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
Ok. I like writing late at night with a station playing cool jazz, modern. Instead of seven oaks and the terraced garden I see...black. Night. No light. It’s quiet here. No chainsaws, snowmobiles, riding lawnmowers, no scraping of snow plows or growling of snow blowers.
There are late nights sounds, of course. I love them. We have a Great Horned Owl who lives in our woods. His (her?) whoot, whoot, whoot ( http://mirror-pole.com/collpage/gho/ghoharnk.mp3 click & hear it for yourself) is the voice of the night.
Burlington-Northern engines crossing the intersections of Highway 20 and Bunker Lake Road, sounding their whistle to announce the distant clatter of unit-trains loaded with coal passing in the dark takes on a special charm, even more after midnight.
When I was young, my bedroom window opened less than a block from the Nickel Plate tracks. At midnight every night of the week except Sunday one of the last steam engines in the US chugged through blowing its whistle at the intersection of the tracks with Monroe Street.
On hot summer nights I had an exhaust fan in the window that opened on John Street and a sliding screen in the Canal Street window. (I had a corner room.) I would lie in bed, often not asleep till well after midnight, reading or wondering. Those nights the sound of the Nickel Plate engine filled my room and the rumble of the train itself would transmit itself to my bed.
I didn’t know then that that train would come to symbolize home and the nighttime fantasies of a Hoosier boy. But I know it now, every night the Burlington-Northern signals its approach and I’m carried back on the sound to Alexandria, Indiana and hot summer nights. Nights that would have had, like this one does, the sound of jazz, if only I’d known about jazz.
Night music. Great Horned Owls, train engines, and jazz.
Finished the Oscars and the 1st Zatoichi movie tonight. Zatoichi was better. He’s a blind samurai, an anti-hero from Japan’s early 1960’s. The dialogue, I suspect, is better in the original language, but the cinematography and the acting, though stylized, I found affecting.
A part of me is also happy about the thrust of the Academy Awards, that is, it’s tacit acknowledgement of fantasy as a legitimate popular art form. I have six novels in the broad genre of fantasy/horror under my belt, and I know what it takes to create your own world, culture, and a believable story within that world.
Realism has captured American art so completely, especially in literature and film, and in some painterly movements and poetry that fantasy (imaginative literature as some call it.) has often taken a childlike spot in the audience, never really allowed on stage, unless perhaps at children’s theatres.
Realism, of course, is fantasy, too; it’s just fantasy with certain recognizable elements. No art form, due to inevitable compression, use of metaphor, and media, not even photography, can capture the lived reality.
Nor does any art claim so much, but fashion rules among consumers of books, movies, and paintings as in all things, even science and religion, and a certain gritty familiarity with today has often, as the deconstructionists say, had a privileged place in contemporary fine arts.
I am not arguing that LOTR (oooohhh, I hate that!), Lord of the Rings, is fine art, either books or movie. I don’t happen to find either so, personally, though I could understand an argument to the contrary. Both movie and books are prodigious works of the imagination, works which leave me, at least, in awe; in awe of Tolkien’s vision and his reach, of Peter Jackson’s organizational and visual, well, what can I say, genius. Still, for me, they suffer from what fantasy often does, surfeit.
Too much. Just too much. Story, character, length, subplot, minor and major characters, themes...costumes, lands, backstory...too much. Now many of the fans of fantasy turn to the genre for just these qualities, the chance for immersion in Middle Earth or in Terry Brook’s land, or even Stephen King’s terror stricken New England, and that’s...well, that’s entertainment. And I love entertainment, but I try not to confuse it with art.
This is the other side of the high/low brow debate I offered a while back. I do find Botticelli more moving, richer, more nuanced, and better at his craft than, say, Andrew Wyeth or Norman Rockwell. I like Wyeth and Rockwell, and I find they both express, like Mark Twain in literature, a deep strain, and an attractive one for the most part, of what it means to be American, but I would take Melville over Twain for literature, for example.
Is there fantasy that meets this test? Oh, yes. Borges, Marquez, Kafka, Bosch, Dante, Milton, Calvino, some of Umberto Eco, ETA Hoffman, Herman Hesse, even I suppose, Richard Wagner if you consider the Ring Cycle. Painters—yes, for me, the Pre-Raphaelites, the Symbolists, some Surrealists and Dadaists. Arcimboldo.
Again, I like high and low brow fantasy and most of the stuff I’ve written fits in the low brow spectrum, but my goal is to reach the kind of imaginative plane inhabited by Julio Borges, Franz Kafka, ETA Hoffman, Herman Hesse.
