Disclaimer: This unedited, rough draft material is a year-long project in response to our 2004 theme: pilgrimage. It is meant to be a dialogue between myself and my fellow Mammoths and any of you who happen along. It is intentionally not polished, nor is it finished. Charlie Buchman Ellis
May 1st has come and gone. We’re into the second half of the Celtic year. In just a couple of weeks we’ll be past the average annual date of the last frost, so planting tender perennials can work. Spent today weeding, tomorrow the same, then transplanting.
I’m caught up this year for the first time in a long time. I’ve not confused my priorities between writing and gardening, gardening gets a couple of hours a day, writing gets this time (usually late at night) and soon fiction will get some day time—but this year, in a pinch, the garden gets my attention. Feels good.
Forgot to mention in my week 14 piece about Dad. Along the way, all along the way, from Andover, to Independence, to Denver, to Ft. Laramie and Hot Springs, Wind Cave and the Badlands, from Pipestone to home I felt Dad’s presence. I can see how a negatively valenced experience like this one could easily be felt as a malevolent ghost, but I felt Dad along as a friendly spirit. He loved driving vacations, back roads, unusual sites. Me, too.
His friendly presence continues to surprise me, and I welcome it. It almost feels like my family is whole again. Odd, that death should bring us closer together, still, it’s the way it is. At least for now.
The power of the earth, Jung thought, speaks to us in the language of plants. Each year the stolid, planted nature of the growing things astounds me. To stay in place and yet to grow and live, long in the case of trees.
Can you imagine the transformation of Daphne from human to laurel tree?
Ovid tells the story, but I’m most interested in the transition from lithe, lively, moving Daphne to sinous, elegant, but stationary and mute tree. In Ovid’s Metamorphosis the changes are painful and cruel, without exception, and so this one, too.
Yet, I wonder if the horror here refers more to the opacity of our experience of a tree than to a known horror. Yes, we anthropomorphize trees and consider them wise, or patient, or strong, or sentinentals—I’m not talking about that, rather, I’m talking about treeness from the perspective of the tree.
Now, I admit the contrast between human form and tree from our perspective feels terrible. Claustrophobic. Confined to a place. No longer able to talk.
But what of the tree transformed into a human? Having to search for food. In the ancient forest at least, suddenly becoming prey to the very real predators who roamed the woods. Blessed with language, yes, but lost is the subtle language of chemicals, coming into the tree and flowing out from it—and not only into the air, but into mother earth herself.
Lost too is the thick, protective bark and the communion of other like entities. (Ents?) I’m not sure the transition, in either direction, looks so good.
The Mammoths met in the black forest on Monday evening. Mark, Stefan, William, Tom, Frank and Charlie E. found their way there.
In addition to food and Thomasbrau, the following emerged: A new James Hillman book on war, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, two sales by Odie, a new venture by Stefan, the top agriculture commodity of Connecticut (tobacco), a proposal for a Mammoth pilgrimage in the fall, conversation about the political scene—all wanted a go at hedge trimming, or, was it Bush pruning?, Tom’s plans for his and Roxann’s upcoming trip to England...
I’m always struck by how good it is just to be together. No matter the venue or the number of movies reviewed.
I acquired a book by odd means a couple of months back: Tor ate the cover. (It was a library book and I now own it.) The book was about Urban Tribes. If I understand the part of it Tor didn’t digest, this guy suggests constellations of friends are the 30’s sets equivalent for family.
This doesn’t seem like a very original or even particularly new idea, but it does make sense to me. The Woolly Mammoths has a family like flavor, though our intimacy in our meetings doesn’t spill over into other aspects of our lives as much as family relationships tend to do.
I have a sense this may evolve if recent events like Ode’s creativity sessions, Paul’s Sufi morning, Frank and Mary’s anniversary party become more common. Or, it may not. Even families differ a great deal in their closeness—just look at mine. Most of my nuclear family is 12,000 miles away from here; the bulk of my relatives are in Indiana and Oklahoma/Texas.
The theme of pilgrimage did come up Monday night. It seems, as Mark said, to have a richness to it, and, I think, a timeliness for our mutual psychological development.
This weekend I’m going to spend my last time with the Jungian seminar for this year, and I’m excited about it because the topic, Black Sun, and the presenter, a phenomenologically oriented Jungian analyst named Stanton Marlan has my full attention right now.
