The Secret Life of a Glass of Wine

Once upon a timeless time, on an island called Crete in the Mediterranean Sea, there lived a woman named Ariadne. One day she fell in love with a guy named Theseus and gave him a skein of string. Her idea was to have him unspool the string as he wound his way through a labyrinth to kill a monster at the center, after which he would turn around and follow the string back out to safety. Theseus was all for it even though concocting the scheme would have been far beyond his mental powers. Alas, when the deed was done, his valiant but scanty brain cells forgot to take Ariadne with him when he sailed back home to Athens.

Ariadne was standing on the beach, watching the ship disappear and wondering how she had fallen for such an outrageous airhead, when a gleaming chariot swooped down from the sky drawn by a pair of panthers. Holding the reins was no mere pin-up boy, preoccupied with flexing his mortal thews, but instead it was a god. It was Dionysus, one of the twelve great shining ones of the mighty Greek pantheon, and he was thrilled to find Ariadne. He leaped from the chariot, took her hands in both of his, and spoke in a voice that made her bones tingle. Come with me to Olympus, love. That’s where you belong. She replied, Are those panthers?? He gave her a wink and said, They’ll carry us to heaven if you’re willing. She cast one last glance over the empty ocean, turned back to the glory of Dionysus, and then she said, Yes.

256px-Pittoni_Bacchus_and_AriadneHe kissed her hands and off they went. As a wedding present he gave her a fabulous crown which he later turned into stars. As the story goes, they loved each other ever after. You heard that right. Dionysus was the only one of the Greek gods who was able to handle commitment. What’s more, there are those who believe that in earlier times, Ariadne was a powerful goddess in her own right. If that’s the case, the story shows Dionysus raising the diminished goddess back to her rightful status. He’s also the god who gave us the gift of wine. So when you swirl a pinot noir in the belly of a wine glass, you’re swirling more than just a beverage. You’re swirling the spirit of Dionysus.

Who exactly is this swirling spirit? Well, Dionysus relishes life. He’s fun and he’s intense, with a spontaneity and exuberance that the other gods lack. He’s playful, faithful, raucous, ebullient. And remember, he’s immortal, so all his traits have divine proportions and nothing about him is bounded by time. We’re talking about spontaneity so powerful that it’s a religious experience, exuberance so profound as to become holy, and playfulness so deep as to render the passage of hours irrelevant. Dionysus can lift our moribund moods with his sacred zest, the way he lifted Ariadne.

Wine, however, like Dionysus, is strong, and it’s complex. It’s not a beverage for quenching thirst. It’s an elixir that demands respect. The right amount is an infusion of joy, but too much is a plunge into oblivion and regret. Wine can heighten celebration, stimulate conversation, and deepen friendship, but it can also deaden feelings, darken depression, and damage relationships. Remember the panthers who drew the chariot? Harnessed, they speed the journey of the soul. Unchecked, they can kill. Dionysus demonstrates the knack of harnessing.

vino A glass of wine is a living thing, in the literal, biological sense, animated by the microorganisms that fermented the juice. It’s also a living thing in the senses of the imagination, exactly the way Dionysus is, so it doesn’t matter whether you actually drink wine or not. The idea alone honors his spirit and makes it easy to imagine partaking of life with the same enthusiasm as the shining one who cherishes and champions the goddess.

So whether the glass in your hand is literal, imaginal, or maybe even both at once, look into those jeweled tones. Inhale the bouquet. Swirl the wine until it’s dizzy, but most of all, listen. Can you hear the sacred question posed, to you and you alone? Can you hear the invitation? If you’re willing, if you say Yes, then lift the glass. Sip that spirit into yourself and savor the liquid epiphany, because the true gift of Dionysus is that he can take us all to heaven anytime we let him.

“By manifesting the sacred…”

“But for those to whom a stone reveals itself as sacred, its immediate reality is transmuted into a supernatural reality. In other words, for those who have a religious experience all nature is capable of revealing itself as cosmic sacrality. The cosmos in its entirety can become a hierophany.”

— Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, page 12

Viewer’s Guide to Into the Woods, FAQ

Q: I want to file charges against this movie for story abuse.
A: Uh-oh, what happened? Better start at the beginning.

Q: The film abducted four fairy tales — “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Cinderella,” “Rapunzel,” and “Jack and the Beanstalk.” It sucked the soul out of all of them, forced them to do its bidding, and left their undead corpses to wander the forest. That’s four counts each of story kidnapping and vampirism.
A: But isn’t entering the woods a time-honored way to show the process of transformation?

Q: Only if somebody transforms! At the end of this thing Cinderella says, “I actually enjoy cleaning sometimes.” I thought I was going to somersault backwards, right into the lap of the woman sitting behind me. Seriously, Cinderella enjoys cleaning? Setting aside the obvious feminist commentary, the whole point of Cinderella is that she hates cleaning. If you’ve got a Cinderella who likes cleaning, and she is in a situation where she gets to do exactly that, you do not have a story! Furthermore, for transformation to happen, someone has to leave the woods eventually. This movie ends with the remaining characters still in the forest and sitting on a giant log, which is a fine metaphor for the piece of you-know-what we’re dealing with here.
A: Easy, kiddo. Just the facts, please. Maybe the filmmakers were having a harmless bit of fun with fairy tale tropes.

Q: Maybe, if harmless fun means draining the power out of some of the most luminous imagery in the fairy tale world. Red Riding Hood’s cloak, for instance, instead of vibrating with raw life force and the potential for creation that so often settles around the shoulders of a girl-turning-into-a-woman, is an incidental sleeveless jacket that Red hands over to the baker, just because why not. Rapunzel’s hair is nothing more than a length of rope, rather than the cascade of silken curls that shows how beauty and libido can burst forth when you try to imprison them. And the glass slipper is supposed to suggest transparency, destiny, and the miraculous aspect of walking one’s true path. Here it’s an opaque shoe that looks like somebody stopped by Payless to pick it up on the way home. Sure, there are a few overt, ham-handed metaphors — yes, the wolf is a sexual predator; yes, mothering can be overwhelming and crushing for a child (this movie has *giant* mommy issues, pun intended) — but not one of the metaphors points beyond itself to the great mystery from which it all rises. Also Captain Kirk staggers around half-drunk in all his scenes.
A: Oh come on, it was funny when he and the blond bohunk ripped their shirts open and sang the “We’re Awesome” song.

Q: It was called “Agony.”
A: So it was. …Nothing? Not even a smile?

Q: Fine, that scene was funny. But what about the random, pointless, emotionless deaths? When death means nothing, then life means nothing, and that right there is the worst possible lie to peddle. Stories are supposed to tell lies in order to tell the truth. This movie lies in order to lie. I’m telling you, this is flagrant disregard for magic and meaning not only in fairy tales, but also in life itself. In fact it’s worse than story abuse. This film is a crime against mythology.
A: All righty, that’s enough for an investigation. I’ll be honest with you, though — don’t expect a lot of follow-up. Our detectives are stretched pretty thin, and these jokers would plead out for a lesser charge, guaranteed. Probably something like negligent imagination, or petty fictionalizing. Maybe endangering the welfare of a plotline, but even that’s just a fine and a lecture from the judge.

Q: I’d like to prop their eyelids open with forks and make them watch “The Power of Myth” fifty times, back to back.
A: You work on that. Maybe the CIA can help. All I’m doing is filing the report.

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.