Intro: How many selves are we alloted? In this post, Rebecca Kiil explores the notion of our many selves within the context of the many gods present in the daily lives of the Newar people of Kathmandu, as introduced to us in Ellen Coon’s captivating workshop, “The Mountain with Two Wives: Landscape and Embodied Memory in Kathmandu.”
Saturday mornings are tough for me. Weeks are filled way past the brim with a full-time job, part-time master’s program, choral practice, parenting, bills, cooking, laundry, commuting – a symptom of life today, or at least of life in the northeastern United States. The result is that regardless of how I try to unwind Friday evenings, I inevitably wake up “on edge” Saturday mornings, like there is something else I need to get rid of, to let go of, to shed. I intentionally get up early most Saturdays, making another attempt to slough off the week by running with my running group or doing yoga and meditating before settling into the weekend with my family. No matter what I do to avoid it, though, Saturday mornings almost always end in a melt-down. My 11-year-old daughter’s? Sometimes. But usually the melt-downs are mine.
And so it was this morning, another Saturday. I had to miss my run and opted for yoga and meditation. Afterward, I felt peaceful and ready to face the day—until I came face to face with my husband and daughter who were peacefully eating breakfast. Suddenly I was arguing about cleaning the house—not a life-threatening situation, but my body suddenly felt like it was. Everything changed so quickly. I changed so quickly. I was left wondering, Where did that other self, the calm one, go? Upon reflection, I realized this happens most Saturdays and I thought, Why do I keep making these same mistakes? And suddenly, my mind jumped back to Ellen Coon’s presentation last Thursday evening and her conversation about “possession”:
“Western people especially are soooo interested in possession. They can’t get enough of it. They want to hear every little thing because it’s like: Really? You could be somebody else? Like we feel like we’re stuck with ourselves.”
I know, possession. I think it’s a word that we in our culture have a hard time wrapping our head around, although I might have a slightly different perspective on “our culture.” I’m a first-generation American who was raised in an Estonian-language Pentecostal church, where “speaking in tongues” was, well, if not exactly ordinary, then at least accepted as part of this religious tradition and certainly as something real. When a person is said to be speaking in tongues, that means they have been overcome by the Holy Spirit and their mouth is speaking using words that are not their own. I have only witnessed this once that I can remember. I was a teenager at the time, traveling with a group of young Estonian-Americans for our first visit to Estonia, which was occupied by the Soviet Union at that time, to learn about our heritage. That was our officially stated purpose. Our group leader, an Estonian minister, did not mention to the Soviet authorities that we would be speaking in underground churches and that he would be smuggling in Bibles (we did not know this until after the fact). The trip was intense, frightening, and life altering. During a group prayer, one of the adult chaperones started speaking in tongues. I remember being surprised, once I realized what was happening, at how normal it seemed within that context.
Ellen so beautifully described the phenomenon of possession within the context of the Newar culture and explained that all of the gods, including the angry ones, were adored. She told one story that stopped me in my tracks. It took place during a puja ceremony, when Ellen encountered “a young medium, a poor woman, with poor clothes from the outskirts of town … she was rolling back and forth on the ground, slapping her own face, and she was pulling her own hair.” The woman was possessed and the god was screaming—from within, and simultaneously at the woman herself—“How dare you allow yourself to be disrespected … How could you forget your own divinity!?” Listen to Ellen’s re-telling of the story below.
Goodness. How many times a day do I forget my own divinity? How often do I forget the divinity of those around me? A couple of weeks passed, during which I continued to ponder my Saturday experiences in relation to the Newar’s relationship to their gods. I reached out to Ellen to get her perspective. She told me:
Female anger or wrath is a holy force in the tantric religious culture. It arises in response to the earth being out of balance and life, or living beings, being disrespected.
This past Friday night, it was my 11-year-old daughter’s turn to experience her “female wrath.” The energy in her own body had built up over a very long and stressful week of school and homework on top of daily rehearsals in preparation for her role in a musical this weekend. She had done a great job of balancing it all during the week, up until the first performance ended and we were driving home. It was late, and we made what I had hoped would be a quick stop to grab some food before heading home to bed. Whatever she’d been holding together all week burst loose when I said “no” to her request to buy a bracelet that caught her eye in the store. One and a half hours of pure, raw rage and emotion poured out of her.
