Hello, fellow bibliophiles,
Now that you know a little about me and where I live, I’d like to share with you something about how Going Widdershins came to be the novel that it is.
Let’s start with May Manley, the strong female protagonist who drives the story forward. For some readers she’s problematic, and it’s not hard to see why. May is irreverent. She calls a spade a spade. She sees through the self-important talk of her colleagues and she happily violates the standard protocol in effect at conventional psychiatric hospitals. That’s because May holds a totally different worldview, one in which nature and our relation with it is the primary, foundational aspect of existence. Thus, to bring balance, sanity and meaning into the lives of her “guests,” she teaches them to re-root in their original ground of being, the earth. At Summerland they learn about the mystic spiral, keep track of weather patterns, honor the lunar and seasonal cycles, and find the physical joy to be had in skipping.
While the novel is set in 1958, May is clearly a woman ahead of her time. Today we might use the phrase “New Age” to describe what she calls “nature religion,” but, in fact, it’s not new at all. Somewhere between twenty-five and thirty thousand years old, it was not only the world’s first religion, but a universal religion, cosmic in scope, which wasn’t so much taught or “revealed” as it was experienced by peoples all around the globe. It embodies the ancient wisdom of a pre-biblical era when the earth was seen and felt to be a sacred presence, giving life to all that lives upon it; in this way it’s distinct from the historical teleologies of the monotheistic religions that followed.
But what does this have to do with Going Widdershins? If fiction is a way to discover deeper truths about ourselves or something we hadn’t thought about before, then characters like May Manley give us a larger venue in which to do so.
Given how pandemic and long-lived (well into the late Middle Ages, according to some) “nature religion” was, why did it disappear? Well, it actually didn’t, but in the fourth century, when it was outlawed by Roman emperors who enforced Christianity as the state religion, it went underground. Though almost all of the temples, artifacts and written texts (held in the library in Alexandria) were destroyed, worship was conducted secretly in caves and deep forests and seaside grottoes. It continues to live on in numerous off-shoots as well as the hearts and minds of those who sense, in their blood and bones, an essential kinship with the earth.
When I first conceived of May and the therapies she offered her guests at Summerland, I had never heard of ecopsychology. It’s a relatively new field, only twenty or so years old, which asserts, like May, that our mental and physical well-being depend on our connection with nature, and that failing to connect can cause a “nature deficit disorder.” However, the problem is we’re often taught that humans are of a distinct and higher order than other animals (given our reasoning minds and “souls”). As a consequence, we become estranged from our world. Some see the earth as dead, inert matter, which exists only to be plundered as a resource, failing to recognize that if it weren’t alive, we wouldn’t be either.
As May’s barbs in the novel make clear (not to mention the precarious health of our planet), her worldview is a bold challenge to the prevailing cultural paradigm that puts nature on the lowest rung of the ladder, allowing for its continued abuse and exploitation. We’re much in need of a paradigm shift, one that acknowledges how deeply connected everything is, be it people, plants, animals, air, weather, water or earth.
Of course, a paradigm shift of this magnitude is almost impossible to imagine, but as Nelson Mandela (referring to his own stunning accomplishment) said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” May Manley would agree.
By the way, if you’re interested in this chapter of early history, here are a few works I’ve found fascinating and educational:
Carol Christ, The Laughter of Aphrodite (1987)
Barbara Mor, Monica Sjoo, The Great Cosmic Mother (1987)
Starhawk, The Spiral Dance (1979)
Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade (1988)
and for a moving testament of one woman’s paradigm shift, see Sue Monk Kidd, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter (1996)