Postcards from Summer Myth Camp

Overhead in the dining hall, early in the week: “Unicorns are in now, didn’t you know?”

Text message from Michaelle during lecture break: “What’s name for creature that evokes lust? ;;) not a succubus… Not Dionysus follower… Must be something like that”

Jeffrey Kripal, on a semiotic approach to the paranormal: “Anomalies mean something. They’re messages. If you believe them, you’re in trouble. If you explain them, you’re in trouble. If you listen to them, you’re on the right track.”

A student talking on her cell phone, smiling: “Love is always more fun.”

A neuroscientist named Tulving, quoted on a PowerPoint slide: “The imagination of the future can override stories of the past.”

In the dining hall, Thursday afternoon:
Amber: Persephone’s a little ditzy.
Rachel: Uh, I don’t think so!!
Olivia: Well becoming the Queen of the Underworld kind of negates the ditziness.
Rachel: Excuse me, were you guys not listening?? She didn’t BECOME the Queen of the Underworld, she always WAS. Chris was very clear on that!
Olivia: Oh, I have a bone to pick with that.
Rachel: Ok I did my fucking paper on fucking Persephone and there’s a whole book on how Persephone was ALWAYS the Queen of the fucking UNDERWORLD!!

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This Side of the Veil, with Lipstick

My local library runs a program that matches people like me with senior citizens who want library books but can’t get out and about on their own, so I’ve been the book courier for a woman named Barbara since last year. I visit her in the nursing home every few weeks to pick-up and drop-off, and to sit and talk for awhile. Normally it’s a light, friendly, pleasant exchange, but last week when I stopped by, I think I visited a different plane of existence.

Barbara is all alone in the world, although you’d never know it from her cheery disposition. Her husband died years ago, her two children both died as young adults, and she has no other family left. I’m not sure how old she is; she’s mentioned being 92 and 94. She gets around with a walker, and she always wears three or four rings and bracelets. She never bothered trying to learn my name, and instead just calls me “honey.” She loves reading, but for the last few months I’ve watched age catch up with her. Her sentences often trail off into foggy distraction, and she’ll repeat herself a dozen times in one conversation. I just keep smiling and answering her same questions again and again: “Now, how have you been?” and “What are you working on?” One day almost all she could say was the title of the book I’d just brought her, And the Bridge Is Love, by Faye Moskowitz. “The bridge is love… the bridge is love… the bridge is love…”

I went to see her last Thursday. It was a day when things seemed to click and sizzle. My hair looked good, I was loving my new lipstick, and stoplights turned green as I approached. On a hunch, I decided not to take a new book with me, but just to drop by and see how she was doing with the previous title, Surprised by Joy, by C.S. Lewis. When I arrived, Barbara was sitting in her chair and reading. She looked up and beamed with delight, as though to say, “Oh, it’s you, whoever you are!” She seemed revivified, magically restored to something of her former self. In addition to her rings and bracelets, she wore a silver-spangled Fourth of July necklace, a yellow top and capris, and lovely cherry-red lipstick. My lipstick was more of a dark rose, but it was fun that we both looked sassy.

I sat down and asked how she liked the Lewis book. She said it was wonderful, just wonderful (huge smile), but she wasn’t going to want any more books because she was going on a trip. I knew perfectly well she was doing nothing of the kind, but I asked where she was going. “I’m going home,” she said, still beaming, even though we were sitting in her only home. She looked so beautiful that I couldn’t help smiling too, but the back of my neck tingled. I said, Oh, when? “Tomorrow,” she said, then she looked around the room, eyes sparkling. “I’ve loved it here, but it’s time to go.” My smile froze a little.

