Sunday, June 26, 2022

You Always Have the Freedom to Change Your Attitude, and That Can Change Everything


Terrible things are happening in our world. The worst nightmares of the mind-twentieth century seem to be returning. There are days when we might find it hard to rise above despair or escape a low, lethargic mood freighted with our own negative mantras. On days like that, I often call on one of the greatest life coaches I know.

I know him from his most famous book. Maybe you do too. His book is titled Man’s Search for Meaning. His name is Viktor Frankl. He was an Existentialist — which is to say, someone who believes that we must be authors of meaning for our own lives — and a successful psychiatrist in Vienna before Nazi Germany swallowed Austria in 1938. He was a Jew and a free-thinking intellectual, two reasons for the Nazis to send him to a concentration camp. For several years he was in Auschwitz, the most notorious of the Nazi death camps.

In the camp, every vestige of humanity was taken from him, except what he could sustain in his mind and his heart. He was in constant pain, reduced to a near-skeleton with a tattooed number on his arm, liable to be beaten or killed at any moment on the whim of a guard. He was there to be worked to death. He watched those around him shot or beaten or carted off to the gas chambers every day.

He made an astonishing choice. He decided that, utterly deprived of freedom in the nightmare world around him, he would tend one precious candle of light within. He would exercise the freedom to choose his attitude. It sounds preposterous, if you don’t know the story of what unfolded. When people tell us we have a bad attitude in ordinary circumstances, we are usually not grateful. The suggestion that we can choose our attitude when the world around us seems cold and bleak, or we have suffered a major setback, even heartbreak, sounds cruel, and maybe preposterous. But let’s stay with Viktor Frankl.

When the light went out in his world, he managed to light that inner candle of vision. Despite the pain in his body and the screams and groans around him, he made an inner movie, a film of a possible life in a world where the Nazis had been defeated and Hitler was a memory. It was an impossible vision of course, an escapist fantasy. There was no way he was going to survive Auschwitz.

But he kept working on his inner movie, night after night, as director, scriptwriter and star. He produced a scene in which he was giving a lecture in a well-filled auditorium in New York City. His body had filled out, and he was wearing a very fine custom suit. The people in the audience were intelligent and enthusiastic. The theme of his lecture was “The Psychology of the Concentration Camps.” In his movie, not only were the death camps a thing of the past. He had retained the sanity and academic objectivity to speak about what went on during the Holocaust from a professional psychiatric perspective.

This exercise in inner vision, conducted under almost unimaginably difficult circumstances, got Viktor Frankl through. Not only did he survive the death camp; in 1946, one year after the war, he gave that lecture in his nice new suit in the New York auditorium from his inner movie set.

What do we take away from this?

First, that however tough our situation may seem to be, we always have the freedom to choose our attitude, and this can change everything. Let’s allow William James to chime in: “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”

Second, that our problems, however bad, are unlikely to be quite as bad as the situation of someone who has been sent to a Nazi death camp. That thought may help us to gain perspective, and to stand back from a welter of grief and self-pity and rise to a place where we can start to dream up something better.

Third, we can make inner movies, and if they are good enough it is possible that they will play in the theater of the world.

If we take Viktor Frankl’s example to heart, we see that choosing your attitude can be an exercise in creative imagination that is much more practical and original than trying to edit your inner soundtrack (though that is worth trying) or telling yourself that you can’t afford the energy of a negative thought (you can learn to use the energy of any strong emotion, including grief and rage).



Text adapted from Growing Big Dreams: Manifesting Your Heart's Desires through the Twelve Secrets of Imagination by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library

Saturday, June 18, 2022

The Threefold Death of Silver Wolf


We are not only more than body and brain; we are more than body and soul. This has been the insight of most spiritual traditions, that have understood that at a minimum, the human is a threefold being, a trinity of body, soul and spirit. In some traditions, the anatomy of soul depicts four, seven or nine aspects of energy and consciousness, with differing functions and degrees of mobility during life, and different trajectories after death. The words "soul" and "spirit" are very slippery in English but I use them for the sake of simplicity. My deepest understanding of the nature and trajectories of body-soul-spirit comes from an indelible experience in Ohio country in and out of dreamland two decades ago. Here  the word "body" stretches to includes a dense energy vehicle that survives the death of the physical for a time.

