As portrayed by the eighth-century Roman poet Ovid, Narcissus is a handsome lad pursued by “youths and young girls” but indifferent to their attention. One day, while hunting alone in a shady virgin forest, he comes across a clear pool of water; bending to drink, he is transfixed by what he sees. Instantly, as if pierced by one of Cupid’s arrows, he is “struck with wonder by what’s wonderful in him … He wants himself.” Narcissus, writes Ovid in Allen Mandelbaum’s wonderful translation, “tries to quench one thirst,” and “feels another rise.” The lad has fallen into fatal self-admiration.
The story does not end happily. Speaking to his reflection in the water, the besotted Narcissus says, “Your gaze is fond and promising; I stretch my arms to you, and you reach back in turn. I smile and you smile, too…” But when Narcissus tries to embrace his simulacrum, the image disperses.
Despite his frustration and suffering, Narcissus cannot leave the spot. He lies beside the pool and wastes away. In the poem’s concluding stanza, Ovid tells us that even in the underworld, after death, Narcissus continues to stare into the pool of Styx, fixated forever on his own image.
My father had a gun. I discovered it one day while snooping in his dresser, the shock of its chill black metal, heavy as stone in my hand. That gun made me feel safe. My father has a gun, and he’s going to kill you. Unbeknownst to my father, I bragged about its existence, wielding my threats shamelessly when confronted with neighborhood toughs. (Back then, bravado was enough to give a childhood adversary second thoughts.) My conscious notion of safety was based on access to weaponry, a model I’d picked up from Mr. Khrushchev and our military, who were duking it out over the missiles in Cuba. The strategy was fortified further by mother’s fondness for warning me it was a dog-eat-dog world, and I had to choose to be either predator or prey.
The memory of my dad’s gun came to my mind recently when watching North Korea’s celebratory parade of its newest missiles and seeing the braggadocio smile of that country’s gleefully menacing leader. How blatantly perverse it is that our species feels safest when we’ve stockpiled enough armament to blow up the world.
In a recent issue on climate change (a subject that provokes its own sense of doom), the New York Times Magazine published an article called “Panic Attack.” The first line mentions a Pulitzer Prize-winning poem by the British poet W. H. Auden. “The Age of Anxiety,” a book-length reflection on Auden’s experience as part of the 1945 U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey team gathered to assess the impact of the Allied bombing on Germany and the German people, defines a cultural moment in the mid-nineteen-forties just as Irish poet W. B. Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” defined the enormous cultural changes after the First World War. Nitsuh Abebe, author of the Times article, names the present cultural moment, one of diffuse apprehension. “Anxiety is the ambient apprehension that terrible things might happen and the physical response—tension, alarm, fight or flight vigor, snapping awake at 2 a.m. to check the president’s Twitter feed—that accompanies this feeling,” he writes.
The word safety comes from the Latin salvus, meaning uninjured, in good health. The correlation between health, injury and feeling safe is compelling. Any injury to our emotional or physical self can lead to a sense of vulnerability. It is, after all, the lame sheep that gets culled by the coyote from the herd. One of the ways we make ourselves feel safe is by hiding our weaknesses, but those bent on power and destruction possess an uncanny ability to sniff out weaklings, as anyone who bullies or is bullied knows. Hiding or disguising our fragility does not provide a sense of safety and may only reinforce our dread of being discovered or “found out.”
The amniotic sac is our first protected space. As fetuses, we cannot survive outside the maternal womb. At birth, when the umbilicus is cut, we’re severed from our original life source and forced to breathe on our own. This separation, which all of us undergo if we are to live, causes us to wail in rage and bafflement. In an unstable environment, we seek stable and predictable objects outside ourselves. But we are also curious creatures, and thus, the learning curve begins: moment to moment, life presents us with reminders of our tenuous relationship to existence. We search for security in an insecure world. Our survival depends on the development of skills of mind, heart and body that awaken us to our position in the net and network of all life. The challenge is urgent to recognize that if our air is not safe to breathe, we are not safe. If our lakes and rivers are not safe to fish or drink, we are not safe. If the Great Coral Reef is bleaching out and dying, some part of us is deeply at risk.
In the interest of understanding how people think about safety, I decided to investigate what helps others feel safe and unsafe. What follows is not scientific research but compiled from online sources of a mostly personal nature. The lists are not in any particular order.
We feel safe when:
Hugged by a loved one
Have job security, financial security
People smile at us
We can hide under a blanket
Have a protective and protected private space
Know we can escape
We are with pets: petting a dog, curling up with a cat
We feel loved
Conversely, what makes us feel unsafe are
The experience of loss
Pain, injury, illness
Being humiliated or ostracized
Being without physical resources
Feeling betrayed and abandoned
My brief online exploration persuades me that we best experience safety when we are in the presence of loving others. This aligns with significant studies in animal and human research on bonding and attachment theories. In this we are not much different from other creatures, or indeed, as new research shows, other sentient beings. It also underscores a premise of most Eastern wisdom traditions: we are part of an interconnected universe. New technologies have given scientists the tools to study and document exactly how connected we are to all life. Peter Wohlleben, a professional forester in Germany and the author of the bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees, poses the question, “Are trees social beings?” His answer, that indeed they are, makes fascinating reading. Though trees in a forest compete for food, water and light, they also nourish and sustain each other through their root systems and the fungi that dominate those roots. There is, he writes, “an advantage to working together.”
Let’s cherish our connections. As Auden wrote in his other great poem about World War II, “September 1, 1939,” “we must love one another or die.”
When we scapegoat, we project what is dark, shameful and denied about ourselves onto others. This “shadow” side of our personality, as Carl Jung called it, represents hidden or wounded aspects of ourselves, “the thing a person has no wish to be,” (Collected Works, Vol. 16) and acts in a complementary and often compensatory manner to our persona, or public mask, “what oneself as well as others think one is.” (Collected Works, Vol. 9).
The desire to disown despised parts of oneself has ancient and universal roots. In his compelling study of comparative religion and myths, The Golden Bough, social anthropologist Sir James Frazer devotes several chapters to documenting the variety of forms scapegoating has taken through the ages: undesired attributes or illnesses being magically transferred onto defeated enemies, living animals, or in some instances, interred inside objects such as trees. The contaminated “thing” was thought to be detachable and disposable, as when nail or skin parings of a sick man might be stuffed into a hole in the ground.
The word “scapegoat” originated in the Bible’s Book of Leviticus. In the ancient Hebrew tradition, a high priest, acting in the service of Yahweh, offered the blood of a slaughtered goat to purify the tabernacle. The transgressions of the community were projected onto a second goat that was then sent out to wander the desert. Though banished into exile, the goat itself was not considered evil, but rather was a sacred vehicle used for atonement, thus ridding the community of its negative elements and reconnecting the tribe with the Divine. While we no longer believe animal sacrifice can purify our communities, the practice of scapegoating continues, although in a much corrupted form.
Sylvia Brinton Perera in her book, The Scapegoat Complex, writes: “We apply the term “scapegoat” to individuals and groups who are accused of causing misfortune. This serves to relieve others, the scapegoaters, of their own responsibilities, and to strengthen the scapegoaters sense of power and righteousness.” One has only to read the world news to recognize that our impulse to transfer rejected and hated parts of the self onto others is everywhere destructively alive. Ostracism, bullying, name-calling, banishment from community all serve a false dichotomy between “us” and “them.” In one example, we may experience aggressive impulses, feel guilty about them, develop a persona of accommodation and passivity while our unconscious and unprocessed anger wears the face of “the enemy.”
Perera continues, “Scapegoating…means finding the one or ones who can be identified with evil or wrong-doing, blamed for it, and cast out of the community in order to leave the remaining members with a feeling of guiltlessness.” By demonizing other racial, ethnic and gender groups for their troubles, scapegoaters are able to maintain their own “innocence” and remain blind to the moral imperatives facing them. In totalitarian regimes, in some theocracies, and even in our own country, conspiracy theorists not only target individuals and other countries as scapegoats, but project blame for the society’s difficulties onto the disciplines of science, art, and the humanities.
Sadly, the tyrannical force of scapegoating, with its cruel thrusts of accusatory judgments, can also erupt in our own backyards. This closer-to-home variety of scapegoating is especially important to note since we may find ourselves condemning bullies and world leaders while denying our own inclination to split off and project fears and anxieties onto our intimates and neighbors. The scapegoat-victim in families is often the “black sheep,” the child who, like the ancient sacrificial goat, serves the miserable role of carrying the unconscious shadow parts of her parents. These children may present with psychological problems and exhibit addictive or self-destructive behavior, but a deeper look into family dynamics points to a lack of awareness of the influence of parents’ unconscious feelings.
Carl Jung believed that scapegoating revealed something fundamental about our psyche. He maintained that we all have a “shadow” side to our personality. As he wrote in Archetype and the Collective Unconscious, “The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself.” Our shadow aspects cause us anguish, and much of our mental energy is enlisted in the denial of our perceived imperfections, but we cannot see our shadow aspects except through projection. In Alchemical Studies, Jung wrote, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making darkness conscious.” This is where art and literature can awaken us to our own blind spots and human frailties.
The sorrow of the scapegoated child is palpably conveyed in John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden through the character of Cal, the no-good son, who carries the weight of his father’s unconscious anger and disappointment. So, too, does the character Biff in Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman suffer for his father’s moral blindness. The evil daughter in the film The Bad Seed and the horrifying children in The Village of the Damned illustrate how unconscious shadow aspects can manifest as the ungovernable and unconscionable impulses we assign to psychopaths and aliens. And who can forget the tragic fate of the deformed and scapegoated Quasimodo in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame? The list continues. Tom Robinson, the black man on trial in To Kill A Mockingbird is the victim of racial scapegoating. Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter is victimized for her gender and sexuality.
David Grossman, an Israeli author concerned with the brutalization of minds and hearts of people in countries perpetually at war, writes about the results of scapegoating in Writing in the Dark. He calls this radical denial of feelings “a shrinking of our soul’s surface.” Concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he writes, “Given a situation so frightening, so deceptive, and so complicated—both morally and practically—we feel it may be better not to think or know…Better not to feel too much until the crisis ends.” The dulling of feeling, the indifference to suffering—one’s own or that of others—hopelessness and despair, these are what we pay for demonizing the other while failing to accept our own darker emotions. Grossman concludes that self-anesthesia solves nothing. The suffering continues, goes underground, explodes in acts of violence against the self or innocent victims.
“It is everybody’s allotted fate to become conscious of and learn to deal with this shadow . . . The world will never reach a state of order until this truth is generally recognized.”—Carl Jung, Collected Works, Volume 10, par. 455
To own one’s rage, aggression, and greed is a lifelong and arduous process that requires a willingness to live beyond binary, black-and-white thinking and to embrace our complicated and messy humanity. Here we might learn a lesson from Maurice Sendak’s beloved picture book, Where the Wild Things Are, a delightful and wondrous graphic map to the terrors and ultimate acceptance of the monsters within. Young Max, the book’s protagonist, is furious at his mother. Sent to bed without dinner, he is soon conveyed into a dreamscape of seemingly terrible monsters—And the wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth. Their insistent plea is to be seen and recognized, a transformational act which turns them into buddies. This turning toward and not away from what is fearsome in ourselves is a deep lesson in self-knowledge and integrity, a counterpoint to the drive to scapegoat. It echoes the poet Rilke’s famous line from Letters to A Young Poet, “Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.”
Recently, after a prolonged and hellish ravaging by Alzheimer’s, my sister died. She was the last of my family of origin, my only sib, the single person on earth with whom I shared childhood memories. Witnessing her diminishment was frightening, tender, and humbling. Her death closed the final chapter on her pain and struggle and for all involved was a relief. Still, I expected after her funeral to take up temporary residency in The House of Grief. I’d been there before. With each family death and bereavement—a grandparent, parents, assorted aunts, uncles, and cousins, and the heart-wrenching passing of pets—I’d experienced mind-numbing, stomach-twisting, insomniac weeks. Each loss brought its own parcel of tears, days of dazed blankness, and as I look back on it now, a variety of physical ailments symbolic of my body’s way of processing strong emotions. My sister’s death, however, evoked a more crippling response, different from all my previous experiences. This led me to investigate my grief.
Much of the current research on grief question the landmark book by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross On Death and Dying published in 1969, and her later book based on the same model, On Grief and Grieving. These two books alerted clinicians and the public to what became known as the “stages of grief” theory.
Kübler-Ross posited that grief unrolls in five predictable stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Her research was anecdotal and compelling, a necessary first step to awakening the medical profession, including psychiatry, to the range of emotions of the bereaved and the need of patients and their families to have an honest discussion about death. If only our griefs would adhere to the tidy timeline set up by Kübler-Ross! Contrary to our wishes, her paradigm does not align with the wild and unpredictable process grief is.
In a chapter called, “Softening The Belly of Sorrow,” Levine reminds us that we often store fear and anger and sorrow in our guts, the belly being a receptacle, the place we store pains and disappointments we consciously ignore. One healing practice he advises is simply to sit quietly and focus attention on the rising and falling of our abdomens, softening the belly with mercy and compassion for ourselves and the sorrows we carry. Each inhalation and exhalation advances our letting go of distress while making room for a feeling of peace.
In my own experience, grief is not a small and boundaried domain, but a vast and mostly unexplored territory haunted by ghosts and memories. It is a place we pass through and become transformed. In this sense, grief shows its creative potential by acting as a catalyst for discovering and developing resilience and a greater capacity to adapt to stress. Levine says it this way: “Though we may have been told we are and must be a noun, in truth we are a restless verb, a process in process, born into tragedy and grace with unimagined potential.”
We share with other sentient beings the experience of suffering impermanence and loss. Our hearts break over and over, and yet we survive. The master poet Bashō writes with wise knowing of the persistent mystery of death and the transience of all things.
The cry of the cicada
Gives no sign
That presently it will die.
(translated from the Japanese by William George Ashton) Five Things I Learned about Grief
We don’t all follow the Kübler-Ross model of five stages of grief.
Grief can be complicated and include unrelenting longing for the deceased for months.
Some people recover quickly from grief. Its duration is not predictable.
Grief is not just a human emotion. We share grieving with fellow animals.
The process of trying to find meaning in what seems a meaningless loss can be transformative.
How do we handle the internal conflict that arises when facts or events contradict deeply held beliefs? In his groundbreaking book, When Prophecy Fails(1956), Leon Festinger and his co-authors sought to answer that question by investigating a doomsday cult. The group was led by a Chicago housewife who claimed to channel warnings from the fictitious planet, Clarion. Through automatic writing she was told that the Earth would be destroyed by a cataclysmic flood before dawn on December 21, 1954. The faithful quit jobs, left spouses and gave away money and possessions, in preparation for the arrival of a flying saucer that would rescue them.
When the flying saucer did not appear, and the flood did not happen, the cultists changed the narrative, and then changed it again. They convinced themselves that their clocks were wrong. When they recognized that their clocks were correct, they set a new time for the arrival of the spaceship. When that event failed to occur, they convinced themselves that God had chosen to spare the world at the last minute because of their good deeds.
To explain this behavior, Festinger coined the term “cognitive dissonance.” This theory states that when there is discordance between our beliefs and external events or actions, we either change our actions or change our beliefs. Many people are reluctant to change their behavior, so they double down on their belief. In the case of the Clarion cult, so many had sacrificed so much in preparation for Armageddon, they were unwilling to change their actions, so they changed the narrative of their belief.
Self-deception is familiar to most of us. Willful ignorance allows us to evade examining situations that conjure cognitive dissonance. (“It’s okay to cheat on my diet on weekends.”) Often we rationalize our deceptions under the pretense of not wanting to hurt others (we know those little white lies are lies!), or to not “rock the boat.” This kind of self-deception occurs in various degrees in most of our relationships, but especially where there is disequilibrium in power, as between employee and boss.
Sometimes self-deception is an unconscious protective mechanism that enables one to survive a threatening experience. Prisoners in concentration camps needed a buffer of self-deception to remain faithful to the idea of their liberation even when their daily lives suggested otherwise. We may deceive ourselves about the seriousness of an illness or about our impending death. The difficulties of such situations encourage us to ignore the truth in order to thrive.
Morality and ethics enter the domain of self-deception when our self-deceiving conflicts with the greater good. As Nietzsche wrote in Ecce Homo, “How much truth does a spirit endure? How much truth does it dare?”
