April 2, 2019

Sorting Seeds: Psyche’s First Labor Gives Us Lessons for Life

Psyche at the Throne of Aphrodite, Edward Hale, 1883
Psyche at the Throne of Aphrodite, Edward Hale, 1883

“Is this easier or harder?” my audiologist asks. “Raise your hand when you hear a beep. Do you prefer program 1 or program 4? You made great progress in a week, so keep going.”

It feels impossible, but keep sorting. I don’t recognize that sound, but I can stay calm and learn. I wear the audio receiver every waking minute as instructed. It’s OK to be tired.

Life frequently gives us sorting tasks. They often feel endless. I remember organizing my husband’s cancer medicines and sorting out our home after his death. I remember ten years of caregiving tasks before my mother-in-law died in 2018.

In the Roman story of Eros (Love) and Psyche (Soul), Eros visits his lover Psyche, but only in the dark. Who is this midnight lover? One night she lights a candle to take a look. Burned by dripping wax, Eros flees. Psyche is dragged before Eros’s mother, the goddess Venus.

After raging at Psyche, Venus gives the girl Four Labors. The “impossible” tasks are Psyche’s way back to Eros. I don’t think of Eros as only sexual love, but as a broader love for the sensory world, for connection and embodiment. Eros brings sacred as well as sexual pleasure. The heart lifts and opens to receive an angelic choir or celestial symphony or a bird song.

With hearing loss, I lost the joy of music and spoken words. Like Psyche, I fought despair.

A cochlear implant promises to connect me back to the world of sound through a slow sorting process. Knowing Psyche’s story gives me patience.

Here’s a description of the First Labor translated from the original story:

“Venus leaped upon the face of poor Psyche, and took her by the hair, and dashed her head upon the ground. Then she took a great quantity of wheat, of barley, poppy seeds, peas, lentils, and beans, and mingled them altogether on a heap saying: Thou evil favored girl, thou seemest unable to get the grace of thy lover, by no other means, but only by diligent and painful service, wherefore I will prove what thou canst do: see that thou separate all these grains one from another disposing them orderly in their quantity, and let it be done before night.” Apuleius, The Golden Ass

My audiologist & his resident unpacking & tuning

Apuleius wrote this in 150 AD, but it’s as relevant now as it was almost 2000 years ago. Since I had many years of vertigo, I relate to being thrown to the ground, but think of it symbolically.

Psyche’s sorting job feels impossible, but helpers arrive for Psyche and for me. Before and after surgery, friends and sons offer gifts of healing balms, soup, rides, and loving patience. Six weeks after surgery, my audiologist programs my audio receiver. He opens a backpack plus a cloth bag filled with directions, warranties, audio receivers, chargers for domestic and foreign travel, a dehydrator for humid months, and more. Then he sorts to make sure everything is there.

Cochlear implant audio receiver: mine is hidden under hair (wikimedia commons)

It’s a mountain of chaos, but somehow I will figure it out.

Ants, those discriminating seed gatherers, come to Psyche’s rescue and sort the seeds into tidy piles. I have a surgeon and audiologist instead. My process is slower, but it’s coming along.

One task won’t be enough to reunite me with embodied pleasure and joyful listening. I want to love music enough to dance. More tasks lie ahead. More steps to unite body and soul with the love of hearing. Like Psyche, I’ll complete one task at a time. I’ll also doubt, before remembering. I don’t have to do this alone.

Last night I heard a chorus of birds singing their joyful evening songs. I felt one step closer to Eros.



I often return to Psyche’s Four Labors when life’s tasks are overwhelming. When have you had a repetitious sorting job like putting together a book or moving to a new home, taking a new job or cleaning out a closet? For a post about Psyche’s last task, see Clutched: An Essential Lesson from Psyche’s Fourth Labor. For more about how I prepared for this life-changing surgery, see A Healing Ritual in a Sweetgrass Bowl: Self-care for Surgery.


  1. April 14, 2019 at 1:31 pm

    anne danford


    “Taking in sound as a transcendent function.” What mystery and beauty in those words, Elaine. And always, the “both/and” needing to be held together–the seemingly impossible sorting of seeds along with the return of pleasure and possibility.

    I just went back and reread your entry on Psyche’s fourth labor, which was perfect timing as my 98-year-old mother-in-law is in the hospital after a stroke, and we are sorting through (the seeds of) what happens next. However, unlike Virginia, she is showering her family with love (even though she no longer can express herself with words), and I am having to learn to pull because of my health limitations, letting others tend to what is needed in the material realm.

    As always, thank you for your inspiration and sharing your hard-earned wisdom.

