Soul Notes 5: From a Nobel Laureate in Literature

Olga Tokarczuk Nobel Prize Lecture, Dec. 7, 2019

Olga Tokarczuk, born January 29, 1962 in Sulechów, Poland, won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature. She received her prize this year, and yesterday, delivered her Nobel Lecture in Stockholm.

All who have been following these Soul Notes will appreciate what she has to say, for her eye and heart register mysteries in places and situations we often take for granted. In tuning the radio in her childhood home, she says, “I believed that through this radio different solar systems and galaxies were speaking to me, crackling and warbling and sending me important information, and yet I was unable to decipher it.”

She tells how an old photograph of her mother led her to find find within herself, “something once known as a soul, thereby furnishing me with the world’s greatest tender narrator.” Later she she says more about what she means by tenderness. “Tenderness is spontaneous and disinterested; it goes far beyond empathetic fellow feeling. Instead it is the conscious, though perhaps slightly melancholy, common sharing of fate. Tenderness is deep emotional concern about another being, its fragility, its unique nature, and its lack of immunity to suffering and the effects of time.”

I was especially struck by this passage in which she captures the difficulty of trying to describe today’s world and possible futures with an earlier era’s language and imagery, which are proving inadequate to the task:

“Today our problem lies—it seems—in the fact that we do not yet have ready narratives not only for the future, but even for a concrete now, for the ultra-rapid transformations of today’s world. We lack the language, we lack the points of view, the metaphors, the myths and new fables. Yet we do see frequent attempts to harness rusty, anachronistic narratives that cannot fit the future to imaginaries of the future, no doubt on the assumption that an old something is better than a new nothing, or trying in this way to deal with the limitations of our own horizons. In a word, we lack new ways of telling the story of the world.”

Phrased in that manner, the simple effort to imagine and speak of where we find ourselves today becomes a soul issue. As her mother told her, just as we often miss things that are gone, it’s possible to miss things that haven’t arrived yet.

This is a dense lecture, filled with wise observation and speculation, that I expect to read again and again.

Soul Notes #4: The Chosen One(s)?

This morning I decided I needed a daylong fast from social media. I’m in the habit of doing something with my phone while the first cup of coffee brews, so I clicked on the USA Today app to check the NFL scores. Delighted to see that the Niners trounced Green Bay last night, I clicked the NEWS tab, and there it was, the morning’s lead story: “Rick Perry Told Donald Trump He Was God’s Chosen One.”

For an online news source, with a revenue stream dependent the number of visitors, aka “eyeballs,” it’s a pretty effective headline, designed to delight the right and offend the left, thereby generating “hits” from across the political spectrum.

Unfortunately, that itself is the problem! Think of some of the things these days that cause you to lose sleep. Now think what it means when profits drive a major news source to tell us that the most significant story of the morning concerns a politician who thinks he knows the will of God.

Especially during the last three years, I have often wondered what James Hillman would make of our current political environment. He’d certainly assign some of the blame to the discipline of psychology. One of his basic tenets was that if we only look inward for the root of our problems, we deprive the Anima Mundi, the World Soul, of our energy and our concern.

Above all, Hillman would point to literalism as the greatest ill in our thinking and view of the world, the tendency to mistake imaginal and symbolic truths for literal and historic fact. Soul whispers that each of us is special, but when we take that literally, we end up with a dark history of chosen ones believing they have a divinely ordained license to kill or oppress “the other.”

Even in ancient Israel, where the American concept of a chosen people originated, interpreting the Almighty’s will was not the business of every schmo with an opinion. A culture that venerated prophets knew there were a lot of fakes. On a lighter note, one urban legend suggests that Mr. Perry wasn’t the only politician with no business practicing theology.

Miriam Amanda “Ma” Ferguson (1875-1961), the first woman Governor of Texas, elected in 1924, is reputed to have said, during a controversy on bilingual education, “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas” (1). Unfortunately, similar quotes are attributed to others, as early as 1881 and more recently, to “an Arkansas Congressman,” and all these accounts lack reliable verification.

My basic instinct remains – when someone says, “God told me…,” get away as quickly as possible. And when it’s a politician, turn off the phone and have another cup of coffee!