At its most devastating, self-deception can demonstrate the human capacity to split off or dissociate the parts of the self that perpetrate war, torture, and abuse. Nobel Prize-winning writer Luigi Pirandello captured this when he wrote in a private notebook, “There is somebody who’s living my life. And I know nothing about him.” We see the fragmentation of self not only in those suffering from dissociative personality disorders, but also in those engaged in brutal and bullying acts while maintaining a “normal” persona. We all know the clichéd trope of the mass murderer who lavishes affection on his dog.
The expression “Post-Fact World” has now seeped into our vernacular. We seem to have entered a time not only of questioning facts, but one of moral ambiguity as it relates to truth. Unless we are willing to try to attend to the truth as it is, not as we wish it to be, and to confront our capacity to self-deceive, we may experience an unprecedented turbulence in our lives.
The Five Faces of Self-Deception
Evasion of examining one’s biases or strongly held beliefs.
Avoidance of contradictory beliefs or evidence.
Avoidance of feelings that contradict beliefs.
Over-rationalization and the tendency to blame others.
Sometimes a book we’ve had for years falls off the shelf at just the right moment. I read James Hillman’s book, A Terrible Love of War, in 2004 when it was first published as a response to 9/11. In this, his 28th book, Hillman sought to examine the archetypal roots of our “madness for battle,” the “myths, philosophy, and theology of war’s deepest mind.” He was moved to write it because of what he found missing in other books about war. He rejected, for instance, Susan Sontag’s concluding assertion in Regarding the Pain of Others:
“We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand. Can’t imagine. That’s what every soldier, every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby stubbornly feels. And they are right.”
“She is wrong,” Hillman counters, “If we want war’s horror to be abated so that life may go on, it is necessary to understand and imagine.”
In an interview years after he was secretary of defense, Robert McNamara stated that the catastrophe of the war in Vietnam over which he presided pointed to “a failure of imagination.” Years later, comparing our unpreparedness for the attack on Pearl Harbor with that on the Twin Towers, National Security Agency director Michael Hayden famously said, “perhaps it was more a failure of imagination this time than last.”
For both men, a failure of imagination implies a failure to apprehend a reality that is present but hidden or incomprehensible, which is to say, that we do not apprehend we cannot comprehend. In order to understand and respond to something, we must first be able to see it.
Muriel Rukeyser came to a similar conclusion in 1949. In The Life of Poetry, she writes: “We are a people tending toward democracy at the level of hope; on another level, the economy of the nation, the empire of business within the republic, both include in their basic premise the concept of perpetual warfare. It is the history of the idea of war that is beneath our other histories…But around and under and above it…is the history of possibility.”
It is this sense of hidden possibility, of renewed inspiration that now urgently calls for my attention. A failure of imagination implies a failure of empathy, our ability to stand in another’s shoes. Empathy and imagination seem to many the weak sisters of rigorous rational thinking, and yet, might they be an avenue to creative change? This strikes me as critical for us now as individuals and as a society. Can a Clinton voter imagine the anxieties of a Trump voter? Can a Trump voter imagine the fears of a Muslim?
We live at a time of enormous turmoil and transition, a time when re-apprehending and re-comprehending how we view the world is crucial, and re-examining the governing modes of how we make meaning timely.
Einstein said we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. He also said the true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination. We often forget that each of us has our own ready source of imagination in our production of dreams. Each of us possesses a variety of marvelous, fantastic, even weird images and scenarios remembered from our nightly vision. Here, in our own production studios, we might discover creative insights that have the potential for personal and cultural transformation.
Listen to Einstein describe a dream he had as a teen:
“I was sledding with my friends at night. I started to slide down the hill but my sled started going faster and faster. I was going so fast that I realized I was approaching the speed of light. I looked up at that point and I saw the stars. They were being refracted into colors I had never seen before. I was filled with a sense of awe. I understood in some way that I was looking at the most important meaning in my life.”
Later in life, Einstein reflected, “I knew I had to understand that dream and you could say, and I would say, that my entire scientific career has been a meditation on my dream.” This dream led to him figuring out the mathematics of relativity theory.
Freud and Jung have argued that our dream images are not random and without meaning; with scrutiny, we can find that they contain a secret language of symbolic representation. These representations are both individual and personal, arising out of our unique experiences, but connected, especially in Jung’s interpretation, to a collective unconscious.
Structurally, dreams unfold as series of sights, sounds, and feelings that do not necessarily make logical sense. The interpretation of dreams relies upon their metaphoric and associative logic, the juxtaposition of unlikely or unrelated elements that can evoke surprising meanings. This is how many poems “work.” Take these lines from “Blue Mountain,” a poem by Roberta Hill Whiteman.
“Crickets whir a rough sun into haze.”
And “I sweep and sweep the broken days to echoes.”
To parse these lines would be to destroy their music and cadence and beauty, but we get what she means! To quote Rukeyser again: “A poem is not its words or its images, any more than a symphony is its notes or a river its drops of water…” The work a poem does, she writes, is to transfer human energy, “and I think human energy may be defined as consciousness, the capacity to make change in existing conditions.”
Poetry and dreams originate in that part of our psyche involved in our archetypal roots and mythic imagination. Einstein is only one example of how the geniuses of science and industry – and artists – respond to the world and its problems with the force of their imaginations, by “thinking outside the box.”
This is the route of mystery and surprise, of new conjunctions and startling awarenesses. As André Breton wrote in his Surrealist Manifesto, “I believe in the future resolution of these two states – outwardly so contradictory – which are dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, a surreality…”
Freud and the Surrealist artists he inspired looked for ways to expose the deeper substratum of psyche by freeing oneself of the ego’s conscious control. The use of drugs helped, as did alcohol. Automatic or spontaneous writing, collage, assembling unlikely elements into a painting freed artists from the constraints of tradition and conventional imagery. These methods of accessing the unconscious continue to be popular today. Writing workshops, workshops on trauma and addiction often use uncensored journal writing as a means to reach into dissociated aspects of self.
Becoming conscious is a lifelong task. Our dreams beg to be brought into the daylight world, to be honored, to be understood. And perhaps one of us will find within our dreams the insight or idea that might generate the transformation in empathy and imagination that James Hillman seeks – and which would benefit all of us.
Dreams are a marvel, worlds of wonder filled with phantasmagoric images, surreal plot twists that have their own logic even as they turn us inside out with their shifting points of view. Dreams take us high and drop us low. Whether we’re flying over the Manhattan skyline or being chased through a cornfield by a bull, we sense that our dreams are trying to communicate something—perhaps something essential—to our waking selves. We suspect that what is hidden from one part of our minds in the day-world—our unspoken worries, our secret loves, the destiny we fear to follow—becomes manifest in living color in our dreams.
As far as we know, humans have always dreamed. Some of our earliest written stories include dreams. In the first tablet of our oldest epic poem, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, just before he encounters his doppelganger Inkidu, Gilgamesh dreams of a rock and an axe falling from the sky; his mother explains to him that these images foretell the arrival of “a mighty comrade.” In Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope dreams of fifty geese being killed by an eagle, a wish fulfilled when her husband Odysseus returns and slays the suitors plaguing her. And in the Old Testament, Joseph achieves fame by interpreting Pharaoh’s dream about fourteen cows, seven fat, seven lean.
On every continent groups still exist that consult dreams to foretell the future or connect with the Divine. Even some of us “non-believers” decorate our bedrooms with dream catchers. Why? As much as we might want to reject the notion of an invisible world that influences our day-life, don’t we all suspect there is a meaning and purpose to our dreams?
Marie-Louise von Franz, a scholarly colleague of Jung’s, wrote that dreams “are the voice of nature within us.” Dreams may be the sacred place where human and cosmos meet and interact. In The Collective Works, Jung elaborates:
“… in dreams we put on the likeness of that more universal, truer, more eternal man dwelling in the darkness of primordial night. There he is still the whole, and the whole is in him, indistinguishable from nature and bare from all egohood. It is from these all-uniting depths that the dream arises . . .” (CW 10).
On the scientific side, we are learning more about the neuroscience of dreams than ever before. As Sander van der Linden describes in an article in Scientific American, one hypothesis, based on where dreaming occurs in the brain, speculates that dream stories “may be stripping the emotion out of a certain experience by creating a memory of it.” Other scientists speculate that the purpose of dreaming may not be psychological but physiological. Rapid Eye Movement or REM sleep has been thought to help the brain process memories, but a new research in the field of ophthalmology suggests the purpose of REM sleep might be to oxygenate our corneas.
Though we can study the hard facts about our dream-brain, the dreaming mind still remains a mystery.
Like Freud, Jung understood dreams to be messages from the unconscious, but rather than viewing dream images as manifest symbols of latent pathology, a storehouse of unwanted and dreaded content, Jung, through his own self-analysis, concluded that our darkest dreams might contain imagery that illustrate our internal conflicts and point to their cure as well.
In an essay on Jung, psychoanalyst Joan Chodrow describes the process by which Jung experimented with ways to restore his emotional equilibrium through dialoguing with fantasy and dream images as if these characters existed in the day-world. She writes:
“… he made the conscious decision to ‘drop down’ into the depths. He landed on his feet and began to explore the strange inner landscape where he met the first of a long series of inner figures. These fantasies seemed to personify his fears and other powerful emotions. Over time, he realized that when he managed to translate his emotions into images, he was inwardly calmed and reassured. He came to see that his task was to find the images that are concealed in the emotions.”
Jung later called the process of working with dream figures “active imagination.” In his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he describes terrifying encounters with his unconscious, which often threatened to overwhelm him. His gradual discovery of how to work with the fearsome material flooding his psyche has been posthumously published in The Red Book.
Written closer to the end of his life, Memories, Dreams, Reflections details perhaps more objectively Jung’s actual experience during the time of his turmoil and outlines how he came to use his own frightening encounters with his psyche to form some of his most lasting theories about conscious and unconscious material:
“… I did my best not to lose my head but to find some way to understand these strange things. I stood helpless before an alien world; everything in it seemed difficult and incomprehensible. . . . But there was a demonic strength in me, and from the beginning there was no doubt in my mind that I must find the meaning of what I was experiencing in these fantasies.
“I was frequently so wrought up that I had to do certain yoga exercises in order to hold my emotions in check. But since it was my purpose to know what was going on within myself, I would do these exercises only until I had calmed myself enough to resume my work with the unconscious. As soon as I had the feeling that I was myself again, I abandoned this restraint upon the emotions and allowed the images and inner voices to speak afresh…
“To the extent that I managed to translate the emotions into images—that is to say, to find the images that were concealed in the emotions—I was inwardly calmed and reassured. Had I left those images hidden in the emotions, I might have been torn to pieces by them…. As a result of my experiment I learned how helpful it can be, from the therapeutic point of view, to find the particular images which lie behind emotions.” (MDR, p. 177).
What if dream figures could step out of our dreams and talk to us, and tells us why they have appeared and what they want?
Using the imagination as a tool for transformation is what drew me to Jung and, later, to work with active imagination. As a writer, I inherently trust the wisdom of my unconscious mind to lead me to the story inside the story. To show me what I am not looking at, what escapes my awareness but wants to be seen. What a revelation to discover that the nightmares that wake us, shaken and despairing, might indeed be coded messages of a healing source within!
Try it yourself. Sit in a quiet place and recall a figure that has appeared to you in a dream. Talk to it. What is your second grade teacher doing in a dream? Why is she grooming a parrot? Why is this happening in your grandmother’s yard? To find out the meaning of the dream, active imagination encourages the dreamer to dialogue with dream figures in waking life. We ask and through their answers we associate what these figures might mean to us. Do they bring any stories, myths or fairy tales to mind? Looking at dream images through an archetypal and a personal lens allows us to see, alternately, the broadest and the most precise meaning of our dreams. What I’m suggesting is a simplified process but many good guidebooks exist. In the animate world of dreams, cars, trees, shoes, dogs can all speak, and what they have to say has everything to do with your life.
One of the many things that fascinates us about our dreams is that they hint at an alternative life. Anyone who has ever tried to recapture or re-enter a dream knows that dreams live in us but are autonomous and impervious to our will. They visit while we sleep, transporting us to landscapes real and surreal, offering wild and awesome narratives, oracular portents, and often hilarious outcomes. The uncanny wisdom or cleverness or solemn warnings of our dreams seem to have everything and nothing to do with us.
To compound the paradoxical mystery of dreams, they are intensely personal, often repetitive, and yet share common themes with the dreams of others. We arrive too late for the train. We are unprepared for the big exam. We forget our house keys, lose our eye glasses. Our hair falls out, our teeth are loose, the toilet is plugged. We lift our arms and fly away. The commonality of some dream images points to universal or archetypal motifs in the human psyche, yet each dream is unique to the dreamer, its meaning and relevance part of an intimate and individual portrait of a singular unconscious.
“The dream is a spontaneous self-portrayal, in symbolic form, of the actual situation in the unconscious,” writes Carl Jung in The Collected Works. (Vol. 8, para 505)
After splitting with his friend and mentor, Sigmund Freud, Jung went on to develop his own theories of dream interpretation. For Jung, they were not manifest representations of repressed (latent) Oedipal conflicts and unresolved childhood wish-fulfillment interpreted against a more or less static system of symbol equivalents (snake=phallus; cave=womb); for Jung, dreams are a dynamic aspect of our evolving psyches.
According to authors Edward Whitmont and Sylvia Brinton Perera in Dreams, a Portal to the Source, “Each dream may be seen as aiming toward a widening of awareness. It offers comment, correction, and contributions toward problem solving. Thereby, it strengthens, coalesces or balances the dreamer’s waking views, and, thus, it serves as an important vehicle to support psychological development.”
Dreams may challenge our assumptions of who we are or may fill out what we don’t already know about ourselves. Jung believed dreams do serve in a compensatory or complementary manner by informing the conscious mind of ignored, overlooked, or denied aspects of self, prompting the dreamer with dream-dramas and narratives the ego has tuned out. Concerning this compensatory function of dreams, Jungian analyst Dr. Murray Stein wrote me: “It’s important to understand that Jung’s use of the term ‘compensation’ means ‘adding to’ and ‘balancing’ and with a prospective, forward-looking meaning that facilitates individuation.”
Viewed from this perspective, the dream is our friend, our ally, our guide over a lifetime. It presents truths that have not yet reached the level of our conscious awareness.
In The Meaning of Psychology for Modern Man, Jung wrote, “In each of us there is another whom we do not know. He speaks to us in dreams and tells us how differently he sees us from the way we see ourselves.”
In dreams, we step out of the ego world of order and certainty into the domain of the interior, where we may discover our true selves and the path to our destiny. In his essay, “Jung’s Contributions to Psychoanalysis,” Dr. Stein writes, “With the notion of transformation (Wandlung), Jung introduced dramatic openness and flexibility into the psychic system and laid the groundwork for considering the possibility of prolonged psychological development throughout the lifespan, i.e., the individuation process. With his understanding of the symbol, he radically overcame the prevailing intellectual tendency in psychoanalysis toward reductionism, including psychological reductionism and not only biological reductionism. Together, these two terms open a vast space for investigating the reality of the psyche . . .”
Several I Ching hexagrams coax the practitioner: “It furthers one to cross the great water.” So, too, our dreams encourage us to continue onward despite obstacles and rocky terrain. Over time, we encounter inner and outer conflicts. We change, and our dreams reflect these changes or the changes that still need to be addressed. A dream in which you are at a banquet but lacking silverware may mean one thing when you are twenty and something entirely different when you are sixty. Just so, a dream in which you are about to be attacked by wild dogs might suggest your instinctual life feels threatening. In later years, the pack of dogs may have metamorphosed into a loving and loyal canine friend.
We can’t think our way back into dreams, but we can re-enter them with our conscious minds. We can dialogue with dream figures much as Jung did in The Red Book, and ask them to state their intentions and enlighten us with their wisdoms. There is no finite end to the reaches of our imaginations, nor, as our dreams indicate, are there limits to our capacity to transform.
Five Things Our Dreams Could Be Telling Us
Dreams are spontaneous self-portraits, in symbolic form, of the actual psychological situation in the unconscious. (paraphrase of Jung in The Collected Works)
Dreams “offer comment, correction, and contributions toward problem-solving” in our conscious life. (Whitmont & Perera in Dreams, a Portal to the Source)
Dreams inform us of ignored, overlooked or denied aspects of self.
Dreams present the underlying archetypal and mythological motifs that direct, pattern, and give meaning to our waking existence.
Dreams map our psychological and spiritual transformation.