~

After an early flight, a long day of teaching and a jolly dinner, I am glad to settle in to the guest bedroom in the rambling frame house my friend has turned into a cozy retreat center. It's quiet here, on wooded land, near a town with one of those wonderful Midwestern names: Strongsville, Ohio. I hear only the low murmur of the Rapid River, beyond the rise where there is said to be a ring of ancient stones used by the Iroquois for sacred ceremonies.

Soon I am wandering through the courtyards of dreaming. I am startled awake by a loud burst of laughter. Blurry, I look at the bedside clock. 3:00 AM. I strain to identify the source of the noise. There are many voices, coming from the sitting room downstairs. Are there intruders? I'm quite sure my host would not be holding a loud party in the middle of the night.

I pull on shirt and jeans and pad downstairs. There is indeed a party in full swing. The party-goers are quite elegantly dressed. A tall, lean man detaches himself from a group around the baby grand piano to welcome me.

"Who are you people?" I demand.

He says clearly and distinctly, "Autochthons. We are autochthons."

I recognize the Greek term and try to recall the exact meaning. His shining eyes wait for my recognition. There is something anomalous here, stranger than the party itself. What is it? His hair is silver. It does not stop at the hairline, it covers the whole face, darkening around the muzzle. I am looking into the face of a wolf, atop the body of a man. The wolf head is not a mask.

Shocked, I tumble out of an inner court of the dreaming, rushing through outer courts that leave no mark on memory, back into the body that did not leave the bed.

Over morning coffee, I tell my host what happened during the night. She says, "I'm sorry I missed the party. Who did the Alpha Male say they were, again?"

"Autochthon. It comes from the Greek." My Greek is a shambles, but the meaning is with me now. "It literally means Sprung from the Earth. Aboriginal, indigenous."

The Wolf Man has told me, in the language of a Western scholar, that he and his kin are of the First Peoples of this land.


I need no persuading that this is the morning to go up on the rise behind the house and investigate the ancient circle of stones among the pines and birches. The sun is shining brightly as I walk with my friend up the winding trail. When we reach the stones, she lets me go alone between two boulders. I touch them lightly, and feel at once that one of them is an archive stone, holding the memories of the land across eons.

When I pass beyond the gateway stones, I freeze, because I am not alone within the circle. The Wolf People are all around me. Their faces are now human, but they wear wolf pelts over buckskins and broadcloth. The alpha has the head of a silver wolf lolling over his own.

In bright sunlight, these people are quite substantial. Their bodies are just slightly translucent. I can see the flash of reflected light on the river through the alpha's massive form, but he is more real to me than my friend, who waits respectfully outside the stone circle. Silver Wolf, I now call him, as he communicates with me, mind to mind.

I am of the Wolf People. I am their dreamer and I guide them on the roads of this world and the Real World. We have come to you because you dream as we do, and you walk on our paths.

You wish to know the soul, and what happens to soul after the body is left behind. I now invite you to enter my death, and know the truth about these things by living and dying as I have done.

I am excited, and terrified. In the Ohio sunlight, I am about to fall into a different world. It does not occur to me to dismiss Silver Wolf and his people as figures of fantasy or hallucination. They are real, and the offer is a real.

As soon as he receives my acceptance, Silver Wolf transports me into his experience of death, and life after death. I am inside his consciousness as his body is laid under the blanket of Mother Earth. And soon I am groaning and dry-heaving, because I have been buried alive. A heavy stone has been laid on my chest to prevent me from rising up. I know that what I am sharing is not the death of the physical body, but the deliberate confinement of an energy body that survives death. This is a husk that must be given to the Earth and kept away from the living. I will myself to leave this energy husk in the ground, to let it suffocate and start to decompose.

