In the early 1970s, Ione — then known as Carole Bovoso — was a freelance writer, Village Voice contributor and poetry editor when she went to Egypt on assignment for a travel story. “When I set foot on the land I felt something so powerful, which I never felt before,” she said. The next year, she went back by herself, and was even more transfixed. “You could feel the cosmology of ancient Egypt wherever you went. When you go to the sacred sites, there’s a feeling in the stone and sound elements having to do with the various temples. It takes over you.”
Overwhelmed by her experience in Egypt, Ione began conducting “women’s mysteries” workshops in her lower Manhattan loft, which used meditations, journal writing, exploration of dreams, mythology and oracular forms, ceremony and ritual and women’s studies as tools enabling participants to discover a deeper sense of identity, their creative potential and goals and connection to the wider community of women. The year-long program culminated in a trip to Egypt — an initiation of sorts as the group visited the pyramids and other sacred sites. The classes grew, spilling out of Manhattan to Upstate New York after Ione and her partner, composer and musician Pauline Oliveros, bought a house in Kingston in the late 1980s. Workshops were held as far away as the United Kingdom and France (where Ione had lived with her previous two husbands and given birth to two of her three sons).
As the workshops matured and participants became trained in the techniques themselves, the program morphed into an international organization called the Ministry of Maat, which now has 36 ministers. Ione continues to conduct four retreats a year in the large, comfy Victorian house she shares with Oliveros; participants meet regularly for mentoring sessions, are given a reading list and homework assignments, write in their journals and visit beautiful natural settings, located nearby in the valley or in Maine. Some participants are distinguished artists; despite their success, they “need some emotional support,” Ione said. “We’re very insecure.” She noted that the impulse for those first sessions back in the 1970s was “women creating community for women. Women would say to me, ‘just knowing these other women are in the same community makes a huge difference in my life.’ You can’t really teach it, it has to be lived.” (Ione also does private work with men.)
The literary fruitage from the ministry has now been published in a book, Spell Breaking: Remembered Ways of Being, An Anthology of Women’s Mysteries, edited by Ione. The 19 contributors, several of whom are priestesses of Maat, consist of artists, musicians, curators, writers (one of whom, Andrea Israel, won an Emmy for her television writing), holistic health practitioners and performing artists. They grew up in Colombia, Canada, or Italy and now live in Maine, Brooklyn, Vermont, the HudsonValley and Austin, Texas. One was raised Baptist (Amshatar “Ololodi” Monroe, now a priest of Oshun, the Yoruba deity of compassion, beauty and joy). Another was abandoned as a baby by her Native American mother (Mary Elizabeth Thunder, who has received numerous awards in the U.S. and abroad for her humanitarian work).
Defying the clichés of New Age confessional writing, each essay tells a story as compelling for its creative form and language as its honesty. Some women recount how they “broke the spell” of a painful experience, be it an AIDS diagnosis or other health crisis, rape, death of a loved one, or abuse. Others write about ecstatic experience, be it learning how to listen (in the case of contributor Pauline Oliveros), doing T’ai Chi (Heloise Gold), finding true love by following her inner voice (Julia White), or discovering a deep sense of “integrated nowness” after experiencing Egypt’s ancient sites (trombonist and composer Monique Buzzart).
In the introduction, Ione writes how “breaking a spell” enabled the inner artist to emerge in those early sessions in her Canal Street loft: “Our circles were … our own place of alchemical transformation. I would also label our process ‘spell breaking,’ for we too would emerge, having broken old spells that had long held us in their grip … for more than one of us, there came a transition to no longer being a victim, a marking of the beginning moments of directing the course of our own lives. Honoring ourselves as creative beings was from the beginning an essential part of our spell-breaking.”
Her own “spell breaking” journey is tied to the writing of a critically acclaimed memoir, Pride of Family: Four Generations of American Women of Color, published in 1991. Once the book was published, “I was no longer Carole Bovoso but another person really, who was teaching people to find their myths” — a person she renamed Ione after her middle name, which was after her great-aunt Ionia Whipper, a practicing physician in Washington, D.C., in whose house she grew up.
In researching the book, Ione discovered strands of herself, particularly in the personage of her great-grandmother Frances Anne Rollin, whose extraordinary diary, written in the 1860s, reflected her ambitions as a writer, her abolitionist activities, her ambivalence about her many suitors and her cultural life in Boston. Interwoven with descriptions of her loving relationship with her grandmother, Be-Be, who had danced in Broadway choruses in the 1920s and in later years owned a famous restaurant in Saratoga Springs, as well as her more difficult relationship with her mother, who’d also been an only child raised by relatives, Ione tells the story of Frances, or Frank, as she calls her, who moved back to her home state of South Carolina, married a lawyer who served in the state legislature during Reconstruction and had five children. With the collapse of Reconstruction, Frances left her husband and moved with her children to Washington, D.C., where she worked for the government. The rise of white supremacy and quashing of African-American rights as the Jim Crow era took hold resulted in the tragic loss of the family’s property as well as her husband’s loss of position as a judge.
Descended in part from a distinguished Creole family, Ione writes about the schisms of skin color and hair type among her own relatives, the struggles of women abandoned by their husbands and boyfriends left to raise their children themselves, and the meaning of home. Early in the book she writes about her own two marriages and escape to Europe. But the themes deepen as she increasingly focuses on uncovering the mysterious lives of her grandparents and great grandparents, particularly Frank, whose life as a writer in some ways prefigures her own.
Between writing and doing research, Ione spent summers helping out her grandmother in her Saratoga Springs house and restaurant, which comes to symbolize home. The writer’s honesty, curiosity and empathy, as she reveals who her forebears were and imaginatively reconstructs pivotal moments in their lives, culminate in grace notes at the book’s end: Ione discerns a message from Frank’s life that both strengthens the meaning of her own life and redeems the disappointments of her ancestors.
Surely Frank would be pleased at the many accomplishments of her great-granddaughter — not just spiritual teacher and author, but also playwright, director, improvising word/sound artist, and artistic director of the Deep Listening Institute, based at the Shirt Factory. Her latest project is an opera, The Nubian Word for Flowers, which is a collaboration with Oliveros inspired by the life of Lord Kitchener of Khartoum; she is also working on a sequel to Pride of Family.