Late one rainy afternoon, while I was organizing my bookshelves, I discovered a copy of Maurice Sendak’s award-winning picture book, Where The Wild Things Are. On the cover was the well-remembered curious creature, part monster (claws, horns, gigantic in size and girth), part human with its dreamy, endearing smile and clean, unhairy man-feet.
It’s a quiet night in the monster’s world. Not a breeze stirs the palm trees under which he dozes, the brightening night sky still dominated by stars. Opposite the sleeping monster a lone sailboat is anchored in a churning river, but no human sailor is in sight.
Child and adult readers alike understand what these images convey: open the book and you too sail into a fantastic world in which known entities – trees, sailboats, moon and stars – coexist with the shapes of things unknown. We have inhabited this territory all our lives, since most nights we too are stirred when our unconscious minds generously initiate and guide us into the unfamiliar and sublime realm of dreams.
At the core of the story is the archetype of transformation young Max undergoes during the mythopoeic adventure of a night sea journey. Jung writes in The Psychology of the Transference, “The night sea journey is a kind of descensus ad inferos – a descent into Hades and a journey to the land of ghosts somewhere beyond this world, beyond consciousness, hence an immersion in the unconscious.” Typically, in night sea journeys the hero is swallowed by a whale or sea creature, but Jung’s description suggests a form of katabasis, the Greek word for “gradual descending,” used in the ancient world to describe a descent in search of understanding, often to the underworld for the purpose of renewal and rebirth.
And so it is with Max, Sendak’s young hero, dressed in his wolf suit, complete with snarly grimace and claws, a boy in a costume soon to meet the monsters of his own imagination.
Max, and his inner monsters, can only be transformed during the night, for it is through unconscious means that the child’s anger, unappeased by logic and rational thought and impervious to parental demands, is assuaged. Sendak tells us as much through his poignant illustrations: within a couple pages Max’s day-world disappears. His bedroom sprouts a forest; shining outside Max’s window, the full moon waxes and wanes according to its own inherent laws and wisdoms. We have entered timeless space, wilderness, where nature, in its weird and lovely fecundity, reigns.
Sendak has written and spoken about how his personal history influenced his work. The monstrousness of the holocaust, the European relatives he thought of as “grotesques,” the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby as a manifestation of collective evil, all shaped the children’s tales Sendak wrote. But Sendak is also telling us something more profound about the transpersonal aspect of ego development, that wildness made conscious is energy that can be harnessed for the creative rather than the destructive.
Max said, “BE STILL!” and tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once. And they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all and made him king of all wild things.
Joseph Campbell has called this scene, in a conversation with Bill Moyers, “one of the great moments in literature . . . because it’s only when a man tames his own demons that he becomes the king of himself if not of the world.”
We need not lose our human form to rage or fear. In the dark night of the soul, potentialities and possibilities exist, though a different kind of vision may be necessary to see them.
In Dream Analysis, Jung wrote: “[The] great principle of transformation [begins] through the things that are lowest . . . that hide from the light of day and from man’s enlightened thinking, hold also the secret of life, that renews itself again and again, until at last, when man understands, he may grasp the inner meaning which has been till then hidden within the very texture of the concrete happening.”
“Let the wild rumpus start!” Max shouts after being made king of all the wild things. He is announcing a joyous new order, one that celebrates the integration of solar and lunar consciousness. We have ascended with him from the underworld into a new day.
I’m brought back to my lady on the path, her explosion of warmth, tenderness, connectedness, that occurred when she saw Maisie. Is it that animals offer us love free of judgments and conditions – and we mirror their uncomplicated love in return? Does their exuberance for living awaken our own élan vital?
Our connection to our pets is not only practical and utilitarian, but also has a spiritual dimension. Perhaps it is this spiritual dimension that is responsible for our deep love for our critters. In Nepal, an entire day is set aside for a festival, Kukur Tihar, that honors dogs for their loyalty and friendship.
The Greek goddess Artemis, Diana in the Roman tradition, travels with a hound at her side. Dogs feature in Native American lore, and guard the doors to heaven and hell in the Hindu tradition. Dogs have been celebrated in myth, fairy tale, poetry and fiction. The poet Mary Oliver has written Dog Songs, an entire book of poems and essays celebrating her beloved four-leggeds.
Or could the woman’s reaction have more to do with the irresistibility of puppies? And of Golden Retriever puppies, in particular? In their profile of Golden Retrievers, Modern Dog calls out their special appeal:
“Yes, all puppies are cute and adorable, but when it comes to Goldens, they’re in a class of their own. There’s something particularly heart-melting about these bundles of wriggling blond fur, with their oversized paws, soft brown eyes, alert tails and, of course, velvet floppy ears.”
Shall we ever understand our sudden attraction to someone? Or some dog? What is the moral of my dog story? There is no moral. There is only this: expect life to flummox you. Love may be blossoming where you least expect it.
“A dog can never tell you what she knows from the smells of the world, but you know, watching her, that you know almost nothing.”—Mary Oliver, Dog Songs
I’m here in the North Woods of Wisconsin at our cabin on Deer Lake. It’s mid-June. The pine and spruce are as we left them last winter, stalwartly evergreen. The phoebe has returned to her nest under the eaves; the snappers are hatching; at night the thousand stars offer their cool ardent light. Sound good?
“Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience,” says Ralph Waldo Emerson, suggesting that we would all benefit if we could align ourselves with nature’s rhythms. Isn’t this something we already know but disregard, our lives entwined and structured by a digital clockwork that takes no notice of the rising and setting of the sun? It’s too early in our embrace of digital technology to diagnose its effects and benefits, but our conversations betray what we already know: stress and anxiety lead the descriptors.
One of our greatest thinkers, researcher and biologist E. O. Wilson, writes, “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.” I must have intuitively known this when I moved into our cabin to complete my first novel, The Conditions of Love. Every writer has days of frustration, days of fear and despair, when words won’t come and some unknown interference blocks thought and inspiration.
Anyone who has been raised by a cruel or neglectful mother can attest to a painful legacy of rejection. The effects of deprivation of good maternal care are uncontestably at the core of a host of psychological maladies. Our first relationship is with our mothers. Across cultures an infant’s first attempt at word-forming starts with babbling the sound Ma—mommy, maman, mater, mutti, amma, mare—as if from birth we are programmed to call out to the person most likely to sustain our lives.
But what do we make of negative mothers, those who do not care for and attend to us? Once, on a friend’s sheep farm where I’d gone to help with lambing, I witnessed the sad spectacle of a mother ewe rejecting her offspring. Tottering on its weak legs, the lamb struggled to nuzzle and suckle, but the ewe shoved the lamb from its udder. The lamb tried again, and again the ewe kicked and butted until the newborn lamb collapsed and gave up. Recently, while reading Peg Streep’s excellent book, Mean Mothers, this haunting image returned to me.
“. . . not all mothers love, unconditionally or otherwise. For the mother who doesn’t, the cultural myths of unconditional love and maternal instinct require her to hide and deny her feelings at all costs, even if she cannot always keep herself from expressing them in words or gestures. There’s no room in the mother myth for the mother who resents all the attention her infant or toddler needs, or who chafes at the necessary loss of freedom and self-focus the transition into motherhood usually entails.”—Peg Streep, Mean Mothers
Our personal mother may be cruel and inadequate in fulfilling our needs, but it’s helpful to enlarge our understanding of their influence by exploring the archetypal dimensions of motherhood and situating the personal within the context of the universal. As Carl Jung writes:
“. . . all those influences which the literature describes as being exerted on the children do not come from the mother herself, but rather from the archetype projected upon her, which gives her a mythological background and invests her with authority and numinosity.”—Carl Jung, Four Archetypes
Behind the personal mother is the archetype of the Great Mother. She is the force that drives creation and destruction, fecundity but also the barren womb. The Great Mother is Mother Nature who brings us fruit and grain but also hurricanes, drought, and locusts. She is Gaia, Demeter, Isis, and all the other goddesses from the beginning of time who have been worshiped and propitiated, demonized and thrown out. She is not our birth mother, she is the our psychic heritage of what motherhood attains, and she carries within her the poles of good and bad mothers that come down to us through fairy tales and myths.
“These are three essential aspects of the mother: her cherishing and nourishing goodness, her orgiastic emotionality, and her Stygian depths.” —Carl Jung, Four Archetypes
As the bad mother we know her as the queen in Snow White, as Cinderella’s stepmother, as Circe or Medusa, whose gaze turns us to stone. These figures stand for a reversal of positive mothering. Instead of providing food and comfort, they seduce and devour, harboring a secret malicious intent. They “eat up” our self-confidence or numb us with their betrayal. Many of us read these tales and identify ourselves in the narrative. We say, Yes, my mother is just like that, and we can understand that from the beginning of time there have probably been mean mothers, and realize, because of this long history, that we too can survive our own.
Among the archetypes, the witch is a fascinating figure. When someone calls another “a witch,” we know exactly what they mean. The witch has powers. She is uncanny and unholy. She lives outside the borders of civilization and has been ostracized because her ways stand in opposition to accepted values, thus challenging our own impulse to conform. To not conform, especially as women, puts us at risk of being called a witch (or the rhyming word that begins with a B).
“The witch figure presents an awesome image of the primordial feminine concern with herself. Maternal life spends itself like life’s blood flowing outward to nourish the sounds and bodies of loved ones. In the witch figure, life flows inward and downward to fuel the dark recesses of a woman’s psyche or a man’s anima.”—Ann and Barry Ulanov, The Witch and the Clown: Two Archetypes of Human Sexuality
The witch reminds us there may well be unnamable and untamable aspects of ourselves where passions stagnate and fester. What parts of us don’t fit into the conventional idealized feminine? Do we harbor an urge that wishes to transgress and to cross borders? Historically, innocent women have been tortured and killed because the prevailing masculine rule feared female sexuality.
What if we draw on the full complexity of the mother archetype and think of our mean mothers in another way: as women whose creativity has been stifled, the vital flow of their creative energies dammed up, ignored or rejected, and thus unavailable to be consciously used? Without a positive outlet, these women may experience a fixed negativity that damages their ability to nurture.
The hundreds of similar fairy tales illustrate the universality of certain psychic phenomena. In most tales, the witch is a persecutory figure. She pounces on victims who feel helpless to defend themselves. In reality, young children can be helpless victims of parental neglect, and good fairies do not always intercede. But as adults, we can see beyond our own situations to the archetypal dimensions that underlie our present reality and discover we do not suffer alone. In these tales, help of some sort usually steps forward to rescue the heroine, often in the form of animals, birds or toads. We can hope that these also represent archetypes: inner helpers cultivated in our own psyches who will lead us out of harm’s way.
As many of you know, I was recently honored to receive an invitation from Psychology Today to join their impressive roster of bloggers. I’ll be cross-posting here what I blog there, so regular visitors here won’t miss anything. But if you have any comments on my blogs that you think the Psychology Today community would appreciate, do stop by and share your thoughts. Here’s the link. Below is the entry I posted there on April 17, 2016.
A story has haunted me from the moment I read it. It haunts me still. It’s a true story set in a death camp: March 1945, and the German forces are on the run. An inmate tells a young psychiatrist he has had an auspicious dream: a voice promises to answer any question the man asks. The man wants to know when the camp will be liberated. The voice gives him a specific date, March 30.
The night before the prophesied liberation no Allied armies appear, and the man falls ill. The next day he is delirious, and the following day the man dies of a disease his body has resisted throughout his years of imprisonment. In Man’s Search for Meaning, the book in which this story appears, Viktor Frankl writes: “Those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man—his courage and hope, or lack of them—and the state of immunity of his body will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.” Speaking of his comrade, Frankl explains, “His faith in the future and his will to live had become paralyzed and his body fell victim to illness…”
Even as a youngster I knew that terrible things happened to people. I yearned to know how these people survived. This was at a time when Hollywoodized battles from World War II played nightly on the TV, the days of “duck and cover” and Sputnik. Paranoia was in the air.
Nothing would have alerted an outsider to my unconscious data-gathering, (well, maybe the perpetual furrow between my brows), but I was like a lot of kids who seem normal, (that shudder-inducing word that conjures its opposite, abnormal). I can’t say how young I was when I began taking notes on the subtle and not-so-subtle variants of suffering. Decades would pass before I realized that this is the proclivity of the novelist, observer and recorder of human miseries.
I create characters. My characters have a will and destiny of their own. They come from me, but are not me. They are separate entities that dwell in a less egocentric part of my psyche. As such, they often surprise me with their wisdom.
And so, unbeknownst to me while I was writing it, The Conditions of Love, my debut novel, has at its thematic core my childhood inquiry about resilience. How do we survive the afflictions that besiege us? Martin Buber wrote: “The world is not comprehensible, but it is embraceable.” The word embraceable, with its fleshy emotive overtones, reveals something about Buber’s philosophical stance. For him, all life was encounter, a meeting between I and Thou. “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware,” he wrote, and I would add, “all journeys offer secret lessons and meaning to be mined after the journey is complete.” This seems to me the heart of hope. Self-awareness requires hindsight, but hope is forward-looking.
Through what I call a writer’s hindsight learning—what the writer doesn’t know she knows while she’s writing the book—I’ve distilled four principles derived from the characters in The Conditions of Love, each of whom has a talent for surviving.
Keep your heart open.
Bitterness has a tangy sweetness, as does resentment and revenge. They shine brightly with allure but their pleasures are brief. Keeping one’s heart open sounds treacly, but it’s a kick-ass practice that requires rigorous faith in what is unseen and rich with possibility.
Recognize the absurd in your situation.
Even under monstrous circumstances, or dreadful circumstances when mind, body and spirit have begun to wither and love has gone to hell, humor may rise up to break through the armor of fear or despair. In its bleakest, blackest form, humor can be a life-saving way of acting out.
3. Confide in a friend: animal, mineral, vegetable.
We need the Other. We need some one or some thing to listen and bear witness. We’re pack animals and suffer more in isolation.
Trust your creative instincts.
I love that Mern, the mother in my first novel, a single working-class woman raising a daughter in the Fifties, kept herself sane (well, sort of sane), by constantly changing her hairstyle and looks to mimic famous movies stars. Maybe our most outrageous instincts offer the most original boost to our resilience.
Whether we are storytellers or not, the things that obsess, fascinate, and concern us deserve our attention. They are, I believe, clues to our deepest longings that wish to become known. The sorrowful story of the camp prisoner who succumbed to typhus when his dream of liberation proved false could be our story if we lose hope. Hope is the jewel in the crown.
I start with a question: how many of us in this post-modern, techno-dependent age trust that we are self-healing creatures? Sure, we know that broken bones mend, wounds scab over, and even the flu can be fought off by our body’s ability to amp up killer T-cells, yet in our over-busy lives don’t we proceed unaware of how to optimize our mental, physical and spiritual health? We’ve got our pharmaceuticals, our herbalists and acupuncturists, our shrinks and expert docs; got our yoga studios, our meditation mats and our mantras too. We gave up tobacco, tossed out the fried donuts and Jim Beam. We count our 10,000 steps, rise early to jog, pump iron at the gym. Still, we are an anxious lot, exhausted, depressed, and often overwhelmed. I know this from personal experience. I join the chorus. Me, too.
I’m a fiction writer, not a therapist, but like those in the field of human psychology, I am vitally attuned to the conflicts and sorrows my characters encounter. As in life, so in fiction: the challenges characters face and how they deal with them are always influenced by the clash of individual inclinations and collective culture. Is it any wonder, given the level of distress in public affairs, that dystopian novels are ever more popular, especially among teens? A writer friend suggests that young adults are fascinated by post-apocalyptic dramas because they are unconsciously preparing for the world they assume they’ll inherit. A frightening thought.
Like many others, I feel vexed by the sensation that time is moving too quickly and anguished that life on earth is evolving in unpredictable and damaging ways. A sense of helplessness ensues. But what if, by simple means, each of us could create a private restorative environment, a kind of personal sweat lodge where self-healing could occur?
A number of years ago I undertook a journey that, like many transformative events, continues to yield riches. Let me take you there.
In 1989, my husband and I flew to Athens, rented a car, and drove around the Peloponnese. This was before Greece joined the European Union, before the tourist boom and the financial bust. The countryside appeared untouched by modernity: crumbling towns built into the hillside, goats and sheep wandering across the rocky switchbacked roads.
