The Dance: Imagining Conversations with Marion Woodman
by Megan L. Popovic

artistic creative woman dancing

Ring them bells ye heathen from the city that dreams
Ring them bells from the sanctuaries
‘Cross the valleys and streams
For they’re deep and they’re wide
And the world on its side
And time is running backwards
And so is the bride
                                                                                                                —Ring Them Bells, Bob Dylan

 

Approximately halfway through my PhD program, I found myself emotionally miserable and intellectually disenchanted. I read and read, but felt distant from the words my mind consumed each day. I also experienced tremendous anxiety from the expanding, self-imposed pressure to align myself with a specific theoretical framework in order to move forward with my research. In a panic one morning at 5 a.m., I reached out for help from a senior faculty member and mentor, Dr. Vicky Paraschak. Vicky always knew how to support her students in ways that were in service of who they “be.”

Via telephone, I expressed my doubts around theory, my worries about doing a dissertation for the sake of “getting it done” but not having it be a true reflection of my Self, and my hesitation to share these issues with my advisory committee for fear of being judged as a graduate student who did not belong in the program.

Vicky had a solution. She advised me to read several articles on a daily basis that I was drawn to intuitively. While reading, I was to handwrite notes on the right side of the page about the article itself, and on the left side foster a relationship with the text through questions, comments, critiques, imaginative dialogue, pictures, references to other readings, etc. She assured me that through this process I would find a theory that spoke the language of how I oriented myself in the world. After a few weeks of committing solely to this process, the promise came to fruition and I found a feminist theoretical framework that aligned with my personal and professional values.

Later that year, stemming from these initial seeds of true engagement with my intellectual development, I changed dissertation topics. I chose autoethnography—or, dare I say, autoethnography chose me—to be the foundation for my new dissertation research. Autoethnography is a process and a product, a methodology and a method, that provides an opportunity to explore connections between culture and one’s self. Research within this framework is quite diverse since autoethnographers vary in their emphases on the research process (graphy), on culture (ethno), and on self (auto). I loved the complexities within the composition of autoethnographic research, as the topics are often highly personal, incorporating reflexivity, uncertainty, and inquiry into the text itself.

I was forced to trust my intuition constantly as the path to the end product of this autoethnographic dissertation was unclear. Collecting thoughts from my memory and various artifacts of memory (pictures, journals, DVDs, etc.), sensations within my body, observations from subcultures, and reflexive conversations were daunting and frustrating method/ological procedural processes. To create the space in my mind for the writing process to meld into cohesive stories, time ceased to exist as my body awareness and emotional growth evolved on their own schedule. Month after month for nearly three years I noted, reflected, read, and walked through my thoughts, trying to piece together the elements that could create authentic stories—with emotion and meaning—and meet the academic standards of my field, my university, and my self.

In an effort to play with, create from, and imagine through the intellectual and embodied space of “What’s possible?” I wrote a fictional conversation with Marion Woodman into my dissertation. Marion’s books and BodySoul approach (co-created with Mary Hamilton and Ann Skinner) served as my main source of scholarly grounding and personal self-development. I yearned for the opportunity to develop a relationship with her, and while we lived only a few blocks away from one another and met once in-person, this dialogic writing process helped me cultivate a deeper soul-connection with her work. I also saw this dialogue as an opportunity to contribute to the ongoing scholarly conversation about the multiplicity of experiences in life by relating the personal to the cultural and scholarly in ways that guide the reader through my creative processes of understanding, wherein the process of the writing and research journey is the destination.

 

 Meg: Marion, your words inspire my growth as a person, woman, mother, and scholar. Synchronicity reigned while I was in graduate school as I was pointed to your Work while doing my own self-work and, upon altering my dissertation topic midway through my PhD, this work served as the template for my entire dissertation. Upon reflection of this circuitous dance of doctoral dissonance and dissertation dreams, I see how it was an embodiment of the feminine process. Doing my PhD was a period of several years when I played, paused, and wrangled in the depths of my psyche. All the while, paradoxically, the pressures of coursework, comprehensive examinations, and dissertation research challenged the rhythmic Being of my everyday life. From this time period, I came to appreciate how I comprehend in spiraling logic, always using imagery and the body to deepen my intellectual writing process. This difference is often challenging to justify since our academic arena has typified a different way of thinking and writing­­—one that is linear, rational, and disembodied. You speak to this often in your books.

