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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S

AN INTERVIEW WITH OLYMPIA DUKAKIS

Excerpted with permission from In Sweet Company: Conversations with Extraordinary Women About Living a Spiritual Life by Margaret Wolff



WE KNOW HER best as Rose Castorini, the intrepid wife from "Moonstruck," the devoted friend Clarey from "Steel Magnolias," and the clear-sighted Mrs. Madrigal, the landlord of indeterminate gender from "Tales of the City." Olympia Dukakis has also played a senator, a countess and a high school principal; she has been Jennifer Aniston's mother, Jack Lemmon's wife, a Jewish widow and a Greek heroine - to name only a few. An award-winning actress of stage, screen and television, she has endeared herself to audiences around the world for her dynamic portrayals of the grand transformations and subtle accommodations that are the bread and butter of women's lives.

The daughter of Greek immigrants, Olympia grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts in a neighborhood where ethnic discrimination, particularly against Greeks, was routine. She made her stage debut at thirteen in a benefit for Greek war relief and acting became her first love. Early in her career, she was advised to change her name to something "less ethnic." She refused, despite the fact that it would have paved the way to a greater variety of roles, and remained undeterred in her desire to become an actor. After high school, she obtained a degree in physical therapy and worked as a therapist during the height of the polio epidemic. She saved her money, returned to school and earned a Masters in Fine Arts at Boston University's School of the Performing Arts. Degree in hand, she moved to New York City to pursue a stage career. Shortly thereafter, she appeared in a production of "Medea" where she met and fell in love with actor Louis Zorich. Their thirty-nine year marriage produced three children and a lifelong repository of unconditional support.

In 1988, after thirty years of performing principally in New York City and in regional theater, and with fifteen years of teaching acting at NYU under her belt, Olympia won her profession's highest accolade, the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, for her portrayal of the Italian matriarch in "Moonstruck." It was her first substantial role in a major motion picture. Later that year, she stood on the podium alongside first-cousin Michael Dukakis, then Governor of Massachusetts, as he accepted the Democratic nomination for President of the United States, and shouted the names of her departed Greek relatives into the din of the crowd. It was, for her, a profound moment, a proud declaration of her ethnicity that she claimed for her entire family.

Olympia has gone on to appear in thirty films, twenty-five Broadway and off-Broadway productions, twenty television movies and over one hundred regional stage productions. Besides an Oscar, she has won, among others, a Golden Globe, a New York Film Critics Award, two Obies, and two Emmy nominations for her work.

One of her most personally memorable roles was in the play "The Trojan Women." It opened her heart to what has become a profound relationship with the Great Mother, the feminine aspect of God long venerated in the ancient cultures of the Indus River Valley. In 1985, she met Srimata Gayatri Devi, an Indian spiritual teacher in the Vedanta tradition, and studied with her until her passing.

As an activist and popular speaker for women's groups, Olympia takes a strong stand for the health and safety of women and children, for the environment and for equal rights among all people - not the least of which is the right to personal transformation. In 1992, she and several friends co-created "Voices of Earth," a non-profit theater company designed to help women, including herself, explore their spiritual heritage and birth their own spiritual transformation. A grant from the Geraldine Dodge Foundation funded the creation of workshops and performance pieces inspired by the Inanna Hymns, the ancient Sumarian stories that celebrate the Great Mother. Olympia describes the performances that emerge from these workshops as "emotional, physical, spiritual, and joyful" pieces that explore through metaphor issues unique to women's lives.

