Àshe, Itutu, and #BlackLivesMatter

Unarmed black men have been dying in the streets at the hands of cops who are supposed to protect them. This betrayal of justice, civil rights, and fundamental morality has been going on since forever, but now it feels like things might actually change, and I think it’s in part because of how eloquent and effective so much of the protest response has been. These protests, coincidentally, have also been deeply resonant with the spirituality of the Yoruba people of West Africa, from whom many slaves in the Americas were descended. It all feels so interconnected, and the Yoruban ideas are so beautiful and inspiring that I’ve just got to talk about them. All the quotes in this post are from a scholar named Robert Farris Thompson, whose work I highly recommend.

So, here we go. The Yoruba might describe recent events as àshe in action. Àshe is difficult to translate into English, but I like Thompson’s description of it as “spiritual command, the power-to-make-things-happen, God’s own enabling light rendered accessible to men and women.” In other words, àshe is the capacity to bring about change. It’s active, energetic, and bright.

By itself, àshe is morally neutral. As I understand it, you could even say that the cops who killed Eric Garner and Michael Brown were exercising àshe. Protestors who lie down in public places are also exercising àshe, but theirs has to do with another spiritual value of the Yoruba as well, this one called itutu. Itutu is also difficult to translate, but it’s a mystic kind of coolness, an unflappable calm, a “transcendental balance.” To me it sounds a lot like wisdom. It’s associated with the colors blue and green, so it’s quieter than àshe, more contained, darker. It isn’t active so much as it is reflective and receptive. The expression on this sculpture is a great example of what a person with itutu looks like:

Yoruba-bronze-head

The Yoruba have rituals to restore coolness to situations that have grown too hot. The rituals often involve water and fresh herbs, and they seek to access “the divine source of the power to heal,” or “the center from which all harmony comes.” This divine source, this harmonious center, is, quite simply, love. One person can cool the heart of another through love, restoring her to serenity. A group can calm another group through love, and loving wisdom can even cool an entire nation. Yoruba coolness also links healing with good government.

See what I mean about these ideas being so beautiful? But wait, there’s more. So far we have àshe, or the capacity to change the world, and we have itutu, or the mystic blue coolness of wisdom and love. Light and dark, hot and cold, active and receptive. Each of these dualities begs for balance. But now let’s add one more ingredient: generosity. For the Yoruba, generosity is the highest form of morality, and good character combines coolness and gentle generosity. What happens when we put it all together? Thompson says:

To the degree that we live generously and discreetly, exhibiting grace under pressure, our appearance and our acts gradually assume virtual royal power. As we become noble, fully realizing the spark of creative goodness God endowed us with… we find the confidence to cope with all kinds of situations. This is àshe. This is character. This is mystic coolness.

This is also spiritual maturity. It’s missing in a justice system that protects institutionalized homicide. It’s missing in an economic system that widens the gap between rich and poor by under-taxing corporations and rich individuals, and by refusing to raise the minimum wage. This system promotes poverty, which promotes crime, which promotes racism and police brutality. It suffers from a lethal deficiency of itutu and generosity.

But change is stirring, right now. By lying down in public places, raising their arms in the air, and using the words “I Can’t Breathe,” protestors are mirroring back to the police, the nation, and the world what is going on. A mirror is receptive and reflective. It reports what’s in front of it calmly and coolly. It has itutu. The action, or àshe, of these protests is guided by that wisdom, and as a result the protests send a profoundly powerful and moving message, and all of us watching the news fall in love with all those gorgeous protestors. This is not to say there is no rage involved. Far from it. Rage fuels the action, and wisdom channels that energy into spine-tingling, galvanizing communication.

Video cameras can also balance àshe and itutu. Like a mirror, a camera is calm and receptive, and it records action so that cool heads and hearts can make wise decisions about how to deal with it. Body cameras on cops might help, but not if it’s cops who decide when to push the “record” button. I’m thinking more of smartphones and social media. Unlike any other time in history, basically all bystanders have the technology in hand to record high-quality evidence of police action and make it available to the world instantly. Also, by “cool heads and hearts,” I mean independent prosecutors for police crime. Àshe can’t be expected to regulate itself, and if it flares out of control, the restorative wisdom of itutu needs to come from an outside, unbiased perspective.