As we climbed into the mountains, towns shrank into villages. Shepherds dressed in traditional vests and pantaloons and carrying large wooden crooks emerged from stone huts; in the bare courtyards, in the blazing sunlight, crones in their black widow’s garb glanced up from their sewing to stare. The resonant clappers of church bells and the tinkle of mule harness bells punctuated the silence. Our tiny Citroen Deux Chevaux struggled up the steep inclines; the hypnotic fragrance of white oleander, wild thyme, and yellow broom was everywhere.
Please bear with me. This is not a travelogue. The description is important. We were ascending into another world, a transitional space marked by its embrace of timelessness, something akin to symbolic forests in fairy tales in which the hero or heroine must wander, lost and alone, until the soul is called into action.
Inhabiting transitional space changes one’s perceptions. As we drove into more remote areas, stands of cypress, eternal green against a flawless sky, drew our eyes heavenward. The wind-bent calligraphic pines now seemed to convey coded messages. Meaning rushed back into things and challenged our materialistic point of view.
Looking, apprehending, contemplating, reflecting—these are active verbs that describe the qualities inspired by liminal situations. Liminality, as understood by the anthropologist Victor Turner, means a threshold experience, an in-between place as when one passes from one stage of life to another, or when one is in a suspended state awaiting a transition. Liminality is behind the mystery evoked by closed doors, bridges, fences, walls, and windows, places that enliven us and invite the possibility of stepping into the unknown.
On the fifth day of our journey, we pulled into a graveled lot crammed with tourist buses. We had come to Epidaurus. Spin the wheel of time back to the fourth century BCE and here the Greeks built an asclepion (one of several, the other famous one on the island of Kos, dedicated to Hippocrates), a healing sanctuary in honor of the god of medicine and healing, Asclepius. Under serene blue sky, amid the ancient hardwoods, the ill, the infirm, the wounded and bewildered sought help and refuge in what might be the first holistic wellness center in the West. Refuge from the Latin refugium, a place of protection, a place to flee back to. The sages knew the necessity of solitude and sanctuary, a protected space in which the personality can shed its ego-bound perspective and experience the soul’s continuity with all living things.
Throughout the ancient world pilgrims traveled to this site where every view shouted Beauty. The weary slept in the enkoimeterion (dormitory) awaiting the god himself to enter their dreams and bestow curative advice. The body too, was attended. Nearby mineral springs invited cleansing and purification. Altars to Apollo and Artemis provided outdoor cathedrals where one could connect the divine.
Next to the shrines and the hospital and the sleeping dormitory, the Greeks built a huge amphitheater where audiences laughed and cried over Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Aristophanes. In his Poetics, Aristotle used the term catharsis to mean the purging and emotional release that spectators experience while watching tragedy. How wise those ancient Greeks to understand that catharsis, the physical and mental release of pent-up emotions, restores balance and harmony to mind. The day we visited, school children were reading Antigone on that stage.
I’d always been an eye-roller to claims of “sacred space,” words I equated with the Sixties lingo of “good vibes,” and yet I couldn’t deny the sensation prickling up my arms that day. It was as though I’d entered mythic time and something in my very mitochondria was responding. “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower; Drives my green age,” wrote Dylan Thomas, his recognition of Eros, that enlivening spark that runs through the living world. To study the Self is to forget the self and be enlightened by all things, Master Dōgen reminds us. At Epidaurus, I was soon to step out of the lock-box of self, that time-bound, self-interested aspect of one’s nature that reinforces a feeling of isolation, what the MIT social scientist Sherry Turkle describes as loneliness caused by “failed solitude.”
For a long while I sat on a rock outcropping above the valley, my mind emptying itself of months, maybe years, of accumulated detritus. I did not want to leave the sanctuary and knew I must; I wanted to sleep with my bones on the earth where eons ago others had awaited the god. I longed to reconnect with parts of myself that had gone hidden, and that now, in this sacred spot, felt safe enough to return. But dusk was seeping down over the mountaintop, the shadows along the ground casting their darkness. Three weeks later, I was home in Wisconsin, but something in me had changed.
I have no foolproof remedy for ridding body or soul of their aches, but when I reflect on my experience at Epidaurus, now so far away, my mind conjures a list of more accessible antidotes to today’s toxic world.
Cultivate a space apart from your ordinary world and create a ritual that marks the passing from the profane/quotidian to a sacred place.
This could be a patch in your yard, a tree in a park, a path by a lake. It could be an internal space achieved through visualization. The possibilities are limitless. Observe the three S’s: sanctuary, solitude, stillness.
Seek and attend to beauty.
Beauty is everywhere but we forget to look and linger. We forget the sensation of wonder that accompanies the apprehension of beauty. Study the bark of any tree, or the throat of a morning glory. The philosopher Elaine Scarry suggests that an appreciation of beauty contributes to our moral self.
“It is not that we cease to stand at the center of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the center of our own world. We willingly cede the ground to the thing that stand before us.”
—Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just
Honor the images and messages that come through dreams.
Contemplate, write down, draw or enact your dreams. They are direct communications from the deepest layers of your psyche.
Observe and respect transitions.
Transitions provide an opportunity to contemplate a readjustment of purpose and perspective. Think how quickly we race from our computer screens to yoga class, from yoga to the grocery store, then on to daycare and the bus ride home. We make many transitions during a day, mostly without full consciousness of the flavor, texture, or vision of each moment. Stop to savor moving from one activity to another, from one place or thought process to another.
Let yourself be moved by art.
To stand outside a painting as a viewer, to analyze a play, to critique a novel is quite a different experience than to weep violently over Lear’s predicament.
This list is of course incomplete. These are not cures but suggestions that align with our deepest instincts: the need for silence and solitude; for beauty and self-expression; for exploring our spiritual nature. If I advocate for anything it is against the notion that we are helpless victims in an ever-maddening world. The Seventies adage has never been more relevant: the personal is always political.
Arriving at a new destination the first thing I notice are trees and sky. People, the details of their physiognomy, their manners and gestures, their clothing and habitations prompt my curiosity, but trees and sky are the welcoming agents that make a place home. This is a bit shameful to admit. As a fiction writer I’m obsessed by the unexpected beauties, swathes of ugliness, and confounding mysteries inherent in the human condition, but I must also confess to being an adoring student and humble acolyte of the natural world.
My attachment to trees began early in life. In a memory I am no longer sure is recollected or fabricated, equal parts invention and truth, I’m in our backyard on Elberta Road in rural Maplewood, New Jersey, washing dolls’ clothes in a galvanized tub. It’s late June, the air still clear of late summer humidity, the sky a pure jewel blue. I am between two stalwart friends: an ancient oak that marked the western border of our property, in autumn host to noisy conventions of migrating crows, and the younger but equally wide-girthed maple at the eastern corner whose winged seed pods we children stuck on our noses and ran around calling each other Pinocchio.
The leaves of both trees were deeply green, a hue more satisfying even than the edible green of Crayola crayons, the shadows they cast enclosing and giving texture to space as they filtered the light. Their overlapping branches created a vestibule of shade, a sort of room or entryway infused with its own particular vegetal scent within whose borders I experienced the pleasure of tranquility and happy solitude.
Arrows of sunlight shoot through the branches and hang in dusty, pollen-filled columns shaped and reshaped by the whim of a breeze. My hands are wrist-deep in sudsy water. I swish the doll nightgown and party dress through the bubbles, then wring them to dry on the sunny flagstone path. Nothing I can remember prompts me to throw back my head and stare at the sky, but on this day when I do, I’m transported out of my body into a separate sphere existing alongside the known one, the familiar world morphing into a wilderness of new perceptions.
If I spin around I see what I always saw: the screened porch with its slider couch from whose safety my grandmother and I watched the gathering darkness of summer storms; the clothesline strung with sheets and jiggling undies; the webbed lawn chairs circling the patio; the ruffled edge of an organdy curtain billowing from an upstairs window—the ordinary is still intact, and yet the longer I gaze at my steadfast guardians, the maple, the oak, the imperturbable summer sky—each stone in the garden, the delicate purple of the petunias—wherever I look each thing is radiantly alive, gazing back at me with equal curiosity.
There was, as I’ve said, a gentle wind and also an astonishing silence, as if I were alone in an invisible walled chamber suffused with goodness and calm. The words reverie, immersion, liminal come to mind. No more than a few seconds elapsed in real time, and even the sensations that accompanied my experience did not linger. I must have immediately gone back to wringing out dolls’ clothes, or I simply left what I was doing, caught up as young children are with another curiosity, a bug I fancied nosing the zinnias, or I ran off to play at a friend’s call. I had no comprehension that anything extraordinary had occurred and attached no importance to the event.
I forgot about this experience but the experience did not forget me. It sank to the bottom of consciousness awaiting my adult self to resurrect and examine its meaning. It was, I see now, one of my first memories of being fully alive, a person separate but a part of a palpably living universe. As Keats wrote in his Letters: “If a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.”
Certainly not then and not now do I make any claim for a visitation from the divine. In childhood, and my opinion hasn’t changed since, the God of the Old Testament did not fritter away His time spying on children. Wasn’t He much too busy smiting the enemies of Israel to care about me? Yet God knew everything you did without looking, so one could still be punished for bad behavior. The connection I felt was not to a personality—God, Jesus, angels, fairies—but to something ineffable and kindly nonhuman.
Nor can I reconstruct, as Barbara Ehrenreich does in her book Living with a Wild God, that perhaps I had succumbed to some form of dissociative mental illness or epileptic seizure. Neither God nor madness chose me. Enchantment might best describe the threshold I crossed.
For however briefly I was filled with gladness and the feeling of being less isolated, less lonely, as if I had entered my own fairy tale in which trees and birds and flowers whispered their secrets. The oak, with its giant’s torso substantial beyond injury from hurricane or gale, its extended humped roots evidence in my mind of a taproot that surely reached to the earth’s molten core, and the maple with its low-slung embracing arms, were benevolent sheltering presences that bore witness.
I am surprised at how much feeling bubbles up when I write these paragraphs. My self-aware adult self sees with sympathy the small child framed in her fleeting moments of bliss that will shortly be swallowed by chaotic family life; but perhaps it is precisely this duality of inner and outer experience from which we can take hope. It may be that I’m describing a kind of grace, those unwilled, spontaneous transcendent seconds in which we glimpse the eternal timeless.
I suppose now that my early experiences with the benevolent Other may have saved my sanity by providing an alternative to a world often dominated by cruel human motivations and laid the groundwork for a sympathetic imagination. It would be reckless as well as foolish for me to believe that glimpses of the eternal cure our fear of earthly horrors or of death, that end of everything we dread, but I can’t help wondering if we are eased by an experience of a cherishing force charged with maintaining the harmony of the spheres that includes us in its balancing act.
In his memoir, Speak, Memory, which is among other things a gorgeous elegy to loss itself, Nabokov writes about his experience of time, its treachery and consolation. Considering the latter, he says:
“I confess I do not believe in time….And the highest enjoyment of timelessness…is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plant. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone.”
It would have been impossible for my child self to have put any of this together—threshold experiences, love, death, immortality, beauty, solitude, loneliness, fullness, inner and outer worlds—but as I write these words sitting in my rented casita in New Mexico and race to finish a draft of my second novel, I see the timeline that exists from the backyard moment of long ago to this moment now. Newly arrived in the Southwest, I’m on the lookout for a special tree, a companion under whose boughs I can lose my ego-bound self, whose nonverbal teachings will be beyond my wildest imaginings.
Who would have guessed—certainly not me—that the most popular blog post I’ve written so far would be the July 24, 2014 post called “The Five Best Questions To Ask a Writer.” I have to wonder—besides MFA writing students, bookstore owners, and media interviewers—what audience accounts for all those clicks?
In the sixteenth century, an Italian artist and historian Giorgio Vasari wrote an unprecedented book, an encyclopedia really, called The Lives of the Most Exceptional Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times, comprised of more than a hundred biographies of famous artists. Four centuries later, the irrepressible scholar and critic Harold Bloom created the 800-page compendium Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds. During the intervening centuries there have been thousands of biographies written about artists and writers. The general public seems ever more curious about the lives and minds of our creative folk. The question is why?
Of course I’m simplifying a more nuanced plot, but this is my question: as a culture do we relish a voyeuristic intimacy with our artists more than with their created works? (Imagine how the reclusive Dostoevsky, Dickinson, or Proust would have felt about this.) Is the current fascination with writers’ lives akin to another era’s curiosity about the lives of saints? How are writers important to our culture? Are their lives exemplary in ways worth studying? Or prophetic in some way? Do we want to know how they got to be who they are? Do we inquire because we really want to ask ourselves, “Could I become a writer too?”
These questions interest me even though I am one of them—a writer by profession and temperament. Writing is a lonely business, and I have to admit I find great satisfaction in reading this passage from Orlando by one of our true writing geniuses, Virginia Woolf:
Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted his people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.
I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to ask myself if I were interviewing Dale M. Kushner, author. Self-inquiry is an essential aspect of being a writer since self-knowledge is the basis of empathy and understanding others.
Were books accessible to you as a child? Were you encouraged to read? What were your favorite books?
Yes and Yes. I liked to read in private in my bed or in a corner in the library. I did not like to read at school, especially if I had to read out loud to a class. My favorite books as a child were a book of Chinese fairy tales, Little Women and The Diary of Anne Frank.
Are there aspects of craft that engage you more than others? I love language. I love the sensual quality of words. I make sense out of the world through images and the percussive rhythms and resonances of words. I can feel a satisfyingly written sentence vibrate in my body. It takes me forever to write a novel because I might spend hours searching for lemot juste.
What props are most necessary for you to write?
My lightbox in the winter. A bag of raw almonds. My tartan plaid flannel bathrobe. And Maisie, my Golden Retriever pup.
What’s an appropriate way for one art form to respond to another? At what cost do we forget or deny our history? Can we ever truly escape our past?
These questions preoccupied me earlier this month when, as part of its Bridge Poetry Series, Madison’s Chazen Museum of Art invited local poets to respond to Background Story, A New Approach to Landscape Painting, a new exhibition of an installation by contemporary artist Xu Bing. I enjoy this kind of challenge, eagerly assented and took part in a very stimulating evening on December 10 when we all read our responses. You can read my poem, “Elegy to History,” in full below. But to appreciate the context, I should first tell you a few things about Xu Bing’s iconoclastic and captivating work.
But Xu Bing is no ordinary painter. What at first seems to be an ink painting on eighty feet of rice paper turns out not to be a painting at all. It’s a screen covering a light box. The painting’s brush strokes are actually shadows cast by hundreds of LED lights illuminating dried grasses, plastic bags, sticks, rocks, tape, and other detritus. The box is open on the other side so that you can see how the illusion of the painting is created. It’s quite an astonishing act of conjuring. You can see Xu Bing and his crew at work in the video below.
In trying to find a way into Xu Bing’s spectacular work, that is, in trying to find the human element within the larger scope of the painting’s natural world, I took as my starting place the small figure of a Chinese man sitting on a bench in the forefront of the screen. It was his voice I began to hear.
He is man having a conversation with the past, a man summoned in a dream to acknowledge the personal and collective past of which he has been dismissive.
George Orwell wrote: “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”
I couldn’t have predicted even a few weeks ago how timely this quote is and how much it informs my poem. I say timely because right now on planet Earth we are more than ever undergoing sweeping cultural changes, and I believe that much of the turbulence in the world today is the result of collective forgetting and repression. What’s at issue here is not forgivable ignorance but radical denial and I believe there is a price to pay for it.
Perhaps Xu Bing’s title, Background Story, refers not only to the material attached to the back of the screen that forms the frontal shadows, but also to the idea that the backstory to Background Story is the artist’s reclamation of Chinese scroll painting, an ancient and sacred art form, in a dramatic new medium.
“A core element of human culture is dialogue with the past.”—Xu Bing
Elegy to History
At first I thought they were only shadows:
the whole enterprise meaningless.
I was young, arrogant. I only trusted things
I could feel and touch.
Art, beauty, spirit? Outdated ideas.
we had even
a new epoch.
I wasn’t prepared
when Grandfather summoned
in a dream,
called this place hsin—
the meeting of mind and heart.
I sat on a bench tapping my foot
as if at a bad movie.
I lit a cigarette. Mist kept
rolling off the mountain.
Everything was golden,
the color of ripe corn.
I didn’t realize
I had deluded myself.
I’d never escaped.
I was composed
Memories in the familiar vernacular
of my father and grandfather and his father
stormed my mind.
I began to shake
with a violence I’d never encountered.
I remembered how they had forced my father from his classroom.
He had been teaching
In the alley — lashes, rifle butts and boot kicks.
Rain fusing an alchemy
of mud and blood.