In all things, Olympia Dukakis is both vulnerable and a robust force for life. This was first obvious to me in her brilliant portrayal of Rose Castorini in "Moonstruck." Beset by the growing disparities in her marriage, Rose goes alone to a neighborhood restaurant to have dinner and invites a lonely college professor who has just been rebuffed by his girlfriend to dine with her. After dinner, he walks her home and attempts to engage her in a liaison. In spite of her own needs for companionship, Rose luminously refutes his advances "because," as she says, "I know who I am." The way Olympia delivered that line, the self awareness in her voice as she said those words, spoke to me about how to defuse the predatory desires that nibble away at our integrity and self-respect. It was also clear to me that no one could deliver such a delicately nuanced performance without being mindful of her own contradictions. Thirteen years later, when she accepts my invitation to participate in this book, I discover that contradiction is what feeds her, is grist for her spiritual and professional mill. What I also discover is that she is a woman who is unpretentious and down-to-earth - and a woman with a tangible and unreserved spiritual yearning.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

IT'S BONE COLD in New York City in March, but there I am, climbing out of a taxi in front of the cafe where I am to meet her, fairly oblivious of the chill in the air. I've been emailing Bonnie Kramen, Olympia's assistant, for several months now, arranging the details of this meeting. I reviewed the biographical materials Bonnie sent me, and staged an Olympia Dukakis Film Festival for myself, all to prepare for our conversation. I'm as ready as I'll ever be.

I pay the cabby, then walk inside the restaurant to get the lay of the land. The "joint is jumpin'," brimming with neighborhood regulars and intelligentsia from nearby NYU. I tell the hostess why I've come and ask her to reserve a corner booth for me for 2:00 PM. She can make no promises, she says. "It is, after all, lunch time." I spend the next hour walking the neighborhood. When I return to the cafe, my table is waiting. I slide into the booth, peel off the layers of winter clothing I've since amassed around me, and set up my taping equipment.

Olympia enters the restaurant bundled in a nylon parka, a mustard-colored wool scarf tied fashionably around her neck and a black wool beret pulled down over her ears. The hostess points her in my direction, and as she walks toward me, she unwinds her scarf and stuffs the beret into her jacket pocket. She is much shorter and slimmer than she appears on screen. Her tussled hair is dark with an auburn hue. Her eyes, those rueful, intelligent, honeyed eyes of hers, draw me in. I smile and nod in greeting and extend my hand. She hits the table running, and begins our discussion even before she sits down. She is apprehensive, she tells me, "talking about women's spirituality in a world that has suppressed its existence for thousands of years." After ten minutes, I turn on my tape recorder and ask her to summarize the reasons for her disquietude:

"I always feel uncomfortable when I read one of these interviews because it never feels substantive enough or it feels very marginalized. It's not because there's a lack of sincerity, or even a lack of depth ..."

Is it because it's hard to put something so subtle into words?

"No. I think it's because most of us talk one way and live another. There are a few people who truly, truly walk the talk - who are, as Merlin Stone wrote, 'women who have gone over the mountain.' The rest of us just talk the talk. The rest of us are still trying to find ways to live in the world with spirit-ual values. Myself included. We've learned certain skills, we've learned to prevail somewhat, but we've not made it over the mountain. I sometimes truly despair at ever being meaningfully altered and affected by the things I claim are so important to me."

She searches for the words that unravel the core of her discontent. It's easy to see she's struggling. Her eyes reflect her every thought.

"Oh! I know what it is!" she exclaims. "Most of us have contradictions about our lives, but when we talk with someone like yourself, we talk only about what we aspire to, what we smell in the air. We don't talk about the contradictions. I suppose those who have made it over the mountain still have contradictions, but not about their spirituality. They don't live in two worlds like I do."

She is clearly distressed by this paradox. This easy companionship she has with her vulnerability and her willingness to allow me to witness it occurs often during our conversation. Without giving it a second thought, I reach out and touch her hand, as if something I could do might be able to comfort her. She smiles at me.

"I recognize," she says with a sigh, "that the real pulse of life is transformation, yet I work in a world dominated by men and the things men value, where transformation is not the coinage. It's not even the language! Winning is everything in Hollywood. The 'deal' is everything. I understand the competitive thing because I had a real battle with it as a young woman. Because of my ethnicity, I felt I had to prove I was better - not as good as, but better - than others. Thankfully, it became clear to me that when I compete, I lose my connection to the passion I have for my work. Every once in a while, I come across a man who has the desire to collaborate and be conciliatory. But if I want to continue acting and have the potential for financial prosperity - something that came to me very late in life - I have to live with these competitive values."

