Current Events, Holy Wild, Muse in Brief, peace, Poetry & Music, story

I Blame Trump on Game of Thrones



I Blame Trump on Game of Thrones

I wonder what Jung would have
to say about it, how for years now
we have saturated the collective
unconscious with stories of war,

collusion and incest, machinations
of political corruption, moral sickness
among the rich, while fire and ice
loomed, denied, debated. And now—

I know all the names of the players,
though I’ve never read the books
or seen the show, and I’ve heard
so many times the reasons why

it’s brilliant, the best, the most
throned of all the games, but
I have to admit, I’ve never heard
a single thing that made me want

to watch. Why spend time with
such monsters? Are we so bored
with singing love songs, playing
games of chance and skill where

no one dies? What makes us
think these stories can tell us
who we are? Violence leads on
to violence, and love to love.

I miss the days when we dreamed
of nameless striders in the wild,
gray-robed wizards, unimportant men
carrying the world up the mountain,

slowly, step by step, sunlight falling
on the stone heads of fallen kings,
reminding us that stories shape
the wilder, better life we long to live.

And remember, how he finally smiled
when he stepped onto the boat
at the very end, so ready to move
on to the Land of Valar across the sea

—or maybe it was Hawaii, sunny
and warm and full of waves,
where he went water-skiing every day
like a laughing metaphor for grace.

art, Holy Wild, Poetry & Music

Dear Copyeditor,

Dear Copyeditor,

I would have said,
my dear
copyeditor,
but god knows,
the nuances of affection
are lost on you.
I am writing you
this poem
the way a gazelle
must grow ever sleeker
and quicker
to escape
the indelicate jaws
of the lion.
You are a butcher,
a brute.
I have tried to tell you
all this before,
but you — lounging
there in the shade, twitching
a tin ear, lazily
licking between your
claws like commas —
have torn through all
my objections.
Look how casually
you have rent them in two,
making good, as usual
out of what
was once only
good as usual.


Photo Credit: “Furry Friends,” by Makia Minich (CC) [source]

Current Events, Holy Wild, Mythology & History

Can Clowns Save Our Souls?

untitled-clown_neys-fadzil

“He was nobody in particular, yet everybody all at once.”

— Conrad Hyers

It is said that the Irish god Manannan mac Lir likes to travel in disguise. He roams from town to town, sometimes entertaining kings with heavenly music, other times baffling onlookers with clumsy feats of buffoonery. “One day I am sweet, another day I am sour,” he declares, as if to explain away his conflicting reputation as both wiseman and fool. His disguise is a familiar one: a hat full of holes, shoes that squish with puddle water when he walks, threadbare striped clothes, a cloak of many colors that shimmers like mist in the sun. It’s a wonder we don’t recognize him immediately. Figures like him have been with us since the beginning, holding up a funhouse mirror to our ordinary lives, mocking our heroes and transfiguring our bums. In short, Manannan mac Lir is a clown.

Clowns need no introduction, says professor of religion Conrad Hyers in his book, The Spirituality of Comedy. When they appear on the scene, everybody recognizes immediately what they are. “There are clowns who are silent and clowns who are subtle, but there are no incognito clowns.” And yet clowns are, by definition, difficult to define. Almost defiantly contradictory, they take upon themselves the myriad aspects of human society and human nature, throwing all of these elements together in astoundingly irreverent and incongruous ways. “In a kaleidoscopic identity,” Hyers writes, “the clown is many people and many moods, formed and reformed out of the same disparate pieces of humanity.” The clown is the Everyman, recognizable despite or, more accurately, because of his make-up and his mask. The clown is the familiar stranger: the god who travels in disguise under an assumed name, yet whose reputation always precedes him.

Big Shoes To Fill: A Walking Contradiction

Over the past few months, we’ve watched this pattern of embodied contradictions and oscillating opinions play out in real-time as a Creepy Clown Epidemic took the American media by storm. In earlier articles, I traced the evolving nature of this phenomenon — from the Phantom Clowns of urban legend, to the mischievous Stalking Clowns confounding police, to the public backlash and its impact on the professional clowning community. As media coverage returned again and again to this strange but eerily familiar figure, interpretations of the Creepy Clown’s meaning have swung back and forth, each new claim reacting against and building upon those that came before it. Were the clowns real, or just a hoax? Old urban legend, or new media meme? A coordinated effort by marketers, or a grassroots trend of rumors and copycats? Attention-seekers, or anonymous pranksters? Political commentary, or frivolous distraction? Harmless fun, or serious threat? Criminals, or victims?