Now I am above the ground, levitating and then flying. The sense of freedom is exhilarating. I can travel anywhere I want, according to my desire and imagination. I can indulge my passions and appetites. I can revisit old friends and old places, and travel to new ones. I enjoy myself like this for a time, then my astral ramblings begin to pall. I choose to rest now inside a tree, in the sleep of the heartwood.

In a few Ohio minutes, I seem to rest here for years or centuries. Then I rouse, ready for new life. I am drawn to a scene of passion, of a couple engaged in the sexual act. I stream between them, into the womb of the mother. I see myself now, from a witness perspective, as a newborn, pink and small enough to fit inside a parent's palm. This part of me has been reborn as a bear cub.

Who is the I that is watching? I am spirit, I am mind. I can return to a home among the stars. But I - as Silver Wolf - am one of those chosen to stay close to the land and watch over the Earth and those who share life upon it. I will visit them in their dreams, and I will call their dream souls to me, to remind them of essential things that humans must know but are forever forgetting.


It is enough. My heart thumps as I return to the self that is standing in the circle of stones.

My friend is still waiting beyond the portal stones. "Did you feel anything?" she asks. "Was this really a place of power for Native Americans?"

"Yes," I tell her. "You could say that."


~


I have recounted this episode exactly as it took place, in the woods in northern Ohio in 2003. Silver Wolf, a great shaman of an earlier time, made me know the nature and fate of three aspects of soul and spirit by inviting me to share his experience of what happens after death. The knowledge I gained is indelible, and guides me in my shamanic work and teaching, and in continuing efforts to develop models of the multidimensional self and geographies of the afterworld. 
A lightly edited version of this narrative is in Here, Everything Is Dreaming: Poems and Stories by Robert Moss. Published by Excelsior Editions.

Drawing: "We are autochthons" by Robert Moss.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Scottish Crossings to Fairyland

 


Robert Kirk, a seventeenth-century Anglican vicar at Aberfoyle in Scotland, wrote a remarkably detailed account of the Otherworld, its inhabitants, and their intercourse with living human beings. He wrote it by hand, as magical texts need to be written, with the greatest of  care, in 1691. Kirks Secret Commonwealth is not another collection of folklore and popular beliefs but a rigorous study, scientific by the standards of its day, that is clearly grounded in experience. Its main interest today is that it describes a secret way of correspondence with the invisible world: a means of crossing between ordinary and nonordinary reality at will.

Kirk subtitled his work “An Essay of the Nature and actions of the Subterranean and for the most part Invisible People, heretofore going by the names of Elves, Fauns and Fairies and the like.” By “subterranean,” he does not mean creatures living in dark, gloomy places in the bowels of the earth. Their realm is full of light, though it is not lit by any sun. They live in “cavities” and may pass wherever air may go. The earth is “full of cavities and cells,” and everywhere is inhabited; there is “no such thing as pure wilderness in the whole Universe.”

Though invisible to most humans, the inhabitants of these realms are not disembodied. They have “light changeable bodies, like those called Astral, somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud.” They are best seen at twilight. They shape-shift and can make their “bodies of congealed air” appear and disappear at will.

The fairies are “of a middle nature betwixt man and Angel,” like the daimons of the ancient world. They are mortal, in the sense that they pass from their existing state, but they live far longer than a human life span. They are strongly connected to the earth and special places within the earth. They tend to show themselves in the costume of the country and speak its language. Kirk discusses rival opinions in his parish about whether the “good people” are spirits of the departed, clothed in their subtle bodies; “exuded forms of the man approaching death”; or “a numerous people by themselves.” He suggests that all these descriptions may be valid for different phenomena. Just beyond the borders of everyday perception is a vast and varied population.