She said she loved life, she just loved it! She loved life, but she wasn’t going to hold onto it much longer. I asked what her favorite thing about life was. She said her favorite thing was that God is at the center. She looked around the room again and said she didn’t know what she’d do with her stuff, because she knew she couldn’t take it. Then the smile spread wide across her face and she said, “You just have to enjoy every day, every day! Well, some days you can’t enjoy, but still… Life is to be shared, shared! But people don’t spend enough time with themselves.” Then she looked right at me and said, “Do you spend time with yourself?” I nodded and said I did. She studied me for a few seconds, seeming to see me for the first time, and said, “Yes, I think you do.” Then she looked down, obviously alarmed. “What’s that blue thing on the floor?” I followed her gaze. “That’s my purse,” I said, and held it up so she could see it. “Oh!” She laughed and laughed and laughed, and kept on laughing until I laughed right along with her at the blameless blue purse I was still holding up. I’m sure the purse wondered what it had done that was so hilarious.

Soon it became clear she was done talking, so I said I’d return the Lewis book to the library for her. I asked if she was sure she didn’t want another one, and she said, “No, because of the trip. I’m going home. I won’t be able to take anything.” I said ok, but I’d check back with her next week. She ignored that and said she’d walk out with me, so I helped her stand and get situated with her walker. We hugged in the hallway. Her arms felt as light as the wings of a four-and-a-half foot bird. We parted, me heading toward the elevator and she heading deeper into the nursing home. I heard a song of some kind, so I stopped and turned around. She was traipsing down the hall with small, rapid steps, humming a tune, bobbing her head back and forth to her own music.

Was she really about to start across that last great bridge? If so, what a way to go, looking good and feeling jaunty! Or was she having an age-induced delusion, a waking dream in which she had just chatted with her own personal book-delivery woman who wore rose-colored lipstick? Who’s to say I hadn’t just dreamed of her, too? In some sense, we all dream of each other in all our encounters. And what was her meaning of the word “God”? I’ve heard that God is a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere. I’ve heard that God is love. If both definitions are right, then love is a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere. Maybe Barbara was dreaming something like that. Maybe we can all dream that dream, any time of the day or night. In any case I meant it that I will check back in on her this week. I am keenly curious about what’s next for her, and I’ll take a book along, just in case.

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Sisters, Strangers, and Serendipity

My sister Julie and I just got back from a week and a half in France and London. France was a whirl of beautiful abbeys, fabulous food, and the lilt of a lovely language. London was… something different.

Julie had to work in London, so I was on my own, and I had no agenda for my visit. Every day I got up, headed out in search of coffee, and listened for suggestions from the surroundings about what to do next. The sidewalk unrolled in front of my feet, and somehow coffee led to a museum, which led to a boat ride on the Thames, which led to the mythological marvel that is St. Paul’s, and so on, all day long.

My last day, last Saturday, was no exception. I went to my favorite coffee shop and squeezed into a seat at the communal table. I pulled out my copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, thinking I might get some homework done, but the book sparked a long and lively conversation with some retired locals at the table who had been at Oxford for English and history and philosophy. Not one of those wonderful people asked why I was studying myth, and for that I’ll love them forever. When our coffee was gone, someone said, You should go to the British Library. A chime rang in my head, the musical tone that tells me to sit up and pay attention: ting! Yes, I thought. I’ll go to the British Library.

It was a quick Tube ride; the train blinked three times and I was there. From the outside I wasn’t impressed. The building seemed boring and modern after the gorgeous piles of sculpted stone I’d grown accustomed to, but I went in anyway. The visitors’ pamphlet informed me that the Sir John Ritblat Gallery contained “some of the treasures of our world-class collection.” Manuscript treasures. Bookish treasures. I headed that way and paused at the threshold of a cool, dimly lit room.

Now, I need to tell you that once upon a time, when I was ten years old, I read a book that shaped my life. Actually my sister Jane tricked me into reading it, much against my will. She was twenty-four (therefore bigger than I), and one day she sat on me to keep me from escaping while she read the book out loud, starting with page one. I writhed and yelled and fought this fate with all my might for many pages, and only quieted down when I couldn’t struggle anymore. I lay there, spent and squished, and finally started listening because there was nothing else to do. Soon I was listening because I wanted to, and then because I was ensorcelled. The story felt so strange and so familiar, both at once. The rest of the world fell away until Jane reached the end of a chapter and said, casually, “That’s probably enough for now.” I caught the book as it fell from her hands. I ran away with it. I devoured it. I dreamed about it. I read it and re-read it, dozens of times. It’s the reason I studied literature, and a big reason I’m preoccupied with myth-making today.