The answer, of course, is all of the above…. and then some. “Clowns are not ‘simply’ anything,” Hyers writes. “The clown as ‘Everyman’ is the representative of the many-sidedness of our existence and the tensions between sides — not any side or set of characteristics. The clown is omnivorously human.”

greatest-show_classic-film

This undiscriminating lust for life in all its forms can itself be disturbing (think: the exaggerated mouths and the smiles full of sharpened teeth in so many of today’s creepy clown Halloween masks). There is something unsettling about the clown’s willingness to poke fun at anything, to upset the status quo. We might wonder: is nothing sacred? Yet throughout history, the spiritual role of the clown has always been that of trickster, the Wise Fool who can challenge social norms and bring the shadow-side of ourselves and our community out into the open to be confronted, laughed at, integrated and transcended.

In his exploration of the clown as a cultural and spiritual figure, Hyers notes that there are two distinct manifestations of the clown as a mediator of opposites. The more “complex and ambitious” type of clown, Hyers writes, is the solo clown, who brings these opposites together in his own person and contains the tension of polarity within a single figure. The motley, multi-colored outfits of these clowns speak to this radical inclusivity of contradiction. “If they wear oversized shoes, they will like as not wear an undersized hat. If they give themselves a gaudy smile, they will probably also add a tear. If they are graceful one moment, they will likely be jerky the next.” They might take exaggerated care to tiptoe across the stage, only to trip noisily at the last minute; or precisely measure the swing of their giant hammer, only to miss the nail and smash their thumb instead. One day sweet, the next day sour.

478px-paul_cezanne_060But there is another kind of clowning: the comic duo. Here, polar opposites are exaggerated and separated, embodied in two different characters who are nevertheless bound together, played against one another to hilarious effect. From the Koshare spring-summer clowns (sprouters of grain) and the Kurena fall-winter clowns (maturers of grain) of the Jemez Indians, to the suave Whiteface and clumsy Augusto of the medieval French pantomimes, such pairs are well-known throughout history. If one is tall and thin, the other will be short and stocky. If one is a wild risk-taker, the other will worry and fret. If one is restrained in word and deed, the other flails about and never shuts up. We see these odd couples everywhere in modern times, too, in comedy pairs like Harpo and Groucho Marx, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Penn and Teller, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, Troy and Abed… the list goes on and on.

To these pairs, we might add: Patch Adams and Pennywise — the “caring clown” and the “creepy clown” of modern American culture. Perhaps we need look no further to explain the Creepy Clown phenomenon than our culture’s changing view of the clown, from the ambiguous trickster of sacred ritual to mere kids’ entertainer:

Before the early 20th century, there was little expectation that clowns had to be an entirely unadulterated symbol of fun, frivolity, and happiness; pantomime clowns, for example, were characters who had more adult-oriented story lines. But clowns [are] now almost solely children’s entertainment. Once their made-up persona became more associated with children, and therefore an expectation of innocence, it made whatever the make-up might conceal all the more frightening.

Everywhere we find them, clowns are walking contradictions, polarities set in dialectical motion so that we may (re)discover our own wholeness. “Our whole being is put joltingly together by the simple device of slapping opposites against one another,” writes Hyers. With our recent overemphasis on the innocent fun and “light side” of the Caring Clown, perhaps it was inevitable that the darker Creepy Clown would eventually come calling.

One Clown, Two Clown, Red Clown, Blue Clown

But why now? There is something unique about the Creepy Clown Epidemic this year. Although the cycle of clown sightings has recurred fairly regularly since at least the 1980s, there seems to be a deeper sense of urgency, uncertainty and anxiety that has driven this fall’s hysteria.

