Robert Bly died on November 21, at the age of 94, but I didn’t find out until yesterday. The local paper published an obituary the week after his passing, but I missed it. Bly never got much media coverage, and when he did, it was often dismissive, accusing him, in his own words,of telling men to “run around in the woods and beat drums.”
He was an activist, author of more than 50 books of poetry, an editor, and a translator, but he’s best remembered as the author of Iron John: A Book About Men, 1990. The book grew out of a series of men’s conferences he co-hosted with James Hillman and Michael Meade. Those gatherings, along with the Power of Myth conversations between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell, mark the 80’s as a rare time when large numbers of people were attuned to story, dream, myth, imagination, and soul.
Perhaps noting how quickly the moment had passed, in 1996 he published The Sibling Society, in which he argues that we have become a nation of adolescents who resist growing up because it’s too hard. The book wasn’t well received by critics, who faulted his discussion of causes and solutions as fuzzy, but it’s impossible to look at the headlines of even the past week without recognizing the core truth of his premise.
Robert Bly created a life in which he could follow his passions and inspire those able to read his work as expressions of soul and imagination. He lived to be 94, and according to his son, died peacefully, surrounded by family.
Because Halloween is coming and because I’ve been looking at old family albums, I decided to re-post a story I first published in July, 2010, a month after I started blogging. It concerns the “family ghost story” my great-grandmother used to tell. Except it may have been a “rural legend” once told widely in the midwest. Since the timeframe was the 1880’s, it really doesn’t matter. The story still evokes the mystery and excitement of my childhood Halloweens…Enjoy!
I heard this from the time I was little, a story told by my great-grandmother, Hannah Shook Outwater. I was ten when she died at the age of 88. Her gift of a hand puppet for my third Christmas was a huge catalyst in sparking my lifelong love of making and telling stories, but that is a tale for another time.
When she was seven, Hannah, the seventh of eight children, rode with her family in a covered wagon from Ohio to Michigan. Her younger brother, Freddy, age two, didn’t survive the trip. They say he was flat on his back in the wagon with fever, but the evening he died, he sat up with a beatific smile and reached out his arm to angels no one else could see. At least that’s the family legend. When I was young, Freddie’s child-sized fork lay in the silverware drawer.
When they reached Kalamazoo, Hannah’s father, Isiah Shook, rented a farm. Then the incidents began.
Hannah’s older sister was of the age to go courting. The family would hear the wagon drive up bringing her home, open the door and find no one there. Some nights the family heard such a commotion in the barn it sounded like the animals were about to kick it down. When they ran out to investigate, they found the cows and horses asleep and everything quiet. Then there was the reddish stain on the guest room floor they could never scrub out…
You have to imagine my great grandmother pausing to look around the room. She knew how to build suspense. It might be halloween – it was certainly winter, with the lights turned low. Those were the days before the SciFi channel and Freddy Kreuger. Before CSI and the horrendous headlines that have become all to common.
The old lady would lean forward and speak in a low voice so we would have to lean in too. “Once we needed to move a big old chest in the cellar. That’s when we found it. Mind you, those were the days of dirt cellars, but in the far corner was a single patch of cement about six feet long.”
She would let that sink in, and then say, “We had been there about six months when my father heard the story. The neighbors said a wealthy horse dealer came through town and spent the night with the people who lived there before you. No one ever saw him again. The couple who lived there said he left before dawn. Funny that they moved away two months later. We never understood where they got the money to up and go so suddenly.”
Hannah’s family moved not long after. And “No,” she said, they never quite dared to dig and see what was buried under the cement slab.
My sister and I and our friends grew up with that story, and after Hannah was gone, my mother told it. Some ten years ago, however, while spending the night in a vacation cabin, I found a stack of American Heritage magazines, and one of them had an article on legends common in rural America a century ago – and there was the family ghost story! Or so I think, because I didn’t have the sense to write down the magazine date, and later attempts to find it again in libraries or used bookstores never panned out.