The Dark Wood of Error, or, evening in the Black Forest
Midway upon the road of our life I found myself within a dark wood, for the right way had been missed. Ah! how hard a thing it is to tell what this wild and rough and dense wood was, which in thought renews the fear! So bitter is it that death is little more. Canto I, Inferno
Gustave Dore's illustration
Dante, as you may know, was a political exile who died outside his native Florence. His pilgrimage tale begins with an admission of having lost his way. He seemingly awakes at some point, lost, and in the midst of a dark wood. As Stefan has told us, there were few maps in the middle ages and none like Baedeker’s, or Fromm’s. The woods in such a time were a place to fear, a place where one’s loss of direction might well become permanent.
Of course, those of us who live, as we do, near the boreal woods know this is still true, literally true, today, but for most persons in urban America the notion of being so lost there is little hope of redemption, at least geographically—OnStar, where am I?—seems remote. I don’t want to go on this path right now, but you can see the point, I think.
Anyhow, the Woolly’s gather on the 1st Monday of the month, March 1st this month, for dinner out. After a restaurant with Last Temptation overtones (Zorba and Kazantzakis and, after all, Christos), we moved just up the block to the Black Forest, das Schwarzwald.
Tonight Warren, Scott, Paul, Frank, Tom, William and I showed up, 7 of the 10(11) of us: Charlie, Stefan, Mark, and the Great Plains Woolly, Dali Jim were elsewhere.
We discussed politics, and we discussed discussing politics—these mostly Kuchinich supporters (sort of, although at least a few of us will abandon Dennis quickly for Kerry, at least I will.) had varying views on the usefulness of full dialogue, that is, with conservative political views represented by Charlie H. Some of us are intransigent, but willing to talk anyhow, some of us want to talk, and some of us are just plain intransigent. Hmmm. Sounds like the electorate at large.
The Teutonic part of me, emerging and more insistent these days, loves the schwarzwald, the smoky wood, heraldry, hunting trophies, dimpled Dortmunder beer-steins, wiener schnitzel and polish and kraut and spaetzel. I love the association it brings up for me with ETA Hoffman and the Brocken, Germany’s highest mountain, and site of Walpurgisnacht, the Witche’s New Year. Goethe and Faust and the Sorrows of Young Werther. The cries of Woden, Frejya, and hordes of barbarians riding down the Roman legions.
In this move from Christos to Schwarzwald we may have made a move toward shadow work, toward work which can locate us in the dark wood, confused and lost, needing, now more than ever, to find a pilgrim path. If Dante’s work is any guide, we must go down before we go ascend.
Is Virgil to be our guide? Or, another?
I found this a minute ago, and it feels useful to our journey:
“When Nikos Kazantsakis was a young man he interviewed an old monk on Mount Athos. At one stage he asked him: "Do you still struggle with the devil?" "No," the man replied, "I used to, but I've grown old and tired and the devil has grown old and tired with me. Now I leave him alone and he leaves me alone!" "So your life is easy then," Kazantsakis asked, "no more struggles?" "Ah, no," replied the monk, "it's worse. Now I struggle with God!"
Someone once quipped that we spend the first half of our lives struggling with the devil (and the sixth commandment) and the second half of our lives struggling with God (and the fifth commandment). While that captures something, it's too simple, unless we define "the devil" more widely to mean our struggles with the untamed energies of youth - eros, restlessness, sexuality, the ache for intimacy, the push for achievement, the search for a moral cause, the hunger for roots, and the longing for a companionship and a place that feel like home.
It's not easy, especially when we're young, to make peace with the fires inside us. We need to establish our own identity and find, for ourselves, intimacy, meaning, self-worth, quiet from restlessness, and a place that feels like home. We can spend fifty years, after we've first left home, finding our way back there again.
But the good news is that, generally, we do get there. In mid-life, perhaps only in late mid-life, we achieve something the mystics call "Proficiency", a state wherein we have achieved an essential maturity - basic peace, a sexuality integrated enough to let us sleep at night and keep commitments during the day, a sense of self-worth, and an essential unselfishness. We've found our way home.” http://www.ronrolheiser.com/about
I notice various texts showing up at Woolly meetings, texts related to pilgrimage. I want to collect these, that is, the titles and preserve them for a bibliography for this book—if book it proves to be. If you’re willing, just ship me as much of the book’s details as you can...annotate if you feel so inclined, and I’ll save them in a file.