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You don’t need to scratch very far below the surface to discover what it is. Almost from the beginning, commentators have noted the strong parallels between the Creepy Clown hype and the American presidential election, in which many aspects of an increasingly polarized and dysfunctional political system are on full display. Art and film often anticipate and illuminate these trends through their social commentary. Take, for instance, the recently-released Rob Zombie horror movie, 31, which one reviewer describes as “perhaps unintentionally relevant” in the current climate:

[T]he free-loving carnies and the carnage-loving clowns all arguably ought to be on the same side, as they’re at the same level of income, and loosely connected to the whole notion of traveling shows. But they’re not, and indeed, it’s partly because some on the clown side are racist, sadistic, abusive, horrible people. Regardless, though, they’re all being played by rich jerks for some minor amusement, and even once they realize this and have a chance to break the cycle, or heaven forbid, fight the actual system, they can’t stop. They just hate each other too much, while the rich go back to their rich lives unburdened.

Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist at Botany College in New Zealand, links the rise in creepy clowns to two rising forces in the US: social media, and a fear of otherness. “Social media plays a pivotal role in spreading these rumor-panics which travel around the globe in the blink of an eye,” he says. “They are part of a greater moral panic about the fear of strangers and terrorists in an increasingly urban, impersonal, and unpredictable world.” Politicians have often played on the fear of otherness to rally their base and “get out the vote” on election day. We might even see in the Republican and Democratic candidates an echo of the tragicomic duo, a pair of opposites vying against each other, each one “playing the mask” of political showmanship while also trying to radiate personable authenticity. All of this might explain why Loren Coleman, who posited the Phantom Clown Theory, notes that creepy clown appearances often coincide with the election cycle.

new-york-daily-news-clown-1Still, this year’s election season has been one of the most vitriolic in recent history, with one candidate in particular invoking (and provoking) xenophobia, racism and misogyny as defining aspects of his campaign. For some, the explanation for this year’s creepy clown craze can be summed up in two words: Donald Trump. Yale School of Drama professor Christopher Bayes describes Trump as “all illness and artifice,” saying, “There’s something poison there. It feels malignant, and it freaks us out.”

With his uncanny appearance — the fake spray-tan, the wild orange hair, the gaudy sense of fashion, the overblown blustering and weird gesticulations on stage — Trump is the quintessential creepy clown. Equally preoccupied with stoking fear of outsiders and resentment towards insiders who’ve supposedly rigged the system against him, he is not easily categorized according to our usual understanding of political and cultural identity. Instead, he hides behind a mask of populist “everyman” rhetoric to conceal crass self-interest and, perhaps, something even more sinister. In light of numerous allegations of sexual assault, including the rape of a 13-year-old girl and his possible connection to drug-fueled sex parties with underage teens, it’s hard not to see Trump as the “killer clown” who leers at children on the playground and tries to lure them into the woods. Even his caught-on-tape boasting about how his celebrity allows him to assault women — “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” — seems like a sickening callback to the serial killer-clown John Wayne Gacy’s confession, “You know… a clown can get away with murder.”

Clown as Savior and Escape Artist

How do we rid ourselves of these creepy clowns, real and imagined?

First, it might help to know that much of the Creepy Clown hysteria is driven by media coverage and, like all such trends, it will eventually die down on its own (especially once Halloween and the election are over). Professor of psychology at Evergreen State College, Bill Indick explains, “That’s why it comes in waves. The media propagates it, creates it, feeds it and at a certain point, gets tired of it. The media then digests it and eliminates it. And just as quickly as it started, it’s over.”

We shouldn’t necessarily see this as a criticism of the media’s short attention span, however. After all, that is the clown’s deeper spiritual and psychological role in society: to help us confront our own contradictions, bring them to consciousness, and integrate them. Hyers writes:

What we are reluctant to acknowledge, but what the clown fixes on, is that we are composed of and dream of contraries. We fantasize about complete freedom and complete security, rugged individualism and social harmony, amorous adventures and marital bliss, higher wages and lower prices, something worth fighting for… and peace and tranquility.