She sighs, then tells me about the last time she saw Marija Gimbutas, the famed UCLA archeologist whose research into the goddess cultures of the Neolithic Era made a preeminent contribution both to the field of archeology and to feminist thought.

"Just before she died," Olympia says, "we talked about how difficult it is for me to make my work be about the things I feel are important. She pointed at me and said, 'Do it! Do it!' I carry out my private efforts, but I haven't yet said, 'You know what? I'm going to honestly make my life be about what I value most."

It's a hard thing to do.

"Yes it is. I feel it most in my work, because there aren't roles about women who are spiritually evolving. That anyone would even write something like that, something that's worth doing, would be a miracle! So I constantly play women who are damaged and out of touch, who are seeking without knowing, or knowing without the skills to transform their lives. But then, that's really the fate of many women today. Since I carry those same issues inside me, when I connect to that, it resonates in my work and I think women somehow feel the story is about them."

I tell her about my Olympia Dukakis Film Festival and how I observed that empathy in her performances. She turns and looks at me in mock horror, then hides her head in her arms.

"You had an Olympia Dukakis Film Festival!" she moans. "Oh my God!" We laugh.

The waiter has been hovering at a respectful distance, waiting for a break in our conversation. He now makes a bee-line to our table. Olympia orders a burger. When he looks at me, she tells him with a smile, "She's working, I'm eating." I nod, ask for something to drink, and watch him scurry off to place our order. We pick up the thread of our conversation.

"I always look for ways to move the character to places within herself where it becomes necessary to confront something, to learn something new. Most of us are not real eager to grow, myself included. We try to be happy by staying in the status quo. But if we're not willing to be honest with ourselves about what we feel, we don't evolve."

She tells me about a book by the Catholic scholar Margaret Starbird, The Woman with the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail. Starbird originally decided to write the book to discredit the reports that Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus and bore his child - stories she initially considered heretical. But her research thrust her into a personal descent that forced her to re-evaluate her entire belief system, for she discovered that, at least as far as she was concerned, the accounts were true. "Being the woman she is - which is honest - she couldn't lie to herself about what she found," Olympia says. "Her self-honesty was extraordinary. She's still a Catholic, but now she works within the church to effect changes in how women are seen."

Olympia looks me straight in the eye, shakes a finger and declares, "You see, her life and her work are together. I'm not saying she doesn't have problems, but she doesn't get up every day and think 'A' and then go out and deliberately do 'B.' That's what I do."

This seems painful to you.

"It's very painful," she says mournfully.

I want to ease her heartache, one I'm not all that unfamiliar with myself, but all I can think of to say to her is that at least she can name her pain, that a lot of us walk around not knowing why we're unhappy, not knowing why we feel so conflicted. She shakes her head in agreement. Then I tell her that I think this struggle to bring our inner and outer worlds together is an ongoing part of the spiritual life, that when we face these contradictions, we can then choose how we will walk our talk.

"I understand this now," she confides. "In 1985, I became very involved with Gayatri Devi, a spiritual teacher, who helped me see this."

How did you meet her?

My husband, daughter, and I were in therapy because of issues that came up after he had a terrible automobile accident. The therapist said everyone was OK except me, that I was behaving as if we were still in crisis. He said I had to do something to focus on myself, by myself, or he wouldn't see me anymore. I rooted around for something to do and a friend suggested I go to a spiritual retreat center in the mountains. I had my doubts - it seemed to me like a camp for precocious adults! - but I went anyway.

"The only weekend I was free was during what they call their 'Spiritual Weekend,' so I signed up for that. Friday night, the presenters sat on a stage and talked about their upcoming workshops. There were rabbis and Cambodian monks and Indian swamis and Protestants and Catholics and Native Americans. It was a whole smorgasbord! And there was this little lady in saffron robes. I was very moved by what she said, but of course, I didn't permit that to influence me! I decided to go with a shaman because I'd been reading a lot about shamans at the time."