So, back to the library. I stepped inside Sir John Ritblat’s room and my eyes adjusted to the low light. Everyone spoke in whispers if at all, shuffling from display case to display case to see the Magna Carta, Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, Shakespeare’s first folio, and original copies of literary works from long before typing. The pages themselves were the only things lit in the shadowy room, which gave them the effect of glowing. And sure enough, there it was, the book for which my sister sat on me, the keystone of my personal mythology, glowing brighter than everything else: the fair copy manuscript of Jane Eyre in Charlotte Brontë’s handwriting. The first one. The original. Over a hundred and fifty years ago, Brontë traveled into the land of imagination, and this was the grail she brought back. This was the artifact that would carry generations into imagination along with her.

A small placard on the wall cleared its throat and mentioned that seeing a manuscript in the author’s hand could be an emotional experience. Leave it to the Brits to post a warning of impending emotion, but yes. Reading words formed with pen and ink makes the author’s voice almost audible. And the manuscript was open to the page where Jane (Eyre) says, “Excellent!–Now you are small–not one whit bigger than the end of my little finger.” Of course we’re going to get choked up there. Just think if it had been open to Chapter 23: “A splendid Midsummer shone over England: skies so pure, suns so radiant…” That might have been too much, even for me. (No, I could take it!) But the best part was a deletion Brontë had made, four or five lines crossed out with neat backward slashes. Reading the passage with and without that section, I felt like I was experiencing her thoughts and responses: the calm certainty that the text was stronger without those lines, a hiss of exasperation that they had made it to the page in the first place and had survived until so soon before publication.

As I walked away, a shiver ran through me. I’m a fan of libraries anyway, but wow, this one took it to a whole new level. The documents there have shaped all of us, and they were displayed like the sacred relics they are. London may lack the elegance and culinary grace of France, but I felt like I found a spiritual home there, a place of shared and celebrated values, thanks to the finely choreographed cooperation of sisters, coffee-drinking strangers, and Sir John Ritblat. I wonder if they operate in some sort of cabal. If so, might they be hiring would-be conspirators, entry-level shapers of serendipity? Not that they would ever tell, and not that it matters. I will go back someday, with or without the sponsorship of a secret society.

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Love Letter to Blue

I’ve been encountering the color Blue with some frequency lately, especially in dreams, and something happened when I was in California for class last weekend that changed the way I relate to Blue. I’ve always loved Blue, but until last weekend, I would have said, “I’ve always loved blue.” Feel the difference? I’ll try to explain.

Last Saturday I attended a lecture about dream work by Stephen Aizenstat. Dr. Aizenstat is a psychologist for whom not only the waking world is animated by soul (i.e. a tree is a being with soul, a house is a being with soul, a rock is a being with soul), but the dreaming world also is populated by soulful beings. For him, dream images exist as entities in their own right, fully as much manifestations of the natural world as you or I, and fully as much ensouled. His dream work is less about analysis and interpretation than about establishing and tending relationships with the images in dreams.

The lecture was in one of the school’s classrooms, with maybe twenty people attending. Early on, Dr. Aizenstat asked if anyone had a dream image they’d like to talk about, and I raised my hand and asked what it meant if a color recurred in dreams. He asked a few follow-up questions. I told him the color was blue, and that I loved it. He asked about my childhood associations with it, and I said the sky, birds, a blue crayon. He asked what it felt like in the dreams, and I said there was a sense of vastness and spaciousness. Then he asked if I wanted to work this image, to help him demonstrate his method of dream work to the group. Not knowing what I was in for, I said sure. He had me go up to the front of the room and sit in a chair beside him. Our chairs were situated at angles, directly facing neither the audience nor each other. In spite of that, he locked onto a tractor-beam eye contact with me that he only broke a few times to turn to the audience and say something like, “See what just happened?”

