Before the recent election, the Dalai Lama took to the pages of the New York Times to address America’s political tumult in an article called Behind Our Anxiety, the Fear of Being Unneeded. We need to feel needed, he says. We need not to feel superfluous.
In other words, we need to feel like we matter.
When the article came out, I still floated like a dumb puppy on a cloud of complacent, liberal optimism. I thought it would be easy to accomplish what His Holiness suggests: treat people like they matter. And when you treat someone like they matter, that matters! Yay. Then the election happened, and too many people learned that they don’t matter enough to too many other people.
Mattering implies great value. The word “matter” comes from the same root as “mother,” the Latin mater. Many traditions see the earth as Mother — the nourishing womb from which we emerge, the source which sustains us through our lives.
Here’s what I believe: everything that mattered before the election matters even more now.
#BlackLivesMatter has it right. If you are treated like your life doesn’t matter, claim the truth of your mattering. If someone else is treated like they don’t matter, help them claim that same truth.
You matter. You are matter. You’re matter and energy. Einstein broke the astounding news that matter and energy are different forms of each other. Energy is super-duper active matter, and it’s exactly what the world needs. In other words, the world needs you.
Hear that clarion call, like bugles and bells? It says live like it matters, especially now, because it does.
A bunch of years ago, when I was twenty, I left the church I’d grown up in, where I’d been trained to think of God as God-the-Father: a literal, corporeal, male parent. I couldn’t reconcile that mythic system with the complexity of the rest of the world. So I bowed out, and I started rebuilding my thoughts about religion from scratch. Two ideas had strength for me. The first was, Follow your bliss because no one’s going to do it for you (thank you, Joe Campbell). The second was, You’re always allowed to change your mind.
But what was that supposed to mean — follow your bliss? I wasn’t sure what my bliss was, much less how to follow it. I decided to substitute a different word: fascination. I knew what it meant to feel the fizz of interest, and to attend closely to the people-places-parties that elicited that electricity, so I went with that.
Then I encountered complexity theory, a branch of science that studies how complicated, increasingly ordered systems emerge in the universe. These phenomena seem to thumb their collective nose at the second law of thermodynamics, which states that disorder, or entropy, always increases. Complexity theory describes the magic that happens at the edges of order and disorder, when organization gets a little chaotic, and chaos gets a little organized, and all of a sudden newness bursts forth: new planets, species, organisms, art. In his book Reinventing the Sacred, the complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman writes that “a wondrous radical creativity without a supernatural Creator” is an attribute of the universe. “God,” he says, “is our chosen name for the ceaseless creativity in the natural universe, biosphere, and human cultures.”
When I read that, my whole body seemed to ring. I rose up off the sofa, book in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. The tea began flying out of the mug, but time slowed down so much that I was able to circle the cup around the moving liquid and gather it back, still thrilling to this idea: creativity inheres in the universe. Not just in Mozart, not just in Shakespeare. In the universe, meaning everything, meaning all of us. God is that which creates, whenever creation occurs.
But God isn’t just a name for creativity. God is an image of it, too. Gods and goddesses give metaphorical form to particular inflections of the universe’s creativity. Mythic narratives illustrate these great powers at play — how they collide, contend, collaborate, commingle. For instance, the edges of order and disorder sounds like an encounter of, say, Apollo’s logic and the wildness of Dionysus, a union which Nietzsche says gave rise to Greek tragedy. Or, order could be the controlled, virginal wisdom of Athena; disorder the passion and sensuality of Aphrodite. That word, passion, sounds a lot like bliss, like fascination. When forces like those meet, newness happens, on the scale of galaxies, cells, and the individual psyche.
I was thinking about all this, and I asked my bbf (beloved boyfriend) what he thought God was. Without missing a beat, Michael said, “The zingy-zangy around everything.” See why I love him so much? He gets it.
And doesn’t “zingy-zangy” sound like bliss, like the sizzle and spark of fascination, like the fire and fuel of passion? Following bliss is the same as following the zingy-zangy, which is God, which means your bliss is God is fascination is passion is the creativity which gives rise to the emergence of new complexity.
