January 10, 2018

Here’s what I’ve been thinking as my mind squints in the bright New Year: we are a tribe. I mean this in the most inclusive, openhearted and hopeful way. Tribe has become a trendy word, a label given to some of our worst tendencies— clannishness, territoriality, xenophobia, a restrictive worldview of “them and us.” But the tribe I’m imagining, our tribe, stands for the opposite values. We are a vast interconnected network of thinkers and imaginers who embrace the capacity of our mind-hearts to gain self-awareness and to imagine a better life.

If you are receiving this email, you are probably a reader, a writer, a storyteller, a songwriter, a credible believer in mystery, someone already engaged in the work of curiosity. Language for you is more than utilitarian; words matter to you and not only for what they say, but for what they don’t say. The author Ursula K. Le Guin says there are stories that tell what happened and stories that tell what didn’t. Journalism, history, biography…these address what happened. Poetry, fiction…these address what didn’t.

In our tribe we value the imagination as a way of knowing the world. The French poet Paul Valéry suggested that the opening line of a poem is like a piece of unfamiliar fruit that has fallen to the ground and the poet’s task is to imagine the tree from which it fell. You may say, I’m not a poet. How does this concern me? But aren’t we always co-creating our world? (Check out Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and the writings of Emerson.)

Frustration and rage surround us these days. I wonder if our tribe can help transform today’s despair by digging deeper into our imaginative lives. Don’t we first need to imagine a better world in order to create it? Maybe the imagination is a kind of moral effort put forth by our hearts to withstand and overcome that which besieges us? How else could inmates in concentration camps create poems and symphonies?

Is there a poem you’ve read, a novel you remember that taught you something about how to live? How many of us hear the poet Mary Oliver’s beseeching line: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Our imaginations give us access to the living breathing truth about ourselves and our universe, the very opposite of the kind of papier mâché truth (fake news!) that passes for reality. Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” Let’s call this archetypal truth, universal symbolic images that point to the mystery of our collective unconscious, what we share as part of our human existence across time and millennia.

We’ve all had this experience: an image with a strong charge floats into our dreams, and we wake disturbed by its intrusion. The night vision follows into daylight and commands our attention. Sometimes we feel christened by this into a new sense of being. These enduring images are usually archetypal. You know what they are—the Robber, the Orphan, the dirty Old Hag. Prince Charming or the slathering black dog at your heels. The images show up in our fantasies, our dreams, when we’re exhausted, depressed, or in need of some information to aid our inner lives. If this interests you, I write about these things in more detail in “Dreaming Our Lives: 5 Things Our Dreams Could Be Telling Us,” and several of my other blog posts for Psychology Today.

In my own life, Mary Magdalene became one of these images, and for years I researched the historical person as well as her representations in art and literature. The depictions by the earliest church painters based on the New Testament are startlingly at odds with the voluptuous and enticing Magdalene painted centuries later by the Italian masters Rubens and Titian. Caravaggio, the Gentileschis, father and daughter, Georges de la Tour and many others painted versions of the Magdalene based on their backgrounds and the teachings of the church at that time. In our collective unconscious, Magdalene stands for the sinner, the penitent, the disciple, the apostle. Some legends portray her as the bride of Christ.

She is an example of how archetypes can hound us into a new awakening, some bit of knowledge we’ve needed to know about ourselves. I’ve written about this process and my obsession with Mary Magdalene in an essay called “My Magdalene: Divinity and Desire,” to be included in a new anthology, Strange Attractors, that will be published in 2018 by the University of Massachusetts Press. I’m also thrilled to report that 2018 will hopefully see the publication of my book of poems on the Magdalene and the Virgin Mary.

Meanwhile, the new novel, The Lie of Forgetting, is in its hatching stage! The main character is a war photojournalist engaged in capturing some of the atrocities of the late twentieth century. But it’s also the story of three generations of women as it moves between our contemporary world, the turbulence of the Sixties, and the timeless realm of memory. Like The Conditions of Love, the new book explores love in its many complexities and how what we refuse to remember stills shapes our lives.

But back to our tribe. I once heard a physicist say that once two particles touch, even if they travel to opposite ends of the universe, they will continue to influence each other. I like to think each of us is like those particles, forever influencing each other, forever dancing free.

Please do stay in touch.

Wishing you peace, joy and equanimity in 2018.