Tag Archives: mythology


diana cropped


Last night, we held our third the dictionary project presents! reading at Casa Libre en la Solana. And we finally revealed the word that our writers and readers had been working with for two weeks: Diana!

We were all grateful for having to engage with Diana: Roman goddess of the hunt, of the moon and childbirth, of all things wild.

One of the most exciting things about our reading series is assigning the same word to a group of writers and seeing the different ways these brilliant minds and hearts experience and interpret that word.  I am grateful to Ian Ellasante, Hannah Ensor, Kindall Gray, Tc Tolbert, and Teré Fowler-Chapman for their writing and for reading last night. And I am grateful to everyone that came.

We will post photos and videos soon from the event, but in the meantime, I would like to share with you the piece I wrote as an introduction. Wishing you a beautiful day.



As many of you know, whenever I bibliomance a word for tdp, I close my eyes and run my finger through the dictionary and then over a page. This time, I landed on the image of Diana.



In yoga asana practice, there are several poses named warrior. In my favorite warrior pose—I say favorite because I’m not holding the position for several minutes now—the right leg lunges forward, knee bent, while the back leg is straight and sturdy, giving the illusion of stillness even as the muscles are working and the tendons wrapping strong around bone. Arms are outstretched in a T-shape with palms facing down, hips positioned to the side. Shoulders are released. And the chest, the chest is open.


The first hundred times I did this shape, or any warrior shape for that matter, I focused on where I felt weak. My arms ached. My legs shook. Holding the position for any length of time felt impossible.


Years later, I have a different relationship to the pose. Instead of noticing my weakness, even though the pose is challenging, I can instead embrace my strength. I can feel my feet and legs holding me up. I can radiate out from the extension in my arms. I can be aware of my chest as it continues to press into the air, opening.


I realize now that the challenge of the pose also reveals my capacity to hold it, but first I have to choose to see it that way.


All week I have been thinking about the different meanings of the word warrior.


I have been tuned in to the presence of violence and the threat of violence, in our country and in the world. First, with the horrible bombings at the Boston Marathon that resulted in the death of three and injury of almost one hundred and fifty. Second, with the news of car bombs in Iraq that killed at least thirty-three people. I listened to politicians and advisors talk about the difference between the word “terrorism” and “murder” on The Diane Rehm Show. I heard a filmmaker talk to Terry Gross about how he survived an IED when he recorded footage on the frontlines in Iraq and about the documentary he just finished about his partner filmmaker who was killed from a shrapnel wound while filming the uprising in Libya. Then, I read and heard about the Senate’s decision not to pass revised gun control legislation that would require background checks before purchasing these weapons, and the responses of both our president and victims of gun violence saying “shame on you.” And finally, yesterday and today, I have watched the unfurling of armed robbery and gunfights and gun deaths and the ongoing manhunt as Boston police search for the surviving suspect of the Boston Marathon bombing. Perhaps by the time I read this, in front of all of you, he will have been found and thus we will have someone to hold accountable. Perhaps we will have some resolution to one particular tragic event that harmed so many and incited fear and anxiety in even more.


And without lessening the burden placed on those that committed all these individual atrocities, the truth is that every one of us is accountable. We are accountable for living in a culture where power and privilege aren’t always used mindfully but instead used with arrogance and thoughtlessness. Accountable for when we choose aggression over talking things through. Accountable for valuing purchasing more and more objects over spending time with our neighbors. Accountable for electing people whose job is to protect us and who have made decisions that do exactly the opposite. Accountable for every word said in anger, every aggressive face or hand gesture made while driving. Accountable when we harm ourselves or others, when we do not live up to our best potential.


At one point or another, we are all guilty of being the wrong kind of warrior.


I grew up in the South, in a city built on the backs of slaves, and in a time when I could count the African-American women who attended my private Catholic school with me on two hands. There were firm divisions by race in this town, ones I was never asked to question but merely recognize and keep. In every unspoken gesture, I read clearly who I was supposed to be friends with and how I was supposed to be. It took going to a poor bordertown in Mexico when I was ten to show me the devastating impact of poverty, as I witnessed children my age begging on the streets, because I never went to neighborhoods where I would have seen it in my hometown.


