As a writer, I find myself saying things like, “My muse went on vacation,” (if I’m having a difficult time writing), or “My muse really kept me hopping last week,” (if the words are flowing freely and easily). I’ve heard the same sort of comments from lots of my writer and artist friends, too.
But how many of us have taken the bother to learn who our muse is? Does she have a name? Is she ours exclusively, or does she hop from writer to writer on a whim?
I’m ashamed to say, it’s never crossed my mind to even ask my muse anything about herself. Her name? I have no idea. Her favorite book? Not a clue. Am I her only writer/artist, or one of many? Your guess is as good as mine. I’ve never asked her.
There’s one writer/poet out there who can answer those questions about her muse, because she’s been in a running dialogue with her for years. In her unique and highly entertaining book The Sister From Below: When the Muse Gets Her Way, Naomi Ruth Lowinsky lets the reader listen in on the conversation she’s had with her muse, who has appeared to her in nine distinct manifestations, the last of which is, surprisingly, male.
Lowinsky writes of the Sister from Below, her inner poet who, she writes, has been “trying to get my attention all my life.” She writes with longing about her muse from early childhood, a nursemaid who cared for her during a year her family lived in Florence, Italy.
Then there is Eurydice, who expresses her resentment about being kept from making an appearance until Chapter 4, and once Lowinsky allows her to speak, tells a much different version of the story of Orpheus in the Underworld than we are used to hearing. Lowinsky’s Eurydice doesn’t meekly follow Orpheus when he descends into the Underworld to retrieve her. No, this Eurydice tells a decidedly different story: “Orpheus wants to keep me young and beautiful. He denies my ancient nature. He forgets I am nature … I am the dark part of the creative, the mold of change …”
Perhaps most heartbreaking is the grandmother who speaks to Lowinsky from the afterlife, a grandmother she never knew, a grandmother who died of cancer in Hitler’s concentration camps. A grandmother who insists the author confront the terrors of her childhood, her guilt that she lived when so many died, the terror and intense love felt simultaneously for her brilliant musicologist father. It is in this chapter Lowinsky fully opens her veins and allows her vulnerabilities as well as her abilities to flow from within in her poem, “a grandmother speaks from the other side.”
I had to put the book down and take time to recompose myself before moving on from this chapter, for my tears were flowing freely by this time. I wept not only for Lowinsky and all she lost, but for my own lost grandmothers as well.
Lowinsky talks of the muse that is Old Mother India, a place I have longed to visit. Then, she writes of Sappho, a favorite of mine, at midlife; a poet who lived 2600 years ago whose writings exist only as fragments. But what fragments they are, entwining the sexual and the sacred. “How is it she suddenly fills me with her presence, as though I’ve always known her; as though I can remember my time with her as a young woman on Lesbos: the temple to Aphrodite, the meadows with flowers we maidens wove into one another’s hair, what we sang around the altar in the moonlight; as though Sappho was my teacher, my priestess, my wild older woman crush.” Lowinsky asks, “How can I claim to remember Sappho?”
As a post-menopausal woman writer, I know the answer to her question: Sappho represents awakening kundalini, the awakening spiritual and creative energy that happens when women hit midlife. I just never realized this awakening was Sappho as the muse.
The book continues with chapters on Helena, a root vegetable; and the Naomi of the Bible, for whom the author was named. Like the story of Eurydice, the Naomi who presents herself as muse to the author has quite a different story to tell than the one you’ll read in the Bible—a beautiful tale I prefer to the original. Finally, she writes of the muse in her (his?) male manifestation.
The Sister From Below is an intensely personal, almost analytical exploration of the author’s creative side—not surprising, seeing as Lowinsky is a Jungian analyst. Filled with exquisite, heart-rending prose and poetry, it is a book to be savored, one chapter at a time, not rushed through like the latest Dan Brown suspense novel. It is, in places, highly entertaining, even funny. In other places, it will make you cry.
Most of all, it will send you on a long journey within yourself, searching for your own muse, identifying her, inviting her to not only manifest herself through your creative, artistic side, but as a part of your personality as a whole as well. It will leave you changed.