Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Henry James' time traveling doubles


Henry James embarked on a curious novel of time traveling doubles, The Sense of the Past, but left it unfinished. It held my attention through one of my overnight reading binges. The theme is deliciously creepy and the twist in the tale is well done. 

The protagonist, Ralph Pendrel, is a young independent American scholar who has published one small book, An Essay in Aid of the Reading of History. An aged English relative, reading this before his death, was moved by the author's "ear for stilled voices " to leave him his old London house. Ralph finds this stroke of luck "a violation of the law of prose”; this is "poetry undefiled"  

We feel the pull of the house for this 30-year-old American with a passion for history. "I dream of making it speak" Ralph declares on arrival at Mansfield Place. He wants to "remount the stream of time really to bathe in its upper and more natural waters to risk even, as he might say, drinking of them.” He wants to hear the old stopped clocks ticking again. He feels the house is "a museum of held reverberations". 

We walk the place with him, feeling the staring eyes of the family portraits and then the deeper and creepier mystery of the portrait of a man with his back turned to the viewer, the lone picture in the smallest of three drawing rooms. At 2 in the morning, Ralph enters the room again. The figure in the painting has now turned. And the face is his own. 

We are given to understand, obliquely, that the man in the picture is not only his ancestor but his counterpart or double in an earlier time, as keen to enter the future as Ralph is to enter the past. He steps through the frame and they are together in the same space and time. For a while they travel London together though only Ralph seems able to see his double. We realize, little by little that they are swapping lives. 

Henry James is a subtle seducer. He is a page puller not a page turner. He pulls you in. And slows you down. You can't rush. Either you walk at his pace or you give it up. His command of words doesn't often involve unusual words but using words in unusual ways. The word "congruity", not altogether usual, is used in a most unusual way in an early description of Mrs. Aurora Coyle, the lady Ralph has been courting unsuccessfully for ten years when the story begins. “Beautiful, different, proud, she had a congruity with things that were not as the things surrounding her." Some of James’ sentences sound like philosophy problems as well as grammatical tests: "the only way to not remain is to not go". 

He provides little description of people or places and much less dialogue than we might expect. There is little forward motion. Yet he had me, again. I was reading with an agenda - I wanted to see how he managed the themes of time travel, doubles and haunted houses. As I reached the end of Book One, a natural place to pause, at 5:30 a.m., a sensible time to sleep, I wanted more. I went to bed with the book and reentered the 1710 house on Maitland Square in the grey London light that might better be called shadow, to watch Ralph stare at the utter familiarity of the chessboard tiles of the lobby, so aged that the white squares are yellow and the black squares are blue. 

I looked again, through his eyes, at the painting in the inner room of a youngish man from the age of rakes with his back turned. Ralph indulges in the fantasy that the figure may turn to face him. He thinks of the faithful in an Italian church hoping for the miracle of a sculpted saint or Madonna shedding a tear. On a night of wild rain, he prowls his house and returns to the paneled room  and finds the miracle has taken place. The man in the picture has turned to show his face "but the face - miracle of miracles, yes - confounded him as his own." 

"I am not myself,” Ralph confesses later in the story. We learn that we are dealing with trans-temporal doubles, one obsessed by the past, the other fascinated by the future, who agree to trade places in different times.