In that moment, I was able to observe what she was experiencing in her little body clearly and with compassion, and could relate it somewhat to what had been happening in my own. And after pondering Ellen’s work and remembering a new perspective on parenting I’d recently read in The Awakened Family: A Revolution in Parenting by Shefali Tsabary, Ph.D., I was able to calmly sit with her as she raged and kicked (the car seat, not me) and screamed. Periodically, I would ask her to help me figure out what her body needed (water? food? rest?) to no avail. Finally, she came to me, screaming, asking why I wouldn’t help her. So I asked her how she wanted me to help her. And then she screamed at me again, asking me if I couldn’t help her by using some energy work I’d learned. So I did. She breathed. Then she showered. Then she was back in her body. The storm was behind us.
A few weeks ago, I might have lost my cool 20 to 30 minutes into the tirade, threatening to take away all of her favorite things, one by one, as the situation continued to escalate. I would have taken it personally, a mark of what a terrible parent I am that I’ve raised a daughter who can’t control herself or who says horrible things to me when all I do is try to make her life as good as it can be, and on and on. A few weeks ago, when she finally calmed down, I would have said something like, “Oh good, I’m glad you’re back,” as if that other, louder, angrier, darker side were not really her at all.
But now I see her differently, I see myself differently. All of this is part of her, just as my darker, angrier, louder, inappropriate self is one of the many parts of me. My daughter (and my Self) is complex and layered—she has love, she has compassion, she has rage, she has saddness, she has nervousness, she has excitement, she has feelings she sometimes cannot contain.
In her presentation, Ellen explained that the true meaning of the Newar word for possession is “God coming.”
You may be wondering why I am getting so personal in a written reflection on an academic presentation. Honestly, I’ve been wondering myself if there is a way to connect all these dots without being so revealing. I’ve always been a very private person, raised in a very reserved, private family. But the fact is that for a long time, I’ve thought about, talked about, strategized about, and explored these patterns—in myself, in my family. We all have them to some extent. I just happen to be instensely and alternately fascinated and frustrated by, and curious about, them.
A few years ago, around the time I started working with my now-101-year-old grandmother on the story of her escape from the Soviet regime during World War II and her many losses (of her father, brother, and husband), I heard an interview on the On Being podcast called “How Trauma and Resilience Cross Generations,” with Rachel Yehuda. She discussed her research into how traumatic events, including communal trauma, can actually change peoples’ DNA and then those changes can be passed down physiologically through generations.
Listening to my grandmother’s stories about experiences she did not share with anyone for 60+ years has yielded many blessings for me, including getting to know her as a multi-dimensional woman rather than a two-dimensional grandmother figure. Those stories and the many very deep conversations we’ve shared have also revealed to me patterns—evident in my grandmother’s words and thoughts processes, as well as in the thought patterns of my maternal grandfather, her first husband, whom I never met but whose diary and letters she let me read—that I had assumed were uniquely mine but that were, in fact, markers, little clues left scattered for me to find. Yehuda’s work got me thinking about which, if any, of the other markers I’ve noticed in myself and my extended family (and perhaps my daughter) might be the result of the trauma experienced by both sides of my family—my father’s family also fled Estonia at the same time my mother and maternal grandmother did.
As I continue to let my curiosity lead me, I will remember Ellen’s final thought to me on the subject: In as much as “even emotions we consider negative are seen as sacred and powerful in the Newar tantric,” even moreso we should be aware of “one’s inherent worthiness as a human being and a woman AS IS.”
I cannot time-travel with my daughter back to the idyllic Kathmandu Ellen describes from her childhood, a place where even the darker, louder, scarier sides of women were embraced, revered, cultivated, and, yes, welcomed. However, I can be conscious—for my daughter and for myself—not to quash those feelings; and rather to help us both find ways to release those emotions and energies in ways that are good for us and will allow us to look at those moments, those feelings, as teachers from whom we can learn, just as the Newar people look to their gods to teach them. I can stop fighting these appearances of my darker self. I can learn, and teach my daughter, to be still and wait for her; and when she does come, which she inevitably will, to welcome her and say, with sincerity and anticipation, “Hello, it’s you!”
Rebecca Kiil is an OHMA student and alum of the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. She is currently helping her 101-year-old grandmother, another example of a wise, fierce, God-filled woman, document the story of her escape during World War II from Stalin’s regime. Rebecca is exploring how stories of trauma are passed down and how experiences of trauma are embodied by subsequent generations. At the 2018 OHMA cohort’s pop-up exhibit, INTER\VIEWS: an inter\active oral history exhibition, Rebecca will present: Walking in My Grandmother’s Shoes: A Refugee Story from a Country You May Never Have Heard Of.