Turning the Bed Around


I recently heard a wonderful lecture, as her lectures characteristically are, by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes (for info on Dr. Estes see Theatre of the Imagination in my Resources). In it, Dr. Estes tells the story of a boy, (and yes, later a man), whose godmother was the Goddess of Life and Death (if you don’t know who that is, just imagine you do). The story, briefly, goes like this:

The Goddess of Life and Death (a.k.a. the Life/Death/Life Mother) endows her godson with the gift and art of healing. Her instruction is as follows: when the healer walks into his patient’s room, he is to notice whether She is standing at the foot, or at the head of the patient’s bed. If She is standing at the foot of the bed this means the patient will survive, and can be healed; and the healer should therefore administer the remedy She has taught him to make. If, however, the Goddess is standing at the head of the patient’s bed, this means it is time for the patient to die;  and no remedy therefore, should be given.

Under Her tutelage, the man becomes recognized as the greatest healer ‘in all the land’. (Cue fairytale kingdom music as camera pans out across ‘all the land’.) Then, one day, the healer is called to the palace. The king is deathly ill (oh no!) and has promised to give the healer a portion of his kingdom in exchange for saving his life (okay!). The healer walks into the king’s chamber (hooray for riches!), and looks up to see the Life/Death/Life Mother standing at the head of the king’s bed, meaning (yikes!): it is time for the king to die, no remedy should be given. In a moment of pure genius, (even if drunk genius, intoxicated by visions of ‘my very own kingdom!’) – the healer walks into the room, goes straight to the bed, bends down, and turns it around. Now: Goddess standing at the foot of the bed; patient can be cured; administer the remedy; healed, no problem. Except, of course, that you have to answer to your godmother, who also happens to be, in this case, the Mother of Life and Death. (double, triple yikes.) She grabs him on his way out of the room and let’s him know that if he ever – and her eyes mean ever – even attempts anything like that again, She will be forced to open a can of Goddess-of-Life-and-Death-whoopin’ on his — with the quickness.

Shortly thereafter the healer is called to the palace again; this time the princess is desperately ill. (uh oh…) The king, pleading, promises the healer that if he can save the princess’ life, he can have her hand in marriage. Obviously, she is the most beautiful woman in all the land, and a princess, and, suddenly, he’s looking for a wife. So that when the healer walks into the princess’ room, and sees the Goddess standing at the head of her bed, before he knows what he’s doing he has already turned the bed around, administered the remedy, and left. (yikes to the infinite power.)

The Goddess grabs him again on his way out, but this time She doesn’t let go. She takes him down, down, all the way down (somewhere near the bowls of existence I’m guessing), and into a candlelit room. By candlelit I mean lit by thousands, give or take a kajillion candles, and containing only candles. (A little creepy, plus a little magical, equals uncanny.) The Life/Death/Life Mother explains that the candles represent peoples’ lives, and their life force. The healer looks at them, some tall and brightly burning, others on the verge of being snuffed out, and assumes that all the tall and bright candles must represent young children and that the ones with almost no wax and wick to burn are the elderly. But no, the Goddess explains, not at all: some children have very short candles, and some of the very tall and very bright ones are very old people. ‘Look, here is yours.’, She tells him. The healer is directed to one of the dimmest, most pathetic, struggling-for-its-last-few-moments-of-burning-candle in all the land. He understands what that means.

‘No,’ he pleads, ‘please Godmother do something! You are, after all, the Goddess of Life and Death. Please don’t let me die.’ But, She knows what it means too: It is time for him to die – and one cannot cheat death. Not even the Life and Death Mother Herself.

Even more than her telling of the story, even more than her explaining the meaning of the story, I love when Dr. Estes asks me, the listener: ‘What, in your life, is it time to let die, – and you, keep turning the bed around?’.

What, in your life, do you know it is time for you to let go of, to let die and, in your intoxication, or perhaps in your fear, you refuse to see what you see and to know what you know: you go to, turn the bed around, and start to administer remedies. The ointments, the solutions, the more time and effort, the less of myself and truth – a million cures suddenly at hand to rally behind the, ‘Say it isn’t so!’.

The problem, and of course the point of the story, is that: sometimes it is so. Sometimes, ‘it really ain’t so’ – but sometimes, at least sometimes, it is. And when it is, it is. No remedies, no cures – the thing is dying. It isn’t maybe dying. In that sense, you cannot cheat death.

You can try, you might even manage to turn the bed around – and win what? A little more time? Maybe. But you do understand that this extra time is really just extra time of it dying – i.e. prolonging its decline toward death? That’s the maximum of what we can hope to achieve with our remedies – a slower and yes, likely more painful, death – the max.

Ask yourself today, maybe throughout the week too, regularly even, perhaps once a month, and better still once a year (every autumn, birthday, or New Year’s, say): ‘What is it time for me to let die – and I keep trying to turn the bed around?’

What relationship?

What job or career?

What habit?

What story about myself is it time to let go of? or about [insert family member’s name here]?

What way of relating to others? to myself? to Life?

You know what you know. You may not know where everything in your life stands in the cycle of birth-growth-entropy/decline-death, but you don’t have to. Start with what you do know. And you do know that it is time to let some things, at least one thing, go; to let it die. At least you know this sometimes.

When you do, let it go. What is in your power is not whether but how it dies. The best thing you could do, for all involved, is to help it to pass easily, gracefully, even lovingly out of your life.