My memory of the conversation isn’t linear or temporal, not in the way of clocks and calendars. It’s more oceanic and dreamlike, but I think he asked me to imagine what blue felt like in my body. I described it as an invisible sparkle in my torso. He brought up the vastness and spaciousness again, and he mentioned the title of the Joseph Campbell book, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. I said I loved that. He said Why? I said, Because it reminds me of the spiral, which is my favorite symbol, the way it shows the path to the infinity within and the infinity without, all the way out into the universe. It goes forever in both directions. It’s my map to the eternal.

At some point during all this I began to feel the presence of blue not just in my body but in the room. It was a palpable field all around but strongest from the floor up, about to the level of my waist, and Dr. Aizenstat was speaking a language of shamanistic wisdom: Meet blue in the way of blue, and Blue moves things, it has a life of its own, and Water turns all things to soul. I was in a wide-eyed and multi-layered mode of consciousness — tingling, vibrant, but calm, too. He asked me what I could offer to blue, what I could give it. Without thinking or planning, I heard myself say, “I would give it everything.” The presence of blue grew stronger, more tactile, more blue. I was awash in it, and I was staring into Dr. Aizenstat’s eyes, and he was staring into mine, and he said, “Wow.” Everything held still except for blue breathing its blue breath. I said, “Do you feel that buoyancy?” He said, “Yes.” That was the moment when blue became Blue.

If you’ve ever read this blog before, I hope you know about my love of the imaginal realm, and how deeply I value the invisible dimension of experience. But I’m telling you, this was altogether different, this mutual imagining, soul to soul, and sharing the experience with the souls of other people. It was intimate. It was erotic, by which I mean Eros burst in and emptied his quiver into my open heart. There was no way to keep from falling in love, with Blue and Dr. Aizenstat and everyone in the room.

Afterwards, one of my first “normal” thoughts was, “What the hell did that mean, I’d give Blue everything?” I think I was afraid Blue would want my car, or my house, or God forbid, my stash of notebooks. But on the way home — during a long layover at the San Francisco airport, in fact — I realized Blue isn’t interested in that kind of everything. Blue wants to imbue. It wants to touch and tint all the magic that always happens: play, desire, pain, pleasure, joy, sorrow, love. Blue’s everything is life itself, and I strongly suspect that whatever it’s given becomes a reciprocal gift, poured back and forth and back and forth, a thousand times a thousand times, in a thousand luminous shades of Blue.

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Rolling Up My Dream-Sleeves

One of my current school assignments is to “engage creatively” with one of my own dream images. I chose a dream I had a few years ago, which I remembered like this:

I’m walking down a glass corridor — glass floor, walls, and ceiling, but it’s dark outside. At the end, the hallway opens out onto a vast, starry field. Right in front of me is a huge transparent fetus, outlined in pale blue against the darker background.

Ok, first of all, we’re not talking about a literal pregnancy. Dreams happen in the realm of soul, so this is a soul baby. It’s new life in the world of the psyche, i.e. the inner world, i.e. the invisible world. So the image suggests things like growth, development, and imminence. The vast dimensions of the baby mean that all those associations take on a certain vastness as well. That fits with an excerpt from the first freewrite I did about the dream, imagining a conversation between the fetus and me:

Child: It’s about love. It’s about bigger love than you ever thought possible, given and received.
Joanna: How does one prepare for that?
Child: By loving, and by letting yourself be loved. I’m the child of the universe. And you’re part of the universe. Everyone is. That means I’m the child of everyone. All of you. Are you ready?

Are we ready? Hm. Lots to think about there. But then it occurred to me that I should go back to my journal and find the original dream. It was on September 16, 2010:

a long dim tunnel, at the end clear glass above, on both sides & straight ahead with a view into a huge dark blue space that is apparently a womb with placenta & fetus transparent but outlined in light light blue, not quite white. Tom Brokaw had died of a heart attack and so was doing public service announcements sitting in a chair wearing a dark blue fleece jacket covered with travel patches saying that the best way to avoid a heart attack is to love and be loved.

