What’s coming to TheFirstGates in 2014?

Courtesy Emma Paperclip, Creative Commons

Courtesy Emma Paperclip, Creative Commons

Thanks to everyone who visited this year, old friends and new.  Here are a few year end musings on where this blog may be going in 2014.   These are not resolutions.  Remembering Yoda’s words to Luke, “Do or do not, there is no try,” I don’t make resolutions.  These are sort-of-predictions, aka guesses, based on a line from a Grateful Dead song, “I can tell your future / just look what’s in your hand.”

In the case of theFirstGates, it should probably read, “look at what books are piled up on the table beside you.”  Looking at the titles in the stack, I predict more of the same, only new and (hopefully) better.

I’m currently reading a book I got for Christmas, Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales.  The key word is complete – I haven’t read all the tales before.  The other great feature is the Arthur Rackham illustrations.  No one has ever painted Faerie like Rackham, and it’s a place I never tire of visiting.

Another new title is Trickster Makes this World by Lewis Hyde.  Not only is Trickster an ongoing object of fascination, but he pervades blogging just like the rest of life.  I’m reminded of this every time I hit Publish while meaning to click on Save.

And perhaps most important for TheFirstGates, I’m rereading The Dream and the Underworld, one of James Hillman’s important early works.  Here he turns the tables on psychology’s habit of translating the night world of dreams into the language of daylight; serving the ego, in other words.

Dream and the Underworld

Instead of asking what a dream means, Hillman asks what it wants.  This shift is fundamental to all of Hillman’s thought – psychology, the science of the psyche, in service to soul and soul-in-the-world.

Of great interest to me as a blogger is Hillman’s effort to see through literal events to the fantasies, the mythical layers that underly the stories we tell ourselves and the ones we see on the evening news.  The reality in our fantasies and the fantasy in all our realities.

The coming year is unique in one respect: 2014 marks the centennial of the start of that worldwide disaster misnamed “The Great War.”  The first world war has haunted me for years with its end-of-an-age immensity and sadness.  There are millions of stories to tell, and I’ll try to post a few here, from the bumbling youths who sparked the conflict to a young lieutenant named Tolkien who was sent to Mordor in 1916, though the generals called it The Somme.

And finally, as always I will continue to be on the lookout for those stranger-than-fiction events that leave us shaking our heads, wanting to laugh or cry or both at the strangeness of it all.

I wish you all a joyous New Year, and I hope we will all continue to share the emerging wonders of this online experience!

Stranger in a strange (and beautiful) land

Retreat house dining room, Skalholt, Iceland

Retreat house dining room, Skalholt, Iceland

This post was sparked by todays WordPress Daily Prompt, “Blogger in a Strange Land,” which asked, “What is the strangest place from which you’ve posted to your blog?”  My answer was easy:  the dining room of the Skalholt Retreat House in Iceland, where Mary and I and a small group of storytellers spent an amazing week just over a year ago.

If you search here on “Iceland,” you’ll find an account of the trip, photos, and a detailed discussion of Njal’s Saga, which was central to our purpose in traveling.  This post concerns the dining room.

Those are real grapevines and bougainvilleas twining through the rafters under the skylight.  Through the windows you see the autumn colors of a hedge and beyond that, fog.  It was late morning when this picture was taken, probably 40 degrees Fahrenheit  outside.  Imagine how inviting it was to sit with a cup of coffee and write in this bright room where it was warm enough for grapes, and flower petals sometimes drifted onto the table.

Guesthouse, Skalholt

Guesthouse, Skalholt

“Strange” can happen anywhere, but it’s always by one’s side when traveling.  When we leave our familiar contexts behind, there’s a chance to peek around corners and see things that day-to-day vision too often misses.

“Fare forward, travelers!  not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus” – T.S. Eliot

Face Rock, Bandon, Oregon

face rock

From this perspective, it’s easy to see how Face Rock, got it’s name.  Legend says that long ago, Chief Siskiyou from the mountains came to the sea to trade with the four tribes that lived in this region.  Warriors stood on the bluffs above the ocean fearing that the evil sea-spirit, Seatka might cause trouble.

Siskiyou’s daugher, Princess Ewauna, was not afraid of the spirit, and one night, when the moon was full, she slipped away from camp with her faithful dog and a basket with her cat and kittens nestled inside.  She went swimming, farther and farther from shore, ignoring the warning barks of her dog.  Seatka captured the princess.

