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
I want to add a note on success...where I’m focused right now in my thinking. It’s been a long, long journey on this score.
I found a very interesting quote by Joseph M. Dodge,
who was one of the eminence
grise’s behind the cold war and an official in the Eisenhower
every man needs, regardless of his job or the kind of work he is doing,
is a vision of what his place is and may be. He needs an objective and a
purpose. He needs a feeling and a belief that he has some worthwhile
thing to do. What this is no one can tell him. It must be his own
creation. Its success will be measured by the nature of his vision, what
he has done to equip himself, and how well he has performed along the
line of its development." - Joseph M. Dodge
Though coming from a man in government back-corridors, I find the note it strikes mostly right when I think about this troubling subject for men.
Yes, women suffer from a need for success, too, but I feel American men, with the original burden of Adam’s toil on their shoulders and the American Horatio Alger archetype lurking in the background get an extra dose of succeed, or else. Succeed, or suffer the consequences. Succeed, or die. Succeed, or fail. Succeed, or dwindle to nothingness.
Now this burden, this Adamic yoke we might call it, has its roots in the division of labor occasioned by the Neolithic revolution and the subsequent abandonment of nomadic hunting and gathering for village-focused farming life. I imagine sexual dimorphism had some role to play early on; being bigger and stronger than women, men got assumed into military roles and roles involving physical strength. Later, these divisions must have seemed natural, even God-inspired (Gods).
It’s a long and winding road from the Neolithic revolution through Greek civilization, then Rome, the middle ages, and the Reformation, then the industrial revolution, and later the civil rights/gender rights/gay&lesbian rights movements, then on into the third millennium and the cyber revolution.
Somewhere in there we had natural man, psychological and phenomenological man, the Magna Charta which began the devolution of the divine right of kings toward the representational republican form of government we have in the US, existentialists and the Organizational man, the man in the gray flannel suit.
Unbeknownst to most of us we were brought up during the rise of the Joseph M. Dodge’s, men in suits anchored to desks and corporate cultures. My father was not one of these men. He had a fantasy—part way to reality I learned after his death—buy a boat and sail the Gulf of Mexico, then write a book about the adventures. He learned to fly so he could get to Mexico.
Then a wife, a sick kid, a job, a town, another child, more job and more small town, another child, another job, same small-town, wife dies, back to the old job, sick kid becomes vanished, angry kid, poor choice for second spouse, decline, dementia, death.
No, Dad was no man in a gray flannel suit, but he couldn’t imagine a son’s success, not at first, not a bright able son, who wanted less, who had no interest in suits at all, or business, or money.
More difficult, he couldn’t imagine a son whose patriotism burned as bright as his own, but had a different bulb, threw a different light, infrared to his GE standard white.
Here the son had freedom, a complex set of contradictions can come down to no clear message at all, and, in this case they did. Yet...
Perhaps it was Mom, in retrospect, who had the more subtle influence. From time to time (intermittent reinforcement I learned about later) she would take me to Sweeney’s Ice Cream shop, buy me a hot fudge sundae, and tell me she was proud of her boy, her straight A, smart boy.
It was also Mom who took me on the bus to Indianapolis to see Dr. Garceau, to make sure my spine didn’t curve into scoliosis, reminding me once a year of the polio scourge and my struggles, and hers, then taking me to the LS Ayres tea room where, from a large treasure chest by the maitre d’s stand, I would pick a blue ribboned present, then, we would dine, my Mom and me, amongst all the fancy ladies downtown for their shopping.
Mom, yes. She also took me to the State Fair, showed up at my plays, my speeches until they became too many. It was Mom who took me with her to Ball State while she completed her undergraduate degree—so she could pay for my college education at a good school. I stayed in the library and looked up fuck and cunt in the scatological dictionary, or wandered the stacks, awash in a sea of books.