Sunday, August 14, 2022

Becoming an eagle: dreamers as shamans

A woman dreamer finds herself in a different body, traveling with her clan beside a river in a primal landscape untouched by the ax. She knows the lives and relations of these native people intimately, and feels the coming of a hard winter.
     She sees an eagle flying near the river, and someone tells her, "You can go fly with it." She is afraid to go too far from the river, so she waits until the eagle hovers overhead. Then,:
    “I fly an eternal moment with this magnificent bird; beautiful brown, glistening feathers with golden speckles. Eagle is above, beside, then lands in the river. I land downstream and float on the warm white foam. The river is blanketed in white foam.
    “After I dry off, I fly over the river again. I see Turtles where eagle had flown and landed. The turtles are a darker green. They are solid on the foam, not moving, just peacefully sunning themselves.”
    The dreamer asked me how she should approach the meaning of this dream. For me, an experience of this kind does not require analysis, but honoring. Her dream was a journey into the life circumstances of an indigenous people, an entry into a "past" life that might be a prior experience of her own multidimensional self or that of an ancestor of the land where she lives, or her wider spiritual family. Within that life experience, she learned what indigenous dreamers know: you can become an eagle.
    When a gifted Jungian analyst journeyed to the Central Desert in my native Australia, he sought to understand the practice of dreaming among the Pidjinjara, speaking through an interpreter to a "spirit man" who was said to know all about dreaming and the Dreamtime. To warm things up, he tried to give some account of his own dream practicum. How this translated into an Aboriginal language I do not know. The spirit man sat impassively, occasionally brushing away the blowflies. When the psychologist asked him to explain how he worked with dreams, the answer came back, via the interpreter, “He becomes an eagle.” When the Jungian sought to clarify what this meant, the statement was simply repeated: “He becomes an eagle.” 
     It was a just-so statement that had little to do with archetypal symbolism. When the Aboriginal shaman said he became an eagle, he meant exactly what he said: he travels in his dreambody as the eagle, sees with its keen vision, and goes where he needs to be.
     The American dreamer who flew with the eagle and splashed down in the river did something similar, through the spontaneous shamanism of dreaming. Dreaming is traveling, in the understanding of ancient and indigenous peoples, and we are not confined to one form in these journeys. If you fly with the eagle, you don't want to waste too much time discussing the eagle as a symbol. You want to celebrate the connection, make or find something to keep or carry as a dream talisman, and remember, in the midst of the challenges of everyday life, that you have the ability to rise to a higher perspective, and see "many looks away". The last phrase is from the Iroquois or Longhouse People, who place the eagle at the top of their great Tree of Peace so it can watch and warn of things developing at a distance.
     In my childhood, the bird I knew best was the sea eagle, native to northern Australia and also to the northern coast of Scotland, the home of my paternal ancestors. In the Orkneys, ancient shamans were buried together with sea eagles. For the islanders of the Torres Straits, the sea eagle is the preferred ally of the zogo le or shaman. I have lived outside Australia for most of my adult life, yet in big dreams the sea eagle sometimes comes, to lend me wings to fly back to my native country and see something I need to see.
     In the Mohawk language, which I had to study because of my dreams of an ancient woman of power who insisted on communicating in her own language, the word for "shaman" or "healer" is ratetshents,which means literally, "one who dreams". Throughout indigenous North America, there are similar terms, underscoring the characteristic the real shamans: they are dreamers who can shift consciousness at will and travel in worlds invisible to ordinary eyes to bring back gifts to people in the visible world. The Kagwahiv, a shamanic dreaming people of Amazonia, contribute the thought that "everyone who dreams is a little bit shaman".

Picture: White-bellied sea eagle photographed by Thimindu Goonatillake in Sri Lanka

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

How Bull became a believer in dreams

The thing most likely to bring people awake to the importance of dreams is a visitation from the deceased. The number one reason why people of every background have chosen to share dreams with me, over the years, is that they have dreamed of a dead relative or friend. They want confirmation that the encounter is real, they would like guidance on what to do about it, or simply need to share something that has moved them at the core.

For men in particular, such dream visitations can be life-changing. Hard heads who previously dismissed dreams and prided themselves on having no connection with the inner life crack open when dad or granddad turns up in a dream. Take the case of Bull.

That was the nickname his buddies had given him. He is a huge man, a linebacker, and a police officer for a big city department, the kind of guy for whom touchy-feely doesn’t come easy. Then came the night when he would have died but for the intervention of a dead man.

As he tells the story, he came home hammered that night and fell into bed alone. His girlfriend was working late. As he slept, his grandfather appeared to him in a dream. He had loved his granddad and they had been very close when Bull was a boy. But this was not a gentle visitation. Bull’s grandfather slapped him and shook him, shouting “Wake up!”

