites opened up at different times. The latter came first and took about a year to develop. I can still remember with vivid clarity that day, many years ago, when my palate burst open to white wine. I was sitting in Tour D’Argent, overlooking Paris and drinking a glorious, absolutely glorious 1999 Puligny Montrachet. All of a sudden my taste buds were flooded with multiple notes of flavor. I remember losing myself in a complex, multi-layered smokiness that seduced the tongue and nose, unlike anything i’d ever tasted before. To this day my favorite white wines are still the ones that are rich and smoky. It took another year and a half or so for my palate to open to red wines. That was less dramatic and while I know I was in Italy (probably Rome), drinking a lot of Amarone, I can’t name the exact time or place of that particular epiphany. With the opening of my palate came a growing sense of the spirit of the vine as well and I began to develop an alliance with him. My explorations of wine were grounded not only in deep and deeply sensual delight but also immense respect.
So my mom took me to Switzerland once, wanting to show me all the places that had formed the warp and weft of her world, all the places she loved. We were traveling through a small village near Montreux and stopped for lunch. The restaurant wherein we were eating offered only local wines, grown within a few miles of where we sat. these wines are, for the most part, not distributed broadly and are sold only in the immediate areas. Before I could venture an opinion, my mom cautioned me against turning up my nose up at local varietals. She told me that the spirit, wisdom, and medicine of the land upon which we stood was contained in those wines. It was a distillation of the “ashe” of the land spirit itself, and contained trace memories of everything that had ever happened in those places. It’s a connection, on a very deep level, to the power of the land itself, a very particular plot of soil. It’s a means, a very sacred and holy means of absorbing the power of that land spirit –freely given–into oneself. To taste the wine was to taste the land upon which it was grown. (She also had much to say about why a wine tastes better in its native locale than after it’s been loaded with sulfites, agitated, and shipped to the US, but that’s another tale in and of itself).
She was right of course and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this holds true for every bite of food or drop of drink we put into our mouths. For this reason if no other, homage should be given to the spirits of the land, the soil, the tilled earth, the mulch, the water table, and the entire ecosystem in which our nourishment was born. As the land is nourished so are we.
think about that: as the land is nourished, so are we. Truly grasping that one simple truism changes everything. I know for me, it transformed to a great degree the way in which I interact with the earth. I became much more conscious of what i put into my mouth, where my food comes from, how my local farmers are treated, and the megalithic horror of Monsanto and all the destruction it brings (and not in the name of science either. Hubris maybe, but not science). I found myself radicalizing on fronts that I had heretofore ignored as someone else’s fight. Well it’s not “someone else’s fight,” not unless I suddenly no longer require food to live.
It’s not enough to say “i honor the earth.” Tell me how. What exactly do you do? How does it translate into your everyday Midgard life? Because words are not enough.
My mother taught me that, a bird-boned firebrand, a small, delicate woman with an elegant Swiss accent, a streak of blue in her hair (for Loki–and, according to her, so no one would look at her and think she was without her edges) and a will that would put the mountains themselves to shame. She was a radical: in her devotion, in loving the Gods, and in the way that she adored the earth. That is my inheritance.
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.
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.
This year I wanted to give my mom something special on the anniversary of her death. My friend Neve, who has a powerful gift for creating ritual flower arrangements, offered to do something for my mom. It felt right, especially as Mutti always loved flowers, was an avid gardener, and too great pleasure in the peace and beauty of her garden.
I arranged things with Neve, who took the resulting bouquet to the Pacific shore (also appropriate, as my mom adored Big Sur). This evening I heard from my friend, who sent me an account of the small ritual he did, and some gorgeous pictures, of the bouquet offering, the spot where the rite was done, and a cavernous passage through which he passed to find exactly the right spot to honor my mom.