Of course, it wasn’t only Mom and Dad. My peers had plans for me, expectations, as I had for them. We knew where each of us were headed, sort of, anyway. I had Big Things in my future; Jack Staley would go to Purdue and become an engineer; Cathy Thomas to Hanover to become a professor of English; Dennis Sizelove, Richard Lawson, Richard Porter and so many others were off to Vietnam and Dennis died there, Richard of wounds thirty years later and Richard of some mysterious disease ten years after the war. As I said earlier, many of them went to the factories and those who did could be drafted, for they were expendable, they could die, while those of us smart enough to get into college and stay, we were needed in some other vague, more important way, well, at least for a while.
Teachers, too, had hopes. Dreams for their students. Which ones would go on to make them proud, to do things in the world. Become somebody. I am somebody! Say it with me, I am somebody!
Preachers and Sunday School teachers. The Post Man and the Dentist. Each of these people knew me, knew my friends, had an awareness of our lives, and, as adults, a vision of a future and where we might fit.
The relatives, too. An important role. They knew what limits the family suggested, the directions our gene pool had traveled in the past, might travel again. After all, we were the future. They knew the possibilities, the shape of Mom and Dad’s past, their dreams.
All this a delicate web, not unique, common, yet powerful, an interlocking field, valenced and charged, rewarding certain turns with pleasure and other turns with jolts.
Then, there were the books. So many. So important because they fueled the me only I saw. How did I stack myself up against George Washington, Thomas Edison, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Louisa May Alcott, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and all those others in those little yellow biographies I read in 7th grade and 8th grade? How about Tesla, Voltaire, Rousseau, Richard Wagner, Dag Hammersjkold, Adlai Stevenson, or Dwight Eisenhower?
Somewhere in here I began a tough, paradox laden project of taking only Einstein, Wittgenstein, Kafka, Hesse, Tolstoy, Singer, Sinclair Lewis, John Milton, Dante as valid role models. They built on the same inner process learned in those yellow (or, were they orange?) biographies and fueled by the insidious, “You can be anything you want to be.” Also, and this from Methodist and Reformation theology, “You must be a good steward of your gifts.”
I believed. I felt I could be anything I wanted, which meant, be anyone I wanted, which meant be anyone I wanted like Einstein, Kafka, Dante. I got my personal expectations way up there. I shoved aside normal expectations: lawyer, anthropologist, philosopher for more than these. This was a form of hubris, one not easily recognized by me since it fit into and built on that web of expectations encountered at home, yet more than incrementally raised the stakes.
If I didn’t do something amazing, well... What was the point?
As far as I can recall, I never wanted to BE Kafka, Dante, Einstein, nor did I exactly want to be like them; I wanted to achieve at their level, but in my own way, in my own field.
On this side of the divide I can see the outlandishness of these dreams. These men are one of a kind, geniuses in their fields, breakthrough thinkers, men of intense artistic gifts. Yet, their capacity to work, to think independently, to challenge the thought world, the Zeitgeist of their times and times past—God, I wanted to work in that league.
It’s funny, as often happens when I write, I find my take on this changing as I write it. I’ve told myself for years how foolish, how grandiose, how out of touch with your own ability. I’ve even convinced myself that this is a form of self-denigration, “I’m no good if I haven’t already written the Divine Comedy.”
Only, now, as these words come on the page I find myself more forgiving, more charitably inclined toward those dreams. As long as they pull me toward my (a term taken from land use planning) highest and best use, why not have these men as my heroes? My saints. My role models.
Here is the struggle, la lucha, or, oddly enough, jihad: to stretch as far out as I can; this is, I’m confident, what this life is about, what our gifts and our body and our family and our network of relationships supports, when we’re healthy. Yet, the stretching must not be confused with the end result.
Some of us, in our time, will produce wondrous gifts for others. Paradise Lost. A Testament of Devotion. Mona Lisa. Mozart’s piano concertos. Rilke’s Elegies. Others, even working with the same, or greater gifts, will produce little obvious results.
And we must honor each other for our work, not for our product. And we must further recognize that work may be of an interior nature.
Or is this right? A secular version of works righteousness? A sneak-in from the Reformation?
Maybe. Let’s try another pass at it. How about we honor each other for the Gods within us? For the Gods we follow. For the Gods we have or could become.