The times I’ve experienced the zingy-zangy most profoundly have had a bodily sensation of vastness and openness, with feelings of awe, wonder, and love that extend past all horizons in all directions. These moments happen at the edges of order and disorder, in psychological places outside judgments of good and bad, right and wrong — places I experience as amazing. Or heartbreaking. Or beautiful. Places defined by intensity.
A felt sense of vast possibility pulses in the infinite space at the invisible edge, outside and all around the ordered systems of our lives. Our complex material bodies and complex, seemingly immaterial consciousness cooperate in even more complex ways that still elude understanding. Who knows what could happen when our ordered selves encounter the disorder of death? Complexity theory suggests that it could be something new, meaning we can’t predict it and it could be different for everyone. It could feel like what religions sometimes refer to as heaven.
Last month my graduate coursework ended, a three-year marathon with no breaks between quarters. The day after my last class, I woke up late and lay in bed for an hour, feeling leaden and empty, drained of emotion and motivation. I hovered at the edge of the ordered system of the previous three years, and the disorder of the unstructured future. Then ideas about this blog post started rolling around in my mind like billiard balls. Two of them connected with a satisfying thwack, and I felt the first stirrings of vitality return, a small spring of interest, energy, enthusiasm — a word whose root means “God within,” which therefore also means bliss – fascination – creativity – passion. The great zingy-zangy.
Another phenomenon that emerges in this zingy-zangy universe is agency. In other words, you get to choose how to engage with the world, with bliss, with creativity, with the same zingy-zangy that gave rise to agency in the first place. And you’re always allowed to change your mind.
As expressions of the zingy-zangy — children of it, so to speak — we are invited to play with it. All it takes is the merest time-out, a tiny break in the hypnosis of thought, a sliver of silence to listen for tingle, to feel for the fizz, to savor the sparkle that infuses your being.
Shh… there it is. Do you feel it? Open to it. Sink into it. Let it have you. Now smile. Feel the shimmer strengthen? Feel it twinkle? That’s your bliss. That’s creativity. It’s the great zingy-zangy smiling back.
Once upon a time, King Pentheus of the Greek city of Thebes worked himself into a froth, because a new god named Dionysus had called the city’s women into the hills for drinking, dancing, and love-making. Pentheus could not abide this, especially the female revelers.
“When women get to celebrate with gleaming wine,” he fumed, “there’s a ritual that’s gone rotten.” He jailed all the truant wives he could find, swore to hunt down the others, to “capture them in iron traps,” then to sell them or enslave them himself. But first he felt oddly compelled to find a stranger who had arrived in town, a man with flowing, perfumed, golden curls and “rosy, wine-flushed cheeks.”
The thought of this effeminate stranger filled Pentheus with rage. He had to find him, would find him, did find him. He handcuffed and interrogated the stranger, then, shaken by the stranger’s uncanny replies and otherworldly gaze, threw him in the palace jail. But the stranger was Dionysus in disguise. And Dionysus is the life force personified, along with all his women — his maenad companions. Pentheus, in his fury, forcibly suppressed the life force. He tried to contain, control, and silence that elemental power.
This story is 2400 years old, written by Euripides in a play called The Bacchae, but Pentheus still stalks among us. He goes by different names these days, but lately his face has been all over the news:
On June 2, Judge Aaron Persky and a rapist named Brock Turner colluded in a Penthean attempt to silence a woman known as Emily Doe who had indulged in Dionysian drink and dancing. A jury convicted Turner on three felony accounts for assaulting Emily while she was unconscious — he seized control over her helpless body — but the judge sentenced Turner to only six months in jail.
On June 10, Kevin James Loibl equipped himself with two handguns, a hunting knife, and two extra magazines of ammunition to kill the unarmed, twenty-two year-old singer Christina Grimmie. Grimmie’s voice sounded like Burgundy wine before Loibl silenced her.
On June 12, Omar Mateen, armed with an assault rifle and a handgun, slaughtered 49 people at the LGBTQ nightclub Pulse, which is basically a temple to Dionysus. Mateen stilled those dancing bodies.