Was it pure legend? Was it born of a scandalous crime that was the talk of the midwest in the era before TV and tabloids? Was it like certain crimes that became the stuff of ballads that are still sung hundreds of years later?
When I first found that copy of American Heritage, I thought it was very important to find out what kind of story it really was – exactly how true. Now I don’t think it matters. For me the story will always be true, whether it happened or not.
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost And found and lost again and again; and now, under conditions That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss. For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business. – T.S. Eliot
In the previous post, I discussed the current “dark time,” or Kali Yuga, from the view of time as a series of ascending and descending ages, without beginning or end. The post ended with video clip from Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, where a young man asks, during a brutal civil war, “If the times are hopeless, why do we fight?”
Past critical turning points in history, involving the rise and fall of nations and empires, often hinged on battles. “Why” may have been the central question then, but now, as climate change marks an inflection point for the whole planet, we also face the questions of “Who (or what) do we fight?” and “How?” For us, these may be even more difficult than why, although that is the issue I will consider first.
As a college freshman, working my way through The Iliad, I had to get a handle on the concept of arete, meaning virtue or honor. Because this was the epic of a decade long war, in The Iliad, arete meant martial courage and prowess. The Vietnam war was raging then, and arete sounded too much like the prattle of those politicians who wrapped themselves in the flag to drum up dwindling support for a war that was a horrible mistake.
Now I understand arete from a wider perspective. The word meant “‘excellence of any kind.’ The term may also mean ‘moral virtue.’ In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one’s full potential..”
Over the last year, I’ve thought a lot about the idea of cyclical time, time without beginning or end, as opposed to the view time as linear, which implies a start and an ending.
Time as a never ending series of cycles is a core feature of eastern cosmology, but has also shown up in the west. The Greek deity, Aion, representing “unbounded” time, was associated with the Hellenistic mystery religions.
Time without beginning or end is also feature of more recent western esoteric groups, such as The Golden Dawn, a secret society founded in the 19th century, that sought to restore the knowledge and practice of western mystery traditions. W.B. Yeats was an initiate, and his visionary poem, The Second Coming, (1919) gives a vivid picture of time as a rising and falling series of spirals, or “gyres:”
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The tone of The Second Coming is consistent with all sources, eastern and western, that deal with time cycles. They are unanimous in saying this is the dark time, the Iron Age, the Kali Yuga, and in Buddhist terms, the time of “Five Degenerations.” Continue reading →
It’s no surprise to discover that the roots of our current national tribulations have deep roots. James Hillman died in 2011. I am unable to find a date for this talk, but he references the administration of George W. Bush, so I’m guessing at least a decade.
It is just as true or more so today. Please listen – it will be a most valuable half hour!
Pre-Columbian, Mexico. At Art Institute of Chicago. Public Domain.
Yesterday, at the monthly breakfast meeting of the Sacramento Branch of the California Writer’s Club, someone asked what I blog about – an excellent question. Though it might not be obvious looking at eight years worth of posts here, it took only a moment to answer.
The constant thread running through almost all the posts here was stated like this by 20th century poet, Muriel Rukeyser: “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”
One area of fascination for me is the way both modern physics and ancient Buddhist tenets agree that our seemingly solid and stable world is anything but. “Out there” we have only complex patterns of swirling light and energy. It’s the same “in here.” Our limited physical senses give us an illusory experience of a solid world, and we make up stories about it. Many of them deal with simple survival: red means stop and green means go; every part of the oleander is poisonous; if you face the rising sun, north is left and south is right.
Of far greater interest are the stories individuals and cultures tell themselves about who they are, where they are, and what they are doing there. That’s where we get into trouble, by and large, as a glance at any newspaper will confirm.