I didn’t study phenomenology as an undergraduate, so I’m having to do quick like a bunny short course study, and I’m finding it fascinating. When I get it a little clearer, perhaps after the weekend, I’ll write about it here.
This much so far: alchemy does not separate the scientist from the work. (Did I mention this before?) I’m getting far enough into this that I can’t recall what’s back in the other weeks—when this gets edited, I’ll deal with it, for now...we’ll just press ahead. Phenomenology posits a third realm, a realm neither material nor mental, a land of soul, an imaginal realm. It also refuses to accept the Cartesian dualism of mind/body, inside/outside and insists on seeing the Self as always in context, and part of that context is always the imaginal realm: dreams, poetics, fiction, art, music, and, I think, group life. Well, more when I get it more fully.
Good night. Listening to Japanese flute music. Ethereal. Soothing.
On my pilgrimage I plan to leave all infernal combustion engines behind. Our walk-behind and our sit-your-behind mowers both conked out and Kate and I had to load them into the trailer so I could take them to Dehn’s, our lawn power tools folks.
The mechanical world and I have not ever made peace. This tension goes back, way back for me. My Dad, as I’ve said before, taught me all he knew, and he didn’t know anything.
As a direct result, when I deal with recalcitrant cars, mowers, bicycles, chain saws, chippers, or roto-tillers my frustration level goes sky high and I become a very unhappy camper.
I hit the same wall at first with drawing—how do I get past the “I don’t want to be incompetent.” barrier? In order to learn anything new, we have to go through a period of incompetency, by definition. It doesn’t feel good to me if its mechanically or artistically related.
Now to learn new academic subjects, say phenomenology for example, I don’t mind being incompetent. I imagine because I have a history of being able to overcome my initial ignorance, then to thrive in a new area of learning.
With drawing, Sheila Asato, my drawing sensei, has figured out a way to help me past this problem. I’m not completely sure about her technique, but it involves praising small improvements, having an unshakable confidence in my ability to progress, and demonstrating competence herself. She also has an interest in the intellectual and psychological aspects of drawing which helps me stay focused.
As I write this, I see the problem. I have never had a mentor who understood machines and me. Now, I say I don’t want to have one either, but the pleasure I’m getting from the drawing classes makes me wonder. If there was a kindly small engine mechanic who loved teaching...
This does relate to pilgrimage. I happen to know I’m not alone on this competency thing. Apparently adult learners very often present this fear. It’s getting outside a comfort zone, outside the familiar and the places you know. If you can do it, then it becomes possible to take in new information, new skills, new experiences. Sound familiar?
Yes, our pilgrimage—I believe it was Charlie Haislet who flagged this one—has to be difficult, not for difficulties sake, but because it has to be difficult; that is, it has to move us outside our comfort zones, outside familiar geography and relationships, only then can we find the grail.
I think of the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Talk about moving outside your comfort zone. How much courage it must take to submit to a stranger’s blade.
In spite of this positive spin I hunch I’m not going make my peace with the infernal combustion engine and its minions (or, was that pinions?). I suppose I’m turning away from an entire, epoch defining body of knowledge and wisdom, and I can’t deny I enjoy the Indianapolis 500, being able to drive into the Cities, having goods that come by truck, and I’m a big fan of the train, even so, I don’t like having responsibility for these metallic simulacrums of horses and elephants and oxen and sheep.
As to having responsibility for plants and animals, I enjoy it. When I was out in South Dakota, I had a chance to observe buffalo up close, and I realized, for the first time, that these were not buffalo, they were individuals, creatures with idiosyncrasies, different gifts, temperaments, and life history. Even the prairie dogs and the coyotes displayed clear individuality within their general similarities.
When I had these realizations, I knew living with a dog pack all these years has made my sensibility toward animals much more acute. In the same instant I looked at the cattle in the fields, especially the calves, and the tender care the mothers showed their babies, and it came to me how we have corrupted motherhood in certain domestic animals like cows, pigs, and sheep. All that tenderness and kindness in service of human appetites.
I eat beef occasionally so I’m no saint here, but I had this strong feeling out there on the plains. Then, yesterday, Kona brought a rabbit she’d caught and laid it in the yard. I called her into eat and she came—a triumph of habit over instinct. I went out to bag up the rabbit and put it in the freezer, but it wasn’t dead. It looked up at me with one eye and I felt a strong empathy with it.
These feelings, building over the years, seem to be getting stronger, more insistent. Kate said, “You really are a Buddhist, aren’t you?” I did get a flash of buddha nature, and, yes, it is there, still, doesn’t feel like my path—though it can be part of my path.
