Wednesday, January 27, 2010

At the Gate of Story


The gatekeepers cannot see where the tide of pilgrims begins. Its source lies far to the north, beyond the Pillars of Hercules, the olive groves and forests of cork, even beyond the stern keep of the man of iron dreams on a high wind-raked plateau. The travelers are so many that their feet have emptied the strait, making a land bridge between the continents. Such was the report of one who reached the Gate of Story.
---Yawning on their cushioned seats by a wall bleached to the color of smilodon bones, the gatekeepers do not rule on the veracity of this account. Like the knight of La Mancha, they know that facts can be the enemy of truth. Judging the truth of a story by whether it stirs or disturbs the hearer, they turn the man who parted the seas away. Too many others have tried to pawn this story before; it has been drained of surprise.
---"Altagracia!" croaks a man whose flesh has fallen away so his linen suit hangs off him like a flag of defeat. Some of the crowd cross themselves or finger amulets against the evil eye. An imam directs a boy to offer the parched traveler a waterskin. "Altagracia!" the man cries again, water frothing from his cracked lips.
---No one has spoken that name at this gate before. The gatekeepers motion for the man who has used it to be advanced to the front of the line. Camel drivers open a way for him with their switches, without regard for the age or gender of those they are beating back.
---"You have three minutes," says the chief keeper of the Gate of Story. He flourishes a pocket watch and spins it, on its chain, from his long pointing finger.
---"She is Altagracia," the story man begins.

She is very pale, with lustrous black hair and black eyes. Her traveling clothes are the color of sand in shadow. She wears a veil under her hat. She has pushed it back, but it can be drawn over her face to keep off blowing sand and flies. She has a good deal of luggage, including a hatbox, handled with ease by her giant black servant, Fidel, who has been assigned by her father, The Professor, to keep her safe. Fidel can speak only in little mewling sounds, which the cats of the city understand. His tongue was cut out, perhaps at his own volition, to guarantee that he will live up to his name, which means "faithful", when it comes to keeping secrets, since he is also illiterate.
---Each time the story of Altagracia is told, it expands, and the world with it. Last time I spoke of her she did not have dogs, but now she has a pair of them, resembling greyhounds, that she calls her sight hounds. I said that Fidel is illiterate and mute, but as I speak his shadow is slipping ahead of him through the city gate in the form of a black cat. It is running into the Sultan's library, where it stands on its hind legs to remove a precious copy of the seventh volume of Pliny Maior's
Natural History from a cabinet that others always find locked. He wll go to the harem and delight his hearers all night long with the exact descriptions of dogheaded men, Triballes who kill with a look, and lions with the tails of scorpions. He will be rewarded with dishes of sherbert and leg-humping until the chief eunuch will order his tongue, or another particle, to be excised. The feline Fidel is not so easily bested. By naming - both in lapidary Latin and in the Berberous Arabic of the court- all the creatures of Pliny's hearsay, he has brought them to life. The eunuch's scimitar is no match for a manticore.
It became harder and harder to hear the teller of this tale, because as each word was uttered, the scene and the action around the gate became more profuse. The crowd parted and reformed as animals out of legend galloped and bulled their way through. The shadow of immense wings cooled the hot sand. A ship in full sail appeared on a canal that surely was not there before. A man with his head under a black cloth took pictures on glass of a couple of newlyweds boarding a train whose engine puffed perfect blue smoke rings. A cat that was also smoking, with the aid of an amber cigarette holder, shuffled a Marseilles deck and purred, "Pick a card, any card at all."
---The head gatekeeper, invoking the Most High, ordered the man who knew Altagracia to pass through the Gate of Story, and threatened to do terrible things to his mother unless he passed through without delay.
---"The Gate is closed for today," he announced to the host of story pilgrims. They groaned and wept and raged. Many of them, desperate to be heard, tried to shout their stories over each other, producing a weird cacophony that made the keepers press their hands over their ears. Blue-eyed janissaries appeared on the battlements of the gatehouse and fired warning shots into the air.
---In the sudden silence, a voice said in a placeless accent, "You will hear me."
---The voice belonged to a short, spare man with a clipped goatee, who held an umbrella over his head.
---"We will hear no more Namers today," the head keeper spoke in a voice of thunder.
---"I am neither a Namer nor an un-Namer. I am the sculptor of the Immortal Sentence."
---These words, also, had never been heard at the Gate of Story. The keepers were bound by a rule laid down in the remotest of pasts to give the speaker a hearing.

When I first told this story, it took longer than one thousand and one nights to reach the end. Every day since then, I have shortened the story by a sentence. Now that it fills less than a page, I reduce it by one word in each telling. In this instance reducing is the opposite of reduction. With each word I remove, I approach closer to the quintessence of the tale, which is also the key to the making and unmaking of worlds. The consummation of my art will be to deliver the Immortal Sentence, which will replace the knowledge of the world and become the theme of all branches of a new literature and science. Some have thought that the Immortal Sentence will consist only of four letters. This cannot be known until all the words that veil it have been stripped away.

