During practice yesterday, I got to thinking about Baubo and Demeter. As you recall from learning about Greek myths in grade school, the short version is that Demeter’s daughter, Persephone, is kidnapped by Hades. Demeter gets pissed off and Zeus is forced to intervene and return Persephone to her mother. Unfortunately, Persephone ate some pomegranate seeds before she left and is now forced to return to the underworld for half the year, and hence we have seasons.
It’s too easy to imagine Demeter’s grief. Her daughter goes out swimming with some friends and suddenly she’s gone. It’s that moment in the grocery store when you are sure you can still hear her chatting on the cell phone and you turn to find the aisle is empty. And you at first are sure she’s just down the next aisle or the next. And then you stop moving because you think, well, this is ridiculous. If she’s walking around looking for me and I’m walking around looking for her, we could spend an hour just missing each other. And so you call her cell phone, kind of already laughing to yourself about how you will joke about how funny it is that you’re probably not more than fifty feet apart and yet you’ve got to get her on the phone.
But it’s busy. Not her, not voice mail, just busy.
Then, you turn the corner and there are two of her friends standing there looking at your daughter’s crushed cell phone. “Where is she?” You ask. And they shrug and say “She went off with some guy.” “Some guy? Did you know him? Did she know him? Did you even try to stop her?” Now you’re pissed off.
But when they say “No, we didn’t know him. And he just grabbed her, even though she was screaming and crying.” you must want to have a gun right then, to shoot them, to shoot him, to shoot yourself.
I think we all understand Demeter’s impulse to rid the world of everything that grows. I think we all sometimes envy her ability to do it. And it wasn’t as if some stranger took her daughter. Hades was her brother. And Zeus, also her brother, who knew where Persephone was and could have told Demeter at any time, let her keep looking for her daughter, knowing that she’d never look in the right place.
To lose your whole family through that kind of betrayal, no wonder she went crazy and hid herself as an old lady and remained inconsolable.
Until Baubo, another old woman, gets her drunk and makes her laugh. The story goes that Baubo lifted her skirts and sang dirty songs. I imagine she sang Bessie Smith; what other woman sings so frankly about fucking–“He’s a deep sea diver with a stroke that can’t go wrong / He can stay at the bottom and his wind holds out so long”–and heartache–“Nobody knows you when you down and out / In my pocket not one penny / And my friends I haven’t any”?
I keep thinking about Karin Agness and her outrage at The Vagina Monologues. And I keep thinking about that old woman lifting her skirts up and shaking her cooter in the face of a god for a laugh.
I mean, it worked.
Being with that old Baubo as she shimmied and sang and showed herself moved Demeter to laugh.
I think, to get back to it, this is another reason I feel bad for Agness. She’s so sure that any talk of vaginas must be, by definition, degrading women by reducing them to just this one body part that she advocates for a position that would never talk about them in public.
And yet, this is a way for vastly different women to connect. What did Baubo have in common with Demeter? Demeter is the Divine Mother. Baubo is a servant. What they share is the common experience of having a cooter.
Imagine it. Baubo stands in front of a god driven out of her mind with grief. Slowly, the old woman raises her skirts.
Look. Look at this. You are not alone.
That’s something, folks, the ability to comfort gods by reminding them of what we share in common. To see that as degrading or reductionist is pretty funny when you think about it.