I’ve never forgotten the account of a young boy, a fan of The Six-Million Dollar Man, a TV show in the late 70’s, that told of an astronaut, badly injured in a crash, who received bionic implants during surgery, which gave him super-powers. The boy decided to jump off the roof of his home, thinking that if he hurt himself badly enough, he might get super powers. He lived, but spent a long time in traction.
Stories have many different levels, literal and symbolic. Get that wrong and they can kill individuals, cultures, and as we are coming to see, entire species.
Last night the sun, through a brown haze, was red when it set. This morning, through a brown haze, the sun was red when it rose. When we left the house at 7:15 to take the dogs for a walk, there was fine dusting of ash on the cars. Though Redding is 170 miles north, and Yosemite almost 200 miles south, there is no way to forget that California and much of the west is burning in what has become a year round fire season.
The northern California fire chief said fires of this intensity are new, and sadly, appear to be a “new normal.” During a summer of worldwide weather extremes, the scientific community is united in saying climate change is not in the future – it’s here. At the same time several pastors have said that God is angry because California tolerates gay people.
Let me repeat what I said earlier: stories have many different levels, literal and symbolic. Get that wrong and stories can kill individuals, cultures, and maybe our entire species.
If they could talk, what would the lead lemmings tell their comrades when the edge of the cliff came into view?
“Binnoire,” by John D. Batten, for “English Fairy Tales,” 1898
Our theme, over the next few posts, is folklore and ballads that feature the theme of, “truth will out,” We begin with a popular Childe Ballad, “The Two Sisters,” that has been covered, under various names, by Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Pentangle, Tom Waits, Loreena McKinnett, Clannad, Steeleye Span, Gillian Welch, and others.
“The Twa Sisters,” Childe ballad #10, was published as a broadside in Northumbria in 1656. A girl is drowned by her sister over love of the same man. Finding her body, a minstrel makes a harp of her breastbone and golden hair that will only play the tale of the murder. The theme is echoed in Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic ballads. There are 21 variants in the British isles, with names that include, “The Miller and the King’s Daughter,” “Binnoire,” “The Cruel Sister,” “The Wind and Rain,” “The Dreadful Wind and Rain,” and “The Bonny Swans.” (1)
Here’s my favorite version, from Jerry Garcia and Dave Grisman at the Warfield Theater in 1992:
10C.22 He made a harp of her breast-bone,
Whose sounds would melt a heart of stone.
10C.23 The strings he framed of her yellow hair,
Whose notes made sad the listening ear.
10C.24 He brought it to her father’s hall,
And there was the court assembled all.
10C.25 He laid this harp upon a stone,
And straight it began to play alone.
10C.26 ‘O yonder sits my father, the king,
And yonder sits my mother, the queen.
10C.27 ‘And yonder stands my brother Hugh,
And by him my William, sweet and true.’
10C.28 But the last tune that the harp playd then,
Was ‘Woe to my sister, false Helen!
In the east, we have the concept of karma. In the west we have a comforting theme in folklore, that behind even the most dire events and appearances, there’s a harmony, a natural order that tries to assert itself, the way our bodies, if conditions are right, will push out infection.
Now that our body politic is infected by an American president who would destroy the basic concept of Truth and Fact for his own ends, I find it refreshing to dwell on such tales. Weeds break through concrete. In the end, truth will break through lies and corruption.
Oh, you silly, silly humans. Why all the nail biting, my dears? Clearly, at the beginning of this World Series, I promised you I would lift the curse. I signed the agreement with my hoof print, did I not?
Now, a goat such as myself may possess a good deal of deceptive qualities. But one thing I guarantee is my sincerity! A promise is a promise and I, Murphy the Billy Goat, namesake of the Billy Goat Tavern and former pet of Mr. William Sianis, am as good as my word.
The question of the Cubs winning was never in doubt.
What’s that you say? The rain? Yes, of course I sent the rain! And with it I brought a seventeen minute game delay.
There was a method to this madness, for it allowed the players to contemplate their fate. They regained their bearings and therefore could more fully…