My father slipping from this world.
My mother’s helpless eyes.
I lit another cigarette.
All this had happened many years ago.
The Revolution was over.
We had proclaimed
a new age.
I had to ask myself: Why
in this place of serenity
did I still feel torment?
I reached out to touch a pine.
Its needles crumbled to dust in my fingers.
The scent of resin rose in my nostrils
and became the odor
of my mother’s heavy hair.
A thought of childhood
entered my head. I chased it away.
The footbridge was empty. Not a single bird
in the vast, impenetrable sky.
My father was gone, mother, gone.
The others eaten
My slender fingers
so helpless in my lap.
I fell on my knees and begged
their forgiveness. The earth
was neither warm or cold. The silence
a mockery to the chaos in my heart.
The dream was ending and
I did not want it to end.
I promised to return, I promised to remember,
but already the images were fading.
They were only shadows,
to be replaced by newer shadows.
Watch a video of how Xu Bing and his studio create his installations
We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.—Talmudic saying
Our new Golden Retriever puppy is nearly six months old and her learning experiences are our learning experiences. Five times a day she whimpers to go out; five times a day we tell her: Not now, Maisie — all three of us learning what to expect from each other concerning patience.
Even though she is our fourth Golden in a long line of beloved earlier dogs, the art of dog training and the knowledge and understanding of canine behavior has exponentially increased since our last dip into dog parenting. This, I think, follows the trend in childrearing — hundreds of “experts” with completely contradictory advice: Have the baby sleep in your bed; never let the baby sleep in your bed.
A number of years ago I took myself to a small town in Switzerland outside Zurich where Carl Jung founded his training institute for Analytical Psychology. I was exploring the notion of becoming a Jungian analyst and had signed up for a summer intensive training program as a litmus test for a career change. My mother had been calling me her psychiatrist for years, a title I would gladly have shucked if there had been anyone else for the job. I was a dutiful daughter, a patient listener whose sympathetic clucks my mother enthusiastically interpreted as “Poor you.”
By the time I arrived in Küsnacht, I’d earned an MFA in Poetry, had numerous publications in prestigious literary journals and was enjoying teaching writing workshops. It seemed enough. More than enough. My children were still at home, and I could hardly keep up with myself as it was. And yet… something else was calling.
Something else was calling.
Jung himself would have been interested in my choice of words. “Call” from the Old Norse Kalla, meaning “to summon loudly.” What was calling me and to which calling was I being called? The motivation to study depth psychology was nothing as jolting as an angel (or devil) sitting on my shoulder directing me to change my life. It was something more akin to a still small voice that, had I not been listening, might have been drummed out by the cacophony of the daily round.
Something else was calling. Actually it was nudging me, poking into my dreams. I didn’t know what IT was, but I was paying attention. Just about this time, I had begun to write persona poems, that is, poems in the voice of a speaker who is not the poet, dramatic monologues really, and mine were in the voice of famous women—Simone Weil, Mary Magdalene, Marilyn Monroe. I see now that I was beginning to need a larger canvas than poetry to tell the stories I wanted to tell. I was evolving from a poet to a storyteller, and soon a writer of fiction, but none of this was clear to me when I stood on the steps of the Jung Insititut at Hornweg 28 on the Zurichsee.
Something was calling. Most of us know the feeling—the nameless, faceless prompting that niggles our mind and causes us to flail in our sleep. It’s the road we fear we might not take to an unknowable future.
In my case, the impulse turned out to be writerly, leading me away from crafting lyric poems toward writing a novel. I needed to understand better those paradoxes and conundrums of the human soul that are the basis of good fiction. Therapists and fiction writers share a lot in common: our charge is to observe and empathize with our clients/characters, to listen to their stories and help them discover new ones, to excavate the strata of their experience and bear witness to their motivations, their secrets, their unspoken desires. To do this with grace and objectivity, we need to know our own biases and personality ticks.
My “aha” moment, when I realized becoming an analyst was not for me, occurred while chatting with a fellow trainee. The day was postcard perfect—grazing sheep and gardens of Old-World roses scattered among the colorful medieval houses of Küsnacht, the Alps outlined against an enameled blue sky. My friend and I were discussing “transference,” the phenomenon in which a patient’s unconscious feelings are projected, “transferred” onto the analyst/therapist. (Say you resent your father and have never been able express it, but hey, it’s easy to cuss out your analyst.) Much of the healing in analysis, I was learning, got accomplished through transference whereby the analyst remains a mirror for the analysand to see his own feelings. Bad behavior on the part of the cussee was never to be taken personally by the analyst.
The “Paul/Laura” episodes of HBO’s In Treatment dramatized transference
I remembering thinking on that perfect afternoon in Switzerland: Do I really want to be so intimate with the anger and grief of others? Was my skin thick enough? All day I would be listening to stories and trying not to absorb the emotions behind them. These would not be invented stories either, but narrative tales bound to the real world and woven out of real suffering. Though I knew myself to be the best of empathizers, I didn’t know if I had the emotional stamina for the job.
I realized I wanted to explore the stories in my own psyche that were not bound to time and fact. The writer and analyst/therapist share a preoccupation with narrative and a love of mucking around in the unconscious where personality incubates and where the inexpressible is born into metaphor and image, but the desire to create art is vastly different from the intention of analysis. If I were going to explore inner worlds, it would be my own inner world, and by extension, the inner worlds of my characters, a much more selfish and self-serving goal than that of a becoming an analyst.
Embedded in the art of writing is the art of listening, true listening without the ego’s ready assertions, those automatic habits and defenses that define our public selves. This is listening the way I imagine a horse “listens” to the shifting musculature of its rider. I was just beginning to sense that I housed characters who wanted me to listen to them in just this manner, whose stories I needed to uncover and disclose.
I knew that if I decided to continue with analytic training, the experience would profoundly transform me, and that I would have to make a choice between becoming an analyst and writing, between treating patients and creating characters. I wouldn’t be able to sustain both.
I listened to fabulous lectures for two summers at the C.G. Jung Institut, but I did not stay to get my diploma. Instead, I opened myself to a new way of looking at the world, its shadows and archetypes, the likes of which would surface in my debut novel, The Conditions of Love.
And here’s an afterthought: the something else that calls us can manifest in cunning ways. Both summers I attended the Institut I was called away before the program finished, once for a family celebration and once for a sudden death in the family. Was the fact that I was called home early both times a coincidence or something more? How to interpret the interruptions? I would have to dig into Jung’s explanation of synchronicity and its relationship to fate to understand.
As I get deeper into the life and experiences of Reenie, the main character in my new novel, Digging to China, I find I am reflecting more and more about my own life and identity. Back in January, 2014, I gave a talk at Temple Beth El in Madison on “The Heroine’s Journey” as part of the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation’s Everywoman’s Journal Program. Something moved me recently to revisit and expand on some of that material for an article that’s just been published onBlog-Shmog at Jewish Currents.
I do find it so strange and mysterious that I should be exploring “my Jewishness,” whatever that is, in relationship to my writing, but I suppose what we imagine to be our identity is a bit like strata shifting over time. I’m delighted that Jewish Currents decided to share my ruminations with its readers.
I’ve pasted the opening paragraphs to the article below. You can read the full article at Jewish Currents.
My Jewish Question, My Father
Twenty years ago, I was completely unaware of any relationship between my writing and my experience of being Jewish. Ten years ago, I might have felt a vague stirring of the connection, but had no sense of its depth. Now, working on a second novel, I look back at what I didn’t know I knew until after I’d finished my first book and am astonished to discover how much “my Jewishness” influences the way I perceive and interpret the world.
Why should this surprise me? Unlike other contemporary writers of Jewish heritage whose fiction is steeped in historical and fabulist Jewish lore—writers like Nathan Englander, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Nicole Krauss—I’ve never identified myself as a writer concerned with Jewish experience. But then, I had not looked deeply into the question. If I had, I might have realized that who I am as a writer has everything to do with my obsessions, my core concerns, my values and judgments, and these in turn are tinged by my personal and collective Jewish background. Did I really think growing up in a secular Jewish home left no traces?
Jews are often referred to as “people of the book.” The Old Testament is a compilation of teaching stories we tell and retell at ritual times across continents and down millennia. The Bible harnesses mythology, religious teachings, and history to the written word. Its sacredness is the very embodiment of the religion, a totemic object that has united a diasporic people since Moses, but it’s through the oral transmission of stories and story-meaning that the religion lives and breathes. A song sung at Hanukah begins: Who can retell the things that befell us/who can count them?/In every age a hero or sage came to our aid.
Who can retell? Storytellers retell and I am one of them.
My father was a great storyteller, a purveyor of jokes, a student of Torah and Talmud, Maimonides, Justice Brandeis, and a little Sholem Aleichem on the side. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Isaac and Jacob—these were not his cast of characters. My father’s stories involved figures named Yankel, Nutsy Fagin, or Velvela Rabbit. Like the great Biblical figures, his characters encountered nightmares and wild hope, made bad decisions, employed tricks, spoke prophecy and prayed to God. In other words, they were outrageous, endearing, silly, and closer than Eve to my own human heart.
My father’s stories embroidered the fantastical with the practical, and illustrated in equal parts pathos and humor, cunning and stupidity. The rich were clever and took advantage; children were innocent as were animals; the poor schlemiel got what he deserved. These were cautionary tales. Best to keep a sense of humor since absurdity ruled the world.
When I ask myself how did my Jewish upbringing influence what I write . . . [read more]
It may not surprise readers of fiction that fiction writers have a very intimate relationship with our characters. We hear their voices waking and sleeping. Their stories live in us, they become family, that is, family we choose. Or perhaps I should say, family that chooses us. When I talk about my characters to a new audience, it’s almost as if I am introducing family members to strangers.
My characters reveal their stories to me, but not all at once and not in any linear way. And not surprisingly, the complications that arise in their lives echo subjects I’m drawn to. One subject that has concerned me for some time I call “Girls at Risk: The Enigma of Resilience.”
One of the threads in my debut novel, The Conditions of Love, is emotional resiliency, what qualities enable us to flourish despite bad beginnings. I didn’t realize I was writing about this subject until after I finished the book. I call these post-publication revelations “Writer’s Hindsight Learning.” It’s what the author doesn’t know she knows while she’s writing the book! What I mean is that when I’m engaged in the discovery aspect of writing, moving the story forward scene by scene and trying to be a good listener to my characters, I’m not in an analytic mode. For me, writing is a process of discovery. The themes pick me. This might sound counter-intuitive, even counter-productive, but it isn’t. It’s about trusting your unconscious mind to lead you where you need to go. That means I don’t outline or write out a plot before I begin. It means risking being in the unknown. It means suffering the woes of creative vulnerability. But I know no other way to get to the deeper layers of a story, to the story INSIDE the story.
In fiction as in life, nothing destabilizes the identity of a young person as profoundly as turmoil in the home. I don’t mean this in any judgmental way. Quite the opposite. As a writer, I’m compelled to examine and speak the truth about the light and darkness inherent in human beings—the guilt, the sorrow, the joy, the indiscretions, the desire for freedom, the desire to survive no matter what.
By destabilizing one’s identity I mean the confused and painful experience of not knowing who one is or where one belongs. It’s the feeling of rupture from the familiar and stable structures of one’s life. These can be existential crises that set us on a journey to find out who we are. We ask ourselves, “if this and this and this are no longer true in my life, who am I now?”
“You are not going to use me an an excuse again.” James Dean as Jim Stark arguing with his parents (Ann Doran and Jim Backus) in Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
This dilemma—of finding one’s true self against the background of loss and impermanence—is at the core of The Conditions of Love, and now I see it shaping my second novel, a work in progress called Digging to China.
In both my novels, the young protagonists find themselves in home environments that are about to be disrupted. Their mothers are going through big changes. Their fathers are either absent, (Eunice in The Conditions of Love), or about to be left behind (Reenie in Digging to China). In his book, The Child, the psychologist Erich Neumann wrote: “Once we appreciate the positive significance of the child’s total dependency on the primal relationship, we cannot be surprised by the catastrophic effects that ensue when that relationship is disturbed or destroyed.”
Something Carl Jung once wrote has always haunted me and in some way has been an impetus for my work.
“What usually has the strongest psychic effect on the child is the life which the parents (and ancestors too, for we are dealing here with the age-old psychological phenomenon of original sin) have not lived.” —Carl Jung, Introduction to The Inner World of Childhood by Frances G. Wickes (1927)
As a writer, I’m very interested in the entangled and entangling relationship between parents and children. In both my novels, the mothers are the major destabilizers in their daughter’s lives, while their fathers are absent and idealized. The unfulfilled desires of the mothers affect their daughters. These desires are either thwarted or encouraged by the decades they live in.
In The Conditions of Love, Eunice’s mother, Mern, has a craving to be a movie star. Hollywood and what it represented in the Fifties is quite different from the Hollywood of today. It’s hard for us to imagine how significant movies were in the Fifties. Movies stars were these gigantic, dazzling national icons. Everyone knew who Marilyn or Bogey was. So, we have a mother who yearns for a richer and more exciting life, and a child who yearns for a normal family.
But I have sympathy for Mern and hope readers will too. Her creativity is stifled. The novel is set in the Fifties before Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, before the birth control pill, and women’s lib. Mern IS over the top, but what can she aspire to? She’s trapped in her single mother, working class life. To be discovered as a starlet was one big dream for a lot of American women at that time. Of course this situation is horrible for her daughter. Indeed, a set up for calamity.
In Digging to China, Reenie’s mother Nate is caught up in the political turbulence of the late Sixties. The novel begins one week after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, in June I968. In the course of the novel, Nate becomes radicalized and an activist for social justice. In Digging To China, specific political events precipitate internal transformation. Reenie becomes caught up in the dissolution of her parents’ marriage, and like Eunice, is launched on a journey of self-discovery.
Here is the opening of Digging to China. Reenie is listening to her parents fight in the room next door. You’ll hear how her imagination serves her in providing a sense of magic and wonder that leads to empowerment as she plots how to escape her distress.
Maplewood, New Jersey
They are at it again in the bedroom next to hers. Slippers thrown across the room, her mother’s scorched voice exploding in disgust. Her father commanding Control yourself, Nathalie. Reenie waits in the void of their aggrieved voices, ear to gap, the silence, and imagines her father smoking by the window, mother tense at the edge of the bed, cigarette butts burning to ash in the big glass ashtray. Her mother is Jewish and unhappy. (No one but Reenie notices this association, what she thinks of as her mother’s Jewish strangeness, the vague smile that twists into anger, the constant argument in her eyes.) Temperamental. Stubborn. Infuriating. Words her father labels her mother to be avoided at all costs, though Reenie is nothing like the brave and beautiful Nathalie. Nothing at all.
She should be used to this live rage scattershot in the night, but its randomness (her mother mutely seething at dinner, her father preoccupied but polite, cheerful even) undoes her, the violence chipping away at her confidence. Now she sits up in bed, hands clammy, heart sinking in a sea of blood and plugs her ears, Row row row your boat useless against the parental gale. Wakeful, she can’t not listen: her survival depends on it.
I want my fictional worlds to accurately convey the paradoxes, confusions, and moral dilemmas of human beings. Novels give us the experience of being alive in another person’s skin. How would we know about worlds we could never enter otherwise without our Toni Morrison, our Tim O’Brien, or Khaled Hosseini. Novels are direct avenues to compassion, something our world sorely needs to cultivate these days. And I have to say, writing my characters has taught me so much about risk, survival and resiliency. This is the great mystery of being a writer. We are transformed by what we write.
When I was first married, my husband and I used to joke that together we had a complete brain. He was the scientist, a man of logical and rational thinking, and I was the artist, habitual dweller in the land of reverie, seeker of mysteries and mysticism. We identified ourselves in this neatly dualist way, and neuroscience (was the discipline even called that then?) seemed to reflect our conclusions.
This was at a time just before Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (1979) became a massive bestseller. That book popularized the idea that our brains were divided into right and left hemispheres and that each half was responsible for different, opposite functions.
The right hemisphere was thought to be responsible for intuitive, impressionistic, dreamy, “feminine” functions while the left hemisphere was thought to be the more rational, here-and-now, “masculine” side of the brain.
Even back then, I was aware my husband and I understood the world differently: we perceived and evaluated situations differently, used different models to solve problems, and arrived at different conclusions and solutions. He liked facts and proof; I liked suppositions and questioned accepted knowledge. Cause and effect offered him clear answers. Cause and effect bored me. I liked to spin off possibilities. He liked B to always follow A. I liked to see what would happen if D followed A and B disappeared completely. The majority of people we knew shared my husband’s preferences (and this, I think, is true for most of the West). As you can imagine, some of our worst arguments resulted from the differences in our supposed hard wiring and apprehension of truth.
