"My Spirit Flies: Portraits and Prose of Women in Their Power" by M. Cathy Angell

A Review by Kim Allen

Although I am writing a book review of "My Spirit Flies: Portraits and Prose of Women in Their Power," by M. Cathy Angell, I want to emphasize from the start that this is not quite a book. It is (1) a compact, paged reproduction of an art exhibit, and (2) a written collection of case studies from a self-discovery process that Angell has invented and facilitates.

"So what?" you ask. "It's still a book that I can buy at a bookstore, read from cover to cover, and put on the shelf." Yes, you could do those things, but you would not fully appreciate "My Spirit Flies."

Angell has observed that for every woman, there is an activity which brings forth her personal power. When she does this activity-- which could be running, teaching, painting, or simply sitting in the forest-- she shifts into a mode of serenity, power, and beauty that emerge from within. As noted by Starfeather in the Foreword, "Picture a woman doing what she loves, being fully present, experiencing her own power... What does that look like? We have all seen her, everywhere, but have we ever really paused to consider her? She is beautiful in her self-contained power." (p. vii).

While we may have observed other women in power or even felt fleeting moments of it ourselves, we rarely understand at a conscious level what brings us to that state, or how we can achieve it deliberately. Angell has invented a collaborative process through which she helps women become cognizant of their own inner power-- the kind of power that is not possessed in relation to others or because of external factors such as money, clothing, or good looks. The process is about self-discovery, looking inside to uncover the true talents we possess independent of the daily activities that we perform because we must. This is not something we are generally encouraged to do!

It may sound like Angell is a talented psychologist or even psychotherapist (and no doubt she is), but she is also a photographer. Her gift is capturing people on film in unposed moments, and she has greatly expanded the reach of her power process by photographing women in the moment when they enter that serene and graceful state of power. Now others can see the looks on these women's faces when their other roles fall away and they are simply doing what they love. Angell's photos travel as an art exhibit.

"My Spirit Flies" is a collection of 35 of these photos, along with a few paragraphs written by each woman to say what the experience depicted in the photo means to her. There are athletes and artists and group leaders. Women who love to scale cliffs, teach, and write. They are portrayed without academic degrees or job titles, dressed in clothes that are comfortable for them (although one thing I cannot understand is why Angell marks each one by her age).

This book should not be read as a book. It is not about developing a thesis or explaining a concept. I actually made this mistake the first time I "read" it-- because it looks like a book, I expected it to draw from past intellectual concepts, rework them into something new, and defend its own relevance somehow. When you try to fit "My Spirit Flies" into this framework, it comes across as a bit New-Age and hokey, like the pseudo-feminist pop literature that praises "women's special talents" of motherhood, peace, environmental friendliness, etc.

But "My Spirit Flies" is art. It is about what is, not what used to be or what will be. It is about women who find power in simple, personal activities. Angell's pictures are compelling, as are the concise but rich paragraphs that accompany them. So compelling, in fact, that I picked up the book again and read it in a different, more meaningful way. And I keep picking it up to look again at the few women I have identified with, to see their faces and bodies so centered on the activities they are doing. Like all good art, Angell's work comes down to the personal experience of the viewer, and she has succeeded with connecting.

I haven't seen Angell's exhibit, but I imagine that these photos blown up and displayed creatively would be magnificent. If it comes to your area, don't miss the chance to see it. But the book is also valuable because you can go back and see your favorite photos again. I recommend "My Spirit Flies" not just for those who want to see women doing what they love, but for anyone who doubts that women possess immense personal power.

Copyright 1999 Kim Allen.