All posts by Joanna

In the Service of Hermes

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.”

Photo by Michal Maňas, via Wikimedia Commons
By Michal Maňas, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

IMG_5327

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.

Antonio da Correggio, Mercury in "The Education of Eros" [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Antonio da Correggio, Mercury in “The Education of Eros” [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Guns and Gods

Dear Fire Angel Baby,

Jewelry brings me joy. I delight in a little felt box with a bow as much as any other woman. So when my Facebook feed showed a Tiffany blue box, my heart raced a bit, until I noticed that it was a weapon. Diamonds don’t kill. Confused? Me too! Here, let me show you:

Hand Gun

This… I don’t understand. My friend was asking for this for Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day! So there you are, all us Mamas packing heat, walking around like James Bond.

Fire Angel Baby, please tell me, should I be packing heat in Texas?

Sincerely,
Looking for Designer Bullet-Proof Vests

Dear Looking,

Rest assured that Tiffany does not sell this product. Individual gun shops paint plain pistols then add the accessories, much to the dismay of Tiffany’s brand identity police. But what an image!

Of course your heart races at Tiffany blue. The color alone conjures luxury, abundance, romance, passion. The heart also races at the sight of a handgun, but that’s because of fear, violence, the threat of coercion. By making the gun the object of affection, this photo elicits both forms of adrenaline at once. Someone painted this gun lovingly. They adorned it with a heart.

FoudreMythologically guns belong first and foremost to the thunder gods. Zeus in Greece, Indra in India, Shango in African traditions — they all throw lightning bolts really fast, really loud, bolts that can kill you before you know what happened. But because these gods are kings, asking for a gun for Mother’s Day mixes mythic metaphors. When the King usurps the festival of the Mother, goddesses object. Demeter in Greece, Durga in India, and Yemaya in Africa all have different interests than the lightning gods.

Ideally, a king serves his realm by establishing fruitful alliances with neighboring kingdoms, by making sure the people are sheltered, fed, and supplied with the resources they need to work and play. Your inner kingliness accomplishes all this on behalf of the realm that is your own life.

But sometimes kings get out of control. Thinking they have to do everything themselves, they get defensive. They gather weapons. They load the weapons. They love the weapons. Eventually the weapons take over, inducing the kings to claim power by taking others’ lives in yet another heartbreaking mass shooting.

Heroes, by the way, so often don’t carry guns — firefighters, teachers, doctors, parents. (Here’s looking at you, Looking.) Remember the men who stopped the gunman on the train in France? They charged a would-be murderer with only their courage, strength, and quick wits — their beautiful, unmetaled humanity.

Still, we buy guns. We elect representatives who pour our collective treasure into a preponderantly military budget. The government, in collusion with the NRA, continues to protect the easy exchange of our beloved guns, like medieval knights sworn to a lady’s service.

"Yemaya-NewOrleans". Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
Yemaya-NewOrleans.” Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

See how we twisted the roles? We put guns on the throne, kings on their knees. But guns rule as tyrants, demanding ransom in blood on a regular basis. We need our kings on their feet to put the guns in the armory then address themselves to the business of collaborative, compassionate administration — working with mothers, builders, artists, and doctors to balance the budget with generosity, a sense of style, a flair for peace. Lightning has a place in the natural order, but so do wind, water, earth, and life.

You’ve got some interesting archetypal pressures in Texas, where gun-toting, go-it-alone individualism takes on legendary proportions. But you assert your individuality brilliantly, Looking. Yemaya loves the way you sidestep the mainstream, creating connections and community in your own gorgeous way.

Thanks for the juicy image.

Your loving,
F. A. Baby

Mythic Ashley Madison

When the Greek god Hephaestus learned that Aphrodite, his wife, was having an affair, he forged a magic, invisible net in his sacred smithy. He set the trap over his own marriage bed then pretended to leave town. Aphrodite and her lover Ares dove between the silken sheets. The net fell, held them fast, then Hephaestus burst back in with a seismic, “Gotcha!”

469px-Guillemot,_Alexandre_Charles_-_Mars_and_Venus_Surprised_by_Vulcan_-_Google_Art_ProjectHe bellowed for the rest of the Olympians to come witness this travesty. The goddesses declined, giving a self-righteous roll of their ravishing eyes. The gods, on the other hand, dropped everything to race over to Hephaestus’s palace and laugh at the beautiful lovers caught in that glittering net.

