Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Advice from Italo Calvino: Conjure the book you want to read

I am at my desk when a striking young Italian man, maybe in his late twenties, steps into the space. Dark-haired, nattily dressed in a beautiful suit with a contrasting vest. I know this is Italo Calvino. It does not occur to me that he is dead, because he is so vividly alive. Standing in front of me, on the other side of the desk, he tells me wants me to read something he has written about the afterlife.
    Waking, I start looking for the Calvino story. I own half a dozen of his books. Any of his Invisible Cities could be afterlife, as well as imaginal, locales. Clearly I must read the last part of Mr Palomar, in which the protagonist is "Learning to Be Dead". I chance upon a quote from his MarcovaldoChi ha l’occhio, trova quel che cerca anche a occhi chiusi. "He who has a sharp eye finds what he is looking for even with his eyes closed." Then it occurs to me that Calvino's literary production may not have ended with his death.
     I can't find Mr Palomar in my personal library. But I find the text of "Learning to Be Dead" at an academic website. I am not enthused. It is about a man who performs thought experiments, seeking to number and name everything he chooses to bring into his field of perception: waves on the shore, the life in a patch of lawn and at last the state of being dead. "For Mr. Palomar being dead means resigning himself to remaining the same in a definitive state, which he can no longer hope to change."
    This leaves me cold. But on my computer screen, I find a message at the bottom of the last page of "Learning to be Dead":

This is a subliminal message. Go out and buy Mr. Palomar. Then learn how to be dead. Hurry.

     I comply. My favorite used bookstore is five doors from my house, a dire situation since its stock is constantly migrating to my overcrowded shelves. I find a copy of Mr Palomar, I also find Six Memos for the Next Millennium, the published edition of a series of lectures that Calvino never gave; he died before he could deliver them, leaving one of the texts unfinished. This is pure gold. In "Lightness", the first of the lectures I read:

Faced with the precarious existence of tribal life - drought, sickness, evil influences - the shaman responded by ridding his body of weight and flying to another world, another level of perception, where he could find the strength to change the face of reality.

and this:

Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space...The only hero able to cut off Medusa’s head is Perseus, who flies with winged sandals; Perseus, who does not turn his gaze upon the face of the Gorgon but only upon her image reflected in his bronze shield.

In the second of the lectures, titled "Quickness", he writes:

I dream of immense cosmologies, sagas and epics all reduced to the dimensions of an epigram.

We operate in this spirit in our Active Dreaming approach to dreamwork, by asking our voyagers to turn their dreams and visions (which can be personal epics) into a one-liner, a bumper sticker, a post-it note, a snapper, an aphorism.
    Now I have a dozen Calvino books beside me in my reading corner. I am relishing his mastery of short forms. Some of his Invisible Cities appear and vanish in half a page, yet we are haunted by what we found there. I am studying Calvino's writing habits, since I suspect that his appearance in my night study may have been arranged by my dream producers to remind me to do more short forms - with short and shorter stories and essays, epics condensed in an epigram.
    I throb with recognition when I find Calvino saying this about how he writes:

 "I write fast but I have huge blank periods. It’s a bit like the story of the great Chinese artist—the emperor asked him to draw a crab, and the artist answered, I need ten years, a great house, and twenty servants. The ten years went by, and the emperor asked him for the drawing of the crab. I need another two years, he said. Then he asked for a further week. And finally he picked up his pen and drew the crab in a moment, with a single, rapid gesture." (Interview on The Art of Fiction for The Paris Review, no.130.)

Yes, I am known to work this way too.

    Now I have found Calvino's statement about how he came to change genres radically, creating the "fabulist" short novels that freed him from the mold of socialist realism. In an introduction to Our Ancestors, a volume that gathers his "heraldic trilogy". Calvino reports:

"I began doing what came most naturally to me – that is, following the memory of the things I had loved best since boyhood. Instead of making myself write the book I ought to write, the novel that was expected of me, I conjured up the book I myself would have liked to read, the sort by an unknown writer, from another age and another country, discovered in an attic."