I have decided to send out the Robert Thurman piece we read for our Southeast Asia class since some of you showed interest in the topic and it will be good background for our time with Gyatsho.
Spent time drawing the black bear skull I bought in South Dakota. I still see it as bone and line, not the remnant of a living being, though I imagine at some point the bear who inhabited this skull will come alive for me. If I ever draw a sketch of it I like, I’m going to title it, “Stilled Life.”
So many subjects, so little time. Alchemy and phenomenology are on my plate for this year now, along with drawing, Southeast Asian art and my trip there in the fall. Alchemy always seems to veer off just a bit far for my initial taste, yet I’m taking on faith there is gold in the leaden texts. Jung thought so, so does Hillman, and Stanton Marlan, and Roger Brooke and several others. It’s gold seems to lie in the third realm I discussed a bit above, the imaginal realm which is neither mind nor matter—faery perhaps, or Olympus, Mt. Sinai, Tara, the Otherworld—certainly dreams and art unborn. The alchemy link I provided above has a lot of very good information on alchemy and alchemists.
I struggle, always a bit off balance, among new subjects I want to pursue and old ones I want to deepen, domestic matters like grocery shopping and gardening and the other basics of family life. The scholar me would like to sit down, turn on one of those green lights, prop up text after text on an old dictionary, take notes, and forget the world. The poet wants to engage the world touch it, taste it, see it, smell it, hear it then recall the experiences in dark fantasy, fiction for the shadow me. The monk would like to have stopped in Wind Cave awhile, asked the ranger to please turn off the lights on his way out, or, perhaps sit cross-legged with Gyatsho and learn from a master, or, draw in the garden and have the garden teach me.
Who among the many in you wants to, or needs to go on pilgrimage? You might think for me it would be the monk, but I imagine the chief motivator for me is the poet. The poet needs to find places as they are to this body I carry with me because my body takes in knowledge in ways the mind alone cannot. A crude example was the realization about the cold wars roots in the Midwest.
A better example is Wind Cave and my instant fondness for the unique blackness there. As the ranger said, “You can wait for your eyes to adjust to the darkness here, but they never will. For your eyes to adjust there has to be some ambient light. Here there is none.” Without being there and experiencing the darkness I would never have felt the comfort, the spiritual resonance of a cave’s unlighted reality—its natural reality.
It is late, the lighted darkness, to which my eyes can adjust, has fallen, a blanket of opacity occluding the garden, the flowers, the lawn, the world beyond my lit house.
Kate has flown to Phoenix, where thousands of elderly dreamers lie in their beds waiting for Death’s pointed sickle to touch them, oh ever so gently, and take them to their next reality. Her father is one of these, he resided on one of Sun City’s smooth streets, no potholes, no insects, no children; now he’s moved through the second pit of elderly hell, assisted living, and has a room in skilled nursing care. He moved today, Kate said, from room 517 to room 511, to get away, he said, “From the man who was loud to spite me.” Of course, Merton is quite deaf, so the noise level must have been something.
So, I’m in the house lit by electricity that comes from somewhere, Montana or Ontario or Hudson Bay, this house filled with the vitality of electrons excited and willing to go to work at the flip of a switch, and yet the house feels as if it has lost a lung, its breathing not quite right, a missing presence, lighter but also emptier; I miss her, we have become a pair, a balance wheel against entropy. Life against entropy, that’s what we humans are, and it’s a battle we lose, one by one, and will, eventually, lose together, at least those of our descendants who stay behind when the sun goes nova, if we’ve not scoured ourselve off the planet long before with bombs or floods or fires or plagues, you know, the four automobiles of the apocalypse.
Been reading phenomenology all morning. A very interesting perspective on the world, especially when linked with Jungian thought—and, I might add, process thought as well. A new bit for me: the Fourfold, a Heideggerian notion—earth, heavens, mortals, divinities. The Fourfold presences (Heidegger’s verb) the world to us.
An earthen jug is an example of what Heidegger means. The jug is made of clay—earth, and contains wine, made from grapes nourished by the sun in the heavens. The wine itself brings pleasure to mortals, and in libation, honors the divinities. According to Heidegger the divinities, the gods, mediate between mortals and the wholly other, the Holy, known by some as the god.