Or. Perhaps we honor each other simply as fellow pilgrims, set out with no sandals, only the food of our mother’s breast, and no language. Albert Camus called this the brotherhood (sic) of death, those of us on the path toward death need to make the trip as easy as possible for each other.
So, where are we on success. Back, I think to Joseph M. Dodge.
The problem, in the end, is not the inner push for
achievement, nor even great sacrifice for results, it is pushing from
the inside according to another’s vision—any others.
"What every man
needs...is a vision of what his place is and may be....He needs a
feeling and a belief that he has some worthwhile thing to do. What this
is no one can tell him. It must be his own creation.”
"His own creation." Three words, simple to read and hear. But, oh, how difficult. In fact, you might reasonably say impossible given the interdependent web of expectations from family, friends, teachers, acquaintances, books, tv, movies.
Success and the push for it is a good thing if it links up with life, not death, with Self, not ego/persona. This is, however, the rub. How can we separate out our path, our pilgrimage, our unique road, along which we may have no fellow travelers at all? If all of our knowing about ourselves comes from external reality — the interdependent web of expectations — then we will never find our path, by definition we cannot find our own path in the mirror held up to us by the world.
Let me see if I can illustrate. My oldest son Jon was born into my life at the age of 20, Kate’s boy child, still in la lucha with drugs and alcohol. He wanted to have a trust fund. No, your mom or dad would have to die for you to have a trust fund. Oh. He wanted to be an architect and design sports stadiums. Hmmm. So, you’ll cut your hair and listen to the boss and conform your aesthetic to the wishes of your clients. Well, if you put it that way...
His initial web of expectations had formed in a very high income family: two docs, and was fed by an even more wealthy peer group at Breck. Something that was truly his, a real love, skiing, only served to reinforce, at least for a long while, these upper middle class/upper class yearnings.
As he neared graduation from Augsburg with his BFA, he began to talk a little about teaching, maybe kids. He likes kids.
So, with no architectural school in the near future, he decided to try a teaching masters program at the UofM. As he got into it, I could see his interest piqued, his academic skills purred. At some point, I don’t know when exactly, he began to flip over into an artist who liked kids, an artist who could and would share his gifts with children.
This Jon did not need a trust fund, did not need to design sports stadiums. He needed a place where he could teach. He found one, in the Anoka - Hennepin School District and it went well, mostly. Some regression, some talk about getting out, going into architecture. Then, a providential event.
He lost his job. This seemed bad, catastrophic at the time. In the stress of the change he developed Addison’s disease to add onto hyperthyroidism and diabetes. Bummer.
Still, like most of us, he needed to eat, so he began to hunt for jobs, but the market for second year elementary art teachers was tight, real tight around here.
We encouraged him to try other states. Enter skiing. This love, as I said before, a true Jon thing, led him to investigate Colorado and Utah and Nevada. He managed to apply at just the right time for a Colorado school with many Latino kids—Jon speaks Spanish and has traveled extensively in Mexico, Central and Latin America—flew out for an interview, got the job, and the next week or so I was in the truck with a U-Haul trailer behind and we were off for Denver.
Now. In Denver Jon found the web of expectations from Edina and Breck and Mom and Dad began to loosen. He had his own apartment in his own city and a job he got all by himself.
He has never looked back and just this week reported to Kate that he feels middle-class now, right in with the teachers and his future wife, Jen, a first-grade teacher. He says, “ I love what I do.” And he got in 50 days of skiing last year. He works on his own car and he and Jen will marry in August. His domestic skills will serve them in good stead when they purchase a home.
It seems, from the outside anyway, Jon has a found a spot congruent with his skills, his empathy, his Self. I think this is because teaching and, especially elementary school were not part of Jon’s initial expectations, and I think the marriage of teaching and skiing finds Jon now in a place uniquely his own.
Yesterday a group of us from the Jungian seminar met at Karen Sonnenberg’s home, a fine place filled with antiques from their years in Singapore and Shanghai. We settled into the family room, a place with a tile fountain, a long tile mantelpiece over a large fireplace, and tile moldings, floor, sconces, and tiny closets, as if elves also inhabited the space.