At this point àshe and itutu have worked their way into my imagination, and as I may have mentioned once or twice I have big feelings about the imagination. I consider it to be a conduit for change, the way wire carries electricity: first your ideas change, then you start acting on them and turning them into reality. In this case the electricity behind the words àshe and itutu is changing the way we respond to state-sanctioned murder. Now it’s time to imagine that electricity making this nation a place where the Declaration of Independence is as true in practice as it is in spirit, and black men really do have full rights to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Because YES #BlackLivesMatter, and YES this bullshit from the cops has got to stop.

Mythological Online Dating

Once upon a time awhile ago, I downloaded the dating app Tinder and set about swiping through photos of Gentlemen and Neanderthals. The next day, one of my “matches” texted. He was more articulate than the knuckle-draggers out there, but it seemed we weren’t going to connect. I thought, Whatever, and I didn’t text him the following day. The day after that, he sent this:

“Dear Daphne, I want you to know that i understand you try to maintain a respectable distance, but remember what happens: ‘a heavy numbness seized her limbs, thin bark closed over her breasts, her hair turned into leaves, her arms into branches, her feet so swift a moment ago stuck fast in slow-growing roots, her face was lost in the canopy. Only her shining beauty was left’ your choice is to face my ardor or become arbor. Yours in hot pursuit, Apollo”

Well. I don’t receive texts like that every day, let me tell you. He made me laugh, that’s 10 points right there; he cited a book, that’s another 10 for a total of 20 so far; and the book he cited was Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for a cool 10,000 points, enough for him to sail past the threshold required for a return text, with even a few points to spare. It was like the old Olivia Newton John song: “Let’s get mythical, mythical, I wanna get mythica-a-a-l…”

So yes, let’s get mythical. Especially since “Apollo” typed only seven lines of a five-page story. What he left out is that, having just slain the Python, the Roman god Phoebus (Apollo to the Greeks) swaggers around with his bow and arrows and makes fun of Cupid’s arrows for merely being able to “spark a bit of love.” Cupid takes umbrage at the sun god behaving like such a jerk and shoots two arrows: a golden one at Phoebus to fill him with love for the nymph Daphne, and a lead one at Daphne that makes her reject love. Phoebus chases, Daphne runs, and just when he’s about to grab her, she prays to her father, a river-god, to change her shape. Dad turns her into a laurel tree, but Phoebus loves her still. He kisses the tree and claims it as his own, and declares that it shall never drop its leaves the way other trees do, but will always keep its loveliness.

Juicy stuff. But the story is not about humans, right? In the text, the characters are taller than mortals and more beautiful. Their skin glows and their eyes don’t just reflect light but actually shine. They represent deep energies at work in the psyche. They are inhabitants of the domain of soul, aka the imaginal realm.

In this place of larger-than-life and more-than-real, Cupid is the god of love, or, the energy of divine love. This energy operates from above — outside the scene of most of the action. And don’t powerful forces sometimes work on us from outside? Phoebus, meanwhile, is a god of light, shot by a golden arrow (bright, beautiful, incorruptible) which gives him a passion for connection. And yet he moves around on the ground, so he is an image of the divinity of earthly love. Daphne is a nymph, a nature spirit, and she is shot by a lead arrow (dull, heavy, toxic) which fills her with alarm at the thought of connection. She is an earth-dwelling ego driven by empty fears that slow her down and stop her in her tracks.

Those are the players. Here is their play: Cupid (divine love) sets in motion a scenario where Phoebus (earthly love) pushes Daphne’s (the ego’s) resistance to the breaking point. Phoebus won’t take no for an answer, because sometimes the soul doesn’t care about the ego’s fear. And what happens then? Transformation! Ego can handle only so much of its own nonsense before it’s ready to change.

So Daphne turns into a tree. A tree? Yes, a tree! In a forest, a tree’s leaves and roots mingle with those of the other trees all around, exchanging chemical messages and forming a network of connections. Trees also connect heaven and earth: they take sunlight from above, turn it into sugar, and send it down into their roots; they take water from the soil and send it up into the leaves, where it evaporates into the air. Trees are a profound image of connectedness, side to side and up and down. That’s what Daphne turns into: a connected being.

Where are we so far? Divine love makes earthly love push the ego into an experience of its own connectedness. And then, when the ego transforms, the eternal radiance of the soul remains — eternal not in the sense of a clock that will keep running forever, but eternal in the sense of timelessness, of This, Right Here, the boundless Now that is the Always and the Ever. It’s the space where trees are beautiful, and where we’re present enough to realize it. That’s where Phoebus sees Daphne’s real beauty.

