Category Archives: OMG Mythology

True Myth and Fake News

When my mythologist tribe visits town, I like to pour Chardonnay from a vineyard called True Myth. The wine goes down like nectar, a goddess adorns the label, and the name always makes us laugh, because we share the conviction that no, myth is not literally true, but yes oh yes, myth is truly true, deeply true, soul-true. In other words, myth tells lies to tell the truth. Myth reveals its truth not in the literal facts of its images, but as their meaning cloaked in metaphor.

For example, who is the goddess on the wine label? The bottle makes no overt introductions, but the prominent word “true” reminds me of Aletheia, the ancient Greek goddess of truth. Aletheia doesn’t embody only the kind of truth regarding facts and data; she also personifies disclosure or revelations. Aletheia reveals what had been hidden.

The Greeks mythologized lies, on the other hand, as the Pseudologoi, or False Words — a nasty horde born of Eris, the goddess of strife. It’s easy to imagine the Pseudologoi as stinging winged beasties, especially these days when they swarm from the mouths of the president and his apologists. But there’s also a different tale that tells of a single goddess named Pseudologos. As the story goes, when Prometheus was making Aletheia in his workshop — the same divine studio in which he fashioned humankind — Zeus summoned Prometheus away from his work. Prometheus’s ambitious assistant Dolus, whose name means trickery or deception, set about making a copy of Aletheia. The copy’s features and radiance matched Aletheia’s exactly, except that Dolus ran out clay before he could make the copy’s feet. When Prometheus came bursting back in, he stopped in his tracks, breathless at the copy’s likeness to his own work and greedy to garner the glory for creating both goddesses. He hurried them into his magic kiln, and when they came out, glowing hot from the fire of the gods, Prometheus breathed the spark of immortality into both of them. They both exhaled, and then Aletheia walked with slow, steady, measured steps, but Pseudologos could only stand still, because her legs ended in stumps.

Prometheus Creating Humankind while Athena Looks On, Louvre Museum

Have we not all faced difficulty in distinguishing truth from lies, and plagiarism from originality? Even clever Prometheus fell for the trick, and we are but muddy mortals. And notice how the blurring goes both ways: lies can seem so much like truth, and truth can seem so much like lies. Both are sculpted from the same clay. Both are equally alluring. But Pseudologos has no feet. She has no firm foundation in reality, and she cannot move on her own. She needs the aid of accomplices. Isn’t it interesting that her existence springs from an excess of ambition, in both Dolus and Prometheus?

Aletheia, on the other hand, has an independent existence. She stands on strong, supple feet. The solid earth supports her. She doesn’t back down. Careful and conscious, she neither rushes to judgment nor jumps to conclusions.

See how mythic images raise the ante on everyday metaphor? Magical, fantastic, and full of wonder, myth bursts with gods, goddesses, and creation on cosmic scales. Mythic imagery doesn’t just tell lies to tell the truth; it tells fabulous lies, huge lies, amazing lies.

Fake news works on a similar principle. It, too, tells big lies, and its lies also have some deeper meaning. For example, consider the slander that circulated about Hillary Clinton and the pizzeria during last year’s election season. The facts of the story were patently ridiculous, but the deeper meaning that many of us ignored — myself included — was that Clinton had a real image problem, and that some voters loathed her with a malicious, toxic furor. Then there is the story about Donald Trump’s visit to Russia, and the prostitutes peeing in a Moscow hotel room. The meaning of the story is that many people believe the president to be a dirty conman who treats women like commodities and is in bed with the Russians, financially and politically. But we don’t have all the evidence yet. This story might turn out to contain literal truth as well, aka true news.

Fake news scratches the age-old itch of myth — a deep desire to believe the unbelievable, to participate in magic, to thrill along with a flight of imagination. But fake news is not true myth. The truths of fake news are passing, ephemeral things, as fleeting as the headlines, and their lies are designed to manipulate.

Our slippery times speak in slippery terms: alternative facts, reality tv, infotainment, misinformation, post-truth. Each is a euphemism for the ugly fact that money-mongers lie to gain, preserve, and augment their power. Fake news is a powerful weapon in their arsenal. Fake news lies to drain us of our power. Myth lies to remind us of our power, here and now and always.