Carrying the basket of cats, the dog swam out to Ewauna and bit the evil Seatka.  Howling, he shook off the dog and threw the cats into the sea.  Seatka tried to make Ewauna look into his eyes, but she refused and kept her gaze on the moon.  The dog ran on the beach howling, but in time, he, the cats, and Ewauna, still gazing up at the moon, were frozen into stone where they remain to this very day.

I first passed through Bandon, Oregon back in college days, and it’s one of those places that has drawn me back ever since.  I took the current blog header photo two years ago at a spot about half a mile up the beach overlook trail.

With the wind off the sea and afternoon fog, it is downright chilly.  I had almost forgotten what chilly is like, but I remembered this afternoon, rolling into town in cutoffs and t-shirt.  It’s hard to pack for cold weather when it’s 100+ degrees outside, so tomorrow will likely involve shopping for a sweatshirt.

This will probably be a quiet week on thefirstgates, as we wander the shore, listen to the ocean, and eat cranberry oatmeal cookies.

Photo by Casey Fleser, CC-by-3.0

Photo by Casey Fleser, CC-by-3.0

See you then, with more stories and photographs.

Some blog reflections and an anniversary


I posted my first article here three years ago today – I thought it was the 30th until I looked it up a little while ago. There are more pressing dates to remember in June – our wedding anniversary for one, and the dog birthdays, but this occasion brings to mind some things I discovered that first summer of blogging.

A few days before my first post, I attended an all day blogging seminar hosted by the local branch of the California Writer’s Club. The teacher had an unusual qualification – he actually made a good living as a blogger.  He did this by running eight different blogs on eight different topics which gained him 50,000 – 80,000 hits a month.

Beyond passing along the mechanics of WordPress, the seminar was geared toward his approach, which aimed at drawing advertisers and eyeballs.  At first I tried to follow his rules, ones like “Posts should run between 150-250 words in length.”  I still mostly aim for the 150 minimum – I trust his research suggesting that Google’s search algorithms favor messages at least that long, but I’ve tossed almost all his other rules.  I did so because something unexpected began to happen  – blogging took on a life of its own.

I’d taken the seminar for the worst of reasons.  I had finished one novel and started another, and I fell prey to the notion, passed around in writing groups and magazines, that aspiring writers should migrate to social media “to build their platforms.”

From the start, this advice reminded me of something annoying that periodically happened in my technology day job.  During cyclical downturns, when vertical mobility dried up, upper management would dream up busy-work tasks, like “write a five year career plan.”  Given the dizzying pace of technological change, almost any kind of five year plan seemed like a joke.  Fortunately, my supervisor agreed, so I’d email him something like, “My plan is to still have a job in five years,” and he’d mark it “Done.”

Once the blogging door started to open, I did something similar with the concept of “platform:” borrowing the tech concept of “just-in-time inventory,” I decided to wait until I needed one!

That may be a long wait, as it turns out, because the “blogging door” was a new entryway into writing-as-a-way-to-discover-things.”  That was a door I’d let close on my fiction, because of inexperience more than anything else.

When I started my first novel, during a sabbatical from work, I would sometimes jump up at 5:30am, wide awake.  “I wonder what’s going to happen today?”  Later I realized the first novel was a mess, though I loved every minute of writing it.  I joined groups, attended seminars, and devoured how-to-articles.  Somewhere along the line, my stories stopped being mine.  Once I knew what was going to happen on any particular day, I was no longer interested.

The blogging door remains open.  Here I make new discoveries, surprising myself, and never know for sure where it’s going today.  I also get to share the amazing discoveries of others, like the post I re-blogged last week in which Kristen Lamb presents a simple but powerful way of keeping the doors of discovery open in fiction (Write FAST and Furious).

I enjoy many blogs that have a singular focus, and this week of milestones, I found myself recalling the words of that first blogging teacher, who advised that this is the only way to go.  I entertained the notion for maybe 60 seconds.  It simply wouldn’t work for me, a poster boy for the late James Hillman’s concept of “the polytheistic psyche.”

Hillman often used the Greek pantheon to illustrate his concept of the "polytheistic psyche"

Hillman often used the Greek pantheon to illustrate his concept of the “polytheistic psyche”

As Michael Ventura, a journalist and friend of Hillman’s put it:  “For too long Western thought has mistaken the impulse to unify for the entity itself (the psyche) that needs such an impulse because of it’s very multiplicity.”  

Ventura also said, “If you are the only one in the room, it is still a crowded room.”