Encounters with the fairies can be dangerous. They are known to abduct humans into their realm Those who enter the Otherworld willingly may have a hard time getting back. Some inhabitants of the invisible realm are hostile to humans, and some seek to feed on the energy of the living. However, the peoples of the Secret Commonwealth take a close interest in human affairs, and our lives are closely related to theirs. 

One of Kirk’s most intriguing observations is that each of us has a double who is fully at home in the Otherworld. The old Scots Gaelic term for this double is coimimeadh (pronounced “coy-me-may”), which means “co-walker.” Kirk improvises a series of synonyms for the double, including: twin, companion, echo, “reflex-man, and living picture. The double resembles the living person both before and after she or he dies. The double survives physical death, when the co-walker “goes at last to his own land.” When invited, the co-walker will make itself “known and familiar.” But most people are unaware that they have a double. Since it lives in a different element, it “neither can nor will easily converse” with the everyday waking mind.

Your double may be seen by others. Kirk gives several examples: of someone’s double entering a house shortly before the person himself arrived; of sightings of the double of a person who had just died or was soon to die; of the perception of the subtle form of a lover or spouse standing close to the loved one; of a woman who observed her second self walking ahead of her as she left her home. Kirk also offers clues to the possible influence of the co-walker — even unrecognized and unperceived — in a person’s life. He cites the Scots belief that someone who eats great quantities of food without putting on weight is being joined in the gourmandise by a “joint eater” or geirt coimitheth. Maybe there is a tip here for a new weight-loss program!

Rereading The Secret Commonwealth, I asked for dream guidance to clarify exactly what Robert Kirk means by “co-walker.” In my dream, I acquired a suede coat identical to the coat I most often wear when flying around the world or traveling to my Active Dreaming workshops. In my dream, I carried both these garments, swapping them according to circumstances. The dream confirmed my suspicion that Kirk is writing about the dream double; unfortunately, he tells us little about dreaming, where the double is most easily perceived.

Kirk speculates that everything may have its double — a tantalizing hint of the existence of what I have called counterpart reality.

How can we know the truth about these things? Through the art and science of seeing. Robert Kirk describes the practice of the Scottish seer as he was able to understand and enter it. The seer is able to make spirits visible to himself and others. He is able to cross into the Otherworld and return at his choosing. Kirk includes a curious report of a seer who was seen to vanish, body and soul, from a certain spot and reappear an hour later some distance from the point of his crossing. 

The gift of seeing runs in certain families, but many of the most powerful seers receive their calling directly from the spirits. Their initiatory visions are often wild and shamanic; they gall into “fits and Raptures.” The gift of seeing brings the ability to look into subtler orders of reality and perceive things “that for their smallness or subtlety and secrecy are invisible to others” even though they are intermeshed with them. The seer is accompanied by an inner light that can be focused and directed, “a beam continually about him as that of the sun.” Kirk’s description of the taibhsear’s “beam” closely parallels Inuit accounts of the “shaman-light” of the angaqok.

Kirk provides an interesting account of a seer’s initiation. He winds a cord of human hair around his middle in the shape of a helix. He bends down and looks backward between his legs. The object of his gaze may be a funeral procession, moving over a border crossing. Or it may be a hole in a tree — like the hole left in a fir tree when a knot has gone.

Kirk describes how a seer can provide a layman with temporary access to the Sight. The apprentice places one foot on the seer’s foot, while the seer lays a hand on the apprentice’s head, so that the would-be seer is enclosed within the taibhsear’s body space as well as his energy field. as he looks over the seer’s right shoulder, the apprentice is suppose to see “a multitude” of beings rushing toward him through the air.

The gifts of seeing include the ability to fold time and space. Kirk cautions — as any good practitioner would — about the difficulty of interpreting and working with some of these sightings. He recounts the case of a woman with the Sight who foresaw a seaborne attack on her island in the Hebrides but was confused about whether the soldiers in the boat were hostile or friendly and even whether they were coming or going — with good reason, since they had stolen a barge from her island and were rowing toward it with their backs to the shore.