A chief concern of those coming from the phenomenological side is Descartes, a favorite flogging boy of postmodernists and others who find his cogito ergo sum less a solution than a problem. It may be obvious, but to say, I think, therefore I am biases the philosophical, in fact, the human enterprise toward the mental, the mind, over against the unreachable world, matter. It also makes the third realm a subset of mind, rather than a third realm altogether.
Bias isn’t even strong enough. No, to say I think, therefore I am, traps the human enterprise behind a mental curtain, forever unable to pull the drapes and gaze upon the world as it is. In Descartes' world we find ourselves prisoners of our senses—hmmm, it just hit me, like the Buddha—in touch only with the representation of the world they bring to our mind.
The phenomenological project involves several moves of interest, but in essence they want to regain experience of the world as it presents itself to us, or presences itself to us.
Jung, they believe, and I think correctly, operates behind the Cartesian curtain, though he takes the experience of mind to depths Descartes never fathomed. Even though Jung speaks of the collective unconscious, the only access to it is through the psyche. Projection, a key Jungian idea, granted as a psychological phenomena by phenomenologists, nonetheless gets a fundamental critique since the metaphysical implication of projection implies a Cartesian turn; psyche, in projecting itself on the world and creating meaning in it, determines the world not only with the mind, but fixes its significance as well—the outside shaped by the inside.
Phenomenology takes as a given that the world has its own reality and significance; in other words, these thinkers, Heidegger and Husserl the chief founders of the school, give equal weight to phenomena and mind and the “third,” or imaginal realm. This yields a school of thought beautiful in its presentation.
I’ll go into more depth here next week, but let me stop this example with a reference to Rilke’s Duino Elegies.
The first elegy begins:
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’
hierarchies? and even if one of them pressed me suddenly
against his heart: I would be consumed
in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.
This is not the fluffy, gentle presence of bumper stickers, greeting cards, and sentimental books filled with syrupy images. No, these angels inhabit, or, inhabited, the realm of the awe-ful ones. The phenomenologists, along with the existentialists, influenced like Jung by World War I and, later WW II, believed the gods have withdrawn from the mortal realm.
The interpreter of Rilke in the phenomenology book thus heard the first sentence of the first elegy: Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies not as an affirmation of divinity, but as just the opposite, as a plaintive cry about a world shorn of the sacred, filled now with mortals who would not cry out, note the phrase is IF I cried out, and, even if they did, who among the angels would hear?
It is no wonder the first stanza ends with the sentence, Every angel is terrifying. More later.
Week 15 draws to an end. I always feel a let down of sorts after a trip, even a short one; re-entry takes time, shrugging back on the clothes of the old life, now changed by new perspective and places unknown only days ago.
It is as if I have to commit to my life, again. To say, yes, this life...the one with Kate and the dogs and the garden and the books and the pilgrimage year, yes, this is my life. And not, still...but, my life as I want it, as I choose to live it.
Yet, of course, choice always implies hubris. We can choose only those things we can choose, the rest: DNA, epoch, location at birth, parents, history, matters in motion like the movement of tectonic plates, the sun’s gradual decline, our temporal location between ice ages, the cosmological constant, just are, and they shape the limits of our world.
Mortality. Embodiedness. The curious dilemma of the mind and the senses. These are engines of our world, motive forces behind, underneath all we say and do.
So, in this chasm between the road and rootedness I have only limited choices to make. Still, I make them. I want to be here with Kate and the dogs and the garden and the books. I want to send this communication to you all, my companions on the road to Canterbury or Rome or Halemaumau or Lake Itasca. I want to see what happens next, so I choose, yet again, to stay alive until it is no longer possible. And then, well...
I enjoy this discipline, writing to you on a regular basis, letting you overhear the rattling of chains about my carriage as it sweeps along the path.
I have other projects: Lake Superior history, the Way of the Religious Liberal, Liberal Politics for a New Millennia, Course of Empire, Jennie’s Dead, and Superior Wolf. At some point I may consider writing them in this way, sending you a first draft—if you want. Same rules. Delete if you want. Read if you want.
This way defies the conventional wisdom about writing, that it should be held close to the vest until revised, polished, finished. The theory is that premature exposure ruins the mix, somehow fouls the soup, shows the bone and hank of hair before the Saville Row tailoring can happen. The conventional wisdom, as so often the case for me, seems not to have worked, so I may try a new way.
It matters to me that I can send this material out—even if no one reads it. The act of imagining a clear audience makes the task of writing so much easier. So, thanks for being out there. I’m grateful.