In the beginning, I called this blog, “thefirstgate,” singular.  I discuss the source of the name, the opening of T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets, in my About page.  Then, as I discovered there are other interesting “first gates,” I made the name plural, and even registered the domain name, firstgates.com.

In the Spring of 2012, I received a notice that a similar domain name, thefirstgate.com (singular) had become available, and I could buy it.  I did so, and since then, I’ve played with the notion of changing the name to emphasize my original inspiration.

I began this post, intending to announce a change to the singular form.  Then I came upon this passage in Michael Ventura’s Shadow Dancing in the USA, 1985 (out of print).  Here he describes the theory of “the polytheistic psyche:”

“…the notion that we have not a single center, but several centers; that each of these centers may act independently of each other; and that each center has in turn various active aspects, or shadings; and that all these centers are unified more by an atmosphere, an overall mood and rhythm, than by anything as solid as…an ego.”

No way, after reading that, could I surrender an ounce of multiplicity!  So on the occasion of this anniversary, I will predict more of the same – not knowing quite what I’m going to say when I sit down to write.  False starts and dead ends on occasion, but hopefully, ongoing and interesting surprises for all of us.

Celebrating 500 Posts with links to some of my favorites

Snoopy escritor

On such an occasion, I’d like to say something witty or wise, but wit and wisdom elude me, and in a way, the number speaks for itself.  Like one of those major birthdays – the big five-ohh for example – all I can manage is a stammered, “Wow…that’s a lot.  How did this happen?”

I more or less know how it happened, but that’s a story for another time.  For now I’m posting some of my favorites, gleaned from a quick review of all the posts.  I was aiming to cut the list down to ten, but it got a bit out of hand.

Enjoy!  I’ll have a few reflections on this blog later on, but for now I will just affirm that if you keep coming back, I will too.

Lighter than air, posted October 21, 2010
In the fall of 2010, we couldn’t figure out where to go on vacation, so we wound up visiting nearby Santa Rosa.  The posts that came out of this trip marked the point at which this blog, which I started the previous June, began to take off.  Because the pictures remind me of this marvelous event, this remains a feel-good post to me.

True Grit, pothos, and westerns that stick with you, posted January 22, 1011
I loved the 2010 remake of True Grit, and it inspired trio of posts on westerns that truly moved me.  I find the best western movies stir something like the vast western vistas do, which I called Pothos, a Greek word that means an insatiable longing for what lies beyone the horizon and is forever out of reach.

The world as shapeshifter:  a Hindu parable, posted February 13, 2011
I’ve had a lifelong interest in Eastern thought.  This is a great story and a good illustration of the Eastern view of the nature of creation.

A year of blogging, posted June 27, 2011.
I was just beginning to figure out what I was doing when this post was Freshly Pressed, which was wonderfully encouraging.

Shangra-La in Books, Movies and Legends, posted Oct. 31, 2o11
Something in us longs for an earthly paradise, and Shangra-La has been one of its names since David Hilton wrote Lost Horizon in 1933 and Frank Capra made the movie in 1937. As I said in this review, both seem dated now, but I still enjoy the portrayal of the legend.

The Empire Mine, posted November 28, 2011
With a visiting friend, we drove up to Grass Valley the Saturday after Thanksgiving to visit the Empire Mine State Park.  It was a perfect fall day and we lucked out because the Historical Society people were decked out for the Cornish Christmas celebration, so named because numerous miners were enticed to the area from Cornwall because of their expertise in hard rock mining. A fascinating glimpse, narrated by experts, who explained everything from the mine blacksmith shop to the owner’s mansion. The mine owners had a wonderful rose garden, and if you visit at the right time, you can get cuttings of roses that date back to the 18th century.

The Open Culture website, posted February 9, 2012
This is a site with wonderful free resources that you are going to want to check out and bookmark.

Life, the Movie: How entertainment conquered reality by Neal Gabler, posted March 1, 2012
This the single most important book I’ve reviewed on this blog. It goes a long way toward illuminating our modern world, which Gabler calls, “not just a post-modern culture but a post-reality culture.”

The Limits of Power:  The End of American Exceptionalism by Andrew Bacevich, posted August 21, 2012
This is the other essential book I’ve reviewed here.

The Icelandic posts, September 25 – October 18, 2012
I’ve been fascinated with Iceland since I did a report on the country in grade school.  Last fall we had the chance to travel there with a small group of storytellers to discuss Njal’s Saga and visit some of the places where the thousand year old events took place.  I was gratified to see how many people read and commented on my accounts of the sagas.  That gave me confidence to increase my work folklore since then.