As a man of the Church, Kirk goes to great lengths to argue that there is nothing ungodly about “correspondence” with Otherworld beings, quoting reports of visionary experiences in the Bible. He also contends that it is as “natural” to encounter the inhabitants of the Otherworld as it is to go fishing; both involve moving into another element. He reassures us that we are dealing with “an invisible people, guardian over and careful of man,” whose “courteous endeavor” is to convince us of the reality of the spiritual world and of “a possible and harmless method of correspondence betwixt men and them, even in this life.”

According to local tradition, Robert Kirk paid for his knowledge. He was reputedly taken by the fairies in 1692 into a fairy knoll across a little valley from his church; villagers were still pointing out the site centuries later. Were the fairies annoyed with him for revealing their secrets? Or had they fallen in love with him? Maybe the tale was concocted by people who wanted to “spook” their neighbors into keeping away from personal exploration of the unseen. Some say the fairies took Kirk’s body and soul; some say only the soul. A related tradition says that he had a means of coming back from the Otherworld that depended on the actions of a cousin to whom he announced it in a dream. But the cousin lost his nerve when he saw the clergyman’s double appear in the church at a baptism. So Robert Kirk remained on the other side.

 

 


Text adapted from Dreamgates: Exploring the Worlds of Soul,Imagination and Life Beyond Death by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library


Art: A Fairy Ring’ by Walter Jenks Morgan (1847-1924)

 

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

In My Forgotten Library


It happens every few months. I pull aside a screen, or open a curtain, or reach into an obscure corner of a room, and open the door to a library wing of my house that is not so much secret as forgotten. This library is immense, with bookcases that rise to the ceiling, suffused with light that seems natural, though I see no windows. The nearest bookshelves at my left hand are filled with European history. I recall that last time I was here, I dipped into some books about John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough.

In the early hours this morning, I step into the library room again. It is as I remember it. However, the room from which I enter is different. With its deep green wallpaper, I think it belongs to my next residence, which we are currently renovating, rather than my present house. Lucid inside the dream, it strikes me that I have not gone to the far end of the library wing and should explore what is there. I am surprised to find several people working at a large table.

When one of them turns, I see he is my favorite dead professor. I had many encounters with him over the years since his death, often in a very special research institution. I am skeptical about whether he is really here now, in this time and place. He laughs and peels off a mask. As the goatee and bald pate and glinting spectacles are removed, I see that my helper has been wearing a familiar face. I’m not sure, but I suspect he is the young historian inside my own psyche. A large, comfy lady at the table seems quite solid. In her shapeless print dress, she’s not putting on any façade. Her name is Maureen, and she is available for research assignments. The third figure, male, is not introduced.

“What are you working on?”

“Parallel lives.”

Of course. A perennial theme. When I met my dead professor at a research institute twenty years ago, he showed me this was his main work. Not simply Parallel Lives as Plutarch wrote them, coupling biographies of prominent Greeks and Romans, but a branch of Metahistory: the study of how the dramas or people living in different times and places can turn on each other, shifting each other’s lives. Back them, my dead professor was studying the interaction between the lives of Lenin and an ancient tyrant. Dionysius of Syracuse. I wonder who will most reward my study now? Maybe Maureen can tell me.