He was able to conjure the extraordinary short novel titled The Cloven Viscount (Il visconte dimezzato). He wrote it in 30 days over the summer and early fall of 1951 and it was published the following year. He was 29, about the age he appeared to be in my dream.
     When Calvino or his eidolon popped up in my study in the favorite hour for both birth and death, he prompted me to remember some essential things about writing practice.
     An epic can be condensed in an epigram.
     Write when you're hot.
     Don't force yourself to write what you ought to write. Conjure the book you want to read.
     Grazie, Italo.

Art: (c) Eda Akaltun. From Eda's wonderful personal work based on Invisible Cities. Used with permission.

Monday, January 16, 2017

We must live into our own time

We must live into our own time.
The memories of the broken cord,
the nest emptied of its young,
the lost love, the knocking at the ribs,
at the midnight door, the starling silences
cannot help us here.

Yet their tremulous rising,
dropletted as from the dawn sea,
is almost more than we can bear
and enough to turn houses upside down,
break families and the destiny of a present life.
There is danger in knowing our other selves,
danger in remembering too much, too soon,
of what lay beyond the stiff portal of birth.

Yet life itself in its endless wheelings
through the blur of feathers, through wind and sun
brings us face to face with the Other -
face of desire, face of the heart’s highest longing,
face of red hatred, face of cold fear -
and we are called, backward or forward
(whose time prevails now?)
into another life, and the forking paths of soul.

- Lines about soul in the multiverse recorded on a napkin in an Irish pub, nearly quarter of a century ago. And they stir my heart again, and I feel connections with other dramas, in other times, stir with me.

photo by RM

Inviting in your genius

The Romans never described a person as a genius. They might say, "Apollonius has a genius" - i.e., a special relationship with a tutelary spirit. The word genius is related to gignere, which means to engender or "beget". It implies reproductive energy, the power of inseminating new life. The Romans called the marriage bed genialis lectus. As observed by Jungian analyst and classicist Marie-Louise von Franz, "this referred not only to sexual potency but also to the qualities that today we would call psychic vitality, temperament, resourcefulness and a lively imagination."
    In a well-bred Roman household, a statuette representing the personal genius of the father of the family usually stood near the hearth in the kitchen. It might be the figure of a young man, holding a horn of plenty or a phallus or a snake. The woman of the house was believe to have her own guardian spirit, or "Juno", who embodied the power of giving birth. In the Roman conception, each of us is born with a personal relationship with a spiritual patron, or genius, who is the source of creative energy.
    James Russell Lowell was close to this perception when he wrote: "Talent is that which is in a man's power; genius is that in whose power a man is."
    To live and work creatively, we need to make room for this energy. The Romans were on to something. To bring something new into the world is to give birth. We see this in the pregnancy dreams that are not about physical childbirth, but about something new that is borning inside us. We can feel it in our bodies in a period of creative gestation.
    When one of my books is ready to be born, I feel pregnant. I mean that in a quite literal sense. My appetites change. I develop odd cravings at strange hours. I forget to eat or sleep for days at a time, then walk out of a dinner party to crash or feed my face with something I wouldn't normally touch. I develop morning sickness. When my new baby is ready to come out, I can't stop the contractions, even though sometimes, like a woman I once heard screaming in a maternity ward, I want to yell, "This has to stop!" There is no dope, no epidural, no C-section available to dull the experience or shortcut the labor; whatever is in me has to come out the old-fashioned way. There is an equivalent to birthing in water: the blessed gift of going into a state of flow, in which I relax into the rhythms of what is fighting its way into the world.
     As Erich Neumann remarked, "Every human being is by nature creative. Yet one of the gravest and most menacing problems in our Western civilization arises from the fact that this civilization cuts man off from his natural creativity."
    To choose and act creatively, we must be able to put our commonplace selves, with their reliance on structures and schedules,on one side, and make room for the source energy of the begetter. Creative inspiration, as all artists and discoverers know, comes through spontaneous combustion between the waking mind and other levels of consciousness. "I know now," wrote Yeats, "that revelation is from the self, but from that age-old memoried self, that shares the elaborate shell of the mollusc and the child in the womb, that teaches the birds to make their nest; and that genius is a crisis that joins the buried self for certain moments to our daily trivial mind."
     You cannot program a creative breakthrough, but you can clear a space where it may come about. Dreamwork is a wonderful aid to the creative process, because the source of dream images and the source of creative inspiration are not separate. When you resolve to catch your dreams, you are telling your creative source, "I am available. I'm listening."
     When you record your dreams, you are developing the art of storytelling. You will discover your gifts as a writer, and if you are already a writer,you will find you have done your "warm-up" exercises almost effortlessly and are ready to go he distance. Best of all, through dreamwork you are constantly learning to approach challenges from new angles, in a spirit of play. The Romans believed that a person's genius rejoices in good living, in laughter, in healthy sex, in having fun. Forget to play, and you are not working with your genius, for whom play is the only thing in mortal affairs worth taking seriously.