Photographs from Iceland, first of two posts, October 3, 2012
Njal’s Saga: an introduction, first of four posts, October 10, 2012

The Princess Mary box, posted December 24, 2012
The Christmas Truce, which broke out on the Western Front almost a 100 years ago, has always seemed one of the most poignant moments in modern history. This past Christmas, I discovered its connection to a small brass box I bought as teenager in a flea market outside Paris.

Tales of the Dummling, posted January 8, 2013
This was a difficult post to write. It was long, it took three days, and I doubted that many people would read it. I was all the more delighted when WordPress Freshly Pressed it.  This was the third time I’ve had the honor, and this was the most meaningful because I was following one of my keenest interests, one that comments confirmed is shared by many others.

Remembering Ritchie Havens, posted April 22, 2013
Here is another chance to remember an extraordinary man and musician who left us in April.

The Worlds Revolve, posted May 13, 2013.
Now and then while writing, something both mysterious and familiar takes over the keyboard. This is the most recent time it happened here, and a post largely wrote itself.

Write FAST and Furious! Learning to Outrun “The Spock Brain”

Many writers will already know Kristen Lamb’s blog, but this article is worth rereading and rereading. She uses the metaphor of Kirk and Spock to discuss a classic method of bypassing the inhibiting part of our conscious mind. Such strategies are relevant to other arts as well: actors who practice improv, or visual artists who draw with the non-dominant hand to see what emerges. Enjoy this most encouraging post!

Kristen Lamb's Blog

Many new authors slog out that first book, editing every word to perfection, revising, reworking, redoing. When I used to be a part of critique groups, it was not at all uncommon to find writers who’d been working on the same book two, five, eight and even ten years. Still see them at conferences, shopping the same book, getting rejected, then rewriting, rewriting…..


Great, maybe Kathryn Stockett, the author of The Help took five years and 62 revisions to get her story published. Awesome for her. And yes, her book was a runaway success, but this isn’t the norm. It’s playing Literary Lottery with our careers.

For most writers, it will be hard to have a long-term successful career if our pace is a book or two a decade.

Most authors who’ve made legend status were all talented, yes. But many were (are) also prolific. 

Does Writing Quickly Produce…

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“I, state your name,”…

I always laugh at certain Mel Brooks jokes, and “I, state your name,” is one of them.  This factoid seems like a good intro to this post, which is based on today’s WordPress Daily Writing Prompt, “Say Your Name.”  Here is the full text of the writing challenge:

Write about your first name: Are you named after someone or something? Are there any stories or associations attached to it? If you had the choice, would you rename yourself? 

To answer the last question first:  when I was a kid, I longed to be Joe, or Billy, or Bob (I was a Yankee, so Billy Bob wasn’t an option).  Somewhere along the line, Morgan began to fit.  I think what really cemented it was my years in the hi-tech world.  Before I left, it was so diverse that if you include international teleconferences, in a given month or even week, I might interact with people from China, Japan, India, Pakistan, Italy, Israel, England, and Arizona.  I learned that there is no such thing as a “common” name.

I was named after my mother’s father, and this is where family history takes a turn toward the novels of Thomas Hardy – a single tragic event that rippled through many lives.

Grandfather Morgan and my mother, 1923

Grandfather Morgan and my mother, 1923

Grandfather Morgan was the son of a Dutch immagrant who became a paper tycoon. Not one to rest on family privilege, at the age of 17 he lied about his age to enlist in the war to end all wars.  Fortunately, WWI ended before he could get “over there.”

Back home, Morgan married my grandmother, June, a schoolteacher.  The couple moved to Richmond, Virginia to manage a paper mill.  My mother was born there in 1923.

In the 20’s, baseball fever was rampant, and Morgan pitched for the company team.  Sometime around 1928, a line drive caught him in the groin.  It hurts to even think about, and after a series of operations, he developed tuberculosis of the bone.  The family moved west, first to Tucson, then Prescott, Arizona, and finally to Albuquerque, where Morgan died in 1930.

My grandmother nursed him during that time and said that on his last night, he was joyous and smiling and said, “The worst is over now, I can feel it.”

My grandmother became quite the cowgirl.  Most of the roads were single lane, and the rattlesnakes could easily grow to six or seven feet long.  Coming upon them, Grandmother June would run over them with the model A – repeatedly – then climb out to cut off the rattles.  My mother had a snake phobia and was frightened even of rattles in the trunk.