- Unedited journal report, June 8, 2022

 

 

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Why we miss dream messages about the future


In dreams, perhaps every night, we travel ahead of our physical selves, scouting out challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. Dreams of the future are part of the basic human survival kit. We not only see things that will happen. We see things that may or may not happen, depending on our ability to remember and clarify the details, and then to  take appropriate action to avoid an unwanted possible future event or to manifest a happy one.
     This is part of our natural intuitive radar. It has helped humans to survive for the whole of our odyssey on the planet, and most human societies, until recently, have valued dreams and dreamers that can show us the shape of things to come.
     So why are so many of us missing our dream messages about challenges and opportunities that lie ahead? For a majority, perhaps, this is part of the cost of suffering a substantial dream drought, missing dreams with every kind of content. But even those of us who love to dream and make room in our lives for dreams often fail to notice what they reveal about the possible future.
    We have often been oriented by Western psychology and popular methods of dream interpretation to look only at the symbolic, as opposed to the literal, content of dreams. A widespread theory is that whatever is going on a dream report is a purely subjective, internal transaction between the personal unconscious and the conscious mind. This might lead us to look at every character and element in the dream as an aspect of the dreamer. This can be a fun game to play, but it fails to recognize that dreams are not only personal and subjective experiences. They can also be transpersonal, social and take us to other times and other realities.

     When we look at our own dreams, we are naturally inclined to home in on what we recognize from the past, because the past is what we know or suppose that we know. But dreams are actually organized by the future more than the past. They show us things developing within us and around us. They show us events that could play out in the future, for good or ill. In other words, they show us possible futures. We can improve our odds on manifesting a desirable possible future event, or averting, gentling or avoiding an unwanted one if we are able to look at our dream material - whatever its content - and ask, Is there any chance that this could manifest, literally or symbolically, in the future?
     If we feel the answer is "Yes", we may want to spend some time clarifying the dream information. The best way to do that, whenever we are able to do it, is to reenter the dream in a conscious journey and take a closer look at what is going on in the space of the dream, carrying the questions any investigator might bring along: What? When" Where? Who? How?
     Simply carrying the dream with us for a while, walking with it, seeing whether more of the detail comes back is another way to approach this. We'll get in the habit of noticing when incidents come up in the world around us that resemble scenes from the dream, and perhaps we'll find ourselves better poised to cope with what is coming next.
     It will help for us to make a list of personal markers that a dream may reflect coming events. One such marker may be the routine, everyday quality of a dream, reflecting situations that may come up in ordinary life. You may notice clues to the passage of time in a dream - the kids are older, the season has changed. Some markers of dream premonition or precognition may be wildly symbolic. You may notice that you dream of a tsunami or a train rushing off the tracks when a crisis is looming in your life (but don't forget a tsunami could also be a tsunami, a train wreck a train wreck).
     For highly psychic dreamers, the lively presence of dead people in a dream is sometimes a marker that information about the future is available. The dead, who are of course alive on the other side, are not confined to time as we know it, and can show us things - if they choose and if they have clarity - that we have trouble seeing by ourselves.

     However, even the most active dreamers, with good recall and a clear understanding that dreams must be searched for clues to the future, often miss messages of this kind. In my book Dreaming True I suggested  five main reasons why we misinterpret dreams of the future even when we are fully prepared to look at dreams for messages about what is to come:

1. We mistake a literal event for a symbolic one, or vice versa.
2. We misidentify people and places.
3. We fail to figure out how far in the future the dream event might be.
4. We see future events from a certain angle, that may not reveal the whole picture.
5. We confuse realities, confounding a dream that relates to external reality with dreams that are real experiences in other orders of reality.

Gifted psychic dreamers often find themselves looking at a future event involving others as an observer, looking in from the outside. But in clairvoyant or precognitive dreams involving others, we may be drawn inside another person’s situation. Sometimes it’s as if we have stepped inside someone else’s head and are looking through their eyes. This syndrome is quite common among siblings, close family and friends. It poses special challenges in reading dreams of the future.
     We need to determine what is our stuff and what belongs to someone else's stuff. One of the ways to do that is through dream reentry, which means seeking to reenter a dream and establish – inside the dream space– exactly what is going on.
    I counseled a woman who was troubled by recurring dreams in which she saw her husband cheating on her and working himself into violent alcoholic rages in which he attacked her and was a danger to himself as well. She was not initially keen on the idea of trying to go back inside these horrible dreams, but I encouraged her to go in as an investigator and get the facts straight. With the help of my shamanic drumming, she succeeded in reentering the dream. She realized very quickly that the locale was not her own home, but her sister's place.
     Even more revealing, she found that in the disturbing dreams she had not been herself. She actually seemed to be inside the body and situation of her sister.  She now understood that she had been given insight into terrible problems that had been developing in her sister's marriage by being taken right inside her sister's situation. Now that she had clarity on what belonged to her and what did not, the dreamer was able to talk to her sister, who admitted that she was having the problems seen in the dreams. Now the dreamer could provide loving and helpful counsel and support to her sister, who had been feeling desperately alone.