You see where we’re going. Angry hackers, crafty as Hephaestus, snared 36 million adultery accounts from a site called Ashley Madison, then bellowed for everyone to look at the evidence. They cheated the cheaters, on a scale grand enough to gratify the gods. 36 million accounts, from all over the world. 36 million human beings. 36 million stories. 36 million situations — cries for help, bids for a thrill, boredoms, yearnings, reachings-out in a way that seemed safe. Now there are 36 million reputations at stake. 36 million broken hearts. 36 million families.

What an archetypal mess.

But where there’s an archetypal mess, there’s an archetypal message, right? In this case I’m sure there are 36 million of them.

Aphrodite, the embodiment of Love, never wanted Hephaestus. He tricked her into marrying him through a separate ruse, to which she agreed because she thought it meant marriage to Ares. Hephastus wanted her for his own and no one else’s, regardless of her desires. Love cannot abide such lovelessness. After the episode of the net, Aphrodite and Hephaestus broke up, leaving her and Ares free to see each other as much as they wish. Which they do to this day.

9achagallfev052The myth gives us an image of one partner treating the other like a possession, demanding fidelity on principle alone. Love — aka Aphrodite — considers this preposterous. Love knows that love comes first. Love means first and foremost loving the beloved, second and second-most wanting the beloved. If Hephaestus loved Aphrodite, he would not have married her, much less expected fidelity, because he knew she wanted Ares. Ares, by the way, never makes petulant demands. He’s too busy going watery in his magnificent knees every time he sniffs her skin, swooning in dizzy joy at her voice, staggering around in a dazed kind of gratitude that she exists at all.

The word “fidelity” comes from a Latin word for faith. And doesn’t the massive manifestation of infidelity encoded in the Ashley Madison data create a massive loss of faith on the part of all those betrayed partners? Acting faithlessly destroys faith. But I’ll venture a guess that some of that faith may have been placed in monogamy as a God-sanctioned prerequisite for love. I know I was trained to believe that, but according to Ginette Paris — an author, therapist, and one of my teachers — we have it precisely backward:

“It is quite a natural thing for satisfied lovers to be faithful to one another, without resentment…. This kind of fidelity cannot be promised, it can only exist and one notices it after the fact, a posteriori. When faithfulness is mixed up with control the confusion fogs the transparency of the relationship even more than unfaithfulness. It moves love into the territory of control and kills desire.” — Ginette Paris, “Marriage, Intimacy and Freedom”

In other words, faithfulness, when it happens, arises from mutual love. This fidelity wells from the deepest springs: faith in each others’ beauty, dreams, talents, being, humor, sorrow, struggles, triumphs. Each partner sees and believes in the other’s true self. We’re talking about soul fidelity — a holy, mystical depth of love that turns Aphrodite on like no amount of walking the beach or snuggling beside a roaring fire.

Ashley Madison profits from people seeking more than they have. Its users hunger for Love, and the site’s marketing team crafts a message that seems to offer exactly that. The names even sound similar, with the initial short “a” and the two strong stresses: APH-ro-DI-te, ASH-ley-MAD-ison. Now those customers might find themselves in embarrassing or dangerous situations, but maybe some of them actually had an Aphroditic experience. Who knows.

The forces at play in the myth are still at play today. Call them by other names, castigate them with moral codes, they will not be denied. So it’s comforting that Hephaestus moved on and dealt with his relationship issues. Eventually he married Aglaia, the Goddess of Glory and one of the three Graces. Theirs is a vital and, yes, faithful partnership. They have a bunch of beautiful daughters. Everyone agrees that no matter how painful it was, he had to cast that glittering net. Look at him now, building swing sets and jungle gyms, raising a new generation of goddesses. He never could have done that with Aphrodite. She approaches child rearing in a completely different way. Just ask Eros and Psyche.

Caitlyn Jenner’s Goddess Tale

One of our nation’s most iconic young male athletes grew up and felt an inner imperative — perhaps a calling — to become a woman in the eyes of society. So he did. He transformed into she, now the nation’s most iconic transgender woman. As part of her debut, she posed for a photo shoot wearing a knockout of a spangly golden gown. Had she attended a ball in that dress, she surely would have lost one of her shoes on the way out.