Another time, when she was six, my mother climbed a rock spire in Prescott known as, “Top Rock.”  Once on top, she set up a wail, crying that she couldn’t get down.  Without a fire department to come to the rescue, June put on her boots, hiked up her skirt, and learned what she had to know about rock climbing on the fly.

In the end, the death of my grandfather, Morgan, affected everyone badly.  Grandmother June developed TB and spent several years in a sanatorium in Colorado.  Though she recovered, the disease affected her inner ear balance, so from her mid-30’s on, she had to use a cane.  She saw a psychiatrist for depression, something I never learned until she was gone, for at the time, it carried a stigma.

My grandmother believed there is only one true love in a person’s life.  Though men courted her well into middle age, she refused all offers, in order to “be true” to Morgan.  At the end of her life, when she lived with us, her depression returned.  She believed her life-long loneliness was a judgement from God.  This compassionate and adventurous woman died believing she must have sinned in some way that lay beyond atonement.

Understandably, my mother suffered from depression too.  Sometimes it manifested as a “sense of impending doom.”  If a picnic was planned, she’d be the one to look at the morning sky and say, “I hope it doesn’t rain.”  Both of these are tendencies I have to battle.

I never knew either grandfather.  Though there were uncles to teach me essentials like how to play poker, I know the lack of “wise old men” in the family contributed to what Robert Bly calls “Hunger for the father.”  Perhaps this helped nudge me toward the arts, where we learn that hunger can work like the grain of sand in the oyster that leads to the forming of pearls.

Sometimes I think about ancestor worship – not in the literal sense – yet some primitive part of me seems to believe that what we do now can affect those who came before.  That the effort to live well may carry some kind of redemption.  My grandfather Morgan’s story is filled with life unlived.  His name is a good one to carry – it reminds me that what I do matters.

The first time I went to a Zen sesshin, we ended each day of meditation by reciting this “Evening Caution:”

I beg to urge you, everyone:
each of us must be completely awake:
never neglectful, never indulgent;
life-and-death is a grave matter,
all things pass quickly away;

By the time I got there, I already knew that.  These truths lie embedded in family history.

Who would you choose to write your biography?

Although I enjoy reading and mulling over the WordPress Daily Writing Prompts, I’ve never used one as a subject before.  That changed on March 11 with a post called Ghostwriter by blogger Michelle W. who asked, “If you could have any author – living or dead – write your biography, who would you choose?”  The answer for me is Carl Jung, and it has been fruitful to remember why.

When I was in high school, a teacher who was a mentor to me said, “You should really study psychology.  Not all that behaviorist crap, but Jung.”  As a college freshman, I remembered his words when I spotted a copy of Man and His Symbols, an introduction to Jung’s ideas that he began and his close colleagues finished after his death in 1961.  After that, I read his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections.  These are excellent books to get the gist of his thought.

Dr. Carl Jung, 1875-1961

In our fast-food world, where medication and brief therapy are the norms, Jungian analysis survives at the margins.  Two key exceptions, where Jung’s ideas entered the mainstream, come to mind.  The Meyer-Briggs Personality Profile is structured on his theory of psychological types; even the words, introversion and extroversion were his.  And through one of his patient’s contact with Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Jung’s insistence on the psyche’s spiritual orientation found its way to the core of 12 step programs.

More more widely known are Jung’s contributions to the study of literature and folklore.  The theory of archetypes, which found expression in areas like Joseph Campbell’s work on the hero myth, were first stated for our times by Jung.

All these credentials, however impressive, are not the reason I’d choose him as a biographer.  Here’s something he said in a lecture in London in 1939:

“We have no symbolic life, and we are all badly in need of the symbolic life. Only the symbolic life can express the need of the soul – the daily need of the soul, mind you! And because people have no such thing, they can never step out of this mill – this awful, banal, grinding life in which they are ‘nothing but.’ . . . These things go pretty deep, and no wonder people get neurotic. Life is too rational; there is no symbolic existence in which I am something else, in which I am fulfilling my role, my role as one of the actors in the divine drama of life.”

When I first read these words, at about the age of 20, I recognized a kindred spirit, one who could articulate things I only felt and struggled with.  I read the words now and still feel the sense of kinship.

There’s not that much in my outer life to write about.  Any biographer I’d hire would have to be the kind of person who looks beneath the surface and understands that it’s really about the effort to find one’s role “as one of the actors in the divine drama of life.”

If you could have anyone do it, who would you pick to write your biography?