Life was constricted not only by issues of race and class but by issues of gender—by pantyhose, by scripture passages, by too few female role models giving permission by their presence for me to be creative and curious and strong. For a long time, I struggled to reconcile my femininity with my strength, so entrenched in me were the values of my culture which said that these things could not exist in one person, in one body, in a woman.


My freshman year of high school, I was assigned Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. The front cover of the paperback was black with bold white letters and an image of a man riding on the back of a winged horse. I had been an avid reader since early childhood so I was familiar with stories, but these struck a new note. These were mythological figures that I was allowed to think of as icons (as was not permitted with biblical ones). Here were stories I needed. They were the stories of men and women, trying and failing and trying and failing again. They were the stories of gods and goddesses, all of whom had tremendous power and inevitability colossal flaws. One of the goddesses that bewildered me most was the Greek Artemis, or in Roman culture: Diana. She bewildered me because I grew up in a town where pearls hung around the necks of the women who hosted garden parties and gathered children round their legs. I didn’t see any women walking around with bows and arrows, not even metaphorical ones. Even my mother, who I now see as one of the fiercest and most warrior-like women I know, didn’t appear that way when I was growing up. I read her through the lenses that were provided to me and as a result she seemed more careful and cautious than bold and brazen.


Diana, Giampietrino

Diana, Giampietrino


So when I first read about Diana, I judged her for what I perceived as her “overly masculine” behavior and I wondered how I could fit her into my perception of female heroines, who I had learned thus far were to be smart but not too smart, conversational but not in a way that took up too much space, and above all, beautiful.


Diana is the goddess of the hunt. She is also the goddess of the moon. And she is the goddess of the process of birth. In her, the power for livelihood, for the ebbing and flowing of tides, and for the creation of new beings come together. In her, masculine and feminine energies combine, and it is this balance that gives her so much power.




I’ve been thinking about Diana this week, not just because her name is the word for tonight’s event, but because I feel that her particular kind of warrior spirit is needed in our world right now. Hers is the warrior spirit that stands up against the would-be warriors who say that background checks aren’t necessary, that the solution to weapons is more weapons, that the solution to violence is to meet it with more violence. I’ve been thinking about her because her warriorship is not about using her power to benefit herself; it is not about killing innocents; it is not about encouraging war or bloodshed. Her warriorship is about living from the marrow of the bone, the tender tissue of the heart. Her warriorship is about expressing the fiery aspect of her being without entirely letting go of the reins. Her warriorship about being assertive but also compassionate. Her warriorship requires us not to back down from that which is right but also not to meet those who oppose us with unchecked anger. We will meet them with our minds, with the strength of our spirit rather than swords and shields, rifles and semi-automatics.


In 2011, the United States’ military budget totaled 644 billion dollars. We praise our servicemen  and women, but when we see images of them, we don’t so much see their human bodies as we do the items that cover them: guns, magazines, helmets. As a culture, we praise their power and bravery but when they suffer, we refuse to see their humanness, we refuse to recognize that violence does damage to everyone involved. We only honor the fierceness of these warriors without acknowledging their tenderness.


“I came to the Greeks early,” Edith Hamilton told an interviewer when she was 91, “and I found answers in them. Greece’s great men let all their acts turn on the immortality of the soul. We don’t really act as if we believed in the soul’s immortality and that’s why we are where we are today.”


Diana of Versailles, Leochares

Diana of Versailles, Leochares


In it’s most simple definition, a warrior is a brave or experienced soldier or fighter. It is up to us what we fight for. Because being a warrior at its core is not about death and is not about killing. Being a warrior is about responsible use of one’s power and energy. To be a warrior is to act with bravery and courage and to make wise choices in situations of extreme pressure.


It’s not that we don’t need warriors. We desperately need warriors. But we need the kind who soldier for love, compassion, and understanding.


When I was fourteen, I might have thought that a goddess could not be charged with the duties of hunting and also of midwifery. I might have seen these powers emerging in Diana as completely contradictory. But I don’t think that anymore. Both hunting and childbirth require intense physical and emotional strength. Both require fierceness working alongside wisdom and compassion. In both rituals, there must be encouragement, there must be patience, there must be integrity, there must be a time to hold still and a time to push forward.