Marion: Linear thinking does not come naturally to me; moreover, it kills my imagination. Nothing happens. No bell rings; no moment of HERE and NOW. No moment that says YES. Without those moments, I am not alive. And so, rather than driving toward a goal, I prefer the pleasure of the journey through a spiral. And I ask my reader to relax and enjoy the spiral too. If you miss something on the first round, don’t worry. You may pick it up on the second or the third or the ninth. It doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you are relaxed so that if the bell does ring you will hear it and allow it to resonate through all the rungs of your own spiral. The world of the feminine resonates. Timing is everything. If it doesn’t ring, either it is the wrong spiral or the wrong time or there is no bell. (Woodman, 1982, p. 8)

Meg: Verisimilitude. Yes. The ring of truth. I hear it in my mind, body, and soul, but I still gasp for air when questioning my place within academia. I feel as though I must put on a mask in my academic life—speak a language that is not mine—in order to be accepted within the Ivory Tower.

Marion: The persona is necessary because people at different levels of consciousness respond to a situation with very different antennae…Naively or deliberately, making oneself vulnerable to psychic wounding without good reason is foolish. To be wary of casting pearls before swine is not conceit but plain common sense. (Woodman, 1985, p. 22)

Meg: Will I need this mask forever? Will I always have to disguise the person I wish to be? 

Marion: If we lived behind a mask all our lives, sooner or later—if we are lucky—that mask will be smashed. Then we will have to look in our own mirror at our own reality. Perhaps we will be appalled. Perhaps we will look into the terrified eyes of our own tiny child, that child who has never known love and who now beseeches us to respond… As life progresses, we may continue to abandon our child by pleasing others—teachers, professors, bosses, friends and partners, even analysts. That child who is our very soul cries out from underneath the rubble of our lives, often from the core of our worst complex, begging us to say, “You are not alone. I love you.” (Woodman, 1985, p. 25)

Meg: My dissertation was an embodied autoethnography of lived experiences in hockey, figure skating, and yoga (Popovic, 2010a, 2012a, 2012b). Within my writing-stories (Richardson, 1997), I showed how we shape and are shaped by the process of meaning-making through a blend of traditional prose, memory-work, evocative writing, reflexivity, and poetic representation. I knew my alternative approach to understanding was meaningful for the individual readers and meaning-full for the theoretical and methodological expansion of my academic field. To this day, I continue to receive affirmations of this assertion from scholars and students around the world. However, as a student, I was met with great resistance by various older faculty members in my department and when sharing this work at academic conferences. Many scholars are critical of autoethnographic research and label it narcissistic, navel-gazing, self-indulgent, and solipsistic (Sparkes, 2002). Why do many traditional academics dismiss reflexive work as lesser-quality than objective ways of doing research? Why is personal work shunned in academia?

Marion: People will go to great lengths not to hear the inner voices. Even when they’re jogging they’ve got music in their ears. They’re terrified of silence because in silence they experience inner nothingness. The imagination’s dead or at least dormant. Here we are back to the missing feminine principle. Words like “process”—not interested; “presence”—nobody there; “paradox”—makes no sense. Things are either black or white. “Receiving,” “trust,” “surrender”—they’re just sissy words. All or nothing. (Woodman, 1993, p. 66-67).

Meg: What is a person like who lives in that place of process, imagination, and paradox?

Marion: She finds herself saying things she never said before, verbalizing questions she never asked before. She tries to speak from her feminine reality while at the same time aware of the masculine standpoint. Often she is caught between two conflicting points of view: the rational, goal-oriented, and just, versus the irrational, cyclic, relating. Her task is not to choose one or the other, but to hold the tension between them…The rhythms there are circuitous, slow, born of feeling that comes from the thinking heart. Many people intuitively know that such a place exists; few have the confidence to talk or walk from that center. (Woodman, 1985, p.22)

Meg: I composed a chapter titled, “Her figures in the rINK: Sk8ing with the Feminine through autoethnographic spirals” (Popovic, 2010b). Writing—in ink—from my position of doctoral researcher—in the academic arena, or “rink”—I wove my struggles with writing about paradoxical experiences and finding meaning in the memories as a competitive figure skater, and the comprehension of feminine/ity within both the sport and academic arenas. Using personal reflections, journals, photographs, and recorded performances from skating, I intertwined autoethnographic techniques into the tapestry of this feminist text to explore such theoretical issues as overcoming dichotomy, a critique of patriarchy, an embrace of paradox, striving for solidarity, and feminist awakening. In recalling a memory of being part of a synchronized skating team that performed to the music from the movie, Chaplin. I wrote, “Our faces were painted white with a solid black moustache drawn onto our faces above our bright red lips. I have often played with the symbolism of that program. Black and white made the costume, while the red highlighted the mask. I have a hard time finding the words to express the feeling of that team experience…” (Popovic, 2010b, p. 104-5)