Adapted from Conscious Dreaming by Robert Moss. Published by Three Rivers Press

Image: Winged genius from mural in a Roman villa at Boscoreale, near Pompeii, late 1st century, now in the Louvre.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The lion who fell from the moon

Impressions, momentary and vivid, would wash over him: a potter’s vermilion glaze; the sky-vault filled with stars that were also gods; the moon, from which a lion had fallen….

My chills of recognition make me pause, just three lines into a story by Jorge Luis Borges, one of the essential writers, opening worlds of wonder and doorways into the Universal Library in a few pages. Borges named this one after himself: “The Maker”, El Hacedor.
     Previous translators squirmed at the title “The Maker”. They thought people might confuse it with Our Maker; they feared leaving sulphurous traces of a heresiarch. So they considered and sometimes used “The Poet”, “The Artificer”, “Il Fabbro”. But Borges chose the English himself. And yes, he meant maker of worlds.
     The maker wrote this as he was nearing blindness in the vast library in Buenos Aires with whose flying books he had made love and married and danced the tango and fought with knives inside his mind. I can think of no one, not even Jung, who has housed so many books in his head and incited so much action between them. Borges was now engaged in constructing a total library in the imaginal realm, his version of paradise. Never a tame library, but one where wild things are.

the moon, from which a lion had fallen….

    I am seized again with wild familiarity, the hot breath at my neck, claws at my kidneys.
    Borges’ line has a rhyming cousin, short, stocky and flat-faced, wearing a robe of skins hung with bronze mirrors. I know where find it.  I keep it locked behind glass doors, along with the Red Book, the Golden Bough and other books that are restive that like to flap about and  prowl in the night.
     Sometimes the doors rattle and the key turns itself but today, things are quiet and I must fetch the book myself. It was published in Oxford five years after Borges died, so he could not have known it but might have known some of its sources. Its words are spun from conversations with shamans and elders of the Daur Mongols, lovers of horses, fermented mare’s milk, and drums that they ride to other worlds.
     Like Borges, these shamans are forever talking about tigers and lions. While Borges tried to make dreamtigers and was never quite satisfied, around Hailar or the Nomin River it’s not hard. Lie by the water watching butterflies and a tiger twice as long as you may come for you, as it would come for a tethered goat.
     Out here the lion may demand a deeper seeing, since you won’t see lions in Daur country with your ordinary eyes.
     The Oxford anthropologist asks a Daur shaman, Urgunge Onon, about this. He speaks from the tellings, which is how his people describe their traditional knowledge. Anthropologists may know about shamanism but the people who practice it in the old ways don’t have any “isms” in their vocabulary.
      Urgunge says, “Wild animals of the forest have two kings [khan], the tiger [tasaga] and the lion [arsalang].
      “Lion?” The anthropologist is amazed. “But you don’t have lions in Manchuria.”
      “They will be thinking of …er..what is it in English? Leopard. Leopard is just like lion, is that right?”
      “But you don’t have leopards either.”
      “No, that is true. So the conclusion is: in reality the khan of animals is the tiger; in imagination the khan is also the lion, even if we do not have lions in Mongolia. Everybody knows the story of the lion who jumped to catch the moon, then it died, you see. This is definitely the lion. The tiger never did that.”