Writers have a special interest in how minds work. As a child, my own mind seemed at odds with my classmates. Friendship wasn’t the problem: I was highly social and well liked, but I often found it difficult to express myself in the classroom. Words were slippery and never quite adequate to what I had to say. Not all people who end up being creative writers fit the description of a highly fluent, highly verbal young wordsmith. Some of us were mute observers, unnoticed by English teachers or others who might have encouraged us toward expression. This isn’t the usual backstory for a writer, which is in part why I’m telling it—in case there are others reading this who recognize themselves here.
Language itself could be problematic. Like many writers, I was a voracious reader, but reading out loud in a reading group was agony. The letters disappeared in front of my eyes. Trying to translate the images I saw in my head into words, sentences, thoughts, was a confusion all its own. This tendency toward inwardness and understanding the world through a flow of images was surely the first evidence of my nascent poet self—the little girl who saw/felt/understood more than her years and was desperate to find words for it—but how could she/I have known that then?
How could I have known that decades later, Robert Bly would write a book praising intuitive, associative thought. Leaping Poetry gave birth to a new idiom in American poetry that later developed into The Deep Image School, a reaction to the Modernist aesthetic of highly crafted, rational poetry inspired by T.S. Eliot and company. Bly translated and popularized previously unheard of poets like Neruda, Lorca, and Transtromer, writers who believed the unconscious mind was a source of great energy for writers. He suggested that linked or associated images embodied irrational knowledge and wisdom our conscious minds could not otherwise access. Much like my own associative mind, his proposed juxtaposition of incongruous images (this is essentially what metaphor is) generated a poetry of startling insights. Try to unpack a poem by Neruda or Vallejo and they go dry and lifeless. (Really, don’t try to explain any poem. Just let it sing to you.) Poems resist paraphrasing, and especially in associatively imagined poems, the linear requirements of grammar are absolved. We are in holy territory, in the presence of shamanic chants.
Okay, I know. The truth is: any creative endeavor requires the use of our complete brain, the parts that order reality as well as the regions of emotion, memory, ancestral wisdom. The ubiquitous yin/yang symbol above every yoga store conveys this opposition and interdependence that comprise the whole. The circle (brain) contains the opposites.
As it turns out, the neat old models of left brain/right brain weren’t quite accurate. According to more recent science the two brain hemispheres have differences but don’t function as independently of each other as previously thought. They differ in size and shape and in the number of neurons and neural size. They differ in their sensitivity to hormones and pharmaceutical agents and other ways as well, but the most significant difference lies in the type of attention they give the world. The hemispheres house different sets of values and priorities.As he describes in The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Iain McGilchrist, a research psychiatrist, believes that over time “there has been a relentless growth of self-consciousness (left brain) and a shift away from a reliance on right brain values (interconnectedness).”
Empathy might well be another word for interconnectedness. Empathy is the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, and an essential ingredient in creating fiction. In Writing in the Dark, David Grossman writes: “I write. I feel the many possibilities that exist in any human situation.” He speaks about the necessity of writers to examine each character from many points of view. “The role an author plays for his characters: with all his might, with all his talent and empathy, he must exist in their space… He must be completely attentive to all their needs, both the spiritual and the corporeal. He must devote himself to them. Body and soul.” Here, finally, is where art and science meet, where feeling and thinking are not oppositional ways of understanding and judging our universe, but systolic and diastolic complementary ways of knowing.
I’ve recently had the privilege of teaching several writing workshops and working with a number of talented writers. Since I have never actually taken a fiction workshop, I’m always putting my workshops together out of issues I’ve faced and cures for writing ailments that have worked for me. The thing about writing, about any art form, is that what we create reflects our individuality—our interests, our passions, hopes and fears. Could anyone but Hemingway have written For Whom the Bell Tolls? Could anyone but Toni Morrison have written Beloved? I always marvel at the many different ways artists can be creative. Even in one workshop there can be quite a range of temperaments and styles.
Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who you are. —Jose Ortega y Gasset
Once upon a time I lived in a house with my parents, my sister and my grandma from Russia. Grandma Sophie had come to this country as a teenage bride. She was illiterate and spoke in a shifting patois of Russian, Yiddish and English. I didn’t always know what she was saying but I understood her intuitively. We’re going in the machine? raised the question if we’d be taking a drive in the Dodge. Alternatively, Turn on the machine? was a request to turn on the television. “Machine” was a useful word that also applied to the washer and dryer in the basement, but not to the radio or the telephone for which she knew the names.
Lately I’ve been thinking about obsolete language, how the vernacular changes dramatically with time and technology. So many expressions I’ve grown up with have disappeared. Time marches on. Now there’s a phrase that sounds archaic, conjuring up as it does the sweep of seasons across the calendar year, armies crossing the Alps on elephants, the waxing and waning moon. Time marches on, and we feel the rippling of temporality in our bones, light thinning and darkness coming earlier each day. Is this the same Time marked by a digital blink on our computer screen? Yes. And, no. (See: connotative vs. denotative language.)
Language is mercurial, and like the substance mercury itself, is skittery and unstable, malleable to the whims of culture and the fortunes of technology. For the Romans, Mercury (Hermes in Greek) was the god of communication, a sprightly figure with wings on his heels who made swift flight carrying messages between humans and gods. Of all the gods in the Roman pantheon, Mercury was the most playful, a trickster figure, and like language itself, never to be taken at face value. What he said was not necessarily what he meant.
What got me going on the subject is the title of my new novel Digging to China, an expression whose origins are difficult to locate. The urban legend during my childhood held that if you dug straight down through the center of the earth you would reach the other side of the world, the land of China.
China had a mystical ring. It offered the promise of adventure, evoked images of fire-breathing dragons and sweeping mountain mists—iconography at odds with the heavily industrialized, tech-savvy China of today. Other words elicited similar thrills: Everest, Zanzibar. The moon. Timbuktu.
The distance between peoples, countries, continents was vast, and for most of us, utterly unknowable except through fairy tales and myths. Certain names lodged in the landscape of our imaginations symbolizing places timeless and eternal, our own sort of Interior Castles where we just might bump into the divinely otherworldly, where we might dream ourselves into heroes with a thousand faces.
We need our wild, soulful places. Maybe now more than ever, when the world is almost entirely knowable, when we’ve Google-mapped even remote regions of planet Earth; when we can tool on down to visit the blue-footed boobies on the Galapagos, or the penguins of Antarctica; when climbers on Everest carry iPads and coffee from the local Starbucks; when, thanks to MRIs, PET scans and whatnot, the most inaccessible parts of our anatomy have been studied—and the Man in the Moon, the goddess Luna, have become simply craters of rock.
Maybe more than ever we need experiences of the sublime, that state of wonder, awe, and terror that enchants us into other realms. Yes, hooray for science, mathematics, engineering! Hooray for molecular biology! Hooray for astronomy, cosmology, zoology and all the rest, but can our species prosper without niches for our imaginations to hang out?
Maybe our great big frontal cortexes, our rational, logical brains are juiced up by the new synaptical connections technology encourages, but I do believe some primordial, instinctual, not-yet-disappeared part of us yearns to taste the wind on our tongues. Longs to run with the wolves and fly with dragons.
As Mother’s Day 2015 approaches, I feel called to write about a subject I’ve lived intimately, a subject I’ve explored in The Conditions of Love and is now shaping my new novel Digging To China—the conflict many women feel between their creative and domestic selves.
Mother. Writer. Are these dueling destinies? How much do the roles oppose? Do the separate roles fracture our identities? How permeable or dense is the membrane between them? Mother. Writer. Where can we find the energy, the juju, the concentration, the tremendous love, care, and devotion needed in equal measures in both domains? Do you know what I’m talking about? I think you do!
Here’s what I can tell you about my own experience: I struggled. And I still struggle with finding a balance between putting myself into my written work and into relationships.
I love these two poems for their recognition of the split between the “milk-giver” and “the moon-ridden girl.”
Vulnerability. Dr. Brenė Brown, a researcher and popular TED-talker who writes about shame and vulnerability, defines the V-word as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” I concur with her definition and also her conclusion that embracing vulnerability is crucial to living a passionate, creative life.
Vulnerability is a word writers toss around a lot, mostly in relation to how exposed they feel to the judgment of others: readers, critics, editors, publishers, agents. The whims of the marketplace, the fancies or fantasies of the book-buying public.
Less often do writers talk, at least publicly, about the vulnerability of putting oneself at risk in front of the blank page (or canvas or stage), where the risk of failure stares back with nothingness on its face, fueling what is sometimes called writer’s block or just plain frigin’ being stuck: the project has fizzled, your muses fled to wherever muses go to loiter and complain.
But I want to talk about another kind of vulnerability necessary to embrace if we want to engage our creative selves. It’s the part of us that gets shut-down early in our lives by parents, teachers, a world that repeatedly encourages us to play it safe.
But within us, I believe, is a self-part that shuns limitations and prescriptions and wishes to cast off the constraints of convention, class, ethnicity, religion or gender. This is the rule-breaker part (even if the rules are ones we set up for ourselves) that seeks to take us to an “edge” inside ourselves, a border that marks an entrance into unknown territory—our very own terra incognita.
Think here of those ancient maps that marked such boundaries, the edges of the known world where serpents and dragons lurked.
And yes, scarily, this is exactly the domain a writer needs to explore, beyond the known, the certain and predictable, though lets face it, predictable is definitely a more comfortable place to hang out. Anne Lamott recommends writers “write toward vulnerability,” a phrase that sounds counter-intuitive, but isn’t. We spend weeks on an outline for our next novel. The outline gives us a sense of security and purpose, but on another level it feels confining. Dare we tear it up and proceed without it? Dare we trust instinct over intellect? Dare we trust our own individual, unique way? You bet!
In his essay on America for the New York Times Magazine, the Norwegian author Karl Knausgaard remarks that for a country that prides itself on individualism, we have a strong preference for conformity. (See our chain hotels, our ubiquitous Taco Bells and Arbys, our Gap and Pottery Barn-filled shopping malls.) Unlike so many other places on the globe, we Americans do not tolerate our eccentrics or eccentricity itself very well. Isn’t part of the American expectation that one can go to any country in the world and find a safely familiar Holiday Inn and nearby McDonalds? We are not, I’m afraid, so fond of Difference.
The carry over for a writer in the corporatization of all things American is the pressure to write the next Harry Potter series, the next Fifty Shades of Grey. The next American Sniper. The next novel about a.) Vampires b.) Terrorism c.) Post Traumatic Stress.
Not that there aren’t worthy and necessary stories to be told about these subjects, only that what might be determining their telling is more the lure of the marketplace than anything else. We like new ideas if they fit with our old ideas, and we especially like new ideas that reinforce what we already believe, that is, old ideas dressed up in new clothes.
It takes enormous courage to embrace vulnerability as a strategic and crucial aspect of our creative selves. The poet Rilke asks us to “live the questions.” Carl Jung suggested the project of individuation is to “live ourselves.” All creation begins in chaos, begins in the formless void where all possibilities live. For those of you reading this who are writers or creators of any stripe, the risk is to follow our hunches and explore our instincts without any assurance for success. My friend, the writer Kevin McIlvoy, calls this state ‘blessed insanity,” and how right he is! Isn’t it true that what frightens us most about taking a risk isn’t our failure in the eyes of others, but the fear that we have failed to risk living our desires?
*FLYY is a community-based non-profit that offers wilderness expeditions, intensive parent/guardian skills and support groups, and ongoing community-based aftercare for teens and families. FLYY serves as a catalyst and resource for youth and families to transform their outlook, their capacities, and their contributions to others. For more information, you can visit their website at www.flyyexpeditions.org.
As a writer I’m preoccupied by “voice” — the diction, syntax, and emotional registers of my characters. I hear them before I know who they are and what stories they want to tell me. Immediately upon hearing the audio recording of The Conditions of Love, I became smitten with the voice of Tara Ochs, who so effortlessly modulated her reading to give different expression to each character. And she did this for sixteen hours!
Then last month something magical happened. As the credits rolled at the end of the movie Selma, the name Tara Ochs popped out from the screen. I had been watching “the voice of TCOL” play Viola Liuzzo, the white Civil Rights activist who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan!
Thus began a correspondence with Tara that has evolved into many exchanges which I’d like to share with you. I’ve often wondered how an actor goes about embodying a character and developing a “voice.” Finally, I had someone I could ask. And you’ll get to meet her because she videotaped two of her answers.
How did it happen that you became the voice of the audiobook for The Conditions of Love?
For The Conditions of Love, I auditioned with a five-minute sample from the book. I don’t know what happens after that — who chose my sample — but I’m REALLY glad they did.
How does preparing to read an audiobook different from preparing for an acting role?
They are completely different. For me an audiobook is more like singing. I’m choosing the voices for each character as if I were matching a tone. But the tone is something I pull from my personal observations about what a voice communicates about a personality. To prep a book, I use the text to inspire me and I combine that with voices I’m familiar with in my life, and hopefully they are strong enough choices that I can keep them consistent throughout!
Did you find anything especially tricky about reading The Conditions of Love?
It’s always challenging when a character ages, because you want them always to sound real and honest, but also to incorporate that changing register while keeping it believably the same person.
I really love how you gave Eunice, my narrator, a strong, sassy and resilient voice. How did you decide how she’d sound?
Writers are often asked where they get their ideas, and that’s a good damn question. As far as I can tell, memory, imagination, dreams, bits of history, overheard conversations, observations, and popular culture combine in unpredictable ways to fuel a story. The past is always awake telling us where we’ve been and what we’ve known. The future alights in reverie or dreams, at the blurred edges of our vision, offering glimpses of what might be possible. Imagination bundles up rag-tags of this and that and pushes them into consciousness where a whole new thing takes form. None of this is analyzed by the writer, certainly not this writer: when the muse arrives with a full suitcase, I welcome her like a queen.
But here’s my latest answer to that perennial question of where a writer’s ideas come from — they come from the brilliant minds of others! On that note, when recently asked by a friend what writers I’d invite to a dinner party, the following list popped into my head. And what a list! Can you imagine what a vibrant, eclectic, and profound conversation might ensue?
I treasure books where the characters stay with you a long time after you finish the book; and this was definitely one of those books. The Conditions of Love resonates with the experiences and feelings of real life. In that regard, I felt that every character in the story was like someone I have personally known in my own life. It is a book that, after turning the final page, left me with a feeling of being fully and wonderfully satisfied at the finish.—D.F.
Eunice is one of the most complete, believable, sympathetic, occasionally annoying characters, I’ve discovered in a long time. . . . I’ve been reading a lot of women writers again and, though this is not a ‘woman’s book,’ whatever that means, it’s the best I’ve read this year along with A.M. Homes, Spiotta, and Oates. –D.W.
When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach in his bed.
I have to wonder what other first lines floated around in Kafka’s head before he set down this iconic one from his novella, The Metamorphosis. How many possible first lines had he written and tossed aside? This one must have struck him with such truth and clarity that he dismissed all others. Teeming with possibility. We can’t know what we have inside if we are stopped dead-on by the confusion at the beginning.
Anyone trying to purchase The Conditions of Love through Amazon will find no discounts, no one-click option, or even the usual “it will arrive in 3 days.” The wait for the book is two to three weeks or longer, a deliberate tactic to annoy readers into buying a different book they can get sooner. Non-Hachette books conveniently pop up as suggestions for you to buy.
Enchantment. I hope the word sends a thrill up your spine! When was the last time your conversation turned to enchantment? Who talks about enchantment these days? That may be one of the reasons it interests me. As a writer, I’m interested in what isn’t being said in the public sphere—the unsaid and the unspoken.
The German philosopher Wittgenstein explored the subject of enchantment. According to him, enchantment transports us beyond our finite selves. To be enchanted, he wrote, was “to show the fly the way out of the bottle.” To show the fly the way out of the bottle! The French poet Paul Eluard said, “There is another world, but it is in this one.” I agree. Enchantment is with us here, now.
And yet we seem so attracted to enchantment’s opposites—cynicism, irony, mistrust—qualities that show up in lots of contemporary fictional characters who reflect our twenty-first century discouraged and disenchanted point of view. Enchantment, instead, would have us stand in the place of wonder and consider ourselves apprentices in the mystery of Being.