"Cease speaking!" the head gatekeeper commanded. His composure had been shaken. There was whiteness around his mouth. "You may enter."
---The man with the umbrella strode with long decisive steps - unusually fast for a person of small stature, but then he worked his whole legs, from the hips - through the Gate of Story. The immensely high cedar doors began to swing shut. The gatekeepers had gathered their cushions and magic carpets. But the head keeper turned back when a new voice addressed him by his secret name, the name he shared only with Khidr, the guide of those who have no earthly guide.
---It was a woman’s voice. When he faced her, he was pleased to see that she was veiled, though her features could be seen through the gauzy stuff. Her clothes were of English cut, he thought, made by the finest seamstress. Yet something about her made him think of the forbidden vineyards of Shiraz.
---"Come up on the rooftop," she invited him. "We will share a cup of wine."
---"Are you a djinn?" he demanded, now fearful.
---"I am the Sustainer. Every day, I must repeat the one story that keeps the world turning. Every syllable must be flawless, because this is the code on which the world depends."
---"Then why have we never seen you at this gate before?"
---"Do you suppose I have only one form?"
---"Whatever form you take, if you are repeating a story that has been told before, we will know it, and you will have failed the test."
---"You understand very little, and after hearing the story you will know even less. The nature of the story that sustains the world is that it is never different and never the same. By repeating it perfectly, each teller creates a new story and renews the world."
---"This defies both God and reason."
---"Then listen."
---Somehow the head keeper found he was seated beside her on the roof of the watchtower, with the sweet taste of the forbidden wine on his lips.
---The veiled woman speaks:
The gatekeepers cannot see where the tide of pilgrims begins. Its source lies far to the north, beyond the Pillars of Hercules, the olive groves and forests of cork, even beyond the stern keep of the man of iron dreams on a high wind-raked plateau. The travelers are so many that their feet have emptied the strait, making a land bridge between the continents. Such was the report of one who reached the Gate of Story.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Dream telepathy, with bears

I spent Saturday at Stillpoint, a wonderful small retreat center in the woods near Saratoga Springs, New York. It's been my habit, over many years, to lead a playshop here at this time of year titled "Dreaming at Midwinter", in which we honor the ancient traditions of the First Peoples of this area, who were the Kanienkehaka, or Mohawk Indians. We opened the circle by offering tobacco to the spirits of the land and by singing (in English) a traditional Mohawk song for calling in the Bear, as guardian and healer.

The Bear was very much with us in the initial sharing. One woman spoke of a close-up encounter with a large mother bear and her cubs during a hike in the woods. Others spoke of how bears had appeared in their dreams. I thought of how many times Bear has played the role of protector and medicine animal in my own life and practice since I first came to North America.
It felt right to lead the group on a shamanic journey, into the realm of Great Mother Bear. In a standing meditation, I had everybody find their connection with a special tree, a tree that knew them. I suggested that during the drumming, we would all travel down through the roots of the tree, down into a Cave of Earth where we would encounter Mother Bear and receive healing and life direction. This journey prospered. Every member of our circle returned with thrilling narratives and great gifts.
The woman who had previously met a bear on the trail reported that Mother Bear received her into a loving embrace and later combed her hair, with gentle care, with her great claws. After this, she felt energized, able to move forward with clear direction on a new phase in her professional and creative work. I was struck by how closely her experience of Bear combing her hair matches a Mohawk tradition of cleansing and freeing the mind. In the real Hiawatha story, when Hiawatha (as agent of the Peacemaker) at last overcomes the tyrant-sorcerer Tododaho, instead of killing his adversary he cleanses and heals him by combing the snakes of evil intention from his hair, and then raises him up to join the council of the "men of good minds".
Among the journeyers who met Mother Bear was a wonderful man whose father had been born and raised in Kaunas, Lithuania. He was amazed and delighted when I told him that next March I will be leading a workshop in Kaunas, a fine old city that stands at the junction of two rivers. He recalled that his father used to invoke the name of Perkunas, the fierce Baltic god of thunder, in an ancient curse - "May Perkunas blast you!" I told him about the remarkable work of the Lithuanian artist Arvydas Kazdailis, who has been bringing the mythic past and the tragic history of the Baltic alive. In one of Kazailis' etchings for a beautiful edition of The Chronicles of Prussia he depicts Perkunas as a cosmic bear, with lots of action going on within his giant form.
When I drove home, I found an email message from my friend in Lithuania who is coordinating my workshop in Kaunas. "I dreamed you were wearing dark blue," she reported. "You grew huge, like a storm god or a Tibetan wrathful deity. Your features changed, and I realized you had turned into a giant bear, a dark blue bear. You were surrounded by people dancing in the woods." I checked the time difference and noted that she dreamed this while - unknown to her, outside the dream - I was leading our group journey into the Cave of the Bear, dressed in dark blue. Not bad for dream telepathy across the big pond.
The graphic is an etching of Perkunas by Arvydas Kazdailis in his edition of Prusijos zemes kronika ("The Chronicles of Prussia").