“This morning I arranged a bouquet, transcribed your letter and took a train to the ocean, and walked the beach looking for the right place. I walked the entire length of Ocean beach until I reached the cliffs north of the beach. I had a strange feeling of being pushed further, challenged in a way, to climb way out into the cliffs, through a tunnel, and out to a ledge that I might usually be too cautious or afraid to go to. The whole procession I sang a little hymn I composed…
On the cliff, I lit a candle and sang the hymn three times. As I sang I felt sort of frenzied but also terrified. The ocean began roaring and the waves were crashing intensely. I prayed to Hermes in his role as messenger and to Flora as the mother of flowers and asked them to bring the flowers to your Mutti on your behalf. I poured out offerings to them. At this point the waves reached a height of frenzy and I felt the presence of the Gods, and also a motherly presence, who I believe was hers. I threw the bouquet from the cliff and a wave reached up, tore it apart in mid air, and the flowers disappeared into the water. Then everything was calm. I felt a deep sense of peace and gratitude. The waves stopped for a moment and I left, singing the hymn again, slightly changed to offer thanks as I went through the tunnel.”
With the offering, I sent a prayer:
I miss you every day. My life has shifted again like sands under a tumultuous wave and every day I worry that I am losing the things you have taught me, that I am moving farther away from the daughter I was to you. I worry that the best parts of me followed you to the grave and ironically even as I feel separate, I know that each day brings me closer to reunion with you too. We did not have enough time. We could never have had enough time and yet, I am so very grateful for you, my miracle mother, and so very grateful for the corporeal time we were given, and so very grateful for the choices you made even if they scoured my soul raw in the end.
I wish you were here now in the flesh to see the person that I’ve become. I am a jumbled mess at times but the palace of my mind has opened its doors to places and things, ideas and insights in a way that never could have happened before your care. Because of you I can say “ich bin gut gebildet” and know it to be true. Because of you I did not wither away in agony more than a decade ago. You gave me the only life that truly counts, even if it was not one of your body.
Oh I am so tired, Mutti, so very tired and yet at last I feel I can begin picking up the broken pieces of me, knitting myself together with the remembrance of you, and moving forward. There is so much left to do. I must learn to love the Gods again—it was so hard to let it lie that you were gone. You are still my marker, my example for all that is good and right and proper in this world. I wish to be the kind of person that you would respect, always, and I often worry I am falling short.
Yet I feel your care like a warm comforter wrapping around me, ever and always and still you pour gifts into my hands. I know how deeply I am loved even now, especially now. You have become a most holy sancta to so many people in our community and while I know you are probably appalled by the whole thing, I think it only right and just. Your time in the world, as hard as it was for you did not go unnoticed. You brought sustenance of the spirit to so many and you continue to do that now. I’m proud to say that you are my mother. even if sometimes it seems obscene that the world spins merrily on without you in it. How dare it exist when you do not? I wish that I had gone into full mourning for you instead of pushing through. It has helped me to mark passage in such ways because every day I feel your absence. I do not know how I survived when you were gone. I’m not quite sure how I am still here.
I love you, Mutti, auf Zeit und Ewigkeit. I could write a book of longing and sorrow, joy in remembrance of things shared, and all things that I would have shared like a child holding out its first drawing had you still be enfleshed when they occurred. I know that you know these things already. Instead I will only say that I hope you have a measure of peace dearly bought and dearly earned with Loki and Sigyn. I hope you are whole and healthy and happy. I wish for you joy, oh my miracle mother. I wish for you contentment.
I love you so much, it flows through the veins of my heart and soul like blood: I love you I love you I love you. that is all I want to say. I am so grateful to all the Gods for bringing us together and I love you. My friend Neve offered to make this beautiful arrangement — a blessing gift, something beautiful and holy for you — and I hope they adorn your world and bring you delight. I know you loved flowers and they remind me so of you and of Sigyn. Know that I am well and safe and know that every day I still feel how deeply, eternally I am loved by you. Thank you, my mother. oh thank you.
On this day of your death, I send this forth.
(All photos by Neve)
Today is the anniversary of my adopted mom’s death. I will be writing more about this in the evening, but I wanted to share this for her now. Someone contacted my friend Raven Kaldera and commissioned him to write a poem about my mom, as a gift to me. I am very grateful and can think of no one more worthy to be memorialized with the gift and grace of poetry. This woman, unassuming as she may have seemed, was a powerhouse and she transformed my world, sustaining me, teaching me, and giving me life as only a mother could. i am so profoundly grateful for the time we had together. Ich habe dich unendlich gern, Mutti, auf Zeit und Ewigkeit.
Loki’s Pride, Sigyn’s Joy
by Raven Kaldera
(Dedicated to Fuensanta Plaza, as a gift for her daughter Galina.)