The lion who fell from the moon did not really die, of course.
      Some nights, coming in or out of sleep, I feel him lying with me on the bed, back to back.

The night after I posted th
is, I dreamed of lions in a place of soul recovery. In a huge cavern, divided by an underground river, a wise elder is preparing people to make the crossing and meet the lions who are waiting from them, one for each. From this side the lions look no bigger than kittens. They may look different close up. I know that those who find the courage to meet their lions will be transformed. The courage of the lion and its power to make itself heard will live in them.

Books referenced 

"The Maker" in Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley (New York: Penguin Books, 1998).292
Shamans and Elders: Experience, Knowledge and Power among the Daur Mongols  by Caroline Humphrey with Urgunge Onon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).

Art: Douanier Rousseau, "Sleeping Gypsy".

Saturday, January 14, 2017


I am often amazed but rarely surprised. I have been in the habit of saying this when a dream plays out in regular life, or things come together through "incredible coincidence". Now I'm looking at the pedigrees of both words.
    "Surprised" has military origins. In old Anglo-French usage, it means to be "attacked unexpectedly", to be seized, invaded or overpowered. Only later does it take on the gentler meaning of being startled by something unexpected.
     What about "amazed"? In the older sense, it is to be "stupefied", "bewildered", or even "made crazy'; it's related to "maze".
     Hmm, maybe I'll go over to just saying, "Wow". That has a fine Scottish pedigree (first recorded in 1510) and shakes its kilt everywhere in the United States, where I live.

Where soul was kept safe

Roused by birdsong in the soft Cascades morning:
Western tanagers, small glories of red and gold
in this green world. Soul birds, sized for the heart.
or to sing of what is past or passing or to come.

Where was I, just now, in my second body?
Out in a hot desert of snakes, in another skin.
A big man praised me for going out and returning
but I think the soul birds sang me back here

So: After the dragon gave a girl the six of hearts
and the Daughter of Wind blew us clean
we found, by objective chance, the universal key
that opens every high school locker.

All of us left something in those school lockers.
Dirty socks, old secrets, movie star idols, fright masks,
yearbooks, catcher's gloves, tampons, first loves,
shame we couldn't tell, sneakers, soles we forgot.

Here, take the key. It can open any locker
but in your hand it will open only the locket of your heart.
Follow your footprints backwards. No, the other ones,
the tracks of your night-traveling self

who crosses time, forwards, backwards or sideways,
as you cross a parking lot. He knows - she knows -
what you need to bring back from the place
where soul you've been missing has been kept safe.

drawing by RM

The Journey to the High School Locker

Poems should not be explained but sometimes it may be appropriate to speak of origins and context. This poem streamed from a deep experience of group shamanic journeying in the cause of soul recovery in one of my workshops at a lovely private retreat center in the foothills of the Cascades.
    In a dream that was shared, one of our participants found herself back in high school, at her present age, looking for something precious she had left in a locker. We agreed that we would support her, as family, as she reentered the dream - with the help of shamanic drumming - with the intention of finding the key to the locker and recovering whatever was waiting for her there. We also agreed that all of us would be free to visit our own version of the school locker and claim whatever was there for us.
    The result was beautiful and rich soul recovery healing, for the original dreamer and for many others: bringing home the energy of that teen self who locked herself away when life was too painful, as a survival mechanism. Once again, dream recovery can be soul recovery.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Of Friday 13th, practical superstitions, and the other kind