The ever-shifting media narratives — about clowns, and about everything — can guide us through a process of navigating these contradictions, swinging from one perspective to another, discovering the complexity of the stories we tell about our all-too-human lives. Hyers notes that clown performances often end with the clowns being chased off stage, driven out of the shared community space and sent scurrying back into the mists of chaos from which they came. “What has been welcomed so clamorously, must also be put to flight somewhat ingloriously,” he writes. “The clowns who have indulged us vicariously, must also vicariously pay a price for their profanities. The scapegrace becomes the scapegoat.”

clown-session_laura-cuttierBut at the heart of this process is a longing for wholeness and a renewed sense of unity. With his colorful patchwork antics, the clown reconnects “the many fragmented shades of our existence, if only by tossing them laughingly side by side and calling their ephemeral combination a link between the heavens and the earth.” Liminality and impermanence are all part of the play. The clown straddles, skips and stumbles over the lines we draw to separate the mundane and the sacred, “mudhead and godhead,” order and disorder, stability and change, inside and outside, life and death.

In this way, the clown is also a psychopomp, leading us through fragmentation towards resolution and the redemption of a richer life. Says Hyers, “[T]he clown resembles a ghostly apparition from the spirit world, paradoxically seeking with grinning death-mask to renew life and revive our slumping spirits.” Why should we be surprised, then, to find ourselves brought face-to-face with this paradoxical figure during the season of ghouls and goblins, when the veils between the worlds are thin and the dead mingle with the living?

So maybe the solution is actually quite simple: to rid ourselves of the creepy clown, we need only rediscover the deeper complexity and ambiguity of the clown as a sacred trickster and spiritual guide. To live more courageously and playfully in the face of our uncertainty. To remember to hold our desire for categories of right and wrong, good and evil as lightly as we can. For though we might try to follow where the clown leads, we cannot hope to pin him down or hold him still. It is only when we stop insisting that the clown be just one thing that he is free to become the multiplicity of being that he really is.


Photo Credits:
• “Untitled,” by Neys Fadzil (CC) [source]
• Jimmy Stewart, Emmett Kelly, The Greatest Show on Earth, 1952 [source]
• “Shove tuesday (Pierot and Harlequin)” by Paul Cézanne [source]
• “8.11.2010 clown 209/365” by Phil Roeder (CC) [source]
• Frontpage June 17, 2015, New York Daily News [source]
• “Clown Session,” by Laura Cuttier (CC) [source]


Daily Prompt: Eerie

Holy Wild, Mythology & History, story

Honoring the Past: Weaving Story from Memory

“There was a long hard time when I kept far from me the remembrance of what I had thrown away when I was quite ignorant of its worth.”

― Charles Dickens

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Here’s a story about my mother (and I hope she forgives me for telling it). She heard once on TV that the safest place for something in a house fire is inside the oven, because an oven is insulated to keep the heat in and so it’s pretty good at keeping the fire out. If you wanted to salvage something in a house fire — like say, important financial documents or a family heirloom — sticking it inside the oven might just work. (I should note: I have no idea if this is true. Do not try this at home.) So one year, before leaving on vacation, my mother put her wedding photo album inside the oven… just in case the house burned down while she was away.

As these things happen, she and my dad returned home from vacation happy but exhausted from the trip, and decided to order pizza for dinner so they wouldn’t have to cook. They turned the oven to preheat so they could keep the pizza warm once it arrived. Soon, the whole kitchen smelled of scorched paper. My dad threw open the oven door to discover the wedding album sitting there on the rack, just starting to crinkle and brown around the edges. Luckily, he pulled it out in time (accompanied by much confused shouting and cursing, I imagine), and none of the photos were lost.

Not only does this story capture something exquisitely true about my mother — her attachment to photographs and mementos of special occasions, her quirky way of problem-solving, her anxiety about fire — but it seems to me to be deeply human. It’s a story about the irony of memory itself. We want to remember things from long ago, but sometimes in trying to salvage those memories we can become distracted and forgetful in the present moment. We might take all the precautions in the world to preserve the past, but nothing can slow the passage of time and the forgetfulness that comes with age.

Pagans like to say, “What is remembered, lives.” Memory is re-membering, the act of giving life to the past through rituals of witness. A photograph by itself is not a memory, only a record. Collecting dust in a drawer, it does nothing for anyone. Only when it is brought into the light of the present moment can it become something — a reawakening of mindfulness, a memory stirred to life — or perhaps only ever a reimagining, each time slightly different, each time new. But that’s life, too, isn’t it?

