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  • Kathy Shimpock

"When a Woman Feels Alone" by May Sarton. An encounter with the wise old woman archetype.

Jesse Wilson, a Nootka woman with baskets for sale (c. 1930s).

When a woman feels alone, when the room

is full of daemons,” the Nootka tribe

Tells us, ‘The Old Woman will be there.”

She has come to me over three thousand miles

And what does she have to tell me, troubled“

by phantoms in the night”?

Is she really here?

What is the saving word from so deep in the past

.From as deep as the ancient root of the redwood,

From as deep as the primal bed of the ocean,

From as deep as a woman’s heart sprung open

Again through a hard birth or a hard death?

Here under the shock of love, I am open

To you, Primal spirit, one with rock and wave,

One with survivors of flood and fire,

Who have rebuilt their homes a million times,

Who have lost their children and borne them again.

The words I hear are strength, laughter, endurance.

Old Woman I meet you deep inside myself.

There in the rootbed of fertility,

World without end, as the legend tells it.

Under the words you are my silence.

This poem captures the connection we seek with the wise old woman archetype. What does this old woman tell you when you are unable to sleep at night?  ("Let it go, my child.  Nothing can be done until morning.") What saving word does she say to soothe your fearful heart?  Who is this eternal grandmother, the "primal spirit," who travels 3,000 miles to be at your bedside? She is the one who has seen it all, lived through it all - from birth and death, to joy and sadness. She is there. 'What words would she whisper in your ear?  Strength, laughter, endurance?  Or is there something more?   Close your eyes and breathe her in.  Feel her hand on your shoulder as she says, "Do not be afraid.  Your time has come."  She exists in the rootbed of fertility.  "World without end, as the legend tells it.  Under the words [she is your] silence."


The following instructions for reflective reading, comes from the Benedictine practice of Lectio Divina (or holy reading). I find this process equally valuable for uncovering the wisdom of poetry.

  1. Read the poem linked above slowly.

  2. As you do so, look for a word in the poem that stands out to you.

  3. Now, read the poem a second time.

  4. What phrase stands out for you?

  5. What is this poem saying to you today? What message might you take forward?

  6. Share you thoughts with us in the comment area below.

About the photograph: “Jessie Wilson...has been making and selling baskets to tourists for more years than she can remember. She is a familiar figure with her baskets at Nootka, historically famous outpost on the West Coast of Vancouver Island where the Spanish and British late in the 18th century signed a pact giving the British formal possession of the Pacific Northwest by virtue of Capt. Cook's explorations.” (Canadian photo in the public domain.)

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