Quick, repeat after me the following word: paraskevidekatriaphobia. This is the learned name for fear of Friday 13th. It doesn't trip off the tongue quite as lightly as triskaidekaphobia, which means fear of the number 13.
    The longer tongue-twister is derived from the Greek words for "Friday", "thirteen", and "fear". But don't blame the ancient Greeks, The term was made up just a century ago, when scientists and psychologists still knew Greek and Latin.
     If you're nervous about Friday 13th, here's my suggested remedy. Try to memorize and repeat 13 times (without looking) the word paraskevidekatriaphobia. By the time you get this right, Friday 13th will be over.
     Friday 13th is one of my favorite days in the calendar, but then I think black cats on my path are a good sign. I am in favor of personal and practical superstitions, ones that are road-tested rather than received as hand-me-downs.  I know that for me, for example, a red-tailed hawk is a reliable messenger and that if it is flying my way or feeding well, things will go well that day.  Friday 13th has been a lucky day for me in the past. But if things  turn out otherwise, I am ready to revise my opinion; I want oracles that deliver.
    It's worth recalling that the Latin word superstitionem  literally means "a standing over." The stem, superstare, means to  "stand over" or "survive." There is a clue here, that in the original sense, superstition might be a survival mechanism. It is an etymological mystery how this root meaning evolves into the modern sense of  “irrational belief”.
    Practical superstitions include personal omens that are road-tested. You can rely on them because you have observed many times that (for example) something good or bad follows an encounter with a friendly black dog, or a red-tailed hawk, or a singing mailman.
    You may notice that some old superstitions and nostrums work for you, maybe because that unseen hand that makes things appear and disappear in the world around us chooses to work with your vocabulary of understanding. This is exactly what goes on in dreams and visions. Our dream producers, and greater powers, give us pictures and puns, dramas and deceptions, according to how we are able to perceive and receive.
     In my book Sidewalk Oracles I offer the following guidance on developing a list of personal omens that work for you:

1.Start by checking on superstitions you may have inherited or picked up from others. For example, that walking under a ladder or having a black cat walk in front or you is bad luck, or that having a bird poop on your head or your car might mean money is coming. Have any of these supposed omens worked for you the way they are supposed to? If so, keep them on your personal list of practical omens. If not, scratch them.

2. Check recurring images or incidents that catch your attention. Some people have strong feelings about numbers, both a repeated digit in one number (11:11, 2.22 etc) and the recurrence of a certain number in many different places and situations in a finite time period. 

3. Keep track of what happens after sightings of this kind. Does a certain kind of incident follow? Does the day turn out well, or badly? Does the repeated number or similar sighting seem only to be saying: Listen up, pay attention.

4. Make a short list of your personal omens, the ones that seem to work, and pay attention to what follows your next sightings.

Don't let superstition wreck the rug

Let's note that superstition isn’t practical if you just get spooked. Here's a cautionary tale, from the life of a great writer. Victor Hugo did not like the number thirteen, especially after what happened to him and his family in what he called “The Terrible Year”, 1871. He left Paris on February 13th and found himself with thirteen people in a carriage on the train. When he got to Bordeaux, the address of the apartment where his son Charles and his daughter were lodged was 13, Rue de la Corse. In the morning, the bill for the family breakfast at a restaurant was 13 francs. Not long after, his son died, at age 44, of a massive heart attack.

     So we might say that Hugo had reason for fear of the number thirteen, for which the scholarly name, as you now remember, is triskadeiphobia. But the superstition later proved impractical, or at least to have an expiration date. When Hugo moved back to Paris, to a splendid apartment on the Rue de Clichy in Paris (number 11) that became a famous address, the number of the guests for dinner one evening was thirteen. This would not do. So a cab driver was invited to join the party. No doubt unused to all the rich food and drink, the cab driver spoiled the scene by throwing up copiously on an expensive carpet. 

Kaspar the 14th dinner guest

The photo above is of Kaspar, the celebrated black cat of the Savoy Hotel in London. If a dinner party at the hotel turns out to be 13 in number, and there is uneasiness about that, Kaspar is seated at the table as the fourteenth guest and served each course at the same time as the other guests.

Text partly adapted from Sidewalk Oracles: Playing with Signs, Symbols and Synchronicity in Everyday Life by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library.