I’m like my mother in my desire to remember the past, I just go about it differently. Instead of sticking my wedding album in the oven, I tell stories. (And share them on the internet, where everything is forever and yet nothing lasts.) But we both face the same irony — that the act of remembering is the very act by which we might accidentally ruin or replace the past we seek to honor.

I don’t even know if this story about my mom is true, at least in all its detail. I only heard it second-hand. But it feels true, it feels like her. It reminds me of her and the things about her that I love and learn from. It almost doesn’t matter if the story is “factually” true or not. Like life itself, it’s more complicated than that.


Inspired in part by today’s Daily Prompt: Ancient

Featured, Holy Wild, praxis, story

Soul Writing: Finding Balance in Group Spiritual Practice

Last Wednesday evening found me crowded around a conference room table with a dozen other people, packed so closely together that some of us were literally shoulder to shoulder. Sitting together in concentrated silence.

The writing prompt invited us to imagine our hearts as a swinging door. Who might come in? it asked. And where might you find yourself headed when you go out?

But I was preoccupied instead with another question, different but related, a question of setting boundaries and holding space.

It was my first time co-teaching a class at my UU church, and I was struggling to find a balance between the persona of extroversion I put on in public and the inwardly-focused headspace I make for myself when I settle in to write. Although I write every day as a personal spiritual practice, writing in a group setting was a new experience for me. I’ve attended any number of writing critique groups, and hosted a few myself, and of course there were the open mic nights where folks shared everything from well-rehearsed performance art to raw works-in-progress, with an appreciative audience sitting by ready to applaud.

But this was different. This was much more like praying together. Or sitting together in meditation. This wasn’t about sharing something you’d already written, but being present to each other in-process, witness to the very act of discovery and composition, soul-deep in the chaotic waters of creativity. This is writing as a spiritual practice — a kind of sacred deep listening, what Karen Hering calls in her book Writing to Wake the Soul, “contemplative correspondence” — a correspondence with the self and with one’s gods.

As we sat in silence, pens gliding across blank pages, fingers pecking at keyboards, heads bowed in the flickering candlelight, I found myself pulled back again and again to this question of how to hold open the space. How to balance the inwardness of creative work with the outwardness of sharing and being present to others in their own process of deepening discovery.

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In Pagan practice, we have tools and rituals for crafting sacred space — casting the magical circle within which we do our most challenging work. We burn incense to cleanse the space, we bless ourselves with water and scented oils. We breathe deeply, we drum or chant to move ourselves from the uneven, syncopated patterns of distraction and dislocation that dominate our mundane lives, into the steady, sacred rhythms that help us settle more deeply and mindfully into harmony with the Song of the World.

I do this when I write, too, though the habits of setting the space are slightly different. I light some candles, maybe make myself some tea, sometimes I read a poem or a passage from a book chosen at random from the shelves in my study. I settle into my favorite chair, mug of tea nestled on a coaster just within reach. And then I sit for a while in silence, listening to my breathing, letting words rise up, letting phrases coalesce like bright gases in the obscure depths of space, condensing first into stars and from there into constellations of thought.

It takes a long time for me to say anything. I need that sacred space — that quiet emptiness within which I can start to listen for what it is I’m called to write.

So it was a new challenge, to sit in a room with a dozen other people, in silence, and try to find that same inner quiet — aware of other people’s breathing, aware of other people’s inner thoughts spinning from brain to pen to page and back again.

And, at the same time, to try to stay rooted in the outwardly-focused role of “teacher” — measuring my words and expressions for the effect they’d have on others, keeping an attentive eye on the energy of the group, slowing or quickening the pace to hold everyone’s interest. The job of teacher is sort of like the role of priestess, except without the fancy robes and colorful jewelry to lend an air of exotic authority. This is something I still struggle with, trying to balance the warm invitation of welcome with the need to set boundaries and hold open the space. The interplay of extroversion and introversion, the cultivated persona as a work of both art and artifice, self-disclosure and self-composure.

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So while the writing prompt that night invited us to consider the heart as a swinging door through which love might move in either direction, I was busy worrying about how to manage the swinging door of my mind.