Shadow photo by Jeanne Cameron

The final metamorphosis of Ovid


In the year 8 of the common era, Augustus ordered that the poet 
Publius Ovidius Naso, better known to us as Ovid, should be exiled to the remotest outer reaches of the Roman Empire, to the Black Sea port of Tomis, in the thinly settled province of Moesia, for the term of his natural life. Tomis is known today as Constanţa. 
    We don't know why the emperor imposed this fierce punishment on the poet. Ovid referred to his commission of "a poem and an error". The poem may have been one of his erotic cycles, perhaps the Ars Amatoria, in which he offers laughing but explicit tips to both sexes on how to seduce each other; Augustus frowned on public discussion of such things, and the promiscuous behavior of his own daughter Julia made him very averse to the patrician party scene in which Ovid, when in Rome, appears to have been at home. The "error" may have been the poet's affiliation to a faction within the imperial family opposed to the power of poison queen Livia.
    As for what happened to Ovid after he arrived in the land of the Getae, in what is now southeastern Romania, we have the evidence of the poems he sent flying back to Rome like carrier pigeons, the Tristia and the Black Sea letters. In pleading mode, he exaggerates the rigors of the climate and the manners of the "barbarians" among whom he must now live. Reading his poetic epistles describing a frozen waste, you would never know that he was living at what is now a very popular summer resort. Yet we feel the depth of the pain of a wordsmith obliged to live among those who do not speak his own language when he declares: "Writing a poem you can read to no one is like dancing in the dark." 1
     If we track the poet's writings from exile across time, we see his attitudes evolving. He is learning the language of the Getae, and even composing poems in a local language, which might be Getic but could be the pidgin Greek of the coast; Tomis was founded by Greek colonists. How Ovid died, and where his body was interred, are historical mysteries.
    These are the facts, and the lacunae, which the wonderful Australian novelist and short storywriter David Malouf seized in order to create An Imaginary Life. The novel begins with a dream (perhaps the author's own?) attributed to Ovid. In boyhood, the poet dreams of an encounter with a wild Child who may or may not be a wolf as well as a boy. Nearly 60 years later, the dream is fulfilled, when the exiled poet meets a naked Child (always described like this, with the capital C) who speaks the language of birds and animals but no human tongue, and lives outside the walls of the fort where Ovid's Getic hosts shelter from the wild winters and the wilder Dacian horse-soldiers who come thundering over the frozen Danube.
    The poet makes it his project to teach the wolf boy human speech. But the Child is really his teacher, instructing him in the language of the birds, prising open his awareness until he can feel himself streaming with the animate world of nature about him, no longer separate. The mannered Roman poet of love, who recounted myths of gods and shapeshifters in his Metamorphoses with craft yet without conviction, starts to see and sense like a dream shaman.
     Malouf's Ovid reflects, early in his Black Sea sojourn,


We have some power in us that knows its own ends. It is this that drives us on to what we must finally become. We have only to conceive of the possibility and somehow the spirit works in us to make it actual. This is the true meaning of transformation. This is the real metamorphosis. Our further selves are contained within us, as the leaves and blossoms are in the tree. We have only to find the spring and release it. 2