Marion: Words are inadequate to express intense passion even when language assumes its most symbolic form. Moreover, words can be dangerous for a woman because they tend to encase her in a personal realm and in a realm of masculine formation of ideas. The more she talks, the more her inner voice is saying, “No, that’s not it at all.” (Woodman, 1980, p. 103)

Meg: Yes. That’s exactly what I hear when trying to articulate the meaning of figure skating into a clear, academic rationalization. It is impossible to filter the mixture of memories, emotions, and bodily sensations into a single, concrete explanation.

Marion: I am often criticized for the way I speak, because it’s not orderly, it’s not going toward a goal, it’s not linear. I purposely do not lecture that way anymore because for me it’s boring to know exactly where I’m going. I love the pleasure in the journey. I have a plan in my head; there are three or four points I want to make – but exactly how those are going to be expressed, I don’t know. I trust that something will happen. Most people are terrified of spontaneity. They don’t know how to be in the now so they’ll do anything to follow a preconceived plan. This is the exact opposite of the feminine, which lives in the present. (Woodman, 1993, p. 117)

Meg: How do you define “feminine”?

Marion: The word “feminine,” as I understand it, has very little to do with gender, nor is the woman the custodian of femininity. Both men and women are searching for their pregnant virgin. She is the part of us who is outcast, the part who comes to consciousness through going into the darkness, mining our leaden darkness, until we bring her silver out. (Woodman, 1985, p.11)

Meg: Your archetypal definition resonates for me in a way that my body comprehends. I strive to bring this alternative understanding into the academic space as another way to contemplate feminine/ity. However, I hesitate sometimes when using your interpretation of the feminine in academic circles because of my fear that I will not find the right words to distinguish it from other conventional sociological definitions of gender.

Marion: Much of what we learn at universities is related to “head knowledge.” When we have the words, we think we have the meaning. Words and ideas are necessary containers, but they take on meaning only through reflection on lived experience…We have the desire, the quickening of intuition about what we must do or say, but it dies under the weight of habit. Without the intuitive, symbolic language of the feminine soul, the seamless mirror of the mind is easily shattered by conceptuality and literalness. (Woodman & Dickson, 1996, p. 53)

Meg: I always experience negative reactions to this way of theorizing. Sometimes it is in people’s verbal response, but most times it is something I feel in the space of this conversation.

Marion: Part of the resistance to the words masculine and feminine lies in our inability to accept that each of us contains both masculine and feminine energy and that both energies are divine. We play lip service to the concept consciously, but if we listen to ourselves, we hear the archaic, gendered, pigeon-holed thinking plop out of our mouths like an unexpected toad. (Woodman & Dickson, 1996, p. 2-3)

Meg: To be deeply honest Marion, I get nervous when exposing my self to others in the academic rink knowing that the sharing of my inner thoughts leaves me vulnerable to personal and professional rejection…

Marion: We see the other with the eye of the heart, an eye not clouded by fear manifesting as need, jealousy, possessiveness, or manipulation. With the unclouded eye of the heart, we can see the other as other. We can rejoice in the other, challenge the other, and embrace the other without losing our own center or taking anything away from the other. We are always other to each other – soul meeting soul, the body awakened with joy… Love exists in the moment-to-moment flux of life. (Woodman & Dickson, 1996, p. 221)

Meg: Earlier you mentioned that you are criticized for the way you write. When in graduate school, a reviewer questioned whether we have “lowered ourselves to the use of metaphor?” in his assessment of my paper for a graduate student paper competition. What would you say to that?

Marion: Metaphor captures the passion, the movement, the meaning. In one image, it brings together a total response—emotional, imaginative, intellectual. If we focus the fire of our imagination, our own metaphors begin to heat and transform, opening up new energy channels in our body. In taking the imaginative leap, we embody the metaphor. In becoming the metaphor, we become whole. The whole may not last, but that moment rings like a tuning fork that the cells do not forget. (Woodman & Dickson, 1996, p. 192)

Meg: I love how you use metaphor to portray metaphor.