–Lisa O’Neill, written for The Dictionary Project Presents!, April 19, 2013



Diana, goddess of the hunt and the moon, Hans Makart

Diana, goddess of the hunt and the moon, Hans Makart


Diana bathing with her nymphs, Rembrandt

Diana bathing with her nymphs, Rembrandt






Diana and Cupid

Diana and Cupid




Diana, David Swift Photography

Diana, David Swift Photography




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I guess "Perfection" does have a zipcode. Perfection, North Carolina. Photo by Wessel Kok

myth·i·cize (mith´i-siz´),  v.t. [MYTHICIZED  (-sizd´),  MYTHICIZING], to make into, or explain as, a myth.


myth (mith),  n. [LL. mythos; Gr. mythos, a word, speech, story, legend],  1. a traditional story of unknown authorship, ostensibly with a historical basis, but serving usually to explain some phenomenon of nature, the origin of man, or the customs, institutions, religious rites, etc. of a people: myths usually involve the exploits of gods and heroes: cf. legend.  2. such stories collectively; mythology.  3. any fictitious story.  4. any imaginary person or thing spoken of as though existing.

I think it is almost impossible for us to not buy into certain cultural myths. The myth of what is beautiful. The myth that “truth” has one clear-cut meaning. And, of course, the myth of perfection. Much of the time—and much of that time without awareness of it—I live under the myth that I have to be perfect. Somewhere in my head is a stubborn part of me that believes that if I do not take the right steps, if I don’t have every aspect of my life in order, if I do not appear to be always together, the world—or at least my personal world—will crumble.

This is not a new myth in my life. I went to nationals in speech and debate my senior year of high school with an original oratory entitled “The Art of Perfectionism.” Using advertising, psychology, and personal narrative, I crafted a speech, a cautionary tale of shorts, that documented the dangers of trying to be perfect all the time, the dangers of believing that perfection was even possible. When I was a child, I was anchored in doing things right. I tried to be the model child and my desire to please others and to be perceived as strong and smart and creative has continued in my adult self.

I know this myth of perfection is inherently flawed, impossible and ultimately undesirable, and yet I tend to apply that knowledge to everyone but me. Why is it that I am able to be so generous when it comes to other people and their slip-ups and simultaneously be so hard on myself?

I think of a quote from Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird. She writes: “I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that alot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

Beyond not having fun, the problem with buying into the myth of perfection is that it is just that: a myth. It is a story, a legend, a fiction. I am not perfect. No matter how hard I try to juggle all the balls in my day-to-day life, I always end up dropping one. And this week, I was reminded in very visceral and difficult ways that I am not perfect and that I have to let go of the myth and embrace the reality.

Scenario #1 or “The Scenario In Which I Beat The Crap Out Of Myself”

Wednesday. 9:30 a.m. I have just crawled out of bed and am going to get food to feed my dog. It’s April 14, the day before tax day. I have not started my taxes. I have opened my computer to tackle this task, but first I have to feed the dog. I am not quite awake yet as I have not yet made the coffee. On the way into the kitchen, I open a high kitchen cabinet and get out some napkins to blow my nose (as I have been stopped up from allergy season). Leaving the door open, I get my dog some food and put it in a bowl. On any other day, I would have looked up as I exited the kitchen, avoiding the open cabinet by stepping to the right. Or perhaps as I passed it, I would close the cabinet with my free hand, laughing at my absentmindedness. But this is not any other day. This is the day when, with Maggie’s bowl in hand, I walk directly into the cabinet, my forehead hitting the sharp metal clasp that is meant to close the cabinet. I keel over to the floor in pain, still trying to process what just happened. Maggie runs around me, fixated on her food dish, and I yell at her, “Mama’s hurt. How can you be worried about food right now?”

At first, I think I just hit my head really hard, but when I put my hand to my forehead, I feel the blood before I see it. Running into the bathroom, I pull my bangs backed and look at my forehead and see a vertical red line where the skin had broken open. Too deep to be a scratch. Too surface for the emergency room. I grab a soda out of the freezer and put it to my head with a Kleenex to catch the blood. I call my mom and dad to ask for advice. They tell me to check it out. I call some friends, but I only get voicemails.

I decide to go to urgent care. Sitting there, all I can do is chastise myself. Why hadn’t I been more careful? Why hadn’t I closed the cabinet? Why hadn’t I watched where I was going? Why was I such a klutz? I wondered whether I had messed up my face forever. I wondered whether I needed stitches. About a half an hour into my stay, my friend E called. She was just getting done with class and got my message. She was coming to meet me there. I wonder what would have happened if she would have asked what I needed.