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Blueberries and crack

I spent the weekend leading a playshop in a wonderful octagonal meeting house amidst blueberry gardens in Ashton, Maryland. Of course, the berries were not on the bushes in mid-January. The absence of blueberries inspired me to recount an incident that took place in high summer on the other side of the continent, when the berries were ripe and full at Mosswood Hollow, the magical retreat center where I lead some of my longer adventures in Active Dreaming.
During our lunch break that August day, I ranged with delight from bush to bush, grazing on red huckleberries and fat juicy blackberries and salmonberries and wild raspberries, always coming back to the perfect blueberries. As I was picking and munching, a stranger's voice carried across the bushes. It was slow and sweet, dropping the syllables like honey from a pot. "I see you like the berries."

I had to stand on tiptoe and tilt my head to one side before I could see the speaker. I found a man with honey-colored hair and a soft honey-colored beard. His shirt was also the color of honey, and on it he wore the figure of a bear, hanging from a thong.

"I do like the berries, very much."

"Which ones have you had?"

I rattled off the list.

"Have you tried the salal berries?"

I had not yet tasted these, and was interested, because I had heard that salal was a staple for the first peoples of the Pacific Northwest and for early settlers.

The honey-colored man offered to show me where the salal berries were growing. He led me along a track beside the deep evergreen forest, and pointed out the purplish berries. I tried a couple and found the taste somewhat bland and woody. I turned to thank my guide and found he was gone. The moment before, he had been as near to me as my shadow. I looked between the red cedars, to see if he had gone into the woods. Surely he could not have gone more than a few paces. He had vanished out of the sunlit day as if he had never been there.

I went back to the house and described my guide to the owners of Mosswood Hollow. They disclained any knowledge of the man I had met on their land.

Reflecting on this, as I gobbled a few more blueberries, I remembered the native stories of animals that can appear as humans, and humans who turn into animals. If a bear wanted to show himself as a human, maybe it would be like this, as a honey-colored man with a great love of berries.

Near the end of our story-swapping last weekend, an Irishman with a dry sense of humor and a poet in his soul clapped me on the shoulder and said, "Great crack."

"Are you accusing me of being a drug dealer?"
"Not crack," he laughed. "C-R-A-I-C. It means you tell a fine story. Grand entertainment."

Craic Dealer. I see you can buy a T-shirt with that inscription in Irish pubs. I've been called worse. Craic addict is another T-shirt choice. Well, craic addiction can be no more dangerous than bibliophilia, and I'll be happy to supply the necessary even when that requires me to talk the stars out of the sky.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Locket

I’m in no hurry to greet the day, and the wan light of the wintry morning is not summoning. My dreams have slipped away, so I decide to slip into a conscious dream, in this drifty, liminal state the French used to call dorveille, which means sleepwake and is not to be confused with reveille, its angry bugling cousin.
But where shall I go? I think of childhood scenes of frights and delights, of old romances, of island lagoons, of the path of moonlight on water, of a library where flying books must be kept in birdcages when not in use.
I decide to go to the Bazaar of Lost and Found Souls. This is a great open market, rich in scent and color, where you may find many surprises, even parts of your soul you didn’t know were missing. At once I am in a sunny space, bright with the tentlike hangings of the vendors. Shall I go first to the passage of the book antiquaries, or the concourse of the bird-sellers?
The bare earth underfoot is dry and powdery. Each footstep raises puffs of dust. Looking down, I notice I am not wearing my regular boots. My shoes are made of soft padded stuff and they curl up at the ends. I realize that my clothes match. They are loose and baggy, capped with a turban. I have a great curved dagger with a wide blade tucked into a silken sash around my middle. I also have a dark pointed beard. I touch the stiff hairs on this unfamiliar, sharp-featured face. In this stranger’s body, I am accompanied by his people, a giant African bodyguard, and a pair of young women, one slim and one round, whose charms can only be imagined behind their veils and concealing garments.
This is mildly intriguing, but I feel that wandering the market as this fellow – I sense his pride and power – will interfere with the experiences I look for in this bazaar of memory and desire. I notice a small dog, a bundle of energy and excitement. I follow the dog as he runs to a pile of rubble beside a wall. There is a small opening there, much too small for a man. But the dog is eager to go down, and I go with him, moving bricks and stones to widen the tunnel until I find this is no longer necessary. I lose awareness of the dog; perhaps I have become the dog. At the end of the vertical descent, the passage widens, leading gently down to a large, bright-lit area that seems to be a workspace. Men in white aprons and coveralls are arranging things on large tables. They do not seem to be aware of my presence.
A lady in a blue dress comes tripping lightly down a flight of steps to the left of the men. She is very lovely. Her auburn hair is tied up under a little hat that is the same blue as her dress, the blue of a perfect summer sky. Her dress is buttoned to the throat and has puffed shoulders as well as a high collar. It belongs, I suppose, to the Victorian era. The lady in blue looks at me, and holds out her open palm.
Her smile is like sunrise.
“We must put you somewhere safe.”
She is holding a locket. I don’t much care for the idea of being trapped inside, but it is impossible to distrust this lady. It seems to me that her name is Miss Morningstar. She reminds me of a lady in blue I met once before, when I traveled to a spiral galaxy on the other side of the obvious.
When I enter the locket, I don’t feel confined at all. I am in a place of wonderful light. Can I be inside a jewel, or a crystal, on the front of the locket?
The light grows and grows. I am carried, with it, into the shape of a man. He is handsome and well-formed, and dressed in a style that matches the lady.
“Daur,” she whispers, touching the side of the face I now inhabit. This sounds like a name for the fellow with curly shoes.
We are standing in an airy room with a terrace overlooking an elegant square. I notice horse-drawn carriages outside.
I don’t yet know who I am, in this scene. I don’t even know whether she projected me from her locket into a body that lives in this time, or conjured a form for me to inhabit.
These Victorians know a thing or too. Wait a minute. The gardens and the house fronts outside the window are quite familiar. Can this be Tavistock Square, in London? If so, can it be that –