Marion: Metaphor is the language of the soul. (Woodman, 1993, p. 8)

Meg: In your work, you write about women trying to connect with their voice. What have you witnessed over the years through your work?

Marion: We hear a great deal these days about women stepping into their own shoes, or finding their own voice. In other words, they are trying to live their own feminine potential and speak with their own feminine voice. If their voice is coming from their own musculature and not from a complex, it is a real voice ringing with feminine truth. (Woodman & Dickson, 1996, p. 137)

Meg: You often connect consciousness with the feminine. Can you explain this combination?

Marion: I am still asking, “What is conscious femininity?” The question still remains. Each time I try to answer it, I answer from where I am. One thing I do know. The answer asks the question. So long as I keep asking the question, I know the answer is there, struggling to speak in a way that I can finally comprehend. (Woodman & Dickson, 1996, p. 7)

Meg: Can you explain it using metaphor?

Marion: It would have much more to do with leaping through the air from lily pad to lily pad, leaping intuitively with imagination, or swimming through water. Leap—leap—out of sheer faith in my froggy instincts. Leap—trusting in another lily pad. Leap—knowing that other frogs would understand. Leap—leap—remembering my journal that looks like a Beethoven manuscript—blots, blue ink, red, yellow and green, pages torn by an angry pen, smudged with tears, leaping with joy from exclamation marks to dashes that speak more than the words between, my journal that dances with the heartbeat of a process in motion. How does one fashion a pipe that can contain that honesty, and be at the same time professionally credible? How can a woman write from her authentic center without being labeled “histrionic” or “hysterical”? Splat! Long Pause! (Woodman, 1985, p. 9)

Meg: What can be done to bring about change?

Marion: The new paradigm must not repress the existing one as it emerges, but rather, integrate it, establishing a continuity with the past. (Woodman & Dickson, 1996, p. 209)

Meg: Sometimes I become very angry when writing and trying to find a hole to squeeze myself into within my professional setting. I catch myself writing through this cynical, critical mindset, but do not like this part of my self. Must I create from this place to fight for my positioning?

Marion: Rage and bitterness do not foster femininity. They harden the heart and make the body sick. Trust that can dare to stand against all rational logic opens the heart to love. (Woodman, 1985, p. 16)

Meg: But…

Marion: As I see it, this moment in history is demanding not a slow transition but a mutation, a leap in consciousness. Our task—men’s and women’s both—is to release ourselves from the power of patriarchal oppression into the love that radiates at the core of our own authentic lives. Intellectually, you may say, “So what else is new?” Feelingly, strip yourself naked and you will understand. (Woodman, 1990, p. 111)

 

 

References

Popovic, M. (2010a). A voIce in the rink: Playing with our histories and evoking autoethnography. Journal of Sport History, 37, 235-256.

Popovic, M. (2010b). Stories of mynd, body and soul: An autoethnography through hockey, figure skating, and yoga (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). The University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada.

Popovic, M. (2012a). Figures from Her rINK. Journal of Sport History, 39, 445-461.

Popovic, M. (2012b). Moksha rose from the heart: A prosaic and poetic embodiment of yoga auto ethnography. Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies, 12, 30-42.

Richardson, R. (1997). Fields of play: Deconstructing an academic life. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Sparkes, A. (2002). Autoethnography: Self-indulgence or something more? In A. Bochner & C. Ellis (Eds.), Ethnographically speaking: Autoethnography, literature, and aesthetics (pp. 209-232). New York: AltaMira.

Woodman, M. (1980). The owl was a baker’s daughter: Obesity, anorexia nervosa and the repressed feminine. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Woodman, M. (1982). Addicted to perfection: The still unravished bride. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Woodman, M. (1985). The pregnant virgin: A process of psychological transformation. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Woodman, M. (1990). The ravaged bridegroom: Masculinity in women. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Woodman, M. (1993). Conscious femininity: Interviews with Marion Woodman. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Woodman, M., & Dickson, E. (1996). Dancing in the flames: The dark goddess in the transformation of consciousness. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

 

Megan Popovic, PhD serves as a faculty member in the School of Leadership and Social Change at Brescia University College in London, Ontario. She also serves as a researcher for the New Leaf Yoga Foundation, a charitable organization that makes yoga and mindfulness accessible to marginalized and incarcerated youth. Megan is a lifelong student of depth psychology and the BodySoul works of the Marion Woodman Foundation.