As she tells this story, a calm comes over her. She is a wonderful storyteller - funny, self-effacing, and poignant - and paints the scene with brushes steeped in the rich palette of her emotional wellspring.

"The workshop I went to was like a bad acting class! Everyone was trying to get in touch with their feelings - beating drums and howling - but I stayed with it. The next day, the leader asked us each to share why we'd come to the retreat center. Everyone gave such esoteric and spiritual reasons - and there I was because my therapist told me that if I didn't do something about myself, he wouldn't see me anymore! But when my time came to talk, I got very choked up and said, 'I'm here to open my heart.' I don't know where that came from, but that's what I said.

"The workshop continued with much sage-burning and carrying on, but I just couldn't do it anymore. I walked outside toward a little house where I heard the chanting of women's voices. I looked in the window and saw the woman I'd been so moved by the night before sitting in lotus position on a slightly raised platform. I walked in and sat down. Gayatri Devi was a bhakti, as they say in India; hers was the path of devotion to God. She was talking in an animated way about the Great Mother, about Her role in the Vedanta tradition. The more she talked, the more I cried. I didn't know why I was crying. It wasn't that I was sad; I was just crying."

I tell her that I know that kind of crying, when someone touches you in a place so far beyond what your conscious mind can articulate that all you can do is cry.

"You know that kind of crying too? Good!" She slaps the palm of her hand on the table, pleased not only that I understand what she is talking about but that I too have had that kind of cry.

"I didn't make too much of it though at the time. After all," she says parenthetically, "I am an actress!" We laugh.

"After the break, I went over and asked Sudha - Ma's assistant at that time, and the one to whom the mantle was passed after Ma's death - if I could speak with Ma, with Gayatri Devi. She told me it would be impossible to see her, that Ma was totally booked. I wasn't too upset because I already knew something about what Ma had been talking about. The truth was, I had secretly gotten involved with the Great Mother on my own, thinking I was the only person on the planet to do so. I had no idea other people were interested in Her."

How did that come about?

"I did a play called "The Trojan Women" that brought up a lot of spiritual questions for me. Then I read a book called Perseus and the Gorgon. After that, I went to every book store I could find to get books about the Great Mother. One day, I was in a store here in the Village, and Merlin Stone's book, When God Was a Woman, fell off the shelf and landed at my feet!"

She holds up her right hand as if she is taking an oath. "Honest to God," she vows.

And then ...

"Then, months later, I'm having a massage and I hear a voice that seemed to come from the back of my head, an androgynous Presence, say the words 'Celebrate Her' - meaning I was to celebrate the Great Mother. I started to cry and cry and cry. Finally I said aloud, 'I know how to suffer, but I don't know how to celebrate.' And the Voice replied, 'You are of Her, and you know how to do it.' My awareness of this Presence remained for a while after that, but I told no one about the experience.

"Several months later, I'm going up the stairs at the subway at 42nd Street, on my way to NYU to teach. I'm in a hurry and feeling angry because people are in my way and I couldn't walk fast enough, and I hear the Voice again. It said, 'Turn around.' I turned around and saw everyone scrambling up the stairs. Then the Voice said, 'She loves everyone. All these people; everyone.' It really took my breath away. I started to cry, so grateful was I for this love."

She begins to cry. She's there again, climbing the stairs in the subway, hearing the Voice, feeling the Great Mother's love.

The waiter arrives with our order. The time it takes to set our food before us gives Olympia the chance to regain her composure. She scarfs down a few bites of her burger, then takes me back to that weekend at Omega and her first meeting with Gayatri Devi.