Soul Notes #3: A Dog’s Life

Seven years ago today, we lost Holly, our second dog. She was 16 1/2, which objectively, is a good long life, but when it’s your dog, it’s never long enough. She was about two in this picture. At that time, I’d get up around 5:30, do some stretches, and spend about 20 minutes in the meditation room before getting breakfast for myself and the dogs.

One morning I found Holly sitting in my chair, gazing at the altar. She looked over her shoulder at me, with a “Yes, may I help you?” expression before turning back to her object of contemplation. I thought of the incident this year, when a Tibetan lama mentioned an old saying that many dogs will be reborn as humans, and a lot of humans will be dogs in their next life. It all has to do with having a good heart…

One other notable thing about Holly was her love of water. One time Mary and I were walking her by a stream in Yosemite, talking as she stopped for a drink. After a splash we looked down to see her paddling about with delight.

On her first visit to the ocean, she insisted on playing tag with the waves and letting them win:

Mary and Holly, Bandon, OR, ca. 2000

In honor of Holly, here is an article I posted in 2013, called Dreaming With Animals. The pictures and text are just the barest glimpse of how deeply intwined with Soul the animals are, all the more so now that most of them have been banished from our lives.

Soul Notes #2: Flying a Sign

A friend who used to panhandle at freeway on ramps told me that “flying a sign” is slang for that activity. The signs are usually hand lettered on cardboard. This post concerns a man I’ve seen flying a different kind of sign.

Last July, when temperatures hovered near 100 degrees, I noticed a skinny guy in his early 30’s, with beard, jeans, backpack, and baseball hat, standing at one of the area’s busiest intersections.  His sign was larger than average, maybe 18″x24,” on a decent quality white board, although the lettering was crude. The sign read,

Nuclear invasion
Jesus saves
Sin no more

My first reaction was irritation – I have little patience with people arrogant enough to think they’ve got a handle on “the one true path.” I started seeing him almost daily, so it seemed he stood on that spot for hours. On days that were especially hot, he moved half a mile east, to the shade of a stand of oaks.

Curiosity overcame irritation. I figured he must be on some kind of public assistance, for he was out there too often to have a day job. If he had anything like independent means, he would have had a professionally lettered sign. I remembered a line from the poet, Theodore Roethke: “What’s madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance?” The sign bearer disappeared around the end of August. Now and then I wondered what happened.

Then, in a strange bit of synchronicity, on the day I posted the first of these Soul Notes, I stopped at a Starbucks on a different corner of his usual intersection, and out the window I thought I saw him holding a different sign as he sat on the bench at a bus stop. I could only see him from behind, and only a portion of his sign was visible, but it seemed different – well lettered, for one thing.

I finished my coffee and stopped at the restroom. As I came out, he passed me, carrying this new sign under his arm as he ducked into the other bathroom. I could only read the first line, “The Anti-Christ is Among Us,” and a portion of the second line, something about “One World Order.” I couldn’t see enough to tell whether he favored the idea or not, and I didn’t have the time or inclination to hang around and ask him after he came out.

Since that encounter, I’ve been mulling over a question. I believe that Soul connects us to meaning, passion, and calling, and also that Soul has a religion concern. If true, is this man expressing Soul, or something darker? After all, the Spanish Inquisition and countless religious wars have been perpetrated by people who found meaning, passion, calling, and religious concern in horrific acts.

My own opinion is that acts like proselytizing may be motivated by compassion or by the fear of hell, and although they may outwardly look the same, qualitatively, they are worlds apart. However, that doesn’t really answer my question.

I’m reminded of “the ability to distinguish between spirits” that St. Paul’s lists among “Gifts of the Holy Spirit” in 1 Co 12:9-10. Post Age of Reason western culture seems to be unique in disbelieving in “spirits,” although Jung reintroduced them in the guise of “archetypes.”

Regardless of what we call them, the essential point is that not all of our inner voices mean well for ourselves and others!

I believe that learning to distinguish between the spirits (or archetypes or voices) as best we can is an essential part of soul work, with serious implications for our own wellbeing and that of others!