We began the discussion of the James Hollis book, This Journey We Call Life. During the discussion I said, “For the last fifteen years or so, I’ve struggled with this notion of success.”
“Oh, what do you mean?”
I began with some of the reflections from above and found myself go flush as I described my feelings of failure in the first seven or eight years after leaving the Presbytery. I also felt myself dismissing the criteria of publishing as a mark of my success.
“Yes. Besides, many of us wouldn’t consider having written six novels a failure. Many of us wouldn’t consider having raised a son to 22 with no major problems a failure. Six novels. Six novels.”
Well, if you put it that way... Top
Dodge says a man’s vision of success must be his own creation, no one else's. I agree.
Hollis puts another slant on this, however, when he talks about “selving” and honoring the God you serve.
To selve is to find yourself led by your Self, the wholeness of you, the uniqueness of your presence in the totality, the unconscious, the parts of consciousness not accessible to the ego, among them, the shadow, and the ego, too, of course. The point here is that the large mass of the self is not present to the ego, and therefore, unknown, save through dreams and watching the patterns in your own life, and, through the aid of analysis.
Learning the lineaments of the Self is a life-long task, in fact, it may be closer to a life-times long task, because it seems very close to the Buddhist understanding of reincarnation and karma. We can take actions that move us away from the Self, that keep us asleep to our true nature. I would argue that striving to succeed pushes the Self aside, narrows the ego in service of another’s vision, a vision borne from within your web of expectations. In this sense learning who you truly are takes on the semblance of a karmic journey, follow one path and your awareness shrinks, perhaps until, even in this lifetime, you have the consciousness of a dog or a cat, maybe the proverbial cockroach.
On the other and follow another path and you will find the door to heart not locked, but open, as Rumi said, since it opens from the inside always. Follow the path of attention and authenticity and you will, with Kabir, Wake up! Wake up!
Now we have arrived at the end of this thought, though it has taken a while. Success, I will now define, is living as and from your true Self. This is not something one can do in the first half of life. Why? Because in the first half of life you must pass the external capacity test. You must order your life so you can eat, love, learn in a world not made for your Self, rather a world made by the vast web of expectations.
Later, though, this becomes the abode of Eliot’s Hollow Man for whom the world ends not with a bang, but a whimper. If all you have is the capacity to please others, to live what others define as life, then eventually you live only on the outside, and you are hollow, your life only a whimpering cry in a savage garden made by and for others.
On the other hand, with analysis, with attention to your life patterns, with meditation and calmness, with honesty, and no little confrontation with fear, you can begin to learn who you Are. What your Self is like. What you have that only you have; what you have that the world needs desperately and can get only from the fully realized You.
Hollis talks about naming the God you serve. This is a topic for another day, but I want to give you a brief outline. He looks at his life and says, hmmm, I mediate between clients and their consciousness, I mediate between a body of knowledge and my students, I mediate between my readers and the books I write. I serve Hermes, the god of the liminal spaces, the messenger who travels between the other Gods and those to whom messages are sent.
It is my sense, not well developed yet, that naming the God you serve is a key move in locating and knowing your Self. What God do you serve?
Just a note here before I stop for right now, I realized, with a start, when I asked myself this question, that I had served a God as my profession, Yahweh in triple manifestation. An odd thought, for some reason, when I encountered it in this context.
And so, with that out of the way, the pilgrim returns to Greece where we had just arrived in a small ski-village down slope of Mt. Parnassus and Delphi.
The road wound up the mountain side in broad switchbacks, at certain angles we could look off to the side and see the Gulf of Corinth. I wondered, the whole way up to the sacred precincts of Delphi proper what it must have been like to set out days, maybe even months before from, say, Athens or Sparta, Delos, maybe even Crete. In those cases the sense of pilgrimage must have grown and intensified as the travelers first saw Mt. Parnassus from far out on the Theban plain.
Delphi itself would still have been a couple of days journey more, perhaps three, and the questions being brought the mouth of the God’s must have begun to weigh heavy. What if the answers sought were not one’s desired? What might the voice of the God be like? Would there be theophany Might Apollo himself grace the pilgrim with His presence?
