1917: A Movie Review


Today I finally saw 1917. All the accolades for director Sam Mendes’ film about World War I, are deserved. Those who follow this blog know that the history of this tragedy continues to haunt and fascinate me.

A year ago, I posted a review of They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson’s documentary of the conflict, based on digitally enhanced film taken during the war, and recorded interviews with veterans. Jackson’s film is brilliant, but no movie I’ve ever seen gives as visceral a feel for life in the trenches as 1917. The mud, the rats, the bodies, the stench of dead horses in no man’s land and the constant shelling are vividly depicted. As Mary observed, it’s clear where Tolkien found the imagery for Mordor! Mendez includes key historical details, such as the chalky soil of Flanders and the sophistication of the German trenches, built with with reinforced concrete.

Although Mendez states that the story and central characters are friction, he grew up listening to stories told by his grandfather, Alfred, who carried a critical message across no-man’s land, under sniper fire, during the battle of Passchendaele in late 1917.

As many reviewers have noted, one detail of the cinematography is stunning – the entire movie is filmed with just one cut. The result is the feeling of being right with Blake and Schofield as they struggle to cross a deadly wasteland in their race against the clock, with a message that must be delivered by morning to save the lives of 1,600 of their comrades.

This is an unforgettable movie that I highly recommend!

An End of the Year Post

Saturday Evening Post New Years cover for 1911

I’ve never been fond of traditional old-fart-and-baby News Years iconography, but this one, from a 109 year old magazine cover, will serve as a decent illustration of the major theme of 2019 for me – Impermanence.

All the spiritual traditions I know anything about warn us not to store up treasures on earth, as Jesus put it. Krishna told Arjuna that this world is full of delusion. Buddha placed impermanence at the center of his teaching. All of us long for permanent happiness he said, but we simply cannot find it in world where everything changes.

Students of Buddha’s teachings learn from the start to reflect on impermanence, but it can be a long way from reflection in the head to really getting it at gut level.

This year, much of my  energy, focus, and gut level concern was centered on heart health issues both for Mary, and for Kit, our oldest dog. With great joy I can say that both are doing well at year’s end, but it will never be as easy for me to forget those proverbial “sands in the hour glass” as it was a year ago.

Unlike what you hear in superficial comments, Buddha never said that permanent happiness was impossible – he simply said we won’t find it where we usually look. We have to search within, he said, and that means meditation. Unfortunately, too many people believe that meditation is either not relevant or not possible for them, or both. One of the best events for me in 2019 was encountering a teacher who presents one of Buddhism’s most profound practices in a straightforward and accessible manner. He is committed to making these teachings widely available.

I’ve posted here before about Anam Thubten, a Tibetan lama for whom I have the highest regard. I encountered Orgyen Chowang Rinpoche at a daylong retreat in September, where Anam introduced him as a colleague and “meditation master.”

Orgyen Chowang Rinpoche is offering, through his organization, a free 100 Day New Year’s Meditation Challenge, with online teaching and support. It is designed for everyone, with or without meditation experience.

And that brings me to the final point of this post, for I put the details of this meditation challenge on the “new” blog I’ve been threatening to start for a while. I launched on December 21, the day of the Winter Solstice.

The blog is called Soul Notes. Please stop by to check it out, and especially this description of Chowang Rinpoche’s meditation challenge.

Happy New Year!

James Hillman – on Changing the Object of our Desire

Watching this video in which Hillman so clearly shines a light on the core issues of so many of our current crises, it is hard to realize he left us 2011. It makes what so often passes for journalism and analysis of events seem trivial…

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…