The details changed in my memory, and I’d forgotten about the ghost of Tom Brokaw. He’s an image of a wise old man, a voice trusted by millions, a figure who’s been all over the world and learned a thing or two, a representative of an older generation (older way of being) which is now ending and making way for the new. And he said nearly the same thing as the child in the writing exercise. All that love stuff is coming through loud and clear, yeah? I’m thinking the fetus is an image of vast new life and vast new love — love’s great capacity and potential on both the visible and invisible wavelengths.

And isn’t it marvelous how dreams weave the visible and invisible together? The visible alone is flat and inert, and the invisible alone is, well, invisible. But dreams use images derived from the waking world to create pictures of what’s going on below the surface, where normal instruments of measurement and analysis break down every time.

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California Dreaming

This semester one of my classes is called “Dreams, Visions, Myths,” and at our last class we learned about how dreams were “incubated,” or induced, in ancient Greece in temples of Asclepius, the god of healing. People visited these temples hoping to be cured of various ailments. After a ritual bath and sacrifice, they were led into the temple to a stone slab where they would sleep that night. The hope was to receive a healing dream and leave the temple cured the following morning. An inscription at an Asclepieium in Africa reads, “Go in good, come out better.” (See Healing Dream and Ritual by C.A. Meier for more.)

So I was sitting there in class, taking notes as fast as I could because it was all so fantastic, and next thing I knew the teacher said, “We’re going to incubate some dreams now and see what happens.” She had us push back all the chairs, and we each got a blanket to spread out on the floor, just like in kindergarten. Then she turned out the lights, and led us — single-file and silent — out the room by one door, around the building, and back into the room by another door. We lay down, each on our own blanket, and she talked us through a guided meditation where we were to imagine we were on stone slabs in a temple. Then she stopped talking, and the room was quiet for half an hour.

I lay there thinking, This is fun, but come on, are we really supposed to dream? In half an hour? Lying on a hardwood floor somewhere in California? And so on and so forth, and next thing I knew, right over the mental chatter, something happened. I don’t know whether to call it dream or vision or imagination, but it was definitely visual, it occurred in the realm of the inner eye, and it wasn’t consciously willed. Here’s how I scribbled it into my notebook right afterwards:

I’m in a dark area. Behind me someone reaches forward and hands me something. Without turning around I reach back and take it, like a baton in a relay race. But it’s not a baton, it’s a stoppered vial. I open it and a pale blue mist rushes up and takes the shape of a beautiful woman. She smiles at me, leans down, cradles my jaw with both hands, and kisses my lips. Then she envelops me, the mist is all around my body, then it flows in through my skin. I exhale into the vial, exhaling the pale blue mist. I put the stopper back on the vial, and hand it forward, to another hand, this one reaching back toward me out of the darkness.

In my memory, the mist tingled inside my body, and the blue woman was really happy to see me. It felt fantastic, and it was clear that it was to be shared. So, here you go. Yours can be the hand that receives the vial next, if you’re so inclined.

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Another Reason to Love Joseph Campbell

From The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell:

The two worlds, the divine and the human, can be pictured only as distinct from each other–different as life and death, as day and night. … Nevertheless–and here is a great key to understanding myth and symbol–the two kingdoms are actually one. The realm of the gods is a forgotten dimension of the world we know. And the exploration of that dimension, either willingly or unwillingly, is the whole sense of the deed of the hero.

Oh yes. This is precisely why “realism” feels so flat to me: it willfully persists in forgetting about the sublime. Or worse, it pretends no such thing exists. Yuck. That’s no way to live.

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Goddesses and Southwest Airlines

I made it through the fall semester! My final papers had to be postmarked by December 27, a barbaric deadline about which I still harbor resentment. Because did I finish early so I could relax and enjoy the holidays? No. I was at the post office on the 27th with my three manila envelopes, and now the homework for winter semester has already begun. Before I get too busy, though, I want to tell you about an encounter I had with the goddess Kali.