"So when I heard Ma couldn't see me, I was OK with that because, as I said, I already knew about the Great Mother. I started to walk outside when Sudha came over to me and said Ma wanted to see me. I froze and said, 'It's OK,' but Sudha said, 'No, Ma wants to see you.' So I started up the hill to where Ma was sitting - to a table and two chairs facing each other under some trees - and as I walked, my awareness of all external sound left me. It was as if I were walking in a vacuum. I sat down and told her my name and what brought me to Omega. Finally, I told her about the two times I heard the Voice.

"She became very alert, then asked me some questions about the Voice.

Then she said, 'What are you afraid of?'"

Tears begin to run down Olympia's cheeks. "I said, 'I'm afraid of this love, afraid I would be lost.' And Ma said, 'Lost in the sea of Her love?' I said, 'Yes. I'm afraid if I allow myself to feel it, I won't come back. I know what that is. I've psychologically let go before and struggled to come back.'

"Ma looked at me for a long time, almost as if she were x-raying me. Then she talked to me and her words made me feel I would be all right, that I could receive the Great Mother's love - which is still hard for me to do - and give Her love - which is easier. You know?"

Before I can answer her, Olympia digs into her jacket pocket and pulls out a small book of prayers written by Swami Paramananda, an Indian monk of the Ramakrishna Order. "I want to read something to you," she says. She reads me some prayers, not as an actress but as a bhakti, filled with the devotion that inspired words she has since made her own.

Great Mother Heart, how tender art Thou
Thy love, transcending all my iniquities,
pours upon my life its benign sweetness.
How oft my imperfect nature lies mortified
and ashamed in Thy protecting bosom,
overwhelmed by Thy unfathomed tenderness.
Who art Thou that givest this endless bounty to me,
meritless and ignorant?
Divine mother heart. Proof of Thy unceasing care
I find in every turn of life.
With many arms dost Thou shield me.
With many hearts dost Thou love me.
With many minds dost Thou guide me to the road of safety.
Forget I may at times when dark clouds gather;
but to have seen Thy face of love
and known what is not known,
save when Thou dost lift the veil,
Is joy forever and crowning glory of Life.

"That's so hard for me to take in, to really let myself have that," she whispers softly. I reach for her hand again and she reads me another of Swami Paramananda's beautiful prayers:

Glory to Thy all-conquering love;
Yea, Thy love is my armor, my impenetrable shield,
My unfailing safeguard,
I bathe in Thy love and am refreshed;
I feed on Thy love and my soul-hunger is appeased.
What need have I of ought else,
When Thou dost fill me and surround me
With Thine inexhaustible and all-filling love."

"That was the love Ma was talking about," she says.

She is quiet now, lost in thought. She manages a half-hearted smile, then loses herself in her burger. I shift the direction of our conversation, and ask her how she would define spirituality. "Well, there's something open-hearted about it. I really understood how important this was when my mother was dying from Alzheimer's. Her defenses went away and she was no longer suspicious or critical. Her heart opened.

"So why does this seem part and parcel of spirituality? I guess because in order to be open-hearted, you have to trust, or be willing to trust - but trust with open eyes. You have to look at the reality of things. Sometimes there's darkness and pain. That's part of life, too."

Being open-hearted in the face of contradictions?

"Being open-hearted when the world pretty much looks like a place your heart should be defended and protected against."

It's the stuff grown-ups are made of. Some words of Simone de Bouvier come to mind: "One is not born a woman, one becomes a woman." I ask Olympia what she thinks about this.

"I think we're socialized out of being women, and then we have to find our way back to it. That's hard to do. Sometimes I feel as if four thousand years of silencing women, of the fear of women who were burned in oil or eviscerated in front of their daughters, is imprinted deep within me and has altered my DNA."

Yes, I say. I think we are connected to each other in ways that defy logic.

How did you become a woman? What experiences ...

"Let's not kid ourselves," she admonishes. "It's still going on. I'm still struggling, thinking and reading and talking and writing and noticing - constantly noticing. It's an ongoing process."

I nod my head in agreement.