    1. April 15, 2019 at 11:22 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      I love thinking of sound as transcendent. We’ve all had that experience with music, an experience I longed for when grieving. Rilke writes eloquently of hearing in “Sonnets to Orpheus.” I’ll likely write about this soon, but thought I’d shared enough about hearing for a while. I’m doing something else this week, but I won’t let this idea fade. When I try to listen to complex music, it’s garbled still and does not feel related to transcendence, so I’m going for bird songs, peeper frogs, woodpecker tapping, and the sound of rain pounding on the windows.

      I’m glad “Sorting the Seeds” is helpful. We do a lot of that in this life. I’m also glad your mother-in-law is sharing love with her family. It’s a gift we can give to the end. Thank you, Anne, for reading and sending encouraging words. May all go well as you sort out the next step for your mother-in-law. Take good care of yourself.

  2. April 8, 2019 at 3:30 pm

    Avery Solomon


    Good to know it is happening! much peace and re-newal. A

    1. April 9, 2019 at 11:11 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thank you, Avery. I’m re-learning to hear, one seed syllable at a time.

  3. April 5, 2019 at 8:34 pm



    Beautiful Elaine. One day at a time. that’s how I decided to live a few years ago and really mean it. It works. You already heard the birds! You will get there. 🙂

    1. April 7, 2019 at 2:04 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thank you, Debby. This has to unfold at its own rate. It’s been a fast change so far, but who knows what will happen next–except that I will get there.

      1. April 18, 2019 at 5:28 pm




  4. April 5, 2019 at 11:52 am

    susan scott


    Thank you for sharing this with us Elaine – truly beautiful! The joy of hearing birds and the wind sing, even though one can see their beauty. And the calmness and joy after a day in traffic …

    And the 4 Labours – seemingly impossible tasks. The risks are high yet, with determination and an attitude of possibility, patience in spades and the loving help of others, the impossible becomes ‘I’m possible’

    You bring hope and for this I thank you.

    1. April 7, 2019 at 10:43 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      I’m taking in sound as a transcendent function, Susan. Rilke speaks of sound in this way in “Sonnets to Orpheus.” There’s huge emphasis in audiology on the tutorials, discriminating one word from another, getting the machinery tuned just right. I also want to enjoy the beautiful sounds that come to me already. Most sound is not beautiful yet, but there has been tremendous change in 3 weeks. Another mapping session with the Audiologist tomorrow. I wasn’t sure I would ever qualify for this surgery and when I qualified, I got scared. I didn’t know surgery would make an almost immediate change in balance and vestibular symptoms which were almost as disturbing as deafness. My brain is taking in the new signals and figuring out how to make sense of them. I love the Four Labors. Thank you, Susan.

  5. April 3, 2019 at 12:27 pm



    The process you’re going through is amazing, Elaine. I’m so glad there are tools that can help you recover some hearing. Thanks for sharing your journey so others know what’s possible.

    1. April 3, 2019 at 12:59 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thank you, Colleen. I look forward to improved hearing. It’s already much better which means I take in conversations and interesting spoken phrases and words. I missed that. There are many tasks involved with this, but as I just mentioned in a comment, there’s also a return of pleasure–and possibility.

  6. April 3, 2019 at 10:05 am

    Jean Raffa


    I love this wonderful example of how relevant the ancient myths still are today. I know this myth well, and have taught it in classes. Yet I hadn’t associated Psyche’s first trial with the repetitious, frustrating, boring, sorting process of putting my book together until you mentioned it! And to see how archetypal the relationship between Virginia and you was, as Deborah points out. Wow. I hadn’t thought of that either.

    Thank you for this reminder to engage my mythic mind, to look to the archetypal stories for the deep soul wisdom they contain. I do notice when the ants come to my rescue, and I am grateful for their help, but now I have the added blessing of remembering how this story ends: with love and the birth of pleasure and joy!

    Blessings on you in your healing process. And thank you for sharing the wisdom you’re acquiring from it.


    1. April 3, 2019 at 12:53 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      I begin with the feeling experience and then look for a familiar mythological story to help me understand. I did a blog on the Fourth Labor using an example of dealing with Virginia when her needs were dragging me under. I could work on the Second Labor from the perspective of her anger (and my own subdued but shadowy anger reaction in earlier years).

      Oh, those blessed ants! We need them so often. When you describe preparing your book, it sounds like those ants had lots to do. This, not that. Maybe this and maybe not. I find the first and fourth labor easiest to understand. The third is most mysterious, but I haven’t revisited it recently. It may soon be time–but first your manuscript (it’s here and I’m beginning today) and also my May workshop preparation full of mythological examples about grief and loss. Plus the constant on-going task of sorting sound. The ants are never out of work.