On June 16, Thomas Mair shot and stabbed to death Jo Cox, a 41-year-old, unarmed British MP who had stepped out into the world, into the halls of Parliament, where she wore a bright red maenad dress and raised her voice in support of refugees and of Britain remaining in the EU.
See how easy it is to put these events into a nice, neat list? As though each crime were just-the-facts-ma’am, and not a nexus of collective heartbreak radiating out from the scenes of violence. After the news about Jo Cox, I reached a point of numbness, right in the center of my chest. I couldn’t process more pain, I couldn’t feel, not so soon on the heels of Pulse. So much brutality, targeted at so many beautiful, defenseless people. These victims defied repressive rules that dictate proper behavior, so Pentheus attacked them. He controlled their aliveness by ending it.
The life force will not stand for this. The life force demands to live. It demands connection, expression, release. Back in Thebes, Dionysus wasn’t in prison for five minutes before an earthquake shook the palace down and lightning struck, burning all the timbers. Dionysus strode out untouched, stepping easily over the rubble and through the smoke, summoning the women back to his side.
The spirit of Dionysus also broke out of jail when Emily Doe released her victim statement from the trial. Her life force burst free in her evocative words, and America roared in outrage. Dionysus escaped when tributes to Christina Grimmie flooded the internet, and her voice reached millions who might not otherwise have heard her. Dionysus roared after the tragedy at Pulse, when Democrats in the Senate lifted their voices in a 14-hour filibuster and then those in House staged an overnight sit-in, demanding sanity in gun regulations.
Dionysus shook the UK after Jo Cox’s murder, too. But Pentheus marched back, goose-stepping across Britain and bellowing lies about independence and refugees. Really he wanted independence from refugees, freedom from having to help people in need. Pentheus scorns interdependence. He got his way, for now. Britain voted for rigid borders, for going it alone, for severing a life-giving connection.
In the story, Pentheus thinks that the life force he wants to kill is outside himself, outside his whole city. In reality, Dionysus is within the city walls, within the palace, within Pentheus himself, even though Pentheus savagely represses his own capacity for connection and expression. He is terrified of and disconnected from his own life force. His aggression is his self-hatred. And sure enough, his violence boomerangs right back home.
After Dionysus left the jail, he lured the king to the forest to spy on the women’s revels. The women ripped Pentheus limb from limb, then they tore his limbs to shreds. He got his wish for disconnection. The maenads disconnected him, part by part by part.
It’s a chilling end to a chilling tale, like the headline news this month. Pentheus is what happens when anyone acts out their fear, fury, frustration. Dionysus, on the other hand, stands ready to assist with the creative expression of those big feelings, or to help come up with innovative ideas for changing the situation. Emily, Christina, everyone at Pulse, and Jo all demonstrate how to express and address feelings, rather than act them out.
Dionysus is the life force personified. The life force creates. Pentheus is fear. Fear blocks, stops, controls, contains. As surely as Dionysus lives within us all, so does the tyrant king. May the maenads do their grisly work every time he rises.
Tonight Stephanie and I were moaning about how busy the next month and a half will be, and as we talked, we asked the tarot cards what they thought of the busy schedules. I was particularly keen to get their opinion on a new writing project I wanted to start even though I had no idea where to find the time. The cards cleared their collective throat, then said:
Talk about loud and clear! Fortune muses, “Yeah, this could be cool.” Death chimes in, “But something’s got to give, you have to let something go if you’re going to make room for a new project. You’ve got to shed the outworn skin in order to grow.” The Oracle Within: “Fill pages, fill pages, fill pages. See how I’m a full page? Do like that.” Ok. Right. Yes. I get it. Thank you, cards!
So something had to give. I immediately thought of Facebook, and the time I spend every day scrolling through that endless distraction. I thought of the new journal I bought for the project. A scheme formed all at once: I’ll give up Facebook for 40 days, and in the first hour of each of those days, I’ll freewrite for the project in the new journal. After 40 days of writing, or a full journal, whichever comes first, I’ll go back to Facebook. Lent started this week anyway, right? The project begins sort of around Lent, and ends sort of around Easter.
