In 1970, I visited the Gouffre de Padirac, a cave in the Dordogne region of France with my mother. I was 27 at the time and my mother in her late sixties. We approached the huge chasm in the earth with awe; it was 115 feet across and over 300 feet deep. A series of lifts and stairs led down and down past wet rocks into a system of caverns where ancient stalagmites and stalagtites were still growing and an underground river flowed along. Colored electric lights dramatized the geological features which were reflected in the water. As we descended deeper and deeper, my mother's heart began to race. Perhaps it was fear, perhaps a change in oxygen levels in the air. Whatever the reason, I had to escort her back to the sunny ground above. I was concerned for her health but also disappointed that I did not get to ride in a boat on the underground river. In my memory the cave remained an exotic, mysterious, and beautiful place that I would have been happy to visit again.
In 2008 I turned 65, and thoughts of becoming a crone entered my life. I had joined a group of women who celebrate the turning of the seasons ("casual pagans" we might be called). One day, as I was painting, I imagined us as women of ancient times, or a timeless time, dressed in long robes, dancing slowly along the edge of a body of water toward an opening in the earth. Here was my return to the cave. Are we are the edge of the River Styx, the boundary between Earth and the Underworld, the realm of Hades? What lies inside the cave? What will happen there? Perhaps a torch-lit ritual honoring the Goddess Styx and Persephone Queen of the Underworld? The huge serpent witnessing us is a reminder of spiritual wisdom, life and healing.
A recent tour of the Oregon Caves National Monument with my husband allowed me once again to walk deep inside the Earth; to experience total darkness (when the forest ranger switched off the lights); to marvel that bats and spiders could live there; to listen to the underground stream (actually named the "Styx") as it flowed over marble and sculpted away the inside of the mountain; and finally, to rejoice in the warm sun-filled sky that awaited us at the end of this particular journey.