[interrupted by workaday events in the world of January 15, 2010]

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Synchron-O-city Beast

Shhhh. If you're quiet for a moment, you'll hear him snuffling and padding around the room. Most grown-ups can't hear him or see him because they are too busy. Whatever age you are, you don't want to miss him. When he's around, things happen differently. You can finish something before you started it, which is really cool when it comes to doing chores.
     He is, of course, the Synchron-O-city Beast. I shall tell you exactly how he got his name and his shape. There was once a very clever professor in Switzerland who woke up noticing what you and I know but most grown-ups forget: coincidence matters, terribly. But it was very hard for him to explain this to respectable adults in a country of bankers and cuckoo-clocks, so he made up a word that sounded scientific.
     The word was "synchronicity", which he defined as "an acausal connecting principle." He was talking about meaningful coincidence. You and I know that coincidence always means something. It's through coincidence that we discover that the world inside us and the world outside us aren't really separate. It's through coincidence that we discover the secret doors to the world-behind-the-world that open in our dreams but often seem to be bricked over in the daytime, as if they were never there. Through coincidence, we discover that there are players involved in our games of life who live on the other side of the curtain between the worlds, but can reach through that curtain to move a piece on the board, or tickle us, or muss our hair.
     The Swiss professor got serious people - the sort who would never listen to talk of "coincidence" - to sit through his lectures when he substituted the word "synchronicity." He also go them to listen because he told good stories about how synchronicity worked in his own life, about how a solid cabinet cracked with a loud BANG when he was getting into an argument with his own teacher, or how a fox appeared on a path when he was talking to a lady about a dream of a fox.
     I have never liked the word "synchronicity" as much as that good old word "coincidence". But alas, "coincidence" has been horribly ad-justed and only-fied by all the people who have long been in the habit of saying, "just coincidence" or "only coincidence". It has even been not-ified by people who insist "it's not coincidence" when they really mean that it is, but it's something real and important and meaningful, and they don't understand (because of the bad talk they've learned) that coincidence is all of those things.
    So I've been using the word "synchronicity" in my own classes. But in one of those classes, there was a sweet lady artist who could never say it quite right. It always came out "synchron-O-city" with a great big O where an I should be. I thought this was rather cute, and couldn't bear to correct her. So, month after month, following her homeplay assignments, she would bring us tales of synchron-O-city, to our smiling delight.
    One evening there was a newcomer in the class, a serious person and a stickler for accuracy in everything that can be looked up.
    "I have another synchron-O-city to tell," said the lady artist, eager to share.
    "You mean synchon-I-city," said the newcomer. "You should get it right."
    Crestfallen, the artist tried to correct herself, but faltered.
    I quickly intervened. "Please don't ever change the way you say that word," I implored the artist. "Every time you say it, I sense a soft snuffly animal - the Synchron-O-city Beast - coming into the room."
    I paused. In that moment, I believe we all heard and sensed something like a plush baby rhino, snuffling and snorting. The first peoples of the country where I grew up, Down Under, say that to name something is to bring it into the world. The Synchron-O-city Beast is now alive and ever so busy in this world.
    I can prove this because a writer named Maureen has just reported a most delightful dream in which she is one of a team of counselors helping me to run a camp for children where we supervise sleepover parties and dream together. Padding and snuffling all over the magical house in the woods where we are gathered is a creature she describes as a "baby rhino", soft and cuddly.
     I don't think Maureen ever heard of the Synchron-O-city Beast from me, at least not in an ordinary way. The Synchron-O-city Beast just went ahead and introduced himself. I hope they are feeding him well in Maureen's dream camp. He thrives on giggles and slips of the tongue. He likes to exercise by shredding the curtain of solemn people's expectations, and butting holes into Outland and Fairyland and other lands big enough to be doorways for anyone with a child's sense of wonder.

An expanded version of this little essay appears in my book Active Dreaming, published by New World Library.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Why swim

In the Subtle City, a teacher of the Way sees five of his students returning from swimming in the Great Pool. With a twitch of his lips, he makes them stop in midstride and sit with him under a flowering tree. He tells his students, "I wish each of you to tell me why you swim."
The first student leaps up wihout shyness, muscles rippling. "I swim to beat all the others. I swim so I will be made captain of the swim team, and sent to swim meets in the City of Milk and the Archipelago of Delight. I swim so all will respect me and my name will be inscribed on our city's rolls of honor."