February 12: Day 1
This morning, chatting with Adrianna, I mentioned that today is my first day of a Facebook fast. She said, “Mm-hmm… wait, what?? Did you say Facebook fast? Oh my God, you just blew my mind!” I told her I’d woken up in the middle of the night and reached for my phone before remembering. She gasped and said, “What did you do??”
“I put the phone back down.”
“And then what??”
“I just lay there.”
She gave another gasp, shuddery and shivery, like at the end of a spooky story.
February 13: Day 2
Impulse: Reach for the phone.
Response: Pull your hand back.
February 14: Day 3
Wahh! I feel lost, lonely, cut off — but cut off from what? From voyeuristic eavesdropping, from the desperate hope for a puppy video.
It’s like I hauled myself up out of a river — maybe the River of Time — exhausted, soaking wet, panting in a heap on the bank. And isn’t time one of Facebook’s main metaphors? Facebook generates a time-line for each “user”– meaning each addict, each of us junkies. A Facebook addiction feeds a larger addiction to the conceit of time. And I do mean “feeds.” Facebook provides everyone their very own feed — but what’s the food? Distraction, diversion, outrage. Am I not calling this a Facebook fast?
But still, wah!
February 15: Day 4
Facebook who? It’s fading. Feels less like a fast and more like waking up.
February 16: Day 5
When I pick up my phone to call or text someone, my thumb still feels the muscle-impulse to press the Facebook icon. I only feel cut off anymore when other people in the room pore over their phones and I sit there, twiddling my idle thumbs and watching everyone else having their out-of-body experiences.
Because that’s what it does: it pulls your life energy out of your body through your eyeballs and holds it hostage in the 2-D world of The Screen. There’s a shrinking of awareness, a confining, a narrowing of the horizon down to the size of the responses made possible by whatever the interface allows — Like, Share, Type Something Here.
Facebook is a modern-day deity, a member of the tyrannical pantheon of social media gods and goddesses. Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, all the billions of dating sites, they all feed (that word again) off the attention of their acolytes. They reward that attention by bestowing attention — the more active you are, the more people see your activity. The currency of the exchange is attention. If that’s what we value, ok, that’s what we value. Is that what we value?
Like all gods and tyrants, the media deities are best approached with alert awareness. They misbehave when their privileges go unchecked.
Like all gods and tyrants, they can be deposed.
March 5: Day 23
There’s more space. The horizon extends further, in every one of those three-hundred-and-sixty degrees. Is Facebook a horizon blocker? It’s certainly a drain. It siphons energy I could use for other purposes.
Instead of looking at Facebook in the middle of the night when I wake up, I’ve started texting myself thoughts, notes, ideas. In the morning I read them and think, “Where on earth did that come from?”
March 29: Day 47
One more day to go. Three empty pages left in the journal. They will fill tomorrow morning. I didn’t write every day, but as of tomorrow, I’ll have written for 40 of the last 48 days. Not that the project is done. It’s a journal full of raw material. Soon it will be time to find out what it would like to become next.
March 30: Day 48
I broke the fast today. Facebook Breakfast, I guess. I knew I had to do it, in order to post an announcement for the Luna Review, but I kept putting it off. In the morning, I thought, “I’ll wait until the afternoon.” After lunch, I thought, “Just a few more minutes.” Finally, in mid-afternoon, I opened a tab on my browser. I typed an f. Autofill took care of the rest of the URL. I posted the announcement I needed to, looked around for maybe five minutes, and closed the tab. It felt oddly boring after all this time. Anticlimactic.
Last night I woke up in the middle of the night, too sleepy to get up but too awake to sleep. I picked up my phone. 3:17 AM. I glanced at email then thought, “Hey, I’m allowed to look at Facebook again.” My thumb was already moving toward the icon as the idea rolled around, but then I stopped. All at once, all in a rush, I realized what had really changed in the last month and a half.
In the past, unwelcome visitors like anxiety and hypochondria had often haunted my middle-of-the-night wake-ups. But since the Facebook fast, my nights had become quieter, more spacious, more peaceful. They had become the place where I text myself ideas whispered by the sparkling dark, the stillness where I can watch Michael, my bbf (beloved boyfriend), sleeping in the dim light like an archangel at rest. With my thumb hovering over the Facebook icon, I knew I was about to give up that magic. I was about to give my nights back to the low-level madness of the feed. I set the phone down.