Daughter of dwarven delving,
Granddaughter of gleaming gold,
Linked to the Old World and the New,
Stern-eyed ascetic one moment,
Drunk and laughing the next,
No child of your body
But an ancestress of many,
Mystic prostrate before many Gods
Who advised us all on cleaning products,
The riddle that was you
Wove in and out of our lives
Like the brisk salt wind from the sea
Cutting through the fog of everyday life.
Daughter of fire and endurance,
You were the first to hold the bowl
For the grieving goddess,
The second to hail the Waves
By name and by number,
The third I knew who’d seen Flame-Hair
In his hungriest, neediest form.
No one would have guessed you for
A devotee of the trickster,
Yet the quiet changes you made
To the lives of those you touched
Witness a deft hand and a deft word
Worthy of his sharp-eyed subtlety.
Child of breaking and mending,
Your equally sharp eyes saw flaws
And cracks in the faces of many,
And sometimes you stepped forth to mend
In the way that you knew best,
A not-faery godmother with a magic wand
Made of gold, and sometimes you simply
Raised an eyebrow and a scorching word.
You’d earned the freedom and the right
To do as you pleased, when you pleased,
And no longer needed to prove
Anything to anyone, Lady Putztoefel.
May we all remember that courage,
All the way to the bitter end,
Which you chose, thoughtfully
And with careful consideration,
Leaving little to chance or fate.
You were an iron anchor of belief,
And you would have died for all
You believed in, passionately.
Yours was a belief as strong
As that of a woman who could sit
With her beloved for a thousand years,
Watch his torment, and never think
Of leaving that dark, dank cave.
May we all remember that courage
When we are pelted with public opinion,
Like an iron bowl that can withstand
A thousand years of dripping venom.
May we remember how little you allowed
The cries of fools to sway your decisions,
And may we be inspired to hold our lines
And quietly honor what it is ours to honor
In spite of all the noises of the world.
Exhausted. In Boston on an unexpected mini-pilgrimage. Read more about it here at Boneladyblog.
Yesterday was the anniversary of my adopted mom’s death. I’ll be posting more about that over the weekend, when I will be making some ancestral observances and ritual. I did not want it to go unremarked here, however, and this is the first access i’ve had to my computer since very early yesterday.
Fuensanta Arismendi Plaza 1950-2010 came into my life like a miracle from the Gods. She preserved and nourished me, and loved me dearly in all ways but the most obviously literal, my mother. It’s cliche to say of someone who has died that there isn’t a day that goes by that one doesn’t think about them, but it’s true and even being a shaman and ancestor worker didn’t soften the blow of her death. (You’d think working with the dead, and having that access to the Gods and spirits would make such a thing easier, more comprehensible, common place but it didn’t. Not in the least).
The first few years after her death i found myself wanting to collect everything that she had touched, every picture, every item, ever tiny scrap of paper. I realized early on i was trying to summon the corporeal sense of her presence but…it doesn’t work. When her partner died she burned almost everything that he owned. At the time she told me this, i was appalled. I tend to use things as mnemonic devices and there’s a comfort in being able to pick up a trinket and unroll a complicated memory. She told me then that they wouldn’t bring him back and that it was somehow obscene that these things existed when he no longer did. While I still cherish the things that she gave me, she’s right. They do not create that conduit. They do not evoke that presence. They do not in any way create the corporeal sense of presence here and now. Memory and ancestor work is the best we have.
For me, telling stories about all our adventures and how we met and sharing her letters (I have reams and reams of them), and hauling out her pictures (oh how she hated to have her picture taken) to and with my partner, who never met her in life, has been very healing. I worry that I will forget the ins and outs of our time together. I worry that one day I won’t remember what her culture Basel accent sounded like, or how she moved, or what we did when we went to that little town outside of Montreux that time when we were in Switzerland, or what it was like when we were together, what it was like to be so deeply loved by one’s mother, what it was like to have a mother who was also one’s best friend.
Grief still weighs me down and i know that when she died she took a part of my soul with her. There is a part of me that is emptied out of life, because she is not here to anchor me to living anymore. There is a part of me that went with her across that chasm of life into death. There is a part of me that will never find its way back and that’s ok. It’s fitting. I would rather that connection be shared still than to live whole with no part of my heart marked by her passing.
I will write more about this later.