As I’ve worked on these diary entries, I’ve found myself pondering literature which has pilgrimage or spiritual journey or sacred journey at its core: Hmmm. Wait a minute. Did I hit this note before? Let me check.
I did, in the second entry, but I have new items for the list: Heart of Darkness, Don Quixote, Faust, Devil and Daniel Webster, The Way of a Pilgrim, the various Grail stories, Glastonbury Romance, The Road Not Taken. Right now I’m just listing as your contributions about books, painting, poems, sculpture, whatever comes in; later we can have a dialogue about how accurate our initial hunches about these works having pilgrimage themes proved to be.
I’m no longer a fan of the Minnesota caucus system. It’s too easy to manipulate; I know because I’ve helped do it at various junctures. Small cadres of committed attenders, grouped by precinct or legislative district can push through candidates and political ideas, candidates and issues that may or may not have wide support among the electorate. When we wanted to get rid of Richard Hanson, or Davies, a Billy Mitchell law professor who was state senator in southern Minneapolis, or, conversely, when we wanted Wellstone nominated, or certain candidates for Minneapolis City Council elected or defeated in convention, we started at the caucuses.
I liked the system then because it had pliability and it could be bent to a radical political purpose, not easy to do with the electorate at large. And, all’s fair in love and politics...or, was that war?
The problem as I see it now is the caucus system is pliable and can be bent to a radical political purpose. Am I still radical in my personal politics? Unredeemably. I even regret it; my analysis has gone on so long, it seems true to me. And, for me, it is.
As we sat in the midst of the schwarzwald last night, agreeing with each other, Dante kept coming to mind. The Dark Wood of Error. Lost. The only way back to go through hell...and climb the devil himself to get out.
Back from the caucus. Proving my point. An unfortunately mindless affair, as about half of them are. Kate and I and Marty Weldman, a guy I met a month or so ago who attended the JFK conspiracy convention last summer in Pennsylvania, all voted for Kuchinich.
As Marty said, “A lot of the people at the conspiracy convention were lawyers.” Go figure.
19 folks this time, way less than four years ago.
Disappointment #2. There’s this biker guy with a great gray beard and his biker chick type wife who’ve attended all the caucuses I have. He works as a maintenance worker at Horn Towers in south Minneapolis, a senior citizen high rise.
He opposed a resolution to cap wealth and income, a harebrained idea as policy, but as a poke in the eye to the oligarchy, I said, “Right on! Preach it brother.” Biker guys reason for opposing it? “This is a capitalist country and that sounds like socialism.”
This from a marginal sub-culture guy who works for the gubberment. I mean, is that what is wrong with liberal/left politics or what? When a government sector employee doesn’t stand up and salute a progressive idea, we’ve lost the fighting edge we need.
I like my religion and my politics with a little raw meat and instead we’ve got food for folks with no teeth, either babies or unfortunate old folks.
Oh, well, as Kate’s cross-stitch pattern said, “No whining.”
The Rolheiser quote with the material from Kazantzakis has prompted some thoughts on the spiral image and its spiral out, then spiral in metaphor; the pilgrimage out into the world, then back into our selves as life progresses.
With Rolheiser, the first spiral is about eros (not the Devil though), forming my Self in relationship to the other and to the world; but, the second spiral is about thanatos. So, eros and thanatos. Born, move out into the world, then at mid-life the turn is toward death, the end of eros—but both require life, not resignation. Life, not denial.
In the first half we look for a life partner, in the second half for a death guide. In the first half we look for Beatrice, in the second half we’re happy to see Virgil.
Yamanthaka: Visions of the Death Exterminator
A warm fuzzy if you’re into Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, more than a little strange if you’re not. As the training proceeds for the South and South-East Asian art galleries, we read essays and journal articles about Hinduism, Jainism, Islam, and Buddhism as well as art historical matters. I finished before lunch an excellent essay on Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism, and Tibetan Art by Robert Thurman, Uma’s daddy. Now I admire father and daughter.
It’s impossible to study this art and its largely sacred inspiration without feeling swept up in the late sixties and early seventies when the Beatles and wandering hippies searched for gurus in the mountains and cities of these ancient lands. I love the God-intoxicated atmosphere of these countries and their peoples. The little glimpse I now have into Tibetan history—the Thurman essay—makes me want to enter their weltanschaung, see how it feels.