The dark blue body of the Egyptian goddess Nut (pronounced noot) arches over the world, feet on one side of the horizon and hands on the other. Her skin is covered with stars. Then there are the Norse goddess Nott and the Greek goddess Nyx, both of whose names mean “night.” Both dress in black, both ride across the starry night sky, drawn in a black chariot or on the back of a magnificent black horse. To imagine any of them is to imagine night as Night, a being whose quiet, dark company can refresh and restore. They dilate the pupils, widening the eyes the better to admit wonder, starlight, and shadows.
Night goddesses don’t ask for much, but they do insist on visiting. Actually, we visit them, every evening when our zip code rolls away from the sun and out to face the reaches of space. Night holds the dark half of the planet in the palms of Her cupped hands, at all times. She’s always there as we move into, through, and out of Her domain. When in Night, we’re in all the way, and Night is all the way in us. It’s Night outside, Night in the kitchen, Night in the bedroom. Night within blood vessels, in the synapses between neurons, inside every cell membrane in all of our bodies.
Impulse: Reach for the phone.
Response: Pull your hand back.
Then What: Bask. Relax.
Of all the celebrities who died this month, David Bowie left the stage with the greatest eloquence. The collective outpouring of emotion at the news when he died surprised me at first. I mean, I remember liking “Modern Love” back in 1980-whatever, but that’s all I knew of him until a week ago, when I watched his two last and latest videos, “Lazarus” and “Blackstar.” Then I said, Oh.
“Lazarus,” intensely personal and inward, shows a mortal human, a desperate man facing his own death. It’s set indoors, much of it with the main character (played by Bowie) lying in a hospital bed. Let’s call this figure Bed Bowie. Sometimes an alternate version of this character (also played by Bowie) appears, standing or sitting, wearing a dark blue shirt and pants with parallel white slashes painted across the front of the clothes, much like Bowie wore on the cover of one of his old albums where he drew a Kabbalah — a magical Tree-of-Life schematic from Jewish mysticism. We could call this figure in the video Old Bowie, because he’s clearly not young anymore and because he represents the Bowie of old. Old Bowie, the aging magician, is Bed Bowie’s image of himself as an artist.
Old Bowie dances and writes in the video, but his dancing seems desperate, defiant, probably painful. He writes at a desk maniacally, a pathetic figure with an exaggerated sense of his own importance. He’s a shape-shifter whose illusions don’t dazzle the way they once did, a trickster whose jokes everyone knows. But at least he can see. Bed Bowie half-floats beneath his blanket, his arms straining to swim through the air, mummy-like bandages over his eyes. Beady black buttons sewn to the bandaging make a hideous parody of vision. Bed Bowie is blind, immobilized, terrified, trapped in a failing body.
The video ends with a chilling image of Old Bowie, wide-eyed and unblinking, shuffling backward with palsied, jerky movements, into the shadows of an empty wardrobe like the one that leads to Narnia. He pulls the door closed behind him. Then he’s gone, even though he was imaginary and unreal to start with. It’s over, it’s all over, and you cry for a stranger you suddenly feel you know so well who doesn’t even actually exist.
But the song is called “Lazarus,” after a man Jesus raises from the dead in the Christian Bible. Lazarus is a man Jesus loves (John 11: 3). A man Jesus says has merely fallen asleep, metaphorically speaking (John 11:11). When Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb, Lazarus walks out with a cloth around his face, reminiscent of the bandages Bed Bowie wears in the video (John 11:44). Lazarus is a creepy, ironic, yet hopeful name to claim.
“Blackstar,” on the other hand, opens wide — as vast and cosmic as “Lazarus” is introspective. If “Lazarus” asks the question, “What goes on inside of me?”, “Blackstar” asks, “What goes on out there?” “Blackstar” is set in outer space, on at least one alien planet, with rocky moonscapes, fields of tall turquoise grasses, a distant silhouetted city of stone. The video takes place after the death of an astronaut, obviously Major Tom, whose body is now reduced to a gem-encrusted skull and a headless skeleton that drifts toward a black star. A star that died. A star whose light shines no more. Just like Bowie.