Soul Notes: #1

Art as the Mirror of All Nature, Matthaus Merian the Elder, 1617. Numerous Jungians have used this engraving as an image of “Anima Mundi,” the World Soul.

Last summer, after writing on soul and soul loss, I said I’d have more to say about these subjects, but I was stymied by an underlying assumption that such a weighty subject requires a weighty post, or realistically, weighty tomes, such as the writings of Jung and Hillman, who took soul and psyche (they used the terms interchangeably) as their central concern.

Google on “soul,” and you get two billion hits. “Soul loss” returns 213 million. Soul has been a central concern of humans and their ancestors for millennia. The earliest known burial with evidence of rites “that one might characterize as religious”(1), is a 300,000 year old Neanderthal tomb!

So how do you begin to talk about soul in a blog post?

Eventually, two realizations emerged.

The first was that if blogging doesn’t support weighty tomes, it is perfect for writing notes, a valid and necessary form.

The second, and even more important realization was that no one needs to be introduced to the concept of soul, for they already have one. I’m pretty sure that everyone reading this post has an idea of soul – it’s one of those terms like “angel” or “demon” – even those who don’t believe in angels or souls or demons have an idea of what it is that they don’t believe in.

So I figure I pretty much get to do what I usually do here – “think out loud,” in this case on the notion of soul, without any expectation that my ideas may or should match anyone else’s, though I suspect we think alike about many things connected to soul ( True or False – The music of B.B. King has soul? ).

I’m speaking of something in each of us, something we feel but cannot define, which carries supreme importance and value. No matter how badly I may have screwed up this day, this month, this year, this life, if I am in touch Soul, there remains something precious within something within me of value. Soul carries a sense of what’s holy. According to James Hillman, soul is intimately connected with love, religion, beauty, and mortality.

I take the position of Jung and Hillman, that soul, aka psyche, resides in the imaginal world, between the physical realm, which is apparent, and the spiritual, which is beyond our senses and ordinary conceptions. Jung said, “The psyche creates reality every day.” Hillman added, “To be in soul is to experience the fantasy in all realities and the basic reality of fantasy.” (2)

Soul carries meaning and purpose and keeps us energized when we’re on the right path. It is present at moments of great beauty, joy, or loss, and is always a part of any “peak experience.”

T.S. Eliot said:

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

So this is what I am going to reflect on here for a while, and we will see where it goes. The obvious question is “Why now?”

I suspect the answer has to do with the belief of many indigenous cultures, that soul can be lost by individuals and groups, but that it also has the possibility of being retrieved. Enough said…

The Hour of the Wolf

On Tuesday night, while I was watching the episode of Ken Burns’ Country Music that featured Hank Williams, my friend Randolph sent a text message about people who are up at 3 am – “writers, painters, poets, over thinkers, silent seekers and creative people.” He wondered if I was among them.

The answer is not very often, at least since the end of my misspent youth, but we can all feel that dark, haunted hour viscerally in the music of Hank Williams. I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, for instance, has the feel of a shabby little room, lit by a bare lightbulb, at 3:00 am, reeking of stale cigarette smoke, when the whisky is gone and the liquor stores won’t reopen for a few more hours:

“I’ve never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by
The moon just went behind the clouds
To hide its face and cry.”

Those times when I’m up and sleepless at 3:00 am I have always called “the hour of the wolf.” Google on the phrase and you mostly get reviews and analysis of Ingmar Bergman’s film of that name – not one of the best from his surrealist phase, IMO, but the trailer offers a good definition of Hour of the Wolf: “The hours between night and dawn. The hour when most people die, when sleep is deepest, when nightmares are most real. It is the hour when the sleepless are haunted by their deepest fears, when ghost and demons are most powerful, the hour of the wolf is also the hour when most children are born.”

In searching on the phrase, I discovered an earlier Hour of the Wolf post on this site, uploaded in July, 2012. In it, I quoted another good definition from the 1996 “Hour of the Wolf” episode of Babylon 5:

“Have you ever heard of the hour of the wolf? … It’s the time between 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning. You can’t sleep, and all you can see is the troubles and the problems and the ways that your life should’ve gone but didn’t. All you can hear is the sound of your own heart.”  – Michael J. Straczynski, writer, Babylonian Productions.