The Buddhism I’ve encountered so far has seemed interesting, like Zoroastrianism or Jainism, but not something useful for my own journey. Why obliterate the Self when I’ve spent so much time trying to discover it? Why fight desire and the material world when they are of sacred origin and part and parcel of our animal heritage?
Gentleness and non-violence are worthwhile goals, but I don’t necessarily find in them the zenith of human ethical achievement. Justice comes first for me. You know...If you want peace, work for justice.
On the other hand Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, at least as Thurman explains it, takes a different, longer view of even so core an ethical principle as justice. As I understand it, the Tibetans view their present suffering, certainly an injustice since China seems to have no legitimate claim (again, according to Thurman) at all to their country, in a long, long time horizon.
We have, after all, as much time as we need to perfect our Buddhahood and we have Bodhisattvas whose entire, long, multiple lives have no purpose but helping us. Beyond Jizo and Avlakotishevara, there are the magical places like Shambala and the paradise of the five mountains in China or the Copper Mountain Land somewhere in Africa. Then, there are the Buddhalands like the Western Paradise and the Eastern Paradise. (And, I forgot last night, there’s always, as a final reassurance, Maitreya, the buddha of the future, whose task is to come back and pick up those of us still unenlightened then. I have a hunch mop-up might prove a mighty big job, but as I said, these are really, really optimistic folk.)
As I read this material today, I went back to the material I wrote a couple of days ago about fantasy. This Tantric material from the Apocalyptic Vehicle makes sense to me. Fantasy, as literature and visual art, helps prepare for a world beyond the world, and even a world beyond those. When I say the Pure Lands and the magical places make sense to me, I mean I believe in their salvific potential, even without a profound knowledge of Buddhism—hell, without even a shallow knowledge of Buddhism.
This may sound weird, but the power of the imagination lies not only, not even primarily in its ability to entertain the apparently impossible; no, imagination can grasp, even create sacred reality. I’m sure this is true, but I can’t tell you why. At least not now.
But I can tell you Tantric Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism will all contribute to my pilgrimage as will the Zoroastrian mages and the mystic poets of Omar Khayyam’s time.
Forgot to say, earlier. The Yamanthaka is the one who destroys death, and he is shown in blissful union, the yab-bum, a metaphor for our ecstatic union, the heiros gamos in the Western alchemical tradition. Again, makes sense to me.
On Writing to You, Dear Reader
I always thought this form of address, Dear Reader, affected, until I began to write this particular series. Tom and Roxann commented on how intimate this writing feels and I replied without thinking, “Oh, that’s because audience shapes writing so much; and, since I’m writing to a group with whom I feel safe, intimate, then it’s possible to write as I do.” And so it is. You are, each of you who take the time and trouble to interact with my words, Dear Reader. I wanted you to know I think of you so.
As Yeats said, “Creativity is the social act of a solitary person.” I like this quote because it says, in another way, the same thing. The longer I’ve lived out here in Andover the more I have to come appreciate the isolation it provides. I like being alone. Yet, that’s not the whole story. Not even an eighth of it.
The being alone has a purpose, a point. I am not a recluse, nor a misanthrope. I have a path which requires quiet, time for study and reflection, time for unhurried interaction with the natural world, and, time for the social act of creation. That act, too, requires alone time even though it is spent directly in your presence, Dear Reader.
Without Kate I could have none of this. She is my muse and my patron. She has allowed me to travel on this pilgrimage without fear of starvation or rejection. This is a great and wonderful gift, not often found, and less often offered. She is remarkable.
An Approaching Storm
Tonight, late, a winter storm cometh. Gulf air, warm and humid will collide with polar air: result, snow. Heavy, wet snow-blower plugging snow.
One of the joys of these temperate latitudes is the coming of storms. Not bad weather. No, no bad weather! No, good weather writ in dark, bold strokes with lights and sounds. Or, white cold snow borne on whirling winds and clouds black against the western horizon. This is what comes.
And it is this time, now, before the onslaught when imagination runs rampant. Pioneers huddled in sod houses or Lakota in their winter homes, we will ride out the danger. Look outside now and see bare sidewalks, gray and empty. The air is quiet and we need not worry, for the time is not yet.
This is not the eye of the storm, this is the moment of suspended safety, before the sword’s single thread is cut. We love it because we are safe now; we know a time when safety might be uncertain approaches; but, we also expect to survive, to be whole after the storm passes. Thus, we are safe, we expect to be safe, and we are...for now.
Are there moments in relationships, careers, creative work like this? Times when we are calm, but we know a time of danger approaches, that it is inevitable, but we will surmount it? There are, aren’t there?