      I haven’t heard one medical audiology person mention the pleasure of sound, but I’ll tell my audiologist next week that I think they should encourage patients to not work to hear better every minute. Sometimes it’s important to remember pleasure and relax with sound, even if it’s a little odd and let this process have some effortless meditative, deep breath moments. After a day in town with traffic and grocery store coolers and other city noise, I need the healing sound of singing birds, the wind, and the gentle noises of the house. No effort. Simply wonder and gratitude that I can hear my own footsteps on the stairs.

  7. April 3, 2019 at 9:51 am

    Marian Beaman


    You have scripted a wonderful narrative of your passage through virtual silence to the hearing world, and with Venus, Eros, and Psyche to illuminate the story. My friend Helen had a cochlear implant several years ago, and she walked the streets of our neighborhood with quizzical looks sometimes. Thanks to you, I have more insight into her long struggle through the maze (surgery, audiologists and more).

    You’ll get all this sorted out, step by step, as you have with other “mountains of chaos.” Of that I am confident.

    I am thrilled that last night you heard a chorus of birds singing their joyful evening song. This line reminds me of Robert J.Morgan’s “Listen to nature’s tenured professors of praise, the birds. Hear them raise their Hallelujah Chorus.” 🙂

    1. April 3, 2019 at 12:25 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      No one has accused me of being secretive, Marian. (I need a smiley face emoticon, but don’t have those on WordPress). I hope your neighbor had good support because an implant is demanding. When the audiologist and his resident brought out bags of supplies, my eyes were wide with wonder and a touch of fear. What have I taken on here? I’m finding help with many individuals and a cochlear implant Facebook group. I ask a question about resources and get almost immediate expert answers with links to what I need–proving Facebook is good for something. Writing helps me make meaning of what I’m going through. I relate to Psyche’s exhaustion and feeling that she can’t do each task.

      I love Morgan’s line and thank you for sharing it. For now, I’ll let the birds be professors of praise. In time, I hope I can add human voices to the praise choir. (A chorus of “My Sweet Lord” just sailed through memory.)

  8. April 2, 2019 at 11:53 am

    Deborah Gregory


    That you so willingly share your knowledge and wisdom Elaine is pure inspiration to me! I have learnt, and for as long as you write, will continue to learn much from your beautiful posts! Thank you so much for your kind-hearted words re my April poem. Might you follow this post up (in time) with the second of Psyche’s labours? Oh, I would look forward to that! x

    1. April 3, 2019 at 12:02 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      To work on the Second Labor, I’ll need a fresh example involving harnessing the power and gold of wild dangerous aggression. Or I can use an old example and that would work, too. Hmmm…

  9. April 2, 2019 at 10:09 am

    Deborah Gregory


    Dear Elaine, It’s so heartening to hear that any or all previous sorting tasks we may have undertaken earlier in our lives, will be of huge benefit when we are presented with yet another symbolic bag of mixed seeds, years later. I’m so pleased to know that you’re slowly recovering and slowly sorting out your current tasks. On reflection, as a poet I sense that I’m often given a task which I must complete before I can move on, this year I feel summoned to write a nature poem for each month of the year in order to learn more about the deeper rhythms and tempos (above & below) of the seasons.

    How relevant the myths are today! And with Hale’s impressive painting I couldn’t help but think of Virginia and yourself (through a mythological lens) in Venus and Psyche’s roles. For better than most, you came to know there was no love stronger than the love between a mother and her son. I’m sure this is all ringing bells with you as Virginia fought hard to keep her place as a most beautiful goddess in the universe, and must have been furious when she realised she was being usurped by a beautiful, gentle maiden! And so, the impossible sorting tasks began in order to earn wisdom. Love and light, Deborah.

    1. April 2, 2019 at 10:30 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      As you can tell, Psyche’s Four Labors are dear to me. The first is the easiest to grasp. They get more and more complex and harder to understand with more elaborate images and harder jobs. The Third Labor is still most mysterious to me. I love your monthly poems as a way of sorting and making order of nature’s yearly cycle. Aphrodite in your April poem is far different from the Aphrodite/Venus in Eros and Psyche.

      I always think of Virginia’s as I work with Eros and Psyche. I began studying it around 1990, so had a long time to ponder the role of mother-in-law and jealousy. Vic was an only child and certainly Virginia’s Son-Lover, even if unconsciously. His memory of reaching adolescence was a desperate need to escape–and he did in many ways. I hope I’m more conscious with my two sons, but I’m sure those shadows lurk around. You might remember I wrote about Virginia in the context of the Fourth Labor where Psyche is instructed to ignore desperate hands reaching out for her as she crosses the River Styx. Our class grappled with the meaning of this many years ago, but understood there are times when our soul demands we save ourselves. Thank you for your reflections and love and beautiful poetry.

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