The otherworldly vocals engage cosmic issues, too: “I’m the Great I Am (I’m a blackstar).” This video is about that which is ever vaster, greater, more unfathomable, that which many people refer to as God. When Bowie appears here, in this mysterious place after and outside earthly life, he wears an old-fashioned black suit coat like a charismatic nineteenth-century preacher-prophet. He holds high an old, worn-out (like him) book of scripture, with of course a black star on the cover, but he’s looking past the book — his expression searches the distance. Once Bowie the Body is gone, what’s left is Bowie the Eternal, Bowie the Prophet. Sometimes, though, this figure also wears the eye bandages with button eyes, like Bed Bowie in “Lazarus.” He alternates between blindness and vision.
“Blackstar” ends with three braided events. A circle of women in plain dresses, led by a priestess with amulets, conducts a ceremony around the gem-encrusted skull, perhaps a ritual to ease the soul’s passage. At the same time, a shamanic figure in a costume of bells, horns, and long ropy hair seems to attack three tortured scarecrows on crosses in the turquoise field, all while Bowie the Prophet, blind behind the bandages again, slowly sinks toward the ground.
So “Lazarus” emphasizes the secular and psychological, “Blackstar,” the religious and spiritual, but really the two intertwine and talk to each other constantly, inextricably, like psychology and spirituality do in real life.
This barely brushes the layers of meaning and detail in these videos. The point is Bowie made them, then he died. His star went out. But when I watch the videos, he seems so present, so alive in all his many guises, in every single scene, that it’s difficult to comprehend he’s actually dead. Reality’s edges blur, in part thanks to the videos’ surreal imagery. Women with cat tails seem real, ghoulish scarecrows writhing on crosses seem real, but Bowie’s death seems impossible, make-believe. That makes death itself seem make-believe, preposterous. At the same time, Bowie truly is dead, so imaginary death feels real too, which makes imagination feel real!
See the rabbit that popped out of the hat? Persuasive images of the unreal drain the persuasive power out of the spell of reality. This phenomenon is a powerful weapon in the arsenal of marketers, politicians, and religious figures, who constantly try to convince us that the things they make up are literally true. But it’s also a tool in the artist’s and metaphysician’s bag of metaphor tricks, suggesting that there’s more to the universe than meets the eye, that reality is bigger and more mysterious that our physical senses admit.
Bowie could not have created these astonishing videos without the company of his own imminent mortality. Their poignancy and urgency draw energy directly from his own process of dissolution and death. I love how Bowie engages with those ferocious forces. His parting gift to the world isn’t so much the music or the images as it is his demonstration of how to express one’s longing, desperation, imagination. By giving voice and form to all that powerful emotion, Bowie had to have loosened some of its hold on him. More importantly, his art introduces a radical, new form of energy into what would otherwise be the quintessential draining of energy. His creativity energizes his death, making what would otherwise seem senseless pregnant with meaning.
In “Lazarus,” Bowie sings, “This way or no way / You know, I’ll be free.” He didn’t know how he’d be free, but he knew that he would. He released the album Blackstar on his birth-day, two days before his death-day. The album was born, its maker died. The cover even looks like a stylized headstone, with the big black star and the name “Bowie” spelled out graphically in star parts below. The work and the timing certainly suggest that he wondered how death might also function as a birth, or as in the Lazarus story, a prelude to being woken, in who knows what way, by powers unfathomably vaster than his temporal self.
Last weekend I went to a matinee. The lights dimmed, previews began, and two last people entered the theater, yelling. They sat near the front, still shouting, over and over: “JUST WANNA SEE THE MOVIE! JUST WANNA SEE THE MOVIE!” They weren’t shouting at each other or at anyone else, but at the theater, at the world, who knows. They mentally waged war with something invisible.