Caitlyn Jenner’s version of the Cinderella story, like all the others, works with the motif of womanly beauty emerging from a situation where it was not allowed to shine. Hundreds if not thousands of variants of this tale appear around the world. Hers has a particular fascination, though. As a muscle-bound youth, Bruce dominated the Olympic Decathlon then waved the flag in triumph, a uniquely American version of the powerful young male. He showed us how we saw ourselves. Now, from the flat screens of reality tv, Caitlyn steps forward as a uniquely powerful American female. She shows us how we see ourselves today.

220px-Ares_Canope_Villa_Adriana_bRemember how incredibly beefcake Bruce was? He ran fast and he ran far, he jumped like crazy. He hurled beastly heavy things then roared with exultation. He demonstrated all the attributes of a superb foot soldier. In winning gold for the United States, he wore our national image of Ares, the Greek god of war. He let us imagine ourselves as the world’s greatest, strongest, fastest, best. His muscle was our might. At the same time, his youth was our immaturity. His soul roiled with secret misery. So did ours.

Imagine for a moment that you are the repressed energy / force of nature whom many call The Goddess. Let’s say you fume at the way you’ve been treated by jock jerks like Bruce Jenner over the millennia. You finally say, Enough, casting your divine glance around for someone to carry your message. What more perfect emissary could you find than Caitlyn? Who could embody a more potent image of your beauty and power than she who had once been the greatest male athlete in the world?

At sixty-five, the traditional age of retirement, Bruce withdrew so Caitlyn could emerge. With glamorous dresses, flawless hair, and brilliant make-up, she stepped perfectly and precisely into a mature image of Aphrodite. The Greek goddess of love and beauty, incidentally, took Ares as a lover. As Ares, Bruce waved the American flag. So did we. As Aphrodite, Caitlyn embodies beauty, authenticity, complexity. So can we.

popup The story also shows an image of a woman with decades of lived experience as a male athlete. Caitlyn carries that in her muscle memory, all the more powerfully because of the power of those muscles. She walks with the bodily knowledge of life and sex and sports as a champion man in the eyes of society. She now gathers into those same muscles the experience of being a woman in the eyes of society. Because of that, she lives and breathes the union of opposites. She joins Cinderella and Prince Charming within herself. She is Aphrodite and Ares, both at once. The Goddess and her Consort. Caitlyn offers us an image of soul totality, of wholeness. If her soul can do that, ours can too.

In that way her story might help move us past dualistic thinking. Sometimes we look around at this fabulous world, and we purse our lips and say, But is this good or is it bad? Is it light or is it dark? Male or female? Godly or infernal? Those are dualisms. Sometimes, on the other hand, we look around at this fabulous world and say, Wow, the Sky! Wow, the Ocean! Wow, Mountains! Wow, the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars! Wow, People! Love! War! Language! Everything is all just so amazing! This way sees the world as deeply, fundamentally sexy, hopelessly charged with charm and allure.

Monotheism tends toward the first way of thinking, polytheism toward the second. Monotheism loves to judge judge judge, to assign what it deems good-light-male-godly a place in heaven, to reject everything bad-dark-female-infernal and cast it down to hell. Monotheism banishes the sexiness of the world. For anyone associated with banished aspects, this state of affairs constitutes ongoing anguish, and depression so deep that it seems to try to reach down into the underworld and bring back all those lost elements of soul.

443px-Illustrations_to_Robert_Blair's_The_Grave,_object_15_The_Reunion_of_the_Soul_&_the_BodyCinderella stories imagine the soul emerging from that underworld and shining in its own authenticity. They celebrate the beauty of the true self finding its place in the world. Caitlyn Jenner seems to be doing exactly that. She transformed Olympic gold into a golden dress. She acts as an agent of The Goddess. In that capacity, she advocates for the rights and respect due to the transgender community, and for the inner lives of everyone. Her Goddess messages have to do with authenticity, the fluidity of external identity, our vast possibilities for transformation, and polytheistic acceptance and joy rather than monotheistic judgment. She presents us each with the ultimate mythological questions: What is your authenticity? What does your soul want to express? What transformations of body and consciousness would you embark upon, given that you, like Caitlyn, have the strength of the warrior and the courage of the lover?

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

Àshe, Itutu, and #BlackLivesMatter

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

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

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

Yoruba-bronze-head

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mythological Online Dating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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