Truth, Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1593)
Our power begins in recognizing and discerning between Aletheia and Pseudologos. Does a story arise from someone’s ambition? Who stands to to gain from it, and how? Does it stand on its own, or does it require co-conspirators? Is it a near copy of the truth but missing a crucial detail? Does the story rush itself? Does it lurch away from scrutiny and race ahead to tell more false words?

Myth tells lies to tell the truth. It can even tell lies to tell the truth about telling lies. Maybe Aletheia and Pseudologos aren’t so much two distinct beings, but two ends of a gradating spectrum. Maybe the more truth a story contains, the stronger its feet grow, the further it can stride. Maybe the more falsehood a story contains, the more its feet thin into mist and blow away.

On the True Myth wine bottle, we can’t see the goddess’s feet, but the label proclaims, Her Secret Is Patience. May Aletheia share more secrets with us. May her strength and beauty walk with us, along with her patience and wisdom.

Here We Sing of Hera

A long, long time ago, a goddess-queen ruled a pantheon of gods and goddesses. This queen served as the divine sovereign over her land and her people. So when those people imagined rulership and divinity, they imagined a woman. Babies were born, crops grew, the moon waxed, waned, and waxed again for hundreds and then thousands of years. But one day a band of warlike invaders stormed the land, burning, killing, raping, taking, and bringing with them a stormy new king-god fond of throwing lightning around. Some say the invading king took the queen to wife by force. Others say she agreed to the marriage. No one claims the new god overthrew the goddess. She wielded too much power for that, and he knew he needed her to establish legitimacy. Maybe he found her fascinating, too. Challenging. But no one says they fell in love. King Zeus and Queen Hera simply assumed their thrones side by side, high in the thin, chilly air of Mount Olympus.

Agrigento - Temple of Hera 2 (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Agrigento – Temple of Hera 2 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

For the ancient Greeks, gods and goddesses didn’t just represent the energies of the observable world; they were those energies. Earth, ocean, sun, moon, hearth, love, law, marriage–the stories of these forces clashing, contending, consorting, and creating became what we now call a mythology. Because these figures are personified beings, their stories also illustrate personality dynamics. To the extent that these powers remain active today, Greek myth continues to open windows, onto worlds within and worlds outside. Myth taps into timelessness.

Hera’s name most likely comes from the same root as the word “hero.” She illustrates the aspect of experience whose inherent nature is rulership–a natural leader with ambition and intelligence who happens to be a woman. But soon after her marriage, Hera’s husband began chasing and raping other women all over the land. He arrogated to himself a despotic, entitled, physical dominion over her and all his subjects. In his view, a woman’s most private physical places–metaphorically her inner self, her soul–exist only to be seized by men. Naturally Hera became guarded, defensive. Not long after all this, patriarchal monotheism rose in the Hebrew and then Christian traditions and tried to depose and kill her outright. Christianity’s attacks grew particularly violent, with witch hunts, torture chambers, and burnings at stakes.

hera_di_efeso-vienna_copia_romana_del_100-150_ca-_da_orig-_greco_del_400-380_ac_ca-_6027Hera embodies the aspect of experience that is a strong female subjugated, betrayed, and terrorized. She’s the aspect of experience with awareness of its own displacement and mistreatment. The aspect that has no choice but to go into hiding. The aspect that remembers her throne. The aspect that bides her time.

Hillary Rodham started out as an independent young woman–sharp, successful and full of zest, a leader at her women’s college. After law school, she married and accepted a role as a political wife, first to a governor, then to a president. But when she tried to take her place as a partner to her powerful husband, other politicians lost all composure, especially the conservative Christians. They fumed and foamed about a woman’s place and the inherent evil of healthcare for all. They whipped up their age-old witch hunt, this time using lies and conspiracy theories as pitchforks and torches. Meanwhile, Hillary’s husband proved powerless to resist his urge for nymphs and interns. Hera must have felt similar with Zeus as a husband: the public shame, the helpless rage, the isolation and loneliness, the societal judgment that she was somehow to blame for failing to make her man behave himself.