Our journey was different. We rode in a cushioned chair, pulled by mechanical horses, and the questions in our hearts were not precisely religious, at least not in the seeking answers sense.
The time frame, though hours long from Piraeus, would still find us back on our ship before nightfall, and the only discomfort might be an upset stomach from the curves or the food.
Yet. My mind spun from the moment we passed the Parthenon, the Acropolis, the Marathon Plain, Thebes, and Mt. Parnassus came into view. I’m sure I wasn’t the only amateur classicist on the bus; such an interest was the logical reason for taking this side trip, and I’m equally sure their minds rolled backwards in time as mine did. Back to the time of myth and mist, of times when legends were born. A time when King Lycaon roamed the forests of contemporary Romania, cursed to live in a wolf's body thanks to blasphemy toward Zeus. A time when the Gods and Goddesses came to life among the peoples of these rocky hills.
We had visited the birth place of Zeus on Crete and would later see the spot where Apollo and Aphrodite sprung to life on Delos. Later, far across the Aegean in distant Ephesus I would see the last remaining pillar of Diana’s great temple, one of the seven wonders of the Ancient world. Somewhere near here Hercules battled the Nemean lion, cleaned the Augean stables. Down below, on the blue sea, Paul the Apostle of Jesus Christ preached to the Corinthians and wrote two classics of spiritual literature to them, I and II Corinthians.
Western civilization sprang from this soil like dragon teeth sowed in the earth. We had passed the home of Plato and Aristotle and Socrates. Eleusis, not far from Athens, was the creative source of the greatest mystery religion, one focused on Demeter and Persephone.
People from all these places and times left their villages and cities, the comforts familiar to them to seek out the Delphic oracle.
I do not know how to solve this problem, but my reverie broke when we pulled into the parking area behind tens of tourist coaches just like our own. The smell of diesel exhaust dominated, rather than the scent of pine resin, spring water, and mountain soil. It is this way in most places I want to see, even the most esoteric.
The options are: don’t go at all, try and figure out a time when the least people are there, or, go and take what you can from the experience, hoping you may, someday, return under less crowded circumstances.
My usual approach is to try #2, travel on the shoulder seasons, go when it’s a little colder or rainier than most tourists prefer, but, as we noted earlier, you can’t always get what you want.
So, in order to avoid number one—never having seen Delphi or Delos or Ephesus—I’ll go anyhow. Some places that works well, Delphi turned out to be one such place, but at others, like Knossos, for example, the lines are so long and the day so hot, or the time so short that the experience detracts from the fantasy.
I've got Mark’s assignment for the June 21st meeting in my hand. I’m gonna put the above on hold again, since I respond to assignments like an out to pasture thoroughbred responds to a starting bell. I’m ready. Right now.
Using Mark’s criteria, especially difficulty, I can identify several pilgrimages. The first, learning to walk after I had polio has few clear memories associated with it. The second, absorbing the reality of my mother’s early death, took so long and snakes its way into so many aspects of my life that it would require too much space. The third, an abrupt move to New York City has many high points, but I’m not sure, in the end, that the destination was sacred. The fourth, my move to Appleton, Wisconsin with Judy, which was, in effect, a pilgrimage to the north country may be just the ticket, but let me see if I can identify a couple more.
The winding road from ministry to writer qualifies, too, I think, but I’ve already written a good bit about that in this week’s work. Raising Joseph, from the 15 below December night when he arrived at midnight and the car broke down on the way home to today, when he sleeps in a cabin on the north arm of Lake Itasca and studies birds and eco-systems by day, works as well, but, like Mom’s death, would take more time than I want to give right now.
Kate and mine’s honeymoon certainly qualifies and might be even better for this purpose than my move north. The process of learning to garden, oddly, qualifies, too, and has the virtue of being underway still, but I talk about it from time to time.
There are also political and religious pilgrimages I’ve made: a Labor rally in Washington, DC against Reagan, the whole anti-war movement which absorbed my life from about 1966 through 1972, the inner pilgrimage I had to take with regard to feminism and racism and my own implication in their structure and reality, a journey from existentialist to Christian to liberal religionist, a journey from liberal to radical politically, a week spent in Detroit, Michigan learning liberation theology from its creators, and a week spent on Pine Ridge and in Wounded Knee during the occupation in the early seventies.
