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!
Roy Rogers was my first boyhood hero. For a time, around the age of three or four, I refused to answer to “Morgan,” insisting that my parents call me Roy.
Me as Roy, probably age 4.
No matter that any residual appreciation for him collapsed during the Vietnam war, after he came out as a hawk – Roy Rogers was the first person who carried for me, the imagination of what a life well lived might look like.
Upon waking, it seemed strange that I should dream of his death as a present day event, when it happened 20 years ago. Not so strange, after a moment’s reflection, as the nation watches, in real time, the complete collapse of any remaining shred of heroism among our ruling class and their paid minions in Washington. We still live in the world T.S. Eliot described in “The Waste Land.”
There is no way this ends well!
For 20 years, I followed the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952), a Hindu master who moved to this country in 1920, to found an international organization that teaches the core unity of all religions and gives instruction in meditation practices to enable people to make this discovery for themselves.
In May, 1940, he gave a talk that was later published as a pamphlet called World Crisis. In it, he said:
“a great crisis is going to come, a crisis such as never before has hit this country…There is a world revolution going on. It will change the financial system. In the karmic firmament of America I see one beautiful sign; that no matter what the world goes through, she will be better off than most other countries. But America will experience widespread misery, suffering, and changes just the same. You are used to the better things of life, and when you are obliged to live simply, you won’t like it. It is not easy to be poor after being rich. You have no idea how this change is going to affect you through the years. Never before in the history of this land has there been so deep a contrast in living standards as will visit this country – the contrast between riches and poverty.”
I remember in college, how I used to marvel at the tragic heroes and their flaws, in Greek Tragedies and in Shakespeare – how their every action to escape their fate led them deeper into the jaws of the trap. We are seeing in real time, how a nation can tread the same course to disaster.
Last night’s dream reminded me of the discussions one of my latter day heroes, Joseph Campbell held with Bill Moyer’s in the mid 80’s. In their dialog on the “Heroes Adventure,” there was this exchange:
MOYERS: “Given what you know about human beings, is it conceivable that there is a port of wisdom beyond the conflicts of truth and illusion by which our lives can be put back together again? Can we develop new models?”
CAMPBELL: “They’re already here, in the religions. All religions have been true for their time. If you can recognize the enduring aspect of their truth and separate it from the temporal applications, you’ve got it…One way or another, we all have to find what best fosters the flowering of our humanity in this contemporary life, and dedicate ourselves to that.”
MOYERS: “Not the first cause, but a higher cause?”
CAMPBELL: “I would say, a more inward cause. ‘Higher’ is just up there, and there is no ‘up there.’ We know that. That old man up there has been blown away. You’ve got to find the Force within you.”
No single suggestion seems more relevant for our times: “You’ve got to find the Force within you.”
Illustration for “The White Snake” by Walter Crane, ca. 1886, Public Domain
I once had a professor who made an extensive study of world folklore and said the greatest predictor of success for a fairytale hero is winning the help of an animal guide. Most often, the helpful animals are mammals, like Puss-in-Boots or talking horses.
“The White Snake,” a story from the Brothers Grimm, alters this pattern in startling ways. The helpful creatures are far more primitive, and the hero actually kills his horse – yet things come out right. The story has stayed with me since I first encountered it, as a wisdom tale centered on the theme of knowing the right thing to do at the right time, even when it violates norms and expectations.
Commentary on myth and folktales is a recent tradition that arose after the old ways of absorbing these stories, around hearth and campfire, disappeared. We can imagine earlier listeners holding the stories in imagination, letting the magic sink in over time, as we do with favorite novels and movies. This is a great way to experience a story, and we’re fortunate to have a good eight minute recording of The White Snake, accompanied by the text from the Brothers Grimm.
I suggest you read and listen to the story if you don’t know it, for the rest of this post will simply be my reflections on a few of the key questions The White Snake raises. Continue reading →
“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.