"These days, maybe because of all this New Age stuff, I hear the word "crone" a lot. People think of crone as a destination you arrive at, not as a time in your life when something is still going on. You never 'arrive.' It's not over because you're fifty or sixty or seventy! I think we're in endless transition - and that goes on till we die. In that sense, maybe Simone de Bouvier was right.

"Stories about the ongoing dramas in our lives as we age are not being told because women find it difficult to be honest about what's going on - about, for example, our heightened sexuality as we age or about living in a society that only values youth. We have to be honest with ourselves - and with each other. We have to talk about our real lives and our real needs."

Western civilization is goal-oriented so we think there has to be a point of "arrival."

"Yeah. The reality is you don't arrive, you don't have a crone ceremony and suddenly get wisdom." She rolls her eyes and bites into her burger.

Years ago, I heard Ram Dass say that we're all born with certain core issues we deal with throughout our lives, but as we evolve, we become aware of those issues sooner and it takes less time to work them through. Do you think this is true?

"My sense of transformation is much more synergistic. Much more mysterious."

Not so formulaic?

"Yeah. I also think we have to open our eyes to what others tell us and see if it works for us before we buy into it. I fall prey to this myself. We have to be cautious. At least, I do. I bought into a lot of things when I was growing up that were right for someone else but that I later discovered weren't right for me."

Me too. I think a lot of us did.

"A lot of us still do. I talk to women's groups all over the country and see women struggling with this. The fear of not being accepted, of being different, of not having a man, all make it hard for a woman to do what she really believes is right for her. And, if we want to change things for women, we can't tear away at the fabric of each others lives like some feminists do. Women have got to work together. We've got to recognize and acknowledge the bravery it's taken to live the lives we've lived, to get up every day and take care of our children and our homes, to keep our churches and schools going, to plant trees in our parks - all these things. It makes me want to cry when I think about what women do! And we get buhpkis for it. We aren't even recognized by ourselves for what we do!"

Sometimes it's easier to recognize our potential in another. That's why I often show your movie "Moonstruck" in the women's retreats I lead. That heart-stopping moment when your character refuses to sacrifice her integrity on the altar of her conflicting needs can be a powerful mirror for others to see their own need to maintain their integrity.

"'Because I know who I am,'" she utters, repeating the words Rose used to jettison her libidinous dinner companion.

"Wasn't that incredible! It's amazing how many women talk to me about that one line. Why? Because they finally saw something in a film that reflected a woman's view of herself, that wasn't a man's view of how women are. There it was. I got a similar response when I did "Steel Magnolias" because it was a film about the profound friendships and loyalties women are capable of."

How important do you think the kind of knowing Rose had about herself is to living a spiritual life?

"I think we have to be careful about what we label as a prerequisite for spirituality. I don't think you have to know a lot to have a spiritual life, but knowing gives life richness."

I take a moment to think about her response. She looks up at me from her burger with a glint in her eye. "So," she says, "what else you got?"

I smile and ask her to tell me how she conceptualizes God.

"God is not something I think about but something I experience as an energy, a Presence. I do find it easier to pray to a female Presence or an androgynous Presence. I once asked Ma about this and she said, 'One God, many paths.' Whether you pray to Jesus or to the Great Mother or to Buddha, that's just the path you choose as you evolve towards something within yourself that is of God."

Have you always believed in God?

"I don't think I thought about things like that when I was young. I stopped going to the Greek Church because I'd get nauseous on the trolley. I hated being there and thought the priest was mean. My best friend was a member of the Salvation Army so I went there for a couple of years, until they wanted me to say I was saved by the blood of Jesus. I couldn't do that, so I quit.

"In my late teens and early twenties, I went to a lot of different churches. I was looking for something but didn't know what it was. When my children were born, I didn't have them baptized because I felt baptism was about erasing Original Sin - something the Church said children got from their mother - and I absolutely refused to believe women carry Original Sin. My daughter became a Pentecostal Christian and was eventually baptized, and both my sons married Catholics. I'm very happy for them. They found their own way. My husband is a fall-away Catholic, but with a vengeance. He's actually more of a feminist than I am."