At the time, though, my whole body tense, I only thought, “Are they armed? What guns could they have? Is this it? Do we hit the deck and hope to live? Door, where’s the door?” I ignored the screen, leaning forward in my chair and straining to focus on what was going on in front through the strobe of the film — bright and dark, bright and dark — and the din of gunfire, explosions, a sweeping orchestral soundtrack. At last the police arrived and escorted the shouters from the theater, forcibly, over the running movie. I’ve never felt so relieved to see the cops.
Finally I watched the show. I tried to relax. This was supposed to be fun, after all — Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the epitome of a feel-good adventure film. So I watched. I watched. I kept watching, but I did not relax. Every scene with blasters seemed a thinly veiled mass shooting (San Bernadino, Colorado Springs, Charleston), every scene with weaponized spacecraft an aerial bombardment (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan). After a brush with the possibility of real-world violence, I couldn’t see the movie as anything but glossed-up news footage.
An irrational response? Or had reality burned away the veil of compliant hypnosis I would have worn otherwise? The one that says, Yes, a galaxy far away! Sweep me into this fictive dream, away from the mundane world! Instead of that sweetly stoned feeling of escapism, I felt hollow. I felt ill. I wondered what the victims of actual trauma experience during this kind of entertainment.
But it’s all just cartoon violence, right? Good, clean fun for kids? Maybe, except more adults than children filled that theater. And the movie boasts the biggest grossing opening night of all time so far. This material makes a major impact on our culture, and as I sat there in shock in the theater, I became acutely aware of the film’s simplistic ideas about good and evil, right and wrong, “light” and “dark” — value-laden, racist terms that have no correlation to the real world. Is sleep worse than waking? Is night worse than day? Does skin tone affect the worth of a soul? But the imagery of Star Wars tells us to draw a sharp line between two sides, to love the “light” and fear the “dark.”
Even while watching the film I felt the blasphemous nature of my thoughts. How dare I question the world of Han Solo! Of Luke Skywalker, the hero’s journey, spiritual guidance for our times! Surely I violated some unwritten rule, betrayed a sacred trust. But that’s an interesting word, blasphemy. To blaspheme, you first need dogma from which to deviate. You have to believe something is true and right, regardless of evidence and rational analysis. Jediism is, in fact, a religion in the UK. This made-up, for-profit story is as susceptible to ideology and fundamentalism as any religion.
Speaking of religion, for the ancient Greeks, the god Ares ruled the physical act of fighting. When called upon to do battle, Ares, like Star Wars, excels at hand-to-hand combat. Ares-at-war and this film share the ethos, “Kill or be killed.” Both demand winners and losers. Both fetishize weapons — blasters (guns) and sabers of “light” (swords) which, because they’re made of light, must be “good” killing tools. Both, if they don’t like someone or something, shoot ’em, slash ’em, or blow ’em up. Even the name of Star Wars’s spirituality — “the Force” — militarizes metaphysics. “May Ares be with you,” the characters could say. Star Wars: Ares Awakens.
The Greeks related to Ares differently than Star Wars does, though. They didn’t only call on him in times of war. They also asked him for protection from their own inclination to fight. The Homeric Hymn to Ares closes like this:
“…diminish that deceptive rush
of my spirit, and restrain
that shrill voice in my heart
that provokes me
to enter the chilling din of battle.
You, happy god,
give me courage,
let me linger
in the safe laws of peace,
and thus escape
from battles with enemies
and the fate of a violent death.”
In other words, Ares can prevent people from flipping out and wreaking havoc. He provides the courage to choose to get along. The strength of the warrior can work on behalf of the complex, nuanced, creative work of peace-making.
Everyone in the theater just wanted to see the movie, but an inner battle prevented those two disturbers-of-the-peace from realizing they could. No one blocked their view. If they could have set down their mental blasters and light sabers, they could have had their wish. It makes me wonder what other deep desires wait right in front of us, freely available, when the deceptive rush of our spirits diminishes.
When I moved to Santa Barbara, one of my friends asked me if I’d like to work as a guide for her events company, shepherding groups of visitors around to various destinations. A guide? I thought. For travelers? Something gleamed at the corner of my eye, like a golden, winged sandal whizzing past. My friend continued: I’d have to beguile the visitors with stories about the area, and I’d have my phone pretty much grafted onto my hand to receive and relay last-minute changes to itineraries. I couldn’t help but think of Hermes — the guide of souls, patron of travelers, the speedy, talkative (text-)messenger of the gods. How about it? he seemed to whisper. I said, “Absolutely.”