Phoebus changes too. For one thing he will probably think twice before making fun of Cupid again, but also the golden arrow pushes him into a deeper experience of love. Initially he just wants a hot date, but at the end of the story he loves Daphne’s essence, and his love is now nourishing; it’s a feast of photons that feeds her leaves every day. Although we should note that it was shining on her all along, regardless of her ability to relax and enjoy it.

I do wonder about Cupid’s take on the whole thing. Does he look down with self-satisfaction? Does it play out the way he knew it would, or does the tree thing surprise even him? By watching the events unfold, does he participate in them through his imagination, the way we vicariously experience our fictions? The way we participate in the great powers through our mythologies?

And what does all of it have to do with “real”-world relations? Maybe nothing. Divine energies roil and churn through us, but we’re also just people, with all our flaws and beauties. Then again, to glimpse the events of the world through the filter of myth a) is so much fun! and b) can open up the possibility of revision. Myth is always subject to rewriting, and recognizing the pattern at play is the first step in trying something different, such as pulling out the lead arrow and soaking up a little sunshine. Who knows how the story might go then?

All of which brings us back to “Apollo.” I should have sent him the preceding paragraphs the minute his message showed up, all in one gigantic text. Believe it or not, that might have simplified things! Instead I thought, Hmph! He thinks he’s a god and I’m a nymph? And I’m going to turn into a tree if I don’t cavort? We will see about that! Which meant the game was on. We met for lunch.

My mythology fetish didn’t seem to frighten him, but then again I didn’t unleash it all at once. At this point, though, we can consider it unleashed. The key thing now is that I have the intel I’ve needed all along for world domination. If anyone out there has any idea how to program things that will work on phones, let me know. It’s time to build a Mythic Tinder.

Viewer’s Guide to The Book of Mormon, FAQ

Q: Oh my heck. Am I ready for this?
A: Yes your heck! You are so ready for this. Here, have a latte. That’ll fortify your spirits.

Q: But isn’t it all singing and dancing Mormon missionaries?
A: Yes yes yes! And so much more!

Q: All right, all right. I’m ready. Tell me who among us should see this show.
A: Everyone! Absolutely everyone, all over the land. By which I mean everyone except Mom, due to extremely naughty words and extremely naughty deeds, all enacted with extremely naughty, gleeful abandon. I’m thinking in particular of the Spooky Mormon Hell Dream, which includes a marvelous scarlet Lucifer and giant dancing Starbucks cups. (How’s that latte? Sinfully rich? Wickedly energizing?)

Q: Luci-who?… What on earth are you singing?
A: “Salt–a-Lake–a-Ci–ty, where life is–n’t shit–ty…”

Q: Jesus.
A: Yes, him too! But this is Jesus like you’ve never seen him. He marches around in a glowing white robe, clearly having a terrific time. He tells one of our heroes to quit being such a dick, and he inspires another hero to man up and grow a pair.

Q: He can’t say stuff like that!
A: Hello, he’s Jesus! He can say whatever he wants! And he obviously relishes the potent imagery of male genitalia. (Get it? Potent imagery?)

Q: For pity’s sake. Is nothing sacred?
A: It’s all sacred! This show pulls off the ultimate religious feat: it suspends judgment. It sets aside both approval and disapproval, and instead celebrates human weirdness by singing and dancing and swearing like a sailor. Most of all, it is just so fucking funny!!

Q: And evidently its potty-mouth vocabulary is contagious. Well isn’t it time for one of your diatribes about liminal zones or the numinosum or similar?
A: I’ll do better than a diatribe. I’ll bear my ex-Mormon testimony that this show is doing God’s work here on earth, and I am not even kidding. The story is all about myth-making and the collision of myths; it engages in myth-making of its own; and it allows myth to be spiritual and silly, both at once. Did I mention that the villagers teach the missionaries about metaphor, and about not taking scripture literally? I literally felt dizzy with joy.

Q: …Okey-dokey. That was the last of my latte. We’re done here, yes?
A: Yes, as soon as I send a great big MWAH to Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and every single player in every single cast and crew, for channeling such affectionate and rambunctious Trickster energy. They’re culture heroes, one and all. I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but Viva la Book of Mormon!