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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Nugent

Frau Holle: Weariness and the Need for Creativity and Community

Updated: May 3, 2023

By Dr Libby Nugent, First Published Nov 28 2020 11:59AM

Weariness I'm weary, I hear myself say My eyes closing as I walk on my way The day just beginning when all I wish it to do is go away Weary of the day ahead, what's gone and what's yet to come This weariness draining my heart through my noisy head The chill of the breeze my weary heart wanting to cease And then the loving sun shinning her rays upon me, come closer I beg of thee Take me to another place Do not disappear near that cloud I say wash away my weariness today By Anon Apr 2016 Weariness Oxford Dictionary: extreme tiredness; fatigue. reluctance to see or experience any more of something. Lately I have been feeling weary. I imagine many of us are having these feelings; as though there is insufficient time, insufficient energy, insufficient patience, and insufficient resources. To feel tired and the feeling that all the hard work and effort put into life is taking me precisely nowhere. Meeting the insufficiency in ourselves and others breeds a deep longing, and terrible pain that, left unattended, turns into bitterness and loathing of either the self or others. Traditionally my defense against meeting my limits is to create ambitious goals for myself and then charge towards them whilst abandoning self-care; often my causes look ‘healthy’ yet require rather more resources than I have available at the time. For example: during clinical psychology training I took up competing in half marathons and when I became pregnant I developed a need to eat food that was only home grown. Both very wonderful, neither wise given my responsibilities. I like to be in both fight and flight, to avoid connecting with my overwhelm and sense of helplessness. Within the context of the last year and noticing myself yet again taking on rather a lot, I have found myself engaging in increasingly angry social media conversations regarding social justice and antiracism. Following a particular Facebook “discussion” on freedom of speech and racism I became actively upset. I was disappointed with myself for my foolishness in opening up to such a predictably racist dialogue and disappointed at the collective lack of personal reflection that was going on. My fantasy of having influence and being in conversation with colleagues interested in introspection was being shattered. I felt shame at my lack of ability to connect, disgust at what was being exposed in my absurd attempts and the futility at the task of trying to encourage people to care about something beyond a defensive intellectual philosophising. In my turmoil I deleted my post, thus also erasing everyone else's contributions. I had wanted the whole thing away from me and if people were not going to engage the way I wanted them to then no one was going to! After a few days' space I recovered from my tantrum and apologised for my deletion in a second post. In doing so I stumbled across some unsolicited feedback from an angry source suggesting if I found conversations too triggering I might be wise to leave the facebook group and that our profession really is about having difficult conversations. After a degree of reactivity, rather than be defended and continue to engage in childish fights, I decided to try something different and explore if the comments might hold some wisdom for me - albeit delivered in a rather sharp package. Maybe I did need to have a think about what I am doing. As much as I believed there was truth in my observations about the facebook group, on some level I know I was also projecting: displacing my unwanted thoughts and feelings on to others. My refusal to feel deeply alongside another was evidence of this, preferring to patronizingly believe 'they' are just not enlightened enough rather than truly take up the perspective of someone else. Then ultimately my engaging in drama on Facebook rather than being in the mud of trying to find thought in the chaos of intense emotion. Not really knowing what to do, but needing to acknowledge my limits was my beginning point. But then what? As I often do, I turned to stories and discovered a book ‘World Weary Woman – her wound and transformation’ by Cara Barker. Happily only about 150 pages or so long, Barker’s book explores the fairytale of Frau Holle and the concept of world weariness and what Barker refers to as Type A women. Barker describes the defining feature of being a Type A woman as being the woman who charges towards productivity and problem solving when in emotional crisis rather than staying with their vulnerability: “Barely breathing. They pause infrequently. Too busy trying hard to never miss a thing, leaving no stone unturned. Hyper vigilant in endless search – searching and searching and searching. When will it stop? All floodlights scanning for their fatal flaw. That one thing … that one perfect answer; that simple explanation which will, at last, redeem … let them rest. Take in, digest that promise of peace that eludes the clutch and grasp. Anything but casual, their quest has been relentless. Looking, ever looking, for the answer. So that then, finally weary of strong-arming themselves against the world, from a pain that comes from too deep and dark a well, they can at last, weary of the battle, sink into those Arms. Rest. Renewal. A place in which to contain what has been neglected for far too long…. They have made it a full-time job… to change, alter, cut away, suck-out, like liposuction, anything which seems imperfect, too human, too ordinary, too plain, too small.” Hmmm. This felt alarmingly close to home. Not just for myself but for many of my friends and