Hillary stayed married, but she distanced herself from her husband and started her own political career, as senator, as secretary of state. Now she finds herself facing off against another powerful man, this one even more like Zeus than her husband was: a thunderer who blusters about law and order, an assaulter of women, a self-promoter inordinately fond of marble palaces. Hillary’s opponent epitomizes the forces that have arrayed themselves against Hera through the ages.

pufferfish-wallpaper

It’s tempting to dismiss Donald Trump as the archetype of the pufferfish–inflated, cold-blooded, highly toxic even in small doses–but actually he draws his power from the darkest depths of the Zeus archetype. Listen to these lines from the “Homeric Hymn to Zeus,” written sometime around 600 BCE:

         Zeus
         who is the best
         god
         and the greatest
         is who
         I will sing…
         son of
         Cronus
         who sees far
         you’re the most
         famous
         of all
         you’re the greatest

The best, the greatest, the most famous… It sounds exactly like recent political rallies. But the best, greatest, most famous what? Nothing. There is no substance there, not in the poem and not on reality tv. Donald and other Zeuses bring no skills to the table, only their hunger for glory, lust to dominate, bottomless greed for power and wealth. They have no access to wisdom or restraint. They rage. They hurl thunderbolts, verbal or otherwise. They serve themselves. This is why democracy rose, because everyone recognized the perils of kingship. And where did democracy first show up? Ancient Greece, in the time of Zeus.

It’s as though Hera stands behind Hillary and Zeus stands behind Donald. These two forces face off yet again. Hera is grim, determined, knowing what she’s up against. She knows the hatred of her opponents. She knows the bizarrely higher standard she’s held to than are the bozos around her. But she has prepared. She studied the law. She practiced the crafts of planning, organizing, governing. Her feet are planted for battle, but she also glows, newly beautiful in her maturity.

Myth changed with the arrival of Zeus. It changed with the rise of Christianity, the Enlightenment, the Internet. Myth taps into timelessness, but it also rides the currents of change. It shifts and shimmies to reflect what endures and what evolves.

When a goddess is wounded and closes her heart, that’s when blight happens. But when a goddess is glad and opens her heart, well, prepare for flourishing, blooming, blossoming. The psychological sequence goes: see her, love her, be loved in return.

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Not that Hillary Clinton is a goddess. She is a mortal person with flaws, wounds, and complexities. But the image of a Hillary Clinton presidency is an archetypal upset, a tectonic shift in what American democracy believes to be possible. It means that thinking of leadership can mean thinking of a woman. Try saying it: Madam President. Now open up to the smallest bit of affection for her, the tiniest dram of liking, the same way you can like a man who has flaws, wounds, and complexities. Feel that ripple in the air at your back? That’s Hera standing straighter, stronger, more sure of herself, with a glint in her eye from the light held aloft by her young friend in the New York harbor.

Old Stories, News Stories

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.

Dionysos © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons
Dionysos © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

“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.

Pentheus Being Torn by Maenads, By WolfgangRieger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Pentheus Being Torn by Maenads, By WolfgangRieger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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.

Bacchus, by Hendrick Goltzius, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Bacchus, by Hendrick Goltzius, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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.

 

48 Days Without Facebook

February 11: Day 0

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:

From the Awakening Aeon Tarot Deck, by Marcia O'Hara, AwakeningAeonTarot.com
From the Awakening Aeon Tarot Deck, by Marcia O'Hara, AwakeningAeon.com
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.

Narcissus by @dancretu
Narcissus by @dancretu
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.

March 31

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.

Picture-11Night 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.

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.

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.

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.

Cosmic Morsels from Fall Quarter So Far

From The Trickster in West Africa: A Study of Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight, by Robert D. Pelton:

The trickster speaks — and embodies — a vivid and subtle religious language, through which he links animality and ritual transformation, shapes culture by means of sex and laughter, ties cosmic process to personal history, empowers divination to change boundaries into horizons, and reveals passages to the sacred embedded in daily life.

From Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology, by Marie-Louise von Franz:

Psychologically here, there is what the alchemists call the union of the cosmic world, which means getting beyond the microcosm of the human being and being open to life itself, in itself — to be related to the whole of life through watching the process of synchronicity.

From Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, by Maya Deren:

In Voudoun the cosmic drama of man consists not of a dualism, a conflict of the irreconcilable down-pull of flesh and the up-pull of spirit; it is, rather, an almost organic dynamic, a process by which all that which characterizes divinity — intelligence, power, energy, authority, wisdom — evolves out of the flesh itself.

Postcards from Summer Myth Camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sisters, Strangers, and Serendipity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love Letter to Blue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rolling Up My Dream-Sleeves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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