Any time I think of the Hour of the Wolf or 3:00 am, I think of Michael Ventura, a brilliant journalist, versed in Jungian and post-Jungian psychology, who co-wrote, with James Hillman, We’ve Had 100 Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse.

I was fortunate enough to encounter Ventura over the course of a weekend when he was a visiting lecturer when I was studying psychology. My thoroughly worn copy of his book, Shadow Dancing in the USA contains a number of early essays from the series, “Letters at 3am” that he wrote over several decades, first for the LA Weekly, which he cofounded, and later for the Austin Chronicle.

Ventura is nothing short of a visionary. In 1986, when he published Shadow Dancing, a time that many recall as one of the “good old days” eras of this country, Ventura saw something darker, more tumultuous in the shadows. The title of the introduction to Shadow Dancing, It’s 3 a.m. Twenty-Four Hours a Day, refers to the malaise that everyone has come to feel clearly in the 33 years since the book was published:

“…what you are doing – standing in the dark, full of conflicting emotions – isn’t that what the whole world is doing now?

…the world’s clock is at about 3 a.m. of the new day, the new civilization. For the new day doesn’t start at midnight. The new day starts in darkness. Right now it’s 3 a.m. in whatever we will call that period of human history that comes after A.D.

When your clock reads 3 a.m. it’s a time of separateness, of loneliness, of restlessness. Nothing on television, nothing in the newspaper, nothing much anywhere that suggests that our restlessness, felt so privately, is part of something huge, something alive all over the world…”

I find that to be a very powerful thought – at 3 a.m., the Hour of the Wolf, it isn’t really that personal anymore…

Movie Review: This Beautiful Fantastic

This 2016 movie, available on Amazon Prime, is described as a “modern fairytale,” and is one of the most enjoyable movies I’ve recently watched.

Bella Brown, the quirky heroine, had an appropriately mythical birth – discovered in a cardboard box by the side of a waterway in London, having been raised by ducks, she grows up to be a recluse, frightened of the outdoors and other people. She dreams of writing children’s books, and works as librarian, where her OCD personality makes her a living, breathing card catalog.

When her landlord threatens to evict her for letting the garden go to ruin, she meets a group of equally quirky characters: her next door neighbor, a cranky widower who happens to be a master gardener; his cook, who continuously feuds with him; and a bumbling inventor, who has created a solar powered, mechanical flying bird.

Like The Secret Garden, this movie uses work with the “organized chaos” of a garden as a metaphor for delving into what’s true about one’s own nature. Never mind the generally mediocre reviews this movie received when it was released – watch the trailer and decide for yourself!

Canary in the Coal Mine

Idiom in the News: Canary in the Coal Mine, by ShareAmerica, 11/12/14

canary in a coal mine (plural canaries in a coal mine or canaries in coal mines)

  1. (idiomatic) Something whose sensitivity to adverse conditions makes it a useful early indicator of such conditions; something which warns of the coming of greater danger or trouble by a deterioration in its health or welfare.

Last summer, while attending a Tibetan teaching in the east bay, I spent two nights in a motel about 30 miles east, to save money on room cost. The exit was Cordelia, familiar I’m sure to everyone who travels on Highway 80 to or from the San Francisco area. There are lots of gas stations, fast food places, and motels.

I was surprised to see that the one sit down restaurant – a Denny’s – had closed, after decades as a fixture at that exit. I reflected then that it seemed analogous to the economic “hollowing out of the middle,” you see in department stores: Walmart and Target appear to be doing well, as are high end boutiques, but the mainstream “mall anchors” – Macy’s, Penny’s, and the late-great Sears, are struggling or gone.

Similarly, on the food front, fast is thriving, as are the kind of restaurants you visit for anniversaries and birthdays, but the “family style restaurant,” the place for a Saturday morning breakfast, or a casual lunch, or a visit with a friend over coffee and pie, appears to be in trouble.

That hunch, sparked by a defunct Denny’s last year, has materialized with a vengeance this summer in the immediate neighborhood. Continue reading