Bull woke with a start and sat up. The bedside clock told him it was 5:00 a.m. He felt wet. He looked down and saw that the whole bed was filled with blood. He had a varicose vein that had popped .He called 911 and the ambulance came right away He lost 5 pints of blood and was in intensive care for two days. They told him that if he had not woken up when he did, he would have died.

Bull says, “I never thought much about my dreams but after this I am a believer.” The dream visitation saved his life and shook his world.

For much more on dreaming with the departed see chapter 7 of Conscious Dreaming and The Dreamer's Book of the Dead.

Cave art: Aurochs at Lascaux


Tuesday, August 9, 2022

The Drowning Boy and His Sister

When I was nine years old, before I left my body in an operating theater and went to another world, I nearly drowned. I had been out fishing with my father and his friends on a boat on a river near Melbourne, Australia. When we docked, I slipped on the gangplank and fell into the water. Nobody could understand that I was in any danger. The water was shallow and I was a good swimmer. Yet all my short life was swirling through my mind, with glimpses of places and people I had not met in ordinary reality. Finally someone reached down and hauled me out. Then I was on my belly, coughing up the brackish water I had swallowed.

Half a world away, in Memphis, Tennessee, a girl my age dreamed that a boy with a round, freckled face, was drowning, though no one understood he was in danger. In her dream, she reached down into the water and helped to pull him out.

In many nights during my lonely boyhood, this girl was the sister I longed for. We went riding through the sky together, leaping from cloudbank to cloudbank to get to fresh worlds of adventure. Usually my horse was gleaming black, with a star on his forehead, while hers was white. Sometimes, we would meet in a garden of fruit trees and rambling roses, where a bear guarded the gate to color worlds, as vivid and fascinating and scary as the Color Books of Fairies. We could count on Bear to keep us safe. He tied a red cord round our middles so we could not get lost, and would tug when it was time to come back.

It took more than three decades after my near-death in the river before I met the girl from Memphis. Because of my dreams of ancestors of the land, I was now on my quest for Sir William Johnson and the world he made in the Mohawk Valley. I drove from the farm where I was living to Johnson Hall, his last home in the Valley, and met Wanda Burch, who had been curator of this historic site for many years. I did not know her right away as my dream sister, but I felt completely at home with her. She was generous in opening her vast trove of personal knowledge of the records of Johnson, and in escorting me to other places connected with him and the Mohawk Indians he came to know so well. 

We soon discovered we were both dreamers. We traveled into the same dreamscapes, as we came to believe we had done as children. Wanda revealed an ability to dream into other aspects of my life that would have been disturbing had we not almost immediately developed a relationship of deep trust and agreed to adopt each other as brother and sister. 

One morning, Wanda shared a dream report in which she saw me exploring a strange triangular castle on the borders of England and Scotland. While she was dreaming, I was studying photos and descriptions of Caerlaverock castle, the ancestral home of the Maxwell clan (of which the Scots Mosses are a sub-clan). This stronghold on the Western Borders, near Dumfriesshire, was built in the shape of a triangle for both ease of defense (it takes fewer soldiers to guard three walls than four) and for magical purposes (the triangle is a favorite ritual portal for evocation, or bringing things through from a hidden dimension).

Sometimes Wanda seemed to be dreaming my material. She would call and say, “I have another of your dreams.” Sure enough, her report would look and feel exactly like one of my own dreams, stamped with personal markers like picking up a phrase from another language, discovering a secret room or a rare book, or cloak-and-dagger adventures in far-flung places.

The great and daily gift in this ever-deepening friendship was our ability to give each other mutual support and validation and to grow our practice of dreaming together. We realized early on that dreams require action..
Over lunch soon after the pull of dreams and the play of synchronicity had led me to sell the farm and move to a house on a hill in the city of Troy, I told Wanda that I had dreamed that a famous author of dream books had moved to my town and was leading dream classes and everyone was very excited. Wanda and I had not yet learned to offer comments by saying “if it were my dream”. She fired her interpretation of my dream right at me. “Robert, you are the famous author who has moved to Troy. Why not give some dream workshops?”