My mind is a messy place. A lot of clutter accumulates, and so writing for me is often much like the practice of a hoarder quietly, delicately sorting through her things, rearranging piles, rediscovering forgotten treasures, listening to the way her collection speaks to her. I write sentence by sentence, image by image, not sure where I might be going or where I’ll end up — just placing one image or idea next to another to see if they resonate, listening for the hum of harmony or tension.

Some objects I come back to again and again. I have a lot of rocks in my head, for instance — mostly the smooth, tumbled stones of riverbeds and ocean shores, some of them balanced or built into cairns, some of them marking animal graves, some of them covered in moss, some of them so tall they cast long shadows at dusk on the solstice. Also, a lot of what birds have left behind — feathers, fluffs of down floating idly on the breeze, the quick trill of a faraway song, a bit of broken eggshell, the contours of flight that great flocks carve through the air.

Also, more than a bit of gore and anxiety, craggy barren landscapes, self-righteous judgment, cynicism, defensiveness, the gross glistening slobber of my wild longings, the pitiable whine of my shame.

None of these necessarily mean much on their own. But they make up the collection of sights, sounds and textures that I reach for when I am crafting a new story on the page, trying to weave sense out of experience. I don’t always know where I’m going when I write, or what will happen to me in the meantime. I just settle down into that quiet space and start arranging and rearranging until something like art emerges.

writing-lidyanne_aquino

This is what Hering means by “contemplative correspondence” — not just as in the letter you write to yourself, but as in the way everything is connected, each thing hitched to another. She says:

The human brain loves to string things together, to connect the dots, to draw upon previous knowledge to make things whole. We long to participate in making or uncovering meaning: it is what we are doing whenever we connect our interior landscape with the external, and the temporal and material with the eternal.

This is correspondence in the Pagan sense: the way east is air is hawk is dawn is youth is curiosity is all yellow-gold. Or how autumn is dusk is death is ancestry is otherworld is mist is change is harvest is gratitude is life renewed.

It reminds me of what the poet Billy Collins wrote:

[T]he trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry…

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world…

But Hering’s words also remind me of another poem, this one by Mark Strand, that begins:

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

And ends:

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

I think Hering is right when she says that we love to “make things whole.” But this making is not always a process of speaking and writing, connecting dots and comparing “everything in the world to everything else in the world” until the entire space is filled (as Collins puts it), “more guppies crowding the fish tank, more baby rabbits hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.”

Sometimes, making things whole is an act of withdrawal or withholding, an act of opening up space within which others can discover their own wholeness without us.

Knowing this, suddenly it seemed crazy to me to try to write, here in this group of people who were each trying in their own way to find their own voice, to speak their own truth — it seemed almost irresponsible of me, to open the swinging door of my mind and risk all that mess and noise tumbling out.

But now there were only a few minutes left. And the writing prompt just sitting there, its ellipsis both invitation and challenge… Reminding me that I couldn’t ask others to be brave enough to write if I wasn’t willing to be brave myself. Reminding me of the old trope that UUs spend too much time in their heads already, that it is good to trust in the body’s wisdom, good to trust the heart…

So what if my heart were a swinging door? What would I say to you then? And so I wrote…

backerpacker-journaling_liam-kearney-sm

Through this swinging door…

All things fly out — the cat, the heat of the room, the noise of our laughing loudly at the television — so much escaping out into the world that we can never call back again, so that it seems we might soon be broke with the wild abandon of it all. But no. All things fly in, too — the hummingbird and the scent of the rose as it is jiggled by the frenetic stirring of tiny wings, the leaf litter from last year’s autumn, the tiny stones wedged in the tread of your shoes — your shoes, that always seem to hover on the threshold, neither inside nor out, one foot more loyal than the other (the left one going wandering), so that when it’s time to pull yourself together in the morning you are always scrambling to get ahold of it all, both shoes on, then your coat, your scarf if it is cold — though not so cold once the heat follows you out the door on your way to work — following you like the geese in their migration, like the scent of the rose fading after summer, following like the neighbor’s new puppy who has no use for loyalty when there is so much joy in the world, who follows you all the way down the block to catch the bus and then sits there, wagging its tiny stub of a tail, its whole butt wiggling in the dust until you are out of sight — only to find its way back here to our doorstep again, so that by the time you come home there are, along with the leaves and the hummingbird feathers and the tiny abandoned bits of gravel, now too the tiny pawprints of perfectly outlined mud all over all the furniture, and me — smile and cup of tea in hand and a bit of everything the world has to offer tangled in my hair.