The teacher nods. "It is no bad thing for a young man to want to win. The spirit of competition in your spirit makes you excel. No harm. You may keep doing what you are doing."
The second student says, with quicksilver in his smile, "I swim because I love the water, I swim so I can feel like mer-man, at home in this element." He blushes just a little because he is in love with a water sprite.
"It is good to know your element. You may continue to play with the water spirits."
The third student is round-faced and solid and a little slow in his body and his speech. "I cannot deceive you, master," he says at last. "I swim so I can eat and drink whatever I like and laze around the house when I am not in your classes."
"It is good to recognize the dynamic harmonies of life. You are seeking balance as best you can. You may carry on."
The fourth student is very serious. His high forehead and little round glasses suggest he is already devoted to a life of study and austerities. "I swim as a mental discipline and a mode of meditation. Sometimes, as I swim laps, I go through the sixty-four hexagrams of the Book of Changes and then through the changing lines, observing the laws by which one pattern turns into another."
"You are enlightened. Please continue."

The teacher of the Way inspects his fifth student.
A drop of pool water is slipping down this student's inner thigh from his wet bathing costume. When it reaches the ground, the fifth student says, "I swim in order to swim."

The teacher of the Way rises from his seat among the roots of the ancient flowering tree. Using his staff to help him bend his aged knees, he squats before the fifth student.
The teacher says, "I sit at your feet. You are my teacher."
Note: I heard a similar tale, long ago, about a Zen master who asked his students why they rode bicycles. Swimming in a pool today, it came to me that a wonderful teaching story has been woefully distorted in its retelling by pedalheads. The authentic version can only be about swimming.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Road Work Ahead

A recurring theme in my dreams, over many years, is that my road is blocked by construction work. In one of these dreams, I found a road completely impassable with great hills of rubble and huge bulldozers ahead of me. I woke frustrated, and decided to try to get back inside the dream and find a way forward. When I reentered the dream, I discovered I had a companion I hadn't noticed before. He looked like an impossibly beautiful, radiant double of myself. He wasn't blocked by the construction, He shot up something like a storm drain, flying Superman-style. Then it hit me - I'm dreaming and I can fly. I flew up the tunnel after him, and entered one of the most powerful life-changing experiences of my life.

Since then, I still find my road blocked at times, in my dreams, and often don't remember that I can fly. Sometimes I have to turn back, or wait my time (as we have to do on a highway when there is literal construction and flagmen determining when we can stop or go). Sometimes my dream self does something as cool as flying, like picking up my vehicle and carrying it over the obstacles.

A variant is coming to a point where the road is unfinished, or the bridge just stops halfway across a body of water or an overpass. Those dreams make me want to look very carefully at what direction I'm following in my work and my life and check whether that's really the way I want to go. If it is, then I'll consider what roadwork I need to do in order to go forward.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What's Cooking in the Book Kitchen

Jung dreamed of a library of rare books, heavy on tomes of medieval alchemy, bound in rich morocco leather. Twenty years later, in his private study, he realized he now inhabited the library he had dreamed.
I'm enjoying a similar moment of recognition this morning. For more than twenty years, since long before I moved to my present home, I've dreamed of a kitchen that is also my creative center, and is as likely to be full of papers - book drafts, research notes, journals, binders and folders of every size - as the things you would normally expect to find in a kitchen. Sometimes books and papers are covering every surface, even the hotplates on the stove. I realized just now that this scene is fully manifested in the kitchen behind me.
Let me hasten to explain that my work space is the basement apartment in my house. Long ago my papers and files vastly overflowed the double living room that is my office and working library, so we created an archive in the guest kitchen, which is not used for cooking. Half the kitchen floor space is covered by documents boxes on industrial shelving. This winter I've been "decanting" those boxes, pulling out old book drafts and raw materials for my current writing. This morning, trying to contain a developing avalanche of paper, I started stacking files and drafts mentally tagged for imminent review on top of the hotplates on the stove.
My dream kitchen has taken over the physical one.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Shelf elves and printer's devils