This had me poised for action, but I did nothing until the next day when, in the way of synchronicity, I got a call from a local arts center. Would I be willing to give some classes? Sure. They were expecting me to offer writing classes, but readily readjusted their expectations when I said I wanted to lead dream workshops. Prior to the first of my evening dream classes, I dreamed we had 41 people signed up, and that there was a problem with a man seated near a piano who was trying to record the class without asking permission. I was perplexed by the number 41, since we had agreed to limit the class to 35 – until I got to the center and learned that we had 35 registered and 6 on a waiting list. I was now alert for possible appearance of a man with a tape recorder near the baby grand piano in the gallery we were using. I spotted him as soon as he started fiddling with the machine he was trying to conceal under his raincoat, and laid down the law.
Wanda and I practiced dream archaeology together, culling the holographic memories of the land at sites in the Mohawk Valley and further afield where the events of Johnson’s life, and those of the settlers and natives he knew, had unfolded. We also found ourselves developing “far memory” of other lives where we felt we had been connected.

We learned how to companion people who are moving through the gates of death. We learned how to grow dreams for people who are in need of a dream, and wrap the energy of vision around them so that it can bring body and mind towards healing.

I don’t recall exactly when Wanda told me her dream, from when she was nine, of rescuing the drowning boy. I remember her talking of it to me again, when we visited a Mohawk community in Ontario because a Mohawk grandmother had asked me to help her people remember how to dream in the old way. At the lunch table, I found myself sitting opposite young women whose surnames were Johnson and Brant, and may well have been lineal descendants of the 18th century people who called me into their world and brought Wanda and me together.

“Your own will come to you,” asserted the Irish visionary writer George Russell, beset known by his pen name 
Æ. My soul friendship with Wanda, in its inception and its ever-renewing gifts, has taught me that this is simple truth. In his beautiful little book The Candle of VisionÆ gave a personal example. When he first attempted to write verse, he immediately met a new friend, a dreaming boy “whose voice was soon to be the most beautiful voice in Irish literature” This was William Butler Yeats. “The concurrence of our personalities seemed mysterious and controlled by some law of spiritual gravitation.”

In his later life, Æ found a soul companion in the Australian writer P.L.Travers, the author of Mary Poppins and also a deep student of the Western Mysteries and a world-class mythographer. Æ wrote to her, “I feel I belong to a spiritual clan whose members are scattered all over the world and these are my kinsmen.” Yes. And our spiritual kin can reach to us across oceans, and across centuries, even into the drowning pool.

Text adapted from The Boy Who Died and Came Back by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library.

Photo by RM

For Wanda's odyssey of healing through dreamwork, please see her beautiful book She Who Dreams 

Tarot Cards from the World


I have the sense that the world is sometimes slipping us a Tarot card, from an infinite deck. On the literal roads of everyday life, I'm often struck by how the first thing that comes on the car radio, or the first vanity plate or bumper sticker I spot on a car, may contain a clue to the quality of the day. One morning the first vanity plate I noticed while walking my dog read WAT U WISH. This got me thinking long and deep about the nature of wishcraft. What we encounter in life has a great deal to do with what we wish - or fail to wish - and whether our wishes come from the head or the heart, from the little self of the big Self. 

A friend reported that the first bumper sticker she saw that day read "I Won the Time War". That feels to me like an nod of approval from the universe, whether you read it in the mundane sense of managing to get things done in allotted tick-tock time, of in the larger sense of inhabiting a more spacious time in the multiverse (which my friend had been discussing at the moment she spotted the bumper sticker). 

The behavior of birds and animals sometimes has the quality of one of the Major Arcana coming into play. Once when I was speaking to a group about the character of the Trickster in mythology, a fox appeared on a grassy knoll behind my head, visible to everyone in the meeting space except me. Every time I turned my head, he would vanish, only to reappear when I wasn't looking, until that session was done. Hard to miss the fact that the Trickster card was in play that day - as proved to be the case, richly, beyond that workshop session.

For many games of Sidewalk Tarot, please see my book Sidewalk Oracles

Fox oracle card by Robert Moss