When did you realize what you were looking for?

"In my forties and fifties, when I first heard the Voice."

Do you follow any particular tradition?

"I don't have a formal tradition; I go on my own experience. When I was a kid, I'd kneel down at the side of my bed every night before I went to sleep, and my mother and I would say a Greek prayer to the Virgin Mary."

She repeats the prayer in Greek, then translates it for me:

Holy Mary, give me your help and never let me stray
far from you.
And make me a good child, so that I love knowledge.
And to my good parents, give everlasting health.

"Years later, Ma asked me if I remembered any prayers from my childhood. I remembered this one and thought, 'Well, look at that! Thanks to my mother, even when I was young, I was connecting to a female Presence!'"

How do you now explore your spirituality?

"Through prayer and meditation. And I do Iyengar Yoga. The physical world is also an important part of my spirituality. Trees, for example, are a tremendous source of connectedness to my heart. A tree only aspires to be a tree. It doesn't compete with other trees It adjusts to whatever obstacles it has below or above the ground. It doesn't complain. It's such a beautiful living presence, such a teacher."

I tell her how, years ago, I tearfully clung to a tree during a rock concert hoping to connect with a deeper source of happiness than what the world had thus far provided. Though I didn't know what it was that I was looking for at the time, that tree started me on my spiritual journey.

She smiles at my story. "Once, when a group of us were having lunch with Ma, someone began to pontificate about what he thought life was all about. Ma turned to him and asked, 'What does a mother want for her child?' It was quiet for a minute, then someone else said, 'Happiness.' Ma said, 'That's it. All you need to concern yourself with is what brings you real happiness.' She boiled the whole thing down and made it easy."

Yup. And we make it so complicated!

"Women especially do this. We fragment ourselves; we take care of everyone else to the point where we don't really know what makes us happy. We need to reclaim a sense of play and reclaim our creative initiative. We need to find out what works for us. Once we do this, we find a way to move forward with our lives. We stop being so fragmented and regain a sense of ourselves."

The same sense that Rose had in her moment of decision?

"Yes. It's that feeling of 'I know who I am.' It's also the willingness to not know who you are, and to permit that transformation from not knowing to knowing to occur.

"Marija Gimbutas used to say that the heart of the goddess is transform-ative energy, the same energy that turns the seed into the plant, the tadpole into a frog, the cocoon into a butterfly. In ancient times, these animals were sacred because their transformation illustrates what life is really about. It seems to me that how we understand transformation and how it exists in our lives is also a big part of spirituality. At least it is for me. It's something women understand intuitively and intimately through our bodies - if we have the courage to claim that kind of knowing."

I know your relationship with Marija Gimbutas was very close. Would you consider her a mentor? Have you had other mentors?

"Oh my God, have I!" Her eyes light up as she talks about the women who have been important to her.

"I'm so fortunate to have had Ma, Marija Gimbutas, and my mother, though they all passed away within three years of each other. Esa Bollen, a Pilates instructor I got to know in California, was a wonderful woman to talk to and be with. Betty Meador, Merlin Stone, Barbara Walker, and Vickie Noble - blessed women who have been out there when there was no net - were also mentors to me through their books and friendship."

Connections this strong can be a source of great comfort, particularly during hard times. Have you ever had a "dark night of the soul"?

"Yes, I've had a number of these experiences. I dealt with them by instructing myself - by willing myself - to go forward into the darkness, by facing whatever I thought would be the worst part of the darkness."

Later it occurs to me that this warrior spirit of hers is also the seat of her vulnerability. It takes great courage to be vulnerable, to look fear in the face, to sit with the unknown, because you never know where you will end up. But doing this has its rewards: gradually, the fear diffuses, it loses its power, and in some seemingly miraculous way, bestows access to an inner font that allows you to live with greater meaning.