So I’ve been playing mother duck, leading visiting executives around. Hermes relishes hanging out with all that money. He’s the god of commerce and thieves, after all, and his sandals and caduceus are made of gold. I love how the two serpents climb that winged wand, moving together, moving apart, moving together, moving apart, always in perfect synchrony. They rise in tandem as though lifting each other. Serpents symbolize fear, but also wisdom and rebirth. In the caduceus, they transcend their limitations; they rise up off the ground toward the golden wings. An image of evolution, they even look like the double helix of DNA. But they climb the magic wand of a god, so they also suggest the dazzling surprise of psychological and spiritual growth. Soul evolution. And their image has a unique form of gender fluidity — phallic, but also sinuous and circular. They side-slip all attempts to label them as masculine or feminine. Their relationship is a relationship of two, that’s all the image says.
Anyway, one night last week, after I guided a board of directors during the day, another friend asked me to go with her to get her first tattoo. I picked her up and drove her to an ink den straight out of central casting: everything in black and red, unshaven but heavily tattooed personnel, a gluey residue coating the binders of clip art. The tattooist scheduled to draw on my friend hadn’t shown up because someone else who worked there died that day. They assigned another tattooist to my friend, a gentleman of maybe 60 wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt and coke-bottle glasses with thick black rims. He injected ink (subcutaneously) into my friend’s foot (the lowest part of her body) until a dragon appeared there (a creature that inhabits caves and underground lairs). Down, down, down I went, from the luxurious realm of CEOs, into the earthen underworld. Meanwhile three other tattooists sat in a circle talking about their dead colleague, tallying up the many people they knew or knew of who died from combining Xanax and alcohol. Beside them lay a giant black dog, part Great Dane, part elephant, all black, all the way. I almost called him Cerberus.
Hermes, by the way, is the only Olympian authorized to visit the underworld. He guides souls around the earthly plane, sure, but more importantly he leads them to the kingdom of Persephone and Hades when it’s time to make that journey.
Once, maybe a year ago, I attended a writing group where we did a free-writing exercise about a childhood memory. I wrote about my old imaginary friends, and one of the other participants, a woman in her late sixties or early seventies, said, “That reminds me of my daughter’s imaginary friend, who only showed up when she was seven years old and in the hospital. She said his name was Hermy, and he came over to her room from the cemetery across the street.” I said, “Wow, that makes me think of the Greek god Hermes, the guide of souls.” The woman blinked at me, startled.
After the meeting she chased me down outside and spoke urgently, in an undertone: “Hermy stayed with her all the way until the end. She died the next year. She was eight.” She insisted that her daughter had no access to Greek mythology, would have had no possible way of reading or hearing about it.
Coincidence? If so, it’s a coincidence drenched with meaning. Maybe there’s a logical, linear, cause-and-effect explanation for a little girl’s imagination providing her with a friend and helper named Hermy, from a graveyard, at that time in her short life, and for her mother finding out decades later that the image of this friend has resonance far beyond her family’s experience. Meanwhile the woman wanted to know everything everything everything about Hermes. I told her what little I knew at the time, but it felt hopelessly inadequate. I couldn’t tell her what she wanted to hear: that her daughter was all right, that the girl lived on, that Hermy/Hermes had somehow made everything ok.
Now I know that, in addition to moving with ease to and from the underworld, Hermes also guides the way to growth, change, relationship building. He’s funny and fun, he loves tricks, and, being the messenger of the gods, he carries divine meaning and inspiration. He offers the gift of seeing the world with sparkle, with fresh eyes. To him, souls are as equal as they are unique. He accompanies CEOs around in their private jets, tattoo artists on the way to funerals, children across the great divide, perhaps entertaining them along the way with magic tricks. If I could talk to that woman today, I would tell her that I can’t think of a better friend for a little girl stuck in a hospital room, nor any better traveling companion.
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:
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.
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.
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.