I’ll share a recent discovery—the role enchantment has played in my writing—and how the enchanted state in a writer, in this case me, seeps into the work itself. Another way of saying this is that what’s in the psyche of the writer shows up transmuted on the page. Transmuted is key because sometimes only the slightest aroma of the original idea is evident in the final written form. Think of it this way: The rapture expressed in Mozart’s The Magic Flute is directly related to the rapture Mozart presumably felt while composing it. If Mozart was filled with rapture, rapture will be in his music.
Since May and the publication of the paperback edition of The Conditions of Love, I’ve been on the road visiting bookstores and talking to readers. Book tours are not without stress—Will it rain? Will the fine weather keep people away? Who will show up? Will the book sell?—but no matter how these external circumstances play out, without fail I personally have been touched by every audience, even the reader who told me she threw the book across the room because she was so angry with Mern in her outrageous mother incarnation. I took the reader’s response as a compliment (which it was!) since it means I must have created a believable world in fiction.
I hope to write more about my encounters with readers and the experience of being a private person who assumes a public life, but at the moment I still am on tour, about to head up to the Wisconsin’s Cape Cod , the Door County peninsula for several book events. I expect that once again I’ll be engaged in thought-provoking discussions about TCOL and about the writing life. Just for fun, I came up with this list of the Five Best Questions to Ask a Writer. Every writer will, of course, have different preferences, but here are some of mine.
The Five Best Questions to Ask a Writer
1. What were the early influences on your writing and how do they manifest in your work?
2. How does writing change the writer?
3. What books have fortified you as a writer?
4. Why is the unconscious mind a writer’s best friend?
5. What are you working on now?
This leads me to wonder if you’ve ever received a surprising answer when you asked a writer a question. I’d love to hear about it.
Have you ever felt unaccountably drawn to a city, country, or continent you’ve never visited before? Have you ever journeyed to a foreign, unfamiliar place and yet felt perfectly at home? I’m just back from a mini-book tour of Georgia and wondering about these questions. This is one of the very great things about being a published and public author: not only do I get to meet readers and future readers, something I love to do, but I’m traveling to parts of this country I might not have gotten to visit otherwise—New Paltz and Woodstock, New York (Yes, THAT Woodstock!); Nashville, Tennessee; Athens, Georgia to name a few.
Georgia charmed me. What a flirt! Even with her dirty face and smeared lipstick, she was all soul. My plane touched down in the dusky Atlanta twilight, and after an endless, color-deprived Wisconsin winter, the first thing I noticed was the glorious lushness of the landscape. Every shrub and sapling seemed to be flowering, and the scents intoxicated. Ancient willows and huge old oaks sashaying in the wind were the trees in the childhood fairy tales books I wished to inhabit. I might be romanticizing here, but it was hard not to fall in love with Georgia.
Georgia seduces you with her melancholic, regal and faded glory. We know she lost the Civil War to us damn Yankees; we know internally she still carries herself like a queen and we can’t forget that once she ruled like a queen, but now Georgia is everywhere diverse, a stew of the peoples, and diversity—of ethnicities, genders, ages, and incomes—certainly gives a place soul. Maybe losing a war and burying a way of life along with the dead makes for a kind of graciousness and humility wrought out of sorrow we Midwesterners can’t quite know.
This is all speculation on my part, of course, but when I think of Georgia now I see the South of Alice Walker and Carson McCullers, the grand and not-so-grand houses with their commodious porches where the elders rocked and waved howdy to their neighbors. Those porches still exist as do the friendly and welcoming howdy-dos.
Friendliness was in the atmosphere from the moment we checked in near midnight at the Athens Marriott Courtyard. The jovial desk clerk was not only unfazed by our late arrival, she proudly gave us details to AthFest, Athens’ yearly music festival and street fair occurring that weekend. With a hug, she sent us to bed.
I’m a hugger (including a tree-hugger!) and a hand-holder and have been known to give near strangers an affectionate kiss, so I fit right in with the local custom of appreciative smooches and cheek-pecks. Hmmm—how to say this? Are Southerners more erotically (as in Eros) connected than the rest of us?
I’m also happy to report friendliness took the form of genuine enthusiasm for TheConditions of Love, a novel set in the Wisconsin that has nothing Southern about it. Janet Geddis, (owner), and Rachel Watkins, (events coordinator and local politco), and staff at Athens popular Indie bookstore Avid Bookshop (with help from new writer friend Sara Baker, and Janna Dresden and Ron Cervero), did a fabulous job of pulling in an enthusiastic group who might have otherwise skipped off to hear a band at AthFest. Those of you who know me know how much I love to talk about books, writing, and the creative process with audiences, and the folks who showed up at Avid’s were both wonderfully attentive and great question-askers. One question that I’m often asked, and was asked in Athens, is what motivated me to write fiction after studying to write poetry. The answer is definitely a blog-post in the making!
In Atlanta, I stayed at the historic Inman Park B & B and was hosted by the ever-hilarious Eleanor and her heartthrob, Bob the Duck. (No kidding!) Inman Park is the place to go if you’re interested in historic mansions. Right around the corner from my B & B was Windcrofte, the spectacular mansion once owned by the Woodruff family of Coca-Cola fame.
My friend from VCFA graduate school days, Liza Nelson, brought out the crowd at A Cappella Books. I’d promised event coordinator, Courtney Conroy, I’d bring genuine Wisconsin cheese curds (the brilliant idea of my local PR maestro, Danielle Dresden) to lure an audience. Who would have guessed that the humble and unsophisticated cheese curd is exotica to Southerners? Charis Books in Atlanta, one of the oldest feminist bookstores in the country, where I signed a few copies of The Conditions of Love, also rolled out the welcome mat in style.
Merci and gracias to all including Marti, owner and chef of Marti’s at Midday in Athens, closed for lunch the day we arrived at her door. Nonetheless, the ebullient Marti ushered us in, showed us around, then after a firm embrace sent us to chow down at another local wonder, The Grit.
I conclude that I must return to Georgia to further explore its memorable juju of hospitality, warmth, and soulfulness. Does a place reflect our inner world? Can we find out more about ourselves by investigating certain places? I think so. A great deal of our identity is tied to place, but we are so much more than our hometown selves. In the past, I haven’t been a reader of travel memoirs. Now I may become one. Book suggestions?
I began to write and publish poetry in my thirties. Soon, the word went out among my family members—Dale’s a poet!—something Robert Frost advised against calling oneself, claiming it to be a rather self-indulgent title. But to my family a poet I was, certified (by an MFA) and published.
My first writing assignment might have been my sister’s second marriage for which I was asked to write a poem. The sorts of poems written for weddings, birthdays, retirements, funerals are referred to as “occasional poems,” that is, composed for specific occasions. My sister requested I write a poem, and a poem I did write, though I cannot now recall a single line, nor how I felt composing it. The poem must have passed the mustard since I’m sure I would have remembered any negative comments, as these seem to have a longer shelf-life than praise. Fast-forward a few decades: the poem and my sister’s second marriage have both vaporized.
The next occasions I must have written poems for were birthdays, my Aunt Ann’s retirement, and maybe a Mother’s Day or two. I disliked having to create on demand but understood how much it meant to others to be the focus of an original piece of writing dedicated solely to them. And so I obliged. My father’s funeral is a blur. He died instantly in a car crash while I was camping with my family at a remote site above Lake Superior accessible only by canoe. The outfitters paddled out to find us, and we made it back in time for the funeral, but my poet-mind seemed gone for good. Of course a year later I was writing poems about my father, poems filled with memories and questions about who he was to me and who he was to himself, poems I couldn’t have written while he was alive.
Which is to say I’m in complete accordance with Wordsworth’s dictum that poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility.” I’ve never been a writer who cozies up to writing on command. I do know plenty of writers who swear by writing assignments—Wake up at 6 AM for a week and write a poem before you get out of bed—and others who like to goof around with exercises at the back of writing books. And while I certainly see the merit in this and wish I had the inclination, alas, this way of writing is not for me.
But why not, I wonder? Here’s my guess: to generate my enthusiasm, I need to be empathically connected to the material. Empathy and not just interest means I need my heart and my mind engaged. The mind lines things up, makes a list, gets bossy. The heart insists on value. “Hey, why do you care about this stuff anyway? What’s it mean to you?” The mind and heart are a bit like a comedy duo, the mind played by Stan Laurel, the sourpuss realist, arms crossed over his chest, taking account. Sweet, dumb Oliver Hardy’s the heart—that fool, that big buffoon, ever-loving and always trying to connect.
I’m kidding, of course, stretching the truth (and metaphor) beyond its ken. But let me come back to my original subject—writing on assignment. Sometimes an assignment comes along that provokes heart and mind, and that’s exactly what happened when Justin St. Vincent asked me to write a piece for his terrific eBook, Love, Live, Forgive. Justin had gotten my name from The Fetzer Institute, where I had participated in a writer’s retreat on Love and Forgiveness.
I knew Justin’s assignment was one I could accept with pleasure. I wrote about compassion and healing. My offering includes lines like “Every piece of art is a statement about the human condition, every effort to create, a reflection of our tender, brutal, poignant selves.” And what I’ve discovered reading the other entries is that I am no rare bird in the art world in exploring love and forgiveness and compassion as themes. I’ve been hugely intrigued and inspired by what I’ve read by the other writers, musicians, and visual artists. Their words are insightful, surprising, original, pithy, humorous, wise and absolutely worth reading. There’s a sampling below. Hope you’ll download this free book and dip in soon.
“My most recent fine art series, ‘Between Two Worlds,’ is meant to subvert separatist thinking by reflecting back the destruction of life amongst the speed of our industrialized society. . . . We live in a culture that perpetuates turning a blind eye away from our fear, our grief, and destruction while in that same place is a tremendous amount of resolution, love, and truth.”
When I was first starting out as a poet, I discovered Writer’s Relief. Ronnie Smith, the founder, was exquisitely aware of how writers often work very hard on something and then procrastinate in sending the piece out for publication. What she and her staff formed was an agency that did all the dirty work for writers. Writer’s Relief is now celebrating its tenth year, and if you check on their website you’ll see what a fantastic boon for writers it has become including great free advice on their blog, video tutorials, and a free publishing toolkit. They stay loyal to their clients. They were kind enough to do a shoutout on their Tumblr blog when The Conditions of Love was first published last year.
The WR blog currently features a Q&A with me about the process of writing. I always wonder when I do these interviews if anyone reading them will actually find them helpful. I try to offer tips I’ve actually find useful, and ones you won’t find in most writing advice columns. Here’s one I doubt you’ll find in any book or blog on writing:
Have a sangha, the Buddhist word for a place of refuge. Cultivate a group of friends who love and support you and who understand the challenges of your writing life. Make sure you can belly laugh with them too. A good minute of belly laughing does wonders for the creative spark.
I have found that “recharging” with friends has often been critical to staying healthy and sane. And there are four more suggestions I hope will provide comfort and support to a writer somewhere. One fun aspect to this interview: Writer’s Relief is giving away a free copy of TCOL to one lucky reader who comments or asks me a question on the blog before June 11. Check it out and let me know what you think. You could be the winner.
Right now I’m just beyond the halfway point of my 13-stop “blog tour” celebrating the publication in paperback of The Conditions of Love (it began May 5 and ends June 6) and I’m thinking this is as good a time as any to pause to catch my breath and reflect on what’s transpired.
I somehow thought that a “blog tour” would actually involve me showing up at different blogs, much as I have over the past year at various bookstores, for readings and discussions of the book. What “showing up” at a blog meant I wasn’t quite sure but I was extremely pleased that thirteen bloggers—from Hawaii to Texas to Florida–signed up for my tour. Imagine how exhausting if I actually had to travel to visit each one!
As it turns out, what a blog tour means is that a blogger agrees to read TCOL and to post her (yes, all hers, as far as I can tell) review on her blog on a designated date. That has certainly meant less wear and tear on me, even virtually. And it has also meant that I’ve been on the receiving end of such a steady and surprisingly moving stream of reactions, that my head sometimes starts to swim. Let me share a few.
Brenda at Daily Mayo kicked things off by finding a “sort of hidden current underneath the events in the story” and feeling that TCOL was “sort of dream-like” but still realistic. I loved that! Don’t we all feel that sometimes? Our heads keep us in the here-and-now but our hearts lead us to a timeless place. Eunice would no doubt agree.
On Bibliophiliac Lisa wrote a long and loving review, describing TCOL as being written in a “lush style, driven by character and voice” and “the farthest thing from a formula romance novel,” a comment I treasure. I have to say that all the books I value are “character-driven,” meaning that you feel you are experiencing the decisions the characters are making as you read. Lisa made me realize that that’s the only kind of book I would know how or want to write—engaging in the process of discovering the characters is what makes the writing satisfying. Lisa also picked up on the mythic aspects of the book, something I hope we’ll be pursuing at greater length in a follow-up interview [watch this space].
Heather, the Cerebral Girl in a Redneck World (in South Florida), was most affected by the intense mother-daughter dynamics in TCOL. She shared that she “was raised by a divorced mother in borderline poverty, my mother sacrificed for us kids and did everything she could for us.” Eunice and Mern reminded her of other kids she knew growing up, kids who weren’t so lucky: “Kids who never had enough—enough food, enough attention, enough schooling, enough guidance, enough love, enough of anything except perhaps more than enough hits and barbed words thrown their way—and kids who grew up way too fast.”
What I’ve discovered in reading these blog reviews is how deeply personal their reactions are, how much they reveal about themselves as they write. Few reviewers in mainstream media share as much. Heather found TCOL “heartbreaking and uplifting.” I’d say the same about her review.
I’m not going to march you through every review but I want to share some of my favorites. At the Kahakai Kitchen blog, Deb in Hawaii doesn’t just review a book [she called TCOL “gorgeously written”]. She pores through the book looking for details which will inspire a related dish. She found four instances of ice cream (I forgot there were so many) and so came up with “Mint Chocolate Chip ‘Nice’ Cream.” “Wanting to bring a bit of Rose (Eunice’s earth-mother rescuer and nurturer) into the mix, I chose to add fresh mint as well as a touch of (local island) honey to round out all of the flavors and represent Rose with her herbs and bees.” It will be hard for me to eat ice cream from now on without thinking of Deb’s flavorful review.
So many of the bloggers have been so dear. Anita of Anita Loves Books in Florida tore me up when she wrote “When I finally began to love this book, about 40 pages in, I couldn’t stop reading it. I was praying for Eunice’s happiness and safely, so much of her life she appeared to be in great peril.” And Mandy of Knowing the Difference in Georgia totally charmed me with her comment: “The writing flows so effortlessly, the words so vivid and smart, I was whisked away with the words and the story line.” But it was Marisa of Missris in Pittsburgh who truly stole my heart by highlighting one of my favorite relationships: “The way [Eunice] talks to the turtle, who is sometimes her only companion, and then makes the turtle (who is also named Eunice, also by her mother) respond to her, again almost breaks my heart.”
Who knew there was so much close, loving reading going on in these blogs? I suppose that’s as much the point of the blog tours as promoting each new book. I would love it if this post helps bring some attention and appreciation to them. That would only be giving them back in kind what they so generously gave to me. The complete list of the blogs on my blog tour is below, with links. Do check some out.
Today is the official publication date of the paperback edition of The Conditions of Love. There is a part of me that feels ready to burst with joy at all the good fortune, love and support I’ve experienced since the hardcover came out a year ago (almost to the day: May 14, 2013). So many fellow writers have been so generous with praise and advice. So many readers have moved me to tears with their accounts of what the book has meant to them. Traveling to book stores, giving readings and meeting readers has given me a new and much deeper understanding of how people experience fiction. It seems so magical that characters I created years ago – characters who otherwise would not exist – can elicit such strong feelings from people.
Which is why there’s that other part of me that feels the need to turn and bow and humbly thank all the writers who have inspired me to want to pursue this crazy profession. It seems like only now am I beginning to understand some of the things they wrote. Take this quote from Tolstoy, for example:
“Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by these feelings and also experience them…”
“Infected.” What a perfect word. Or how about this one from Flannery O’Connor?
“If a writer is any good, what he makes will have its source in a realm much larger than that which his conscious mind can encompass and will always be a greater surprise to him than it can ever be to his reader.”
How did she know I would feel that? While I certainly don’t presume to be writing anywhere near the level of these writers, I do feel that I’m beginning to understand some of their hand signals – and it’s only because I’ve had the glorious chance to share a published work with the reading public first hand and realize what a heady experience it is. It’s exciting and inspiring and makes me want to get to work . . . on to the next novel, my friends.