Olympia tells me a story that illustrates this process: "Many years ago," she says, "at a point when I was finally beginning to feel good about myself, I got a good review that threw me into quite a spin. I'd felt bad about myself for a long time, like I was just a black pit inside, like there was no real person inside. So when I got this review, I was literally lost. Who was I if I was not that darkness?

"I happened to be in therapy at the time, and I told the doctor I couldn't get through this experience without drugs. We argued. He said I could have two aspirin and that was it! 'You'll get through this the way you've done everything,' he said, 'with will power.'

"I had to do a play that night, but I was so upset, I just sat in his office the rest of the day. I finally went to the theater, but I almost passed out on the subway. I got some smelling salts, put them in my pocket in case I needed them, and told the stage manager to watch me in case I started to fall. I got through the play and didn't need the smelling salts." She smiles.

"Now, if I feel the darkness coming on, I pray, 'You are my impenetrable shield ...' - that prayer I read you earlier. It helps me tremendously to say that, to know that.

"Talking to certain people, like my daughter, also helps. She recently visited me in London, and just before I went to the theater, she asked me if I wanted to pray with her. She said this incredible prayer. It just poured out of her. It took me years to learn to pray like that, but my daughter knows how to do it and she's in her thirties! Isn't that great!"

She is beaming, kveling, a Yiddish word that, loosely translated, means to be filled with pride at another's accomplishments. I smile and nod my head. After a few moments, she glances over at the large clock that dominates one wall of the cafe and tells me her time is growing short.

I make an appeal for a few more questions and she acquiesces.

What role do you think your marriage plays in your spiritual development?

"My husband - because of who he is - helped me see myself, helped me know myself. At one point after I awakened to the Great Mother, I was worried about something and he said, 'Why don't you ask the Great Mother what to do?' I had a little altar upstairs, and he said, 'Go on up and ask Her.' It was so helpful.

"Before we got married, we promised to support each other in whatever we each wanted to do - even if we disagreed with what that was. He has always done that for me - more and better than I. He has never, ever, ridiculed or diminished anything I've done. You don't stay married for thirty-nine years because of sex or even because of love, but because your partner is a real friend to you, because they respect and regard you."

I nod, then I fire off my remaining questions. She answers each in a few precise words:

Do you believe you have an assignment, a task you were born to carry out?

"I used to think so, but I don't know if I do anymore."

What do you think is your greatest accomplishment?

"That I had children, raised them, and somehow we held it together in the midst of some horrendous things that happened."

What do you think is the secret of your success?

"That I have a real passion for my work and an appetite for life."

Do you have any advice you would like to share with others?

"Only what they ask of me. I'm not a wise crone. All I know is that we keep transforming; we never end."

Last question: When all is said and done, how would you like to be remembered?

"I think this being remembered business is much ado about nothing. I don't think I have to be remembered. My children will remember me intensely, my grandchildren will remember me less intensely, my great-grandchildren will laugh and say, 'You know, there was somebody in my family whose name was Olympia?' And that's it. Then we're gone from memory. What? Somebody's going to read a theater book and see that I did this, that and the other thing?" She laughs.

That's it then, I tell her.

She smiles, gathers her jacket and scarf around her, and takes my hands in hers. "Good luck with this book," she says. She pulls her beret over her head and slides out of the booth. Three hours have flown by. I watch her go. I watch those in the cafe watch her go. She stops and shares a few words with the hostess, then disappears into the crisp March afternoon.


Excerpted with permission from In Sweet Company: Conversations with Extraordinary Women About Living a Spiritual Life by Margaret Wolff.

Copyright © 2005 by Margaret Wolff

Other excerpts from In Sweet Company:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Margaret Wolff is a journalist and popular speaker who leads spiritual retreats for women around the country based on her best selling book, IN SWEET COMPANY: CONVERSATIONS WITH EXTRAORDINARY WOMEN ABOUT LIVING A SPIRITUAL LIFE. To learn more about the book and her work, please visit www.InSweetCompany.com.

 

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