What can I do?

Oh, it’s okay, I’m just here waiting.


I’ll be okay by myself.


Well, really, if you don’t mind too much. I mean, it would be kinda cool to have company.

It is so hard to ask for help.

She comes and the doctor puts a strip on the wound to help the skin close. He says I am young and the laceration doesn’t look bad. I still don’t know how it will heal. I don’t know if there will be a mark. I hope there won’t be, or that it will be slight if there is one, but I don’t know. And I have to accept myself regardless. I too have to accept that I am capable of great things and also of accidents, of fuck-ups, of times when I bleed and cry. And I can’t see myself reflected only in the flaw of my bumping into the cabinet or the potential flaw of the wound. I am not my flaws alone.

Scenario #2 or “The Scenario in Which I Run On Empty…Literally”

Friday. 7 p.m. Because of the difficult emotionality of the past few days, I have decided to treat myself to some Dairy Queen. I noticed the other day that I was running low on gas but I forgot about it. I put it on a list of things to do later. On the way back from the DQ, driving down a four-lane street near the university, I think about whether I should stop at the Circle K for gas on the way home. That would probably be a good idea. Then, just a block away from the Circle K, I feel the car begin to shake. The needles are pulsing up and down. The car is sputtering. Please, I think to myself, I only have a block to go. Please, please let me make it to the gas station.

But I don’t make it. I stall in the middle of the street. I put my hazards on and just sit there, beginning to panic. Headlights of other cars brighten as they swerve around me, no doubt pissed that I am in their way. What am I going to do? I can’t move the car by myself. I step out of the car.

I see two college kids walking down the sidewalk.

“Hey, I’m out of gas. Y’all think you could help me out?”

They shrug and tell me “sure.” I don’t know what to do, I tell them. This has never happened to me.

“Put it in neutral.”

We begin to push. With them in the back and I by the driver’s side, I turn the wheel to keep us moving straight. Then another girl and guy come up and ask if we need help.

“You had almost made it,” the girl said, smiling at me.

More quickly than I would have thought possible, the five of us push car to the station. They didn’t needed to help me, but they had. There was something reassuring in that.

I thank them and offer them slushies, offer them a drink, anything. But they wave off my offer, heading back down the street in direction they were headed before.

I fill the tank up all the way, telling myself I will not let it come that close again. Before the light went on, I will fill the tank up. I get in the car, still feeling grateful for help in a bad situation.

In the car, I turn the key. The engine turns over for a minute, then nothing. I try again. Again. I call my mom, on the verge of tears.

“I ruined the engine. I ran out of gas and then filled it up. Now the car won’t start. I ruined the engine.”

“You can’t ruin the engine for being out of gas. Oil, yes. Water, yes. Not gas. Let it fill up the pipes. Wait five minute and try again.”

I wait and the car did start. I move slowly back home.

Two scenarios in which I messed up and had to suffer the consequences. Two scenarios in which I was humbled. And two scenarios in which I had to ask for help. The thing about letting go of the dream of perfection is that we also have to admit that we cannot do everything ourselves. Let me remove the plural pronoun: I cannot do everything by myself. We, and I, need other people. I spend many of my days under the illusion that I have crafted for myself that I can handle all I need to handle on my own. And I am reminded almost every day that this is another fallacy. I cannot handle everything on my own. There is, however, one some trick to getting others to help you… you have to ask for help. My friend E wasn’t going to telepathically sense that I needed her to sit with me in the urgent care office. The students walking may have responded, may have realized I needed help, but they also might have easily walked on by. What I had to do in both of these situations is admit, not only to myself but to other people, that I needed help, that I was not perfect, that I was in a dilemma that I could not get out of on my own.

Mythology and legend often depicts the feats of heroes as we humans attempt to understand the planet we live on and the nature of the human spirit. These stories are useful in some ways. They are creative and exuberant. They depict both the beauty and the imperfections of gods as a way to help us understand our own beautiful and imperfect natures. And these stories, just like the people they feature, are limited. We can mythicize as long as we also understand that myths are only one part of a longer, much more complicated story.

[full disclosure: I considered chucking this whole post and rewriting it because it doesn’t feel totally done and because some of the material here makes me vulnerable. But in the interest of what this post discusses (dispelling the myth of perfection, accepting that I am not perfect), I’m letting the post stand. Thank you for accepting it as is]

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