The Vermont College of Fine Arts Alumni Magazine asked me to contribute an article about “Life after the MFA” for its Winter 2014 issue. As graduation season approaches, I’d like to share these words of encouragement and strategies for coping with writers and artists everywhere who may be facing difficult transitions. Do let me know what you think.
The subject line of an email caught my attention last month: Devotional Exchange. The purveyor of the message hoped to start an interfaith/no-faith exchange and requested I send a number of friends my favorite motivational/devotional poem or meditation. When I looked at the names already on the list, I saw some were dear writer friends. This made me curious. I reread the request and decided to participate. Unlike the chain letter I blogged about in February, good luck was not being offered this time. What I did receive was much richer than mere luck. Participants shared devotional passages they treasured. I’ve copied some of them below. I’ve always felt that when emotional turbulence strikes, or when seeking advice on the human condition—go to the poets! Don’t many of us have a Rumi or Hafiz poem we pull out in emergencies? When I was fifteen and besotted by teenage love, I devoured Edna St. Vincent Millay. The poet Mary Oliver is regularly read at weddings and funerals, and Bob Dylan’s a prophet to some. So, here are some of the devotional pieces that came my way, the first, unfortunately, without a credit.
Always expect something wonderful is going to happen. Your mind is a powerful thing. When you fill it with good thoughts, your life will start to change.
When the shell of my heart breaks open, tears shall pour forth and they shall be called the pearls of god.
—Rumi (13th century)
Try to praise the mutilated world
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
—Adam Zagajewski, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh (2001) [Even though written before 9/11, this poem became affixed to the event when The New Yorker published it for the first time on its back cover on September 24, 2001]
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
—Rumi (c. 13th century) Translated from the Persian by Coleman Barks
Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lambsquarter, cutgrass, saw brier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butterprint, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads nodding in a soft morning breeze like a mother’s hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.
—David Foster Wallace, The Pale King (2011)
“To live oneself means: to be one’s own task. Never say that it is a pleasure to live oneself. It will be no joy but a long suffering, since you must become your own creator. If you want to create yourself, then you do not begin with the best and the highest, but with the worst and the deepest. Therefore say that you are reluctant to live yourself. The flowing together of the stream of life is not joy but pain, since it is power against power, guilt, and shatters the sanctified.”
—C.G. Jung, The Red Book: A Reader’s Edition (2009)
“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”
—Walt Whitman, from the Preface to Leaves of Grass (1855)
Who do you go to for succor and inspiration? I’d love to hear what texts you turn to for uplift during challenging times.
What’s on my mind these days is spring, SPRING! shouted in capital letters into the milky-white March sky. My call and response goes like this:
Dale: Spring, are you there?
Melodious Spring replies: I’m here. I’m on my way.
Dale: Jeez. Can you hurry? Tulips, daffodils, warblers—PLEASE!
Am I the first human on my knees beseeching the heavenly spheres? Not likely. How reassuring, how intimidating and yet AWE-some must it have been for our primordial ancestors to converse with the vast Divine. How comforting to feel the abiding presence of cyclical time, the predictability of seasons, the endurance of species assured and unquestioned, the shifting angles of the sun and the pull of the moon felt in one’s bones.
And I have to admit to another reason I want it to be warm and inviting everywhere. The new paperback edition of The Conditions of Love will be sprouting on bookshelves come May. In the book world, paperback editions are truly thought of as a new life for a book. May this be so for TCOL, and may it reach many new readers here and abroad. I’ve just added links to the pre-order pages for the paperback on my home and book pages, if the mood strikes you. [Nudge. Nudge. Wink. Wink.]
But back to Spring! As far as I can tell, in the Midwest its span has been shrinking for decades. Last year the ice wasn’t out on our north woods lake until mid-June, almost a month later than usual, the chill air suddenly bolting into summer. This rapid-shift forty-to-eighty degrees seasonal pattern forces buds to mature and unfurl with unprecedented quickness. Gnats and no-see-ums whirl in knots while islands of ice still pattern the woods. The change in weather is kind of freaky, gut-deep alarming, as is the disappearance of frogs in our shallows. But what to do except shrug, sigh, stay green, pray?
Delayed or not, at least we still have seasons. Just this morning I hung a bird feeder filled with fresh thistle seed and the next time I looked, two lovely goldfinches, a bright yellow male and a muted female were plucking at seeds.
Spring feels like a season of surprises, maybe because it lifts the mind into imagining possibilities. That the rose bush will sprout its pinky buds is no surprise, but what volunteer weed or flower will pop up near the spruce? Two years ago my front yard was adorned with giant sunflowers of varying russet and gold hues undoubtedly sown by crows from a nearby farm. The whole concept of renewal, of starting again, of rebirth ushers in hope that has thinned during long, gray winter days.
Spring is going to be a busy time for me, an exciting time. I’m so honored to be one of the keynote speakers at University of Wisconsin-Madison Writer’s Institute Conference (April 4-6). You can view the program here. I’ll also be meeting privately with students and teaching a poetry workshop.
In May, I’ve been invited to be the featured speaker at the Friends of the Madison Public Library’s 17th Annual Book Club Café on Thursday, May 22 at 7 pm. This will take place in the gorgeous Olbrich Botanical Gardens amid tea and desserts.
I’ll be writing more about these later. For now, I’d like to recommend a poem very much of the almost-but-not-quite-yet season by my friend and one of my favorite poets, Jack Ridl, “Here in the Time Between.” Here’s a tease from it:
Here in the time between snow
and the bud of the rhododendron,
we watch the robins, look into
the gray, and narrow our view
to the patches of wild grasses
coming green. . . .
Around Valentine’s Day this year, I received several emails of the chain letter variety asking me to forward a cheery aphorism to five friends in exchange for the beneficence of good luck.
Good luck. Bonne chance. Buona Fortuna. Mazel Tov. Who wouldn’t want to commend themselves to the favor of the gods, especially since the opposite of good luck is bad luck, or as my superstitious grandma admonished the malevolently lurking Kein En Horah, the evil eye.
As it turns out, the concept of the evil eye is present in just about every culture. (See Alan Dunde’s fascinating book and interview on the subject.) In Hindi the evil eye is known as Boori Nazar. Mal de Ojo in Spanish. The Italians say, Mal Occhio, and in Arabic the word is Ayin Harsha.
But whether natives refer to this deadly gaze as “stink eye” or “rotten eye,” whether the antidote is a prayer, a chant, a bracelet or charm, the message is to be vigilant and protect oneself from the invisible threat.
My own grandmother was forever spitting (feh, feh, feh) —into her hand, into the soup!—as a way of protecting us against evil, her equivalent of throwing salt over her shoulder or knocking on wood. My mother, too, was infected with this legacy and forbade us to walk under ladders or put shoes on a bed. I used to smirk at their contrivances and the ignorance they implied, but you can be sure I was simultaneously susceptible to their warnings and secretly awaited bad luck to befall me for my irreverence. Like many superstitious folks, my family engaged in a mish-mash of rituals that adhered to no one religion or ideology, but helped stoke the ever-present hope of keeping bad luck/bad spirits away. If evil was a superpower lurking outside the realm of humankind, bad luck was its twin. In both instances, the intention was, in today’s jargon, self-empowerment, a way to battle forces beyond one’s control. Like Job, I think they were attempting to understand the inexplainable and with the courage of innocence shape their destinies.
But maybe, just maybe, the irrational isn’t so…well…crazy. Something deeply primitive and instinctive resides in the old reptilian parts of our brain coexisting in a parallel universe with our rational, smarty pants frontal cortices.
Freud wrote brilliantly on what lurks within in his 1919 essay called The Uncanny that blends psychoanalysis and aesthetics.
From another perspective, Jung expanded our understanding of the unconscious by exploring the necessity of a symbolic life. Jung, among others, understood that there are ways of knowing outside the realm of our conscious, linear-thinking minds and that superstition is one symbolic way we humans act on and give meaning to this knowledge.
Myth is another.
Art—poetry, painting, dance—another way.
To concretize what we fear is very helpful! How else, unless by objectifying our fears and symbolizing our hopes, could we know how we feel about the invisible world? Try to imagine for a moment Christianity without the symbol of a cross, or Nazism without its swastika.
Do you use anything to ward away evil spirits? Any evidence that it works?
Two major artists died in recent days, one from an overdose of heroin, the other at the end of a long and well-lived life. Philip Seymour Hoffman, an actor of extraordinary depth, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Maxine Kumin seem, at first glance, to represent two poles of artistic sensibility. I find myself reflecting about the relationship between an artist and his or her life, and the myth of latent madness that still clings to the intensely creative among us.
I once had a Jungian analyst friend say to me that when the gates of the imagination are opened, one cannot predict if angels or demons or both will sail through. True enough. But isn’t it also true that depending on temperament, social conditions, and pure luck, some of us come equipped or grow skilled at battling even the fiercest demons? Why some survive and thrive despite enormous suffering continues to capture my attention.
Hoffman’s work shows an actor capable of embodying the dark recesses of the human psyche, those shadowy aspects of our nature that we deny, ignore, or hide in shame.
In the Sunday New York Times Week in Review of February 9th, Serge Schmenmann writes:
Since his death, there have been many articles about his life, his love of theater, his extraordinary talent. None of them can fully explain why he used drugs, but they do give us some sense of the intense emotional and physical exertions required of someone who fully lives not only his own life, but also the life of each of the people he portrays. All who saw Mr. Hoffman in different roles were astounded by how fully and convincingly he became the other person.
Maxine Kumin lived and died on her New Hampshire farm among her beloved family, horses and garden. She was 88. An accomplished horsewoman, in 1998, Kumin was thrown from a carriage she was driving and suffered severe injuries, including a broken neck. Though miraculously she recovered, the end of her life was lived in considerable pain. She kept writing poems and prose. Her memoir Inside the Halo and Beyond addresses her accident and the experience of recovery.
Clearly Ms. Kumin was a survivor, though we dare not guess why she and not Philip Seymour Hoffman lived into old age. It’s not as though she dismissed the tragedies inherent in the human condition, or that she herself did not suffer. But perhaps her closeness to the natural world with its beauty, predictable rhythms, glorious surprises, and cycles of renewal acted as an antidote and a container for the inevitable misfortunes of sorrow and loss.
Both these artists deserve our unqualified praise not only for their enormous talent, but also for their willingness to accept public scrutiny and the risk of personal vulnerability for a life dedicated to craft and illuminating truth.
Here is a poem I find quintessential Kumin from her book The Long Approach. If you would like to read more of her work, please visit her website: http://www.maxinekumin.com/
By Maxine Kumin
I want to apologize for all the snow falling in this poem so early in the season. Falling on the calendar of bad news. Already we have had snow lucid, snow surprising, snow bees and lambswool snow. Already snows of exaltation have covered some scars. Larks and the likes of paisleys went up. But lately the sky is letting down large-print flakes of old age. Loving this poor place, wanting to stay on, we have endured an elegiac snow of whitest jade, subdued biographical snows and public storms, official and profuse.
Even if the world is ending you can tell it’s February by the architecture of the pastures. Snow falls on the pregnant mares, is followed by a thaw, and then refreezes so that everywhere their hill upheaves into a glass mountain. The horses skid, stiff-legged, correct position, break through the crust and stand around disconsolate lipping wisps of hay. Animals are said to be soulless. Unable to anticipate.
No mail today. No newspapers. The phone’s dead. Bombs and grenades, the newly disappeared, a kidnapped ear, go unrecorded but the foals flutter inside them warm wet bags that carry them eleven months in the dark. It seems they lie transversely, thick as logs. The outcome is well known. If there’s an April in the last frail snow of April they will knock hard to be born.
Of late I’ve been thinking about how the past influences us, sometimes even haunts us. Most of us are aware that our childhoods shape and groom our adult selves, but how many of us realize that beyond our personal pasts we’re also influenced by the lives of our ancestors? I mean the actual events that happened to them—the sorrows, joys, fears, and ways of coping, which through some mysterious process, become ours.
The lucky among us are the recipients of stories passed down through the generations, but others of us search in vain for clues about our backgrounds and have only our imaginations and dreams to rely on.
Last weekend I was asked to speak at a local temple to discuss the influence of my secular Jewish upbringing on my writing, a subject I’d never explored before, or even really thought about until now. The assignment has sent me on a discovery process in which I hope to examine my own brand of “Jewishness”— how I might view the world through the values and perceptions and judgments passed down to me through the religion/culture, and how these, in turn, inhabit my writing.
During my childhood we attended a reformed synagogue. Our rabbi, young and handsome (I did have a crush on him!), was a liberal and intellectual humanist sort of guy who might well have been a Unitarian minister or the leader of an Ethical Culture congregation. I liked him well enough, but he was not the wisdom figure I craved.
I can see myself as a child already on the search for answers to the Big Questions, already a seeker and too interior for my own good. Also, I had a mystical bent. Movies like The Song of Bernadette starring the young and radiant Jennifer Jones set in motion in me a surge of longing to be a nun. I was hooked on movies in which a young woman (often pregnant and unmarried) sought solace in a church. Alone and on her knees, she’d pray to a statue of Mother Mary, whose face was preternaturally kindly and serene.
Before the actress rose from her knees, who would slip into the pew beside her to ease her burden and offer wise words—none other than Spencer Tracy or James Cagney or Robert Young in the costume of a priest! It seemed to me then that church was a place you go when in trouble and always, always, always find succor and help.
Those movies might have been pure romantic schmaltz, but they spoke to me in ways I couldn’t explain. It might have been the cathedral settings, candle flames casting shadows over the altar, Christ’s mournful face, or it might have been the sense of hush and holy evident on the awed or sorrowed faces of the congregants. In any case, the reformed synagogue, by contrast, was for me devoid of a sense of mystery, and my Sunday school lessons more a matter of learning Jewish history, mostly Old Testament stories about battles and exile and who smote whom, than instructions for the soul.
But I was not Catholic. And my upbringing, though not religious, was wholly Jewish in outlook and demeanor. The values imparted to me had to do with the importance of education; loyalty to family; care for the downtrodden; and a sense of the tragic—the Job question—that is, the inevitability of suffering as fate. My character, Mr. Tabachnik, in The Conditions of Love, exemplifies these values, but it wasn’t until I began to ponder how my “Jewishness” (as opposed to Judaism) has influenced my writing that Mr. Tabachnik’s role as Eunice’s moral compass hit me.
Another issue that arose as I was preparing for the temple discussion was my Jewish father’s dream of assimilation, his desire to disappear into the New World Promised Land presided over by the Horatio Alger myth of a friendly universe where anyone can be anything if he works hard enough. But like other immigrant populations, he was burdened by a sense of otherness that was impossible to shake.
My father had one way of looking, acting, and talking that he adopted for the outside world, but he slipped on another persona at home. At ease and unobserved, his gestures and even his language changed. Off came the suit and tie, wingtips, the gray fedora, and out of his mouth came words like goyim and shiksa, or a spew of Yiddish jokes. As a sensitive child, I noticed his quick change-artistry and was puzzled and maybe a little hurt by the discrepancy, sensing the shame behind it.
The dream of assimilation is really an impossible dream since it entails denying a past and an ancestry that cannot be cast off. Every family has its secrets, but perhaps immigrant families and minorities carry the added burden of disowning on the outside what they are on the inside, or in some cases attempting to dissolve their former identities completely. I remember visiting the FBI building in Washington, DC when I was ten and seeing pictures of master criminals who’d erased their fingerprints with acid. Those people too, though for different reasons, were fugitives from their own identities.
The unspoken, the unsayable, the hidden: our ancestors’ secrets come down to us, sometimes through dreams or sometimes by examining our own quirks and proclivities that find a resonance with the past. I suppose it’s not surprising that each of my characters has secrets and a back-story that shapes and influences how he or she acts in the story-present. As the plot unfolds, ghosts from the past haunt the present. As in art, so in life!
Who doesn’t sometimes feel as if they were standing outside a charmed circle, an outlier? But what does it mean to belong? Sharing the same values with the larger culture? The same religion? The same dietary preferences? The same physiognomy? Does feeling like an outsider come from the inside, a view of oneself that has difference at its core? Or is one made to feel Other by the reflection of our peers? Our family?
So many questions! The answers are a work-in-progress. But for now, here’s a short list of books that explore Otherness. I’m sure there are hundreds of others. Please feel free to add your own suggestions and comments to the list.