Arthur Koestler spoke of the Library Angel - that bookish spirit that makes texts appear at just the right time. I wish to speak now of a lesser, but highly active, spirit of stacks that we may call the Shelf Elf. His number is larger than the Dewey system. He not only makes books turn up in unexpected ways; he can hide them or even make them disappear. He may have been at work in the strange behavior of files and papers described in my previous post ("Rule of Three").
-   He is often at play in my preferred bookshops, which tend to be quirky independents and havens of twice-sold tales. One of these shelf-elf-haunted establishments is just down the street from my home, which is a mixed blessing because in the course of a year a significant portion of this bookshop's stock migrates up the street into my house.
-  It was in this bookshop that I found the meaning of a funny dream word (chantepleure) in a book placed at eye level from my point of vision at the door, so I could not fail to see it, and was thereby drawn into trans-temporal intrigues involving a poet-prince of Orleans in whose name Joan of Arc went to war.
-  It was here, over the holidays, that I repaired with the feeling that there was something of Jorge Luis Borges that I urgently needed to read that day, Newly arrived, casually dropped on top of a short stack in the literature section, was an English translation of The Book of Sand which I naturally purchased. I opened this collection of Borges' later stories and was immediately engrossed in a tale ("The Other".) in which Borges meets a much younger self on a bench. Borges tells his younger self what life will bring him over the forty years that divide them. The young Borges, who believes he is dreaming, will forget the information he has received from his older self, letting it fade like a dream. Thjs tale weaves together two of my favorite themes, the many varieties of the double and the relativity of time, and I was grateful to the shelf elf that put it in front of me.
-   The shelf elf has allies. One of them is the printer's devil, a term that I am using here in a different sense from what it meant for the young Sam Clemens, laboring over trays of type in print shops in Hannibal, Missouri or Keokuk, Iowa, before he became Mark Twain.
Last weekend, I detected fresh collusion between the shelf elf and the printer's devil. I had decided to return to my studies of the history and mythology of the Baltic, in preparation for new adventures in dream archeology in Lithuania in March. Settled in my favorite reading chair, I opened the Penguin edition of a book called The Northern Crusades, by Eric Christiansen. I had been reliably informed that this is the only accessible book in English on the last crusades authorized by the Vatican, which were directed not against Muslims, but against European pagans, in Lithuania and neighboring areas.
-   When I opened the cover, I found myself looking at one of those standard Penguin author bios that are printed at the front, not the back, of their editions. The odd thing was that this micro-biography was not of Christiansen but of Charlotte Bronte.
Mystified, I turned quickly to the title page, and read:
-Charlotte Bronte

I kept turning pages. Next came a scholarly essay on Charlotte Bronte's least-known (and by the admission of the scholar, least memorable) novel, followed by the author's own preface and the first pages of The Professor itself. The text of The Professor stops in midsentence at the bottom of page 48, but is continued quite grammatically by the text at the top of page 23 of The Northern Crusades so we read "My brother was/between kinship groups". From here until the end of the book, we are off into the narrative of unholy wars fought under the sign of the cross.
-   This is not the first time the the production department of a publishing house has screwed up. Just a coincidence, you say? Certainly coincidence, but the kind that feels both meaningful and personal. The title of Charlotte Bronte's novel spoke to me. My middle daughter, now a professor, was with us for Christmas. I myself am now a professor again - a visiting professor for the School of Consciousness Studies at John F. Kennedy University in California, where I'll teach a class on "Synchronicity: When the Universe Gets Personal".
-    As I read the excellent introduction to the Bronte by Heather Glen (now that sounds like a fine Scots name) my interest quickened. I learned that even after her novel Jane Eyre became a bestseller, Charlotte Bronte could not get The Professor published; it came out posthumously. So there's a story about a famous author's struggle to bring something to the public she believes in but the publishers don't "get". That speaks to metoo
-- Heather Glen discusses The Professor as a fictional cousin of the self-help books coming into vogue in England in the mid-19th century. The big bestseller in this emerging genre, that gave the genre its name, was Self-Help (1859) whose author had the wondrous name of Samuel Smiles and had been encouraged by previous publications in a series titled with equal felicity the Library of Entertaining Knowledge. This again piqued my interest; one of the new books I have in the works will probably be published under the "self-help" rubric, which I had previously believed to be an American invention.
-   Due diligence. I went back to the magic bookshop and asked if they had a copy of The Professor. They did. I carried home the old 1900 Harper & Row edition, its pages still uncut, and sat in my reading chair, knife in hand, slicing my way through. The first hundred pages gripped me in their account of tight-laced, caste-bound English society, and a young man setting off to make his own way as an English language teacher in Brussels. After that, the novel becomes dull and motionless, offensive in the chauvinist opinions of its narrator on the superiority of the English. Charlotte's male alter ego, whose preposterous name ("Crimsworth") is rendered even more so in the accents of Brussels ("Creemsvort") is notably prejudiced against the Flemish, and in this, no doubt, we may read something of Ms. Bronte's own disappointments as a teacher at a pensionnat in Brussels.
-    If there's a message here, it's not in the full text of The Professor but rather, I suspect, in the theme of two books bound in one set of covers. When we leave The Professor in the two-headed Penguin, we are in the mind of a young Englisman on a mill-owner's estate in the early 19th century. Then we are flung at once - in the second half of a sentence - into the situation of a king of Sweden in the high Middle Ages, facing jeers and stones from a violent and unruly assembly. Catapulted from one life into another by a printer's devil. Borges, knowing the magic and the deviltry of words on a page, as well as the inconstancy of time, would have enjoyed this.

Rule of Three

I was working on a revised draft of an account of a journey I made into the country of the Scottish Merlin, around Hart Fell ("Deer Mountain") in the Western Borders. The last words I typed, from a voice I heard on that mountain, by the rust-red chalybeate spring, were: -

Follow the Rule of Three.
Everything that matters will come in threes.