Photo Credit:
• “I wrote you,” by Tekke (CC) [source]
• “Write It Down,” by Daniel Go (CC) [source]
• “Blah,” by Flood G. (CC) [source]
• “Writing,” by Lidyanna Aquino (CC) [source]
• “A German backpacker writing in her journal,” by Liam Kearney (CC) [source]

art, Holy Wild, Nature Photography

The Sights of Santa Fe

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Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe

Even just a few days in Santa Fe can leave me speechless…

Partly because I’m parched — my rain-soaked soul, so used to wandering the misty shores of Puget Sound, rebels against the high elevation and incredibly dry climate…

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But mostly because, in the midst of the desert, the astounding color and diversity of human culture overwhelms me with amazement and gratitude.

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From the unique architecture…

The Lensic Performaing Arts Center

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courtyard-of-new-mexico-museum-of-modern-art-santa-fe_29343088223_o

The New Mexico Museum of Modern Art

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IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

To the spirituality…

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Prayer flags outside The Ark Bookstore

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the-shrine-of-our-lady-of-guadalupe-santa-fe_29416844880_o

The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe

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The local flora and fauna…

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Arts and crafts around every corner…

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local-crafts-for-sale-santa-fe_29672494076_o

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From the sense of history and ancestry…

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To the worst of modern tourist traps, where southwest native culture is mass produced and plastic wrapped…

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I find myself entranced by the patterns and textures of the place…

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And all the beauty there is still to see…


Want to see more…? You can find these photographs and more from my recent trip to Santa Fe on Flickr.

Contemplation & Meditation, Holy Wild, Mythology & History

Romancing the Flower Maid: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Anima

My husband’s anima has a name like the sun, though these days she only shows herself as a quick-footed, gnome-like creature with black, star-studded owlish eyes. She lingers in the forests of his inner landscape, close to the temple that he has built for her there. During his morning meditations, he visits the temple, sometimes leaving offerings for her: a pearl from his heart, a prayer, a sip of cool water.

My animus has no one name, but goes by many. I call him the angel at the gate.

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When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a scientist. Specifically: a marine biologist. I was mesmerized by everything that lived in those dark, salty waters — from the translucent crystalline forms of microscopic protozoa to the sleek, monstrous bodies of whales. During warm summer afternoons, I would spend hours crouched on the banks of a muddy creek that ran through our neighborhood, practicing my skills as a naturalist. Making observations, taking notes, catching bugs and butterflies to sketch, collecting plant samples to take home with me, pressing them carefully between the pages of our old American Heritage dictionary.

Back then I, too, felt the subtle threat of being flattened out by the weight of definitions and labels. No one ever told me I couldn’t be a scientist because I was a girl. At least, not directly. But in all the subtle ways that society shapes us, opening some doors while discreetly closing others, my love of the natural world was slowly redirected away from the sciences and towards pursuits that were considered more appropriate for my sex. When I asked for a field notebook as a birthday gift, something rugged and sturdy and waterproof, I was given a beautiful diary with a delicately designed cover featuring flowers and kittens, more suited to stanzas of nature poetry than drawings of animal scat. My parents praised me for the creativity of my English homework and art projects, but never seemed to notice the careful, detailed work I put into my diagrams of squids and frogs for science class. My grade school friends could play with Breyer horses for hours, imagining elaborate stories inspired by Black Beauty, but they soon lost interest when I tried to recruit them to join an “endangered species club” and raise money to sponsor a manatee or an ocelot.

Over the years, I gradually lost interest in science as a potential career path. My classes were too easy, and nobody seemed to expect much from me or notice when I did well. In middle school I discovered that bringing my mom’s old college biology textbook to study hall as my “fun reading” quickly earned me a reputation for being a nerd. Factor in my boy’s haircut, thick glasses, clunky braces, and my mom’s unfortunate belief that overalls would make me look adorable… and by the time I got to high school, I had pretty much secured my reputation as an awkward tomboy brainiac.