I’m leaving out all the painful and joyful journeys entailed in relationships with women and in learning certain bodies of knowledge just because this has to stop somewhere.
I can also count at least two visits to Hawaii, my second and third, when I had as my goals, during the second, experiencing the isolation of the Islands, and during the third, of engaging the volcanoes.
My trip to Wales and to St. Deniol’s library was a home turning and an immersion in the culture I wanted to put on the page.
My father’s funeral. Trips, at various points, to Civil War sites, to the bayous and Cajun country in Louisiana, to the Cloisters and the Met in New York City, to the National Museum and the Phillips and Dunbarton Oaks in Washington, DC. A journey to Williamsburg, then the Blue Ridge Skyway and back to Mammoth Cave.
Hmmm. Well, this will have to do for right now. I’m going to pick up on either my move north with Judy or my honeymoon with Kate, probably the latter, but I’m gonna let it percolate awhile.
Kate it is.
Our honeymoon had many roots, three stand out as pilgrimage material: 1. Celebrating a milestone on a voyage of self-discovery, a voyage I had to take, thanks to drinking too much, too often and getting married too much and too often; 2. Celebrating a love match with someone who understood my passion for art; and, 3. My desire to take the Grand Tour.
Maybe, in the end, we all come to each other wounded; it was true for Kate and me. Kate’s marriage of 22 years ended, and there was a lot of pain. My second marriage had ended and I doubted myself, my ability to be in relationship, and, most of all, my mate choosing skills.
I know I’ve told you the story many times, but here it is again. Both Kate and I were long time fans of classical music, both of us had season tickets to the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra with our spouses. We both chose to keep the Orchestra tickets, though now singles. The prescient matchmaker of a computer seated us together for the entire season, and, on the next to last performance I decided to ask her for a date.
Our courtship was not without its ups and downs. I was hesitant, reluctant to make a third strike. And you’re out! Kate was anxious, pressed me a bit too hard. We ran toward each other, then away and then back together again.
Kate said we could go anywhere we wanted on our honeymoon; I could plan the trip. I had traveled a lot, but almost all in the U.S. The exceptions were several trips to Canada and a week in Bogota. I thought planning a trip outside the US would be fun. I applied my usual criteria — what was on the top of my list to see before I die. Now, my list is really, really long but I sort the top few spots without much trouble.
When I put together our mutual love of classical music and my long love of the visual arts, an idea popped into my head. The grand tour. I love novels of manners and I had read many in which someone was either just leaving for their grand tour or just returning. The notion of completing my education by seeing the great centers of Western Civilization first hand seemed right.
Kate liked the idea, too.
I like to finish a week on Friday evening, then pass it on—now to my publisher, William Schmidt. In order to do that I’m going to leave two threads hanging—Delphi/Delos and my honeymoon pilgrimage. Probably a good thing since it means I can use my 15 minutes to share our honeymoon story, then, you can read about it here next week.
I’ll leave you with two items about the honeymoon.
First, we decided to mail our thank-you notes from the Vatican post-office. Seemed to cover a lot of bases: etiquette, “Hey, we’re really far from home”, and all the while conveying an ecumenical spirit.
To illustrate the historic nature of our honeymoon we wrote and prepared the thank-you notes while tucked into our high-speed chairs on a Pan-Am flight. Remember Pan-Am? Our marriage has outlived Pan-Am, Braniff, the Concorde, and all those interesting currencies in Europe.
On our second day in Rome we took a tour of the Vatican and our first stop was the Vatican post-office. I don’t remember the stamps, but it felt good to post the thank-you notes there and put the getting married part in the past, so we could focus on the start of being married.
Second, our hotel room in the Hotel Internazionale. The first evening, as twilight faded to night, a salty smell filled the room and I realized it was the Mediterranean, brought across the Campagna, through the streets of the eternal city, past the Coliseum and into our hotel room. It was then, with that smell, that, for me, the grand tour began.
Next: the best coffee ever.