    I printed out my draft, and grabbed for a three-ring binder on a shelf at my right hand, to give it temporary shelter. A different binder fell out. It was one I had quite forgotten. I had given it the title "The Celtic Otherworld" and embellished this with the image of a triskele, the Celtic triple spiral. Naturally I picked up this binder, full of old notes from my studies of the immrama - the "voyage tales" of Celtic otherworldly journeys - on my desk for new inspection.
   As I moved, my shoulder brushed an upper shelf in the same bookcase, and three index cards fluttered to the floor. The writing on the cards was by three different hands, none of them was my own. Though I did not recognize the handwriting, the cards, in themselves, were no mystery. They were three of the hundreds of cards I've collected playing my Coincidence Card Games with people in my workshops.
     In the simplest, oracular version of the Coincidence Game, the members of a circle are asked to write anything they like on one side of a small index card. The cards are made into a deck. Then we all get to pull a card at random from this one-time deck, and we are required to pretend that whatver we find written on it is a direct message to us from the universe, manifested through the magic of synchronicity. Sometimes we formulate a life question - a theme on which we would like some help or guidance - before pulling our cards. Sometimes we are simply open to what the cards have to say.
    Well, of course I had to read the three cards that seemed to have thrust themselves into my field of attention. I had drawn them on three different occasions, at some point in my past, but had no exact recollection of what was at issue then.
    I now read the cards in the order they had fallen. The first was written in three lines, like this:

1. Golden Eagle.
-----The power of relating.
---------Seeing in relationship

The second card had a title:

2. Synchronicity:In dream session, I asked for information about my sore shoulder. One of the responses was to "open" my shoulder. I saw two road signs last night: "Shoulder work ahead" and "Shoulder closed".
The third card left me in no doubt that there was "news" for me tonight:

3. Wind blown newspapers on the front lawn
The writer of the third card had added a little drawing of a wavy, breezy line with twin arrowheads, at either end.

I had been about to take a break, but I needed to take just a quick peek at the contents of that binder with the triple spiral on the cover. I opened it at random and found myself in the midst of a bardic narration, with these lines in my direct line of sight:

There are three times fifty distant isles
In the ocean to nthe west of us
Larger than Erin twice
Is each of them, or thrice
A glimpse of the mystical Western Isles, in Kuno Meyer's translation of the Immram Brain meic Febuil ("The Voyage of Bran Son of Febuil"). There's the Rule of Three again.
---Life rhymes. Tonight, my life is rhyming (to go Dantesque for a moment) in terza rima.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Trickster Marble

I'm continuing to play my winter game of opening old dream journals at random and re-viewing what jumps out (see "Journal Times", December 28, 2009). Today I grabbed a binder with my journals from the first half of 1997, and found myself looking at a short dream report in a hand other than my own, accompanied by a vivid drawing in markers.

The handwriting was that of my youngest daughter, Sophie, who was then aged seven. I had encouraged her to write and draw her dream stories from a very early age, and from time to time she would present me with one of these, which I always regarded as the highest honor. I have Sophie's permission to post her dream story from March 29, 1997 here. This is an exact transcription of a text that includes only a couple of spelling mistakes (see if you spot them}:


Once apon a time I was at a fair. I met a trickster marble named Buddy.

A few days later we got into a fight.

He went bowling and erend lots of money. He started to forget about me.

I met him at the game and made up and just to prove it he tricked the policeman and got me some flowers.

The End

Something to dream apon.
Speaking of which, leafing forward through my 1997 journal for a few weeks, I found what looks a lot like a kind of family sequel, or at least one of those life rhymes. I dreamed I was playing a board game with my father, in which he fires one of the pieces like a marble. Here's the report:
April 2, 1997
I am playing a board game with my father. The board is arranged as a hollow square. It's quite large, and is composed of marble tiles set within a wooden frame. The pieces are stones of varying sizes, mostly ovoid and white or near-white.
----My father shoots one of the pieces like a marble.
----My pieces are moving along inside tracks, close to the inner edge of the playing surface. My father is moving his pieces around the outer edge. When I decide to stop the game, some of his pieces are in the corner nearest my place at the table.
---The board we've been playing on is very unsusual. The space at the center is a large-as-life forest, though this violates the laws of 3D reality.
My father had died nearly ten years before this dream, two years before Sophie was born. I wasn't confused, in the dream, about his status. I understood, in my dream self, that Dad was both dead and alive - ex-physical, but very active in another order of reality. This was one of many dream encounters with my father that followed his death, and confirmed my sense that our games of life are part of a deeper game.
----I've always been intrigued by board games that mirror and (in dreams and myth) may influence events on a larger scale. The space at the center of the board on which my father and I are playing reminds me of the portal in the game board in the film Jumanji that lets a whole jungle, with all its beasts, into an ordinary neighborhood - and can suck you into a different reality.
----I had not made a connection between the board game with my father and Sophie's dream of the Trickster Marble until today's re-view of that "old" journal, but I'm tickled by the rhyme, and I think my Dad is too.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Four Days in the Grip of the Bear Goddess

I have known since early in my long sojourn in North America that the Bear is a great medicine animal. A powerful dream that brought me personal healing reminded me that this was not unknown to early peoples in Europe, especially when the ancient way of the Great Goddess was most alive. Down in my den of winter, going through old journals, I found this report:

April 26 1999

A she-bear is among us. I volunteer to deal with her. She is enormous, maybe six hundred pounds. Light in color, lighter than honey-brown, as light as a polar bear. She grips my head in the crook of her arm, and holds it against her, close to her face. We spend four days in this intimate embrace. It is not uncomfortable, but I am aware that at any moment she could break my neck.
----At the end of four days, the people who were with me at the outset gather around us again. One is a woman scientist or zoologist. They now have the means to release me. But the she-bear lets me go without a struggle, confident of our relationship. She shambles away into a space that had been prepared for her, in a room off the corridor of an institutional building, a hospital or teaching facility.
----When I start talking about her, she returns to look at me. “You are Artemis,” I tell her. “I am Osiris.”
On waking, I noticed that troublesome symptoms that had been bothering me for days - headaches and wooziness - had left me. I felt charged with vitality, sure I had received personal healing, and grateful to the she-bear that delivered it.
I was intrigued by the words my dream self had spoken to her. I could grasp why I might have identified myself with"Osiris", as candidates for initiation and travelers preparing for the next world were schooled to do in ancient Egypt. Osiris is one who dies and comes back, one who is dismembered and re-membered. I could find something of my finite story within his neverending one.
But why did my dream self hail the she-bear with the name of the Greek goddess Artemis? I hit the books, especially the brilliant early studies of Jane Ellen Harrison, who had an intuitive grasp of the shamanic sources of hellenic ritual practices. I rediscovered hat throughout ancient Greece, bears were sacred to Artemis. Well-born little Athenian girls danced as bears to Artemis of Brauronia, the Bear-Goddess. Jane Ellen Harrison observed they “could not but think reverently of the great might of the Bear.”
More generally, Harrison wrote
The mystery gods…are never free of totemistic hauntings, never quite shed their plant and animal shapes. That lies in the very nature of their sacramental worship. They are still alive with the life-blood of all living things from which they sprang.[Themis 450]
I looked anew, with the eyes of a dream archeologist, at ancient images of the Bear goddess, including the 2nd century bronze statue of the Celtic bear goddess, found near Bern in Switzerland, who appears in the photo that accompanies this essay. The Romans called her Dea Artio. As far away as Britain, the Arthur, as consort of the Bear goddess, led his men into battle under her standard. In her human guise, in the Bern statue, the goddess offers fruit to her animal self.
The link between Artemis and the Bear can be tracked through the myths, though we need dream sight to get to the heart of these stories. In the Greek version of the creation of the Bear constellations in the sky - Ursa Major and Ursa Minor - Zeus pursues Callisto, one of the nymphs of Artemis. Calliasto keeps shapeshifting; the lusty god shifts just as fast, seeking to cover her in every form. The nymph of Artemis becomes a bear, and now Zeus, as a male bear, wraps her in his embrace and has his way with her. When Artemis later notices that her nymph is pregnant, she flies into a rage and kills her, but quickly repents and places Callisto and her daughter among the stars, as the Great Bear many call the Big Dipper, and the Lesser Bear.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The page you'll dare to read to a friend

Under the blue moon, I want to offer a New Year's instigation, especially for those who write or want to write, in any genre, or simply within the covers of a journal. I am borrowing these words from an essay written by Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentine poet, essayist and maker of fantasy worlds, as a young man: -

I have already written more than one book in order to write, perhaps, one page. The page that justifies me, that summarizes my destiny, the one that perhaps only the attending angels will hear when Judgment Day arrives.
Hang on - can Borges really be saying that he (and we) must deliver the right page to the angel in order to be saved on the day of Judgment? That may be as hard as the flinty Calvinist belief of some of my father's family that we are damned unless we are born among the elect, and damned even so unless our lives are justified by works. I fled that doctrine very early, though those who have observed me working round the clock complain that it remains a sleeper (or rather, unsleeping) agent in me. I won't dispute that the creative spirit is stirred by a "divine unrest", whatever its source.
Can Borges be serious when he says that to produce that one saving page, we may need to write "more than one book"? That's enough to make any aspiring writer break a sweat. -

Mercifully, in the last lines of his essay, young Borges relents. He wants
Simply, the page that, at dusk, upon the resolved truth of day's end, at sunset, with its dark and fresh breeze and girls glowing against the street, I would dare to read to a friend.
"A page I would dare to read to a friend." Now, that sounds manageable. And think what can be accomplished within a page! Borges' published essays are brilliant miniatures, often only a page in length, as are the stories collected in El Hacedor ("The Maker"). Even his astonishing story "The Aleph", in which his word magic brings a kabbalist legend alive and allows us to see, for a shimmering moment, a sphere the size of a coin that contains universal space - complete with tigers and pistons, tides and armies and a woman in Inverness with her "haughty body" and "violent hair"and the cancer in her breast - fills less than a dozen pages.-
A page a day. Here's the seed of a fine intention to let sprout in the New Year. I don't say "resolution"; New Year's resolutions have earned their bad rep. Resolutions may or may never get resolved. Intentions invite tending. So my intention, as we enter 2010, is to write, every day that I can (every day of the year would be grand, but I don't promise that) one page, in any genre, that at day's end, I would dare to read to a friend. How about you?

Happy New Year! May your best dreams come true in 2010!
The essay quoted is"A Profession of Literary Faith" (1926) translated by Susan Jill Levine, in Eliot Weinberger (ed) Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Non-Fictions (New York: Penguin Books, 1999).