Which takes me to thanatos and spiral’s end. This is the storm which comes, which we know comes for each of us, which looms on our personal horizon, near or far. In life, so long as we are in it, we feel safe. We are, after all, alive. This storm comes though and we will not survive it. We will not come out safe on the other end, at least not safe, if safe means to remain as we are.
Unless we meditate on our own death—see ourselves in our own graves or urn—or, unless we take some of the tantric meditations on Yamanthaka, the destroyer of death, to heart, we encounter this storm with no preparation. A storm we know we will not survive.
It is no wonder we deny death, fear it, flee it, work hard to avoid it. I seek, though, to stand in relation to spiral’s end as I do to the coming snows of this night’s storm. I want to anticipate death with excitement, even eagerness, while I continue to enjoy the moment of safety I have now. I seek too to know death as I know the storm, a meteorological phenomenon, expected and embraced as a revivifying aspect of the natural order, a phenomenon whose exact outcome remains hidden from me, but the outcome itself one which is part of a larger, more complex whole. And therefore, in the end, good.
A Daytime Entry
The snow came over night. It is heavy, as these late season storms often are. My spruce and cedars and Austrian pines bear the weight on their broad bows. Snow still falls now, 11 AM, but not so hard. I can, unlike the night, see it come, and I can see where it lands.
In direct line of sight from where I write I can see the hill on which stand seven oaks, five red and two burr, Quercus rubra and Quercus macrocarpa. Since we first decided to buy this property, I have felt a special kinship with these seven oaks and have created a corporate name, Seven Oaks Imagination, which, when I feel like it, I use.
The land here has taught me many things, and has much more to teach me. A for instance...poison ivy (Rhus radican) and oak trees go together. They love each other. Another thing, wild grape vines are a nuisance, and buckthorn a plague—why? Because it replaces the understory trees and shrubs native to the oak savannah, the original eco-system here on the Anoka Sand Plain, this interrupts the forest’s succession planning, and can and does result in buckthorn only zones.
I prefer the oaks, cedars, ironwood, ash, cottonwood, and serviceberry, as, it turns out, do the wildlife common to the oak savannah. Here at Seven Oaks, as I call our property when I feel like having a name for this land, we have pileated woodpeckers, Great Horned Owls, raccoon, gray and red squirrels, chipmunks, gophers, many many many rabbits, the occasional deer, downy and red-headed woodpeckers, blue birds, crows, the occasional opossum and hawks. These last sit high in the great white oak outside my window; they scan for voles and mice.
We also have barn swallows, good luck according to my Indiana rural roots, so we allow them nesting space they love—atop our three electric garage door openers. Why they like a home foundation that clanks and whirs and turns on a light at odd hours, I don’t know, but we’ve had several nests full of chicks.
I also find snakes and a surprisingly large number of salamanders here.
This is all by way of saying I yearn for the seasons of emergence and growth. In more ways than I can identify my pilgrimage often involves staying here, where I am, and paying attention.
I’ll close for this week with a realization that has come over me in recent years. Travel comes with greater difficulty. I still love it; I like to go, I always have. A part of my Celtic peregrinatio imprinting, I believe. Even so. I prefer my own pillow, my own bed, Kate next to me. The dogs. Books close to hand. My internet connection.
I find the longer I stay here at Seven Oaks and in Anoka County, the more time I spend attending to our garden and our woods, the more time I spend visiting various parts of Anoka County throughout the year: Lake George, Rum River parks, Carlos Avery Wildlife Refuge, Boot Lake SNA, the Cedar Creek Natural History Center in Isanti County, the less I want to leave, the more the world becomes visible where I am.
Emerson thought travel unnecessary, though he did a lot, because, he said, you take yourself with you where ever you go and it is you who determines what you see. Therefore, it is more important to know the seer than the seen. I believe this even more than when I first read it.
Still...I plan to transport this seer to Southeast Asia in the fall or early winter. Paul Strickland asked me a while back if I considered this trip a pilgrimage, I said no then. The more I prepare, the more I study Southeast Asian art, the more I suspect the answer will turn out to be yes.
Or, more accurately, not a pilgrimage in and of itself (what I meant when I said no.), but part of a broader pilgrimage...one I share with each of you who read this.
You are Dear Reader, the Miller and the Knight, my traveling companions on this Chaucerian journey. Who knows where, actually, we’re headed; it’s enough to know we travel together.