colleagues. Particularly in the context of the pandemic when I have looked bewilderingly at those who were taking time to explore hobbies and DIY, gushing about the gift of time to reflect. This has not been my pandemic. The fairy tale of Frau Holle also resonated deeply in a way I had not attended to before. This is an abbreviated Brothers Grimm version of Frau Holle: A rich widow lived with her daughter and her stepdaughter. The widow favored her younger biological daughter, allowing her to become spoiled and idle while her older stepdaughter was left to do all the work. Every day the stepdaughter would sit outside the cottage and spin beside the well. One day, she pricked her finger on the point of the spindle. As she leaned over the well to wash the blood away, the spindle fell from her hand and sank out of sight. The stepdaughter feared that she would be punished for losing the spindle, and in panic she leapt into the well after it. The girl found herself in a meadow, where she came upon an oven full of bread. The bread asked to be taken out before it burned. With a baker's peel, she took all the loaves out and then walked on. Then she came to an apple tree that asked that its apples be harvested. So she did so and gathered them into a pile before continuing on her way. Finally, she came to a small house of an old woman, who offered to allow the girl to stay if she would help with the housework. The woman identified herself as Frau Holle, and cautioned the girl to shake the featherbed pillows and coverlet well when she made the bed, as that would make it snow in the girl's world. The girl agreed to take service with Frau Holle, and took care to always shake the featherbed until the feathers flew about like snowflakes. After a time, the girl became homesick and told Frau Holle that it was time for her to return home. Frau Holle had been impressed by the girl's kindness and hard work so much that, when she escorted the girl to the gate, a shower of gold fell upon the girl. She also gave her the spindle which had fallen into the well. With that the gate was closed, and the girl found herself back, not far from her mother's house. Her mother wished the same good fortune for her biological daughter. She also set her to sit by the well and spin, but the girl rather than work bloodied her hand in a hedge and then deliberately threw the spindle into the well before jumping in herself. She too came to the oven, but would not assist the bread; nor would she help the apple tree. When she came to Frau Holle's house, she likewise took service there, but before long fell into her lazy, careless ways. Frau Holle soon dismissed her. As the lazy girl stood at the gate, a kettle of pitch spilled over her. "That is what you have earned," said Frau Holle, and closed the gate. Other versions describe the first girl having a piece of gold fall from her lips every time she speaks, whilst the second has a toad fall from her lips every time she speaks. Carl Jung theorized that all elements of a dream or a story are parts of the Self. In the path to adulthood, we seek to integrate the different parts of our identity into conscious reality. This includes bringing light and awareness to our shadow or hidden side. In the story of Frau Holle we might imagine how the two sisters could be the light and shadow sides of the same person. Likewise the two maternal figures of the critical step mother and also the compassionate but limit setting Mother Holle might also reflect the two sides of an inner voice. In the fairytale the girl seeks to find a spindle, an object at the time essential both to access an aspect of her creativity and also for economic sustenance. It is also a symbol I associate with psychology and the task of weaving life stories and theory in formulation. The girl lives in a world that is discordant: a highly critical step-mother and a preferred step-sister who is both stupid and lazy. Her loneliness is palpable, a familiar theme in fairy tales, as is her struggle to find a loving atmosphere in times of cruel inhospitality. The intensity of her pain and suffering is poignantly represented by an image of the girl spinning until her fingers bleed. Inevitably her blood stains the shuttle and, in an attempt to wash it off, she drops it into the well. At the end of the tale she, somewhat surprisingly, returns to her homeland and her stepmother. Was she still hoping for some form of kindness from her stepmother, a projection of the good mother? Now resourced independently, maybe she feels able to face them in a different capacity? I wonder if this speaks to how the call to connect with family and community is something that never goes away. How many times have I returned to a space I know has no capacity for care, with the hope that this time it will be different? Then finally, when I had changed, I was able to return with it being the space being the same but with a new found capacity to hold myself much more safely. The girl’s voluntary submission opens up a new world and a new way of experiencing life. She awakens in a world filled with symbolism. In this world, the tasks confronting her are experienced as serving a more benign mother. Thus picking the ripe apples and taking the bread out of the oven are pleasurable tasks done gladly, and not with a sense of burden. Fulfilling her daily chores for Frau Holle, she is submitting in a very different way from the rigid, cruel constraints imposed by her stepmother. These seemingly trivial daily tasks are the necessary substrate that create order, the very nuts and bolts of life, that we denigrate at our peril. After her return, she is changed and seeks to tell others in her community of her experience . The girl attempts to do so when she shares her story with her step-mother and step-sister. The story however