First, some backstory. Last fall I studied several Hindu goddesses, including Kali, who is fearsome. Her skin is black, sometimes blue-black, and blood drips from her bared fangs. She has four arms. In one hand she brandishes a bloodied sword, and in the hand below that she holds a severed head. Another hand is raised in the “fear not” gesture, and another is extended, offering boons. They say she uses the sword to slay demons and to cut away whatever we don’t need, what holds us back, especially the ego nonsense symbolized by the severed head–all that thinky self-talk that paralyzes us. Kali is powerful and complex, and despite her alarming appearance, she is very much on our side.

Ok, so when I was in California for class last December, I thanked my Hindu Traditions professor for recommending one particular book about goddesses. He said, “I’m glad you like it. Which goddesses have you met so far?” I said, “Durga and Lakshmi, and I’m about to get acquainted with Kali.” A few days later, after the session was over, I boarded the plane from Los Angeles to Chicago. It was a Southwest flight, which meant open seating, and by some December miracle the flight wasn’t full. I took an aisle seat in a row with an empty middle seat, and an African-American woman sitting by the window. The woman wore a red and black tunic with a tribal-looking design. We said hello-hello, and isn’t it nice to have all this space? I offered her some of the cashews I was just opening. She said No thanks, she’d been eating almonds and was sick of them. I said, Well if you get hungry for cashews you know where they are. Then we left each other alone. I had some papers to read, and when I looked up, a few hours had gone by.

The woman and I started chatting again. She told me she was on her way home from Maui. She’d been on a pilgrimage to a healing site on top of a mountain, a place where a rainforest waterfall spilled down through seven successive pools, and the energy was electric. She’d also been to a small temple where a Hindu monk and his wife lived, and she’d participated in a ritual called Ho’oponopono. She taught me a little of it. She said, “Say, ‘I forgive myself, I accept myself, I love myself, I bless myself.’” So I said all that with her. She kept going, telling me about how she’d been swimming in the ocean with whales and how angry she was about the dolphins dying in Florida, until finally, when the flight was nearly over, I said, “What do you do? What’s your work?” She said she was a natural healer. I thought, Huh, how bout that. Then on an impulse I said, “My name’s Joanna. What’s your name?” She said, “Kali.”

I gasped, and I’m sure my face showed my shock. Evidently in reply, she said, “Yeah, like the goddess.” Then I managed to speak, and out it all babbled, about how I was studying Hindu goddesses and was just about to read about Kali. The woman nodded, entirely unsurprised, and said, “I wondered if there wasn’t something going on when you sat down and were so friendly.” I spluttered something else, still staring in open astonishment at her Kali-esque skin and the Kali colors of her tunic, and she said, “Yeah, and it’s extra weird, because I was named after my great-grandmother Kali, who was a slave, and delivered me, and there wasn’t even a k-sound in her tribal language.” I spluttered further, and she said, “You know what, I’m going to put your name in the ocean.” At that I finally put a sentence together and said, “I’m going to hold your name in my heart!”

Then the flight was over. When I got home I opened the book about goddesses, and sure enough, I had stopped reading on the first page of the Kali chapter, the page with those four letters blazoned across the top, K-A-L-I. Kali, the goddess who was a woman who was a goddess. She sat next to me for four hours. She’s a healer. She put my name in the ocean. I’ll bet anything she’d do the same for you. All you have to do is ask.

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Uncle!

I’ve been meaning to post something here for a month and a half now, but homework and everything else have left me no mental space for blogging. Nor are things apt to improve anytime soon. I leave for Europe later this week, and I’m not even taking my computer with me! How’s that for rotten blogging practice? So I’m waving the white flag and surrendering all blog aspirations for the rest of the year. Check back in January, and in the meantime I hope to post things on Facebook once in awhile. Maybe I’ll see you over there.

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My Kind of Physics

From How Philosophers Saved Myths: Allegorical Interpretation and Classical Mythology, by Luc Brisson, trans. by Catherine Tihanyi:

Love, as any philosopher knew, is the principle that enables the cohesion of the elements with each other so as to form the universe.

That’s my favorite sentence in the whole book. Maybe my favorite sentence ever.

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