I am Kali Ma.
I stick my tongue out of my once silent lips.
These eyes, no longer mild,
Are furious daggers of fire.
~ a portion of a poem by Tanya Geisler
These words do not describe me. At least not as much as I wish they did and want them to. My tongue is restrained behind my lower front teeth, afraid to breathe in too quickly for fear of the icy-cold pain that hits nerve endings and makes me wish I’d never opened my mouth. And my eyes? I wouldn’t say they are mild, particularly. I watch. I observe. I see – a lot. But fire? No. Any furious daggers thrown would more likely be at me than at you, others, or this world. In other words, I’m no Kali Ma.
I can still clearly picture various pieces of art that hung on the walls of rooms I frequented – my bedroom, throughout our home, at church. Two come to mind – both of Jesus. In the first he is holding a small lamb in his arms. In the second, he is standing on a flowered hillside, surrounded by small children – all different skin colors, shapes, and sizes. (Red, brown, yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, went the accompanying song.) Both images are gentle. Both show the weak cared for by the Divine, the Divine as male. And both intentionally served to remind me who I was – the lost sheep, the doting child; to remind me of my place in the scheme of things – silent lips, mild eyes. Hardly Kali Ma.
As I’ve reminisced, I’ve added more images to the queue – not framed and hung, but planted firmly in my mind. Yes, Jesus gentle-and-mild, but also women relegated to the shadows, who “belonged” on the margins, who were subservient and obedient and shamed if not. Added to these, the 60’s and 70’s plethora of happy moms, twig-thin models, and doting secretaries on billboards, in magazines, on TV. Unexposed to Gloria Steinem and 1st-wave feminism (not to mention goddesses of any kind), this infant, then girl-adolescent-young woman didn’t see much – if anything or anyone – who embodied or even considered Kali-like strength. Her antithesis, in many ways, has been my learned ideal.
Along with the pictures were stories told – almost all of Jesus. I rarely think of them these days, but they remain deeply embedded in my psyche. Sometimes for good, to be sure; but often in ways that have kept me sheep-like, childlike, beholding, and in need. In need of a God, a shepherd, a man. After all, he’s the one with the strength; he’s the one with the voice, the knowing, the wisdom; he’s the one with power. Not me. I need to be found, loved, embraced, and saved. (I don’t believe this anymore – the sheep, the child, the need – but that doesn’t mean the roots of such don’t remain and even reveal themselves in ways I’d rather they did not. In ways that are shockingly un-Kali-like – even now, even today, even all these years later.)
I sometimes wonder what it would have been like, what I would be like, if a picture of Kali Ma had hung on those same walls, if hers was the tale I was told.
What if hers was the image I displayed in my college dorm room then in first and subsequent apartments? What if she was the painting I’d kept ever-present in my many homes throughout the years? What if she was the face my daughters grew up seeing, asking me to tell them her story until they knew it by heart, until she was the one who dwelled within theirs?
What if, indeed.
Kali Ma conjures something far different than what I saw modeled, what I was taught. Aggressive and unapologetic, her eyes gleam and spark. Her red tongue protrudes – ready to hungrily lick anyone who dares to draw near. The skulls that hang around her neck are hardly comforting, but reveal her fearlessness, even of death. All illusion is sliced away. Any wish for greener pastures or nurturing companionship is erased. Though a fierce, mother-like goddess, she does not abide a childlike state. Instead, she compels my strength. She demands my voice, my knowing, my wisdom. She exudes power and insists that it is mine. She calls me to find, love, embrace, and save myself – and my world.
Oh, that I would.
And of course, I do. But not as much as I wish and want.
Especially right now. It feels as though there is no time to lose, no time to waste, seemingly no time at all. As I ponder and muse about my past, all hell breaks loose in my present. Xenophobia, violence, greed, racism and evil run rampant. Contempt and complete disregard seem to reign. We desperately need Kali Ma. We desperately need Kali-like women.
Even so, something in me holds back – uncertain, unsure, unable to rise up and speak out.
Maybe the why of it doesn’t matter. Maybe all my attempts to unpack and unravel and understand are distractions from doing and choosing and acting. Maybe there’s nothing to inculcate or imbibe where Kali Ma is concerned. Maybe all I need do is live as if she is already inherent within me. Trusting until I believe. Having faith.
I’ve heard that before.
Do not misunderstand. I am angry. I am resolute and firm on so much that is just not acceptable. I am hardly docile, meek, or mild when it comes to my opinions about the destruction that is imminent, if not already at hand. Still, I feel more like sheep than wolf, girl than goddess, patriarchal-bound woman than pussy-hat wearing siren and seer. I unwittingly reside in this middle place – between contradictory beliefs and ideals, between conflicting principles and values, between faith and doubt, between hope and despair, between keeping my tongue tucked tightly behind my teeth or sticking it out and swallowing whole the ignorance and evil that pervades.
Stuck here, at least for now, I have no eloquent ending or tight conclusion to this piece. No passionate benediction that rallies the troops and calls us to arms. Not even some deeper self-awareness that offers me solace or strength. Which feels right somehow, though uncomfortable. Kind of like faith. So even if I can’t come up with a catchy ending, I can keep working on sticking out my tongue and letting my eyes be furious daggers of fire and opening my arms and protecting the weak and loving the children and believing in justice and somehow, somehow holding on to hope – that words will come and courage will sustain and love will conquer all.
In the meantime, I gaze at the pictures that now hang in my home.
Afraid yet fearless. Wise yet playful. Brave yet tender. Imperfect yet loved.
~ Kellie Rae Roberts
It is in the midst of misery that so much becomes clear. The one who said nothing good came of this, is not yet listening.
~ Clarissa Pinkola Estes
When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.
~ Audre Lorde
Maybe the message is getting through…
And there’s still plenty of wall space – and time – to find and display a print of Kali Ma; maybe even Jesus.