also presents the potential for a far darker outcome. The ugly sister emerges from Frau Holle's realm cursed till the end of her days. Her refusal and failure to fulfil Frau Holle's tasks has had long term consequences: when she returns home in some versions she is covered in tar and others she is belching out frogs. Both symbols offer intriguing associations. Tar or `pitch is obtained from a wide variety of organic materials through destructive distillation, it was traditionally used in boat making to waterproof wood and sails. The idea of destructive distillation makes me think of a negative gaze when the self is filled with self loathing and hatred. The symbol of the frog is also potent as it is often a symbol in fairytales of a state of pre-transformation (the frog prince is one example). In some Scandinavian traditions, Frau Holle is known as the feminine spirit of the woods and plants, and was honored as the sacred embodiment of the earth and land itself. She is associated with many of the evergreen plants that appear during the Yule season, especially mistletoe and holly, and is sometimes seen as an aspect of Frigga, wife of Odin. She is associated with fertility and rebirth. Her feast day is December 25, and typically, she is seen as a goddess of hearth and home, although in different areas she has clearly different purposes. Like so many winter rituals celebrating her and this story is about finding the light in the darkness. In her book Barker also explores the antidote/ path to wholeness for the World Weary Woman: “From my first meetings with World Weary Woman, it was clear that she could work. She could analyze, psychologize. But she had not learned how to play… It is in pausing to connect with her own inner wisdom that World Weary Woman learns to create…to cultivate what brings joy, to savour her connection with cosmos. Thus she transforms her suffering through a sacred return to creative living…Little by little, World Weary Woman discovers that living vibrantly is a creative process, an intimate experience whereby she becomes fully known.” As both a psychologist and mother I know that play is the natural way that children discharge the tensions of their daily life. When children are teased at school, they come home at the end of the day and enlist siblings, friends, or toys to play out a drama in which the child transforms into the teacher and gets to tell off the bully and send him or her to detention. But when children are too anxious, afraid, or traumatized to play, they can't make use of this natural resource. Instead, they must use their energy to compartmentalise their experiences, keeping them out of direct awareness. Because play is both releasing and disarming, it may be too threatening for the child to give up control sufficiently to enter into it. The events of this year have been and continue to be overwhelming: the painful worldwide witnessing of murder and violence on black bodies; the birthing into consciousness of white supremacy narratives through the Black Lives Matter movement; people beginning to grasp the urgent need to bring about collective change; the collective losses due to COVID; the endurance of isolation and loss of our physical connectedness and daily routines and community rituals. Dazed and exhausted, rest and replenishment feels so needed - but how? Without collapsing into defensive places of those that 'know' and those that 'don't know.' This is where I think we need each other to support us - we need our professional siblings to act as people to play with and containers of our suffering and weariness. There is an old Hasidic story of a rabbi who had a conversation with the Lord about Heaven and Hell. “I will show you Hell,” said the Lord, and led the rabbi into a room containing a group of famished, desperate people sitting around a large, circular table. In the center of the table rested an enormous pot of stew, more than enough for everyone. The smell of the stew was delicious and made the rabbi’s mouth water. Yet no one ate. Each diner at the table held a very long-handled spoon—long enough to reach the pot and scoop up a spoonful of stew, but too long to get the food into one’s mouth. The rabbi saw that their suffering was indeed terrible and bowed his head in compassion. “Now I will show you Heaven,” said the Lord, and they entered another room, identical to the first—same large, round table, same enormous pot of stew, same long-handled spoons. Yet there was gaiety in the air; everyone appeared well nourished, plump, and exuberant. The rabbi could not understand and looked to the Lord. “It is simple,” said the Lord, “but it requires a certain skill. You see, the people in this room have learned to feed each other!” For me personally I have begun to create spaces for myself to play professionally - holding reflective practice spaces with a creative focus such as Stories as Medicine (a space to discuss fairytales) and also Greek Myths and Therapy. These are extraordinary spaces where I have frequently been left thrumming with inspiration and a sense of connection and growth. I invite anyone to attend them. I also would invite people to explore in their teams and groups their own ways of creating soulful connections and opportunities for play. Now more than ever we need creative, symbolic selves. We need art, music, dance and creative life. We need to explore what is meaningful in life. From being in these spaces there feels to me now a faint hope of dawn, of light returning at the end of a long tunnel. I’m feeling a huge loss at the endings and changes to my life I am experiencing but also a peace that in engaging in my limits I might be able to make wiser choices about how best to live both personally and professionally.

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