     I like the way dreaming is developed as a theme in Malouf's novel. There is a fine description of a gathering experience of interactive dreaming in a scene where Ovid and the wild Child are sleeping under the same thatch. They may have been in contact

in our sleep, as we move through this room in the same liquid medium, as if floating together in a pool, some casual meeting of one dream with another, a flowing into his sleep, or his sleep into mine, at some point that the waking mind would not know of. 3

Malouf takes us further into the nature and importance of dreaming. It begins to dawn on his Ovid that the place he most wanted to avoid may be exactly where his soul needs him to be, the place where he will at last become the person he was intended to be. When he asks himself how this began to manifest, he reflects that

It begins at first, perhaps, in our dreams. Some other being that we have kept out of mind, whose thoughts we have never allowed to come to the tip of our tongue, stirs and in its own way begins to act in us. 4

Malouf imagines a scenario for Ovid's final metamorphosis and physical death. The headman who protected Ovid and the Child is dead, and his people think this is the work of a demonic animal that was brought among them by the boy. Now the poet and the boy are fleeing north across a sea of grass. And Ovid is changing. The ever-poised flâneur, rich and noble by inheritance, never short of words or self-importance, is relinquishing his old identity and streaming into something else. 

Slowly I begin the final metamorphosis. I must drive out my old self and let the universe in...Then we shall begin to take back into ourselves the lakes, the rivers, the oceans of the earth, its plains, its forested crags with their leaps of snow....The spirit of all things will migrate back into us. Then we shall be whole. 5

Wonderful writing, and a thrilling evocation of the dawning of a cosmic consciousness. 

I see us from a great height, two tiny figures parting the grassland with a shadowy crease as we move through it.. From a point far ahead I see us approaching, from a point a whole day's distance behind us, I see us moving away. 6

Now Ovid is coming close to a death he dreamed, long ago.
    I never suspended my disbelief that Malouf's narrator is the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso. That may be partly because I know that Ovid - whatever he pretended to folks back home when trying to enlist sympathy - was not quite as remote from Greco-Roman culture as this narrative makes out. Tomis was still in many ways a Greek town, and there was a Roman governor and a Roman garrison, and some handsome buildings and elegant Grecian art, not just the thatched huts and Getic tribesmen of the novel. The people of Tomis treated Ovid with respect, exempting him from local taxes and paying tribute to him as a poet. 7
   But David Malouf's intention was not to write an historical novel, still less a biography but rather (as he states in an Afterword), 
"a fiction with its root in possible event." In this he succeeds brilliantly. As the Italians say, se non è vero, è ben trovato. "If it's not true, it's well found." 

NOTES
1. Epistulae ex Ponto IV 2:33-4. Translated by Peter Green in Ovid, The Poems of Exile: Tristia and the Black Sea Letters (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005) 176.
2. David Malouf, An Imaginary Life (New York: Vintage International, 1996) 64.
3. ibid, 78.
4. ibid, 95.
5. ibid, 96
6. ibid 142

7. Peter Green, Introduction to Ovid, The Poems of Exile, xxxi

Graphic: Bronze statue of Ovid in the square of Constanţa

I dreamed I woke up


I dreamed I woke up.
In this waking life my thoughts
are agate points and deep lagoons
that make ancient cities and heroes
and bust dakinis out of lunch boxes.

Everything is alive when I am awake.
I remember to swim in air
and fly in water, and ride moon-tigers
to the Moon 
Café, and the light in my head
is the light of the blue-white star.

I went back to sleep in a world
of fewer voices and more noise. Out here
in mossy woods, sleep life is pleasant.
It's good to watch a cedar shake her frills,
good to be surprised by lime on watermelon.

There are days I don't want to wake up.
Then there are days of pain and lost delight,
city days caught in time and trivial stories
when I forget that I am asleep
and can change the game if I awaken.

I cannot say whether the person writing this
is asleep in the world, or awake in the dream.




- from Here, Everything Is Dreaming: Poems and Stories by Robert Moss. Published by Excelsior Editions

photo by RM