The mysteries of being feminine presented a far bigger challenge to me than any chemistry set or geometry problem. “Acting like a girl” didn’t come all that naturally, but I earned greater praise when I succeeded, when I was delicate and charming and self-effacing rather than stubborn or out-spoken or willing to get dirt under my fingernails. I was applauded for being a team player, but subtly discouraged from pursuing activities where I would stand out in the spotlight.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that it was my competitiveness and ambition, my desire to prove myself and challenge myself — those very traits that might be considered “masculine” and unbecoming in a woman — that drove me to work so hard to be good at being a girl.

In high school, with the freedom of a new school and a chance to start over, I remade myself into the hippie-artsy-mystic-poet-girl who wore flower-print skirts and dangly earrings. But even as I remade myself, I held onto a certain disdainful defiance, embracing the feminism and social justice of the women’s movement from my mother’s generation. I once prayed to God to give me large breasts and an even larger brain, so that I could be a living challenge to the stereotype of the brainless beauty. I wanted to force the world, once and for all, to take me seriously as a woman.

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These days our society is moving further and further from the simple conception of gender as a binary: male or female, man or woman. We are beginning to recognize that gender is complex. In the natural world, scientists continue to discover undeniable examples of how sexuality is multifaceted and fluid, from the parthenogenesis of blacktip sharks to the three distinct sexes of the midshipman toadfish. Our online lives have also freed us from strict gender norms to a certain extent — we can adopt as many different personas as we like, each with its own Facebook page. Through virtual avatars, we can be male, female, plant, animal, or mineral; we can give ourselves fairy wings or stag antlers, or use our profile pictures to make a political statement with icons and slogans. Offline, through marriage equality and LGBTQ rights initiatives, we’re making important strides towards a more open society where people are supported and honored for who they are regardless of gender identity or sexual preferences.

But we’re not there yet. Binaries have kept us trapped for a long time, defining us by what we are not or what we supposedly cannot do, rather than by who we are and what we’re really capable of. No one person was to blame for the kind of pervasive, subconscious sexism that I and many people like me experienced as kids. As an adult, I can see now how much other people’s expectations of me influenced my own beliefs about who I was and what I could become. I’m not resentful of the encouragement and support I received growing up, but I can see more clearly how that encouragement was often one-sided. Those experiences have left me with a lingering sense that certain aspects of life are off-limits; that there are places I must not go and things I must not do.

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Carl Jung, one of the founders of modern psychology, explored the interplay of gender in a person’s psyche through his concepts of the anima and animus. Like the shadow, the anima/animus is an aspect of ourselves that we tend to externalize as something separate and distinct from our self-identity. According to Jung, every person holds within the subconscious an archetype of the opposite sex, a symbol or image that represents an amalgamation of all the traits and qualities that we associate with the “other.” For a man, this archetype is the anima, the epitome of womanhood; for a woman, it is the animus.

As a psychologist, Jung was fascinated with how archetypes and mental processes could sometimes help us become whole, healthy individuals, and at other times prevent us from reaching that wholeness. The anima and animus are no different. They can serve as inner guides that put us in touch with the fluidity and complexity of gender within ourselves, allowing us to embody both the masculine and feminine in their myriad expressions and permutations.

But when these archetypes are ignored, repressed or denied, they can become tricksters, sabotaging our relationships with others, looming up at us as projections that we attribute to external people and events instead of seeing them as aspects of our own psyches. If we want to grapple with the cultural legacy of binary gender roles that we’ve inherited, one of our first tasks is to make friends with our inner opposites.

Since childhood, my animus has often appeared to me in dreams and meditations as the angel at the gate. The wielder of the fiery sword, barring the way to a paradise where I need not hide my nakedness. My relationship with him has long been one of forbidden love. Sometimes he is beautiful, with wings of flame and shadow that seem to flicker behind him like an after-image burned into the retina. His face is bright, framed by a tangle of hair that writhes like serpents, or climbing ivy, or tongues of fire. At other times, he appears to me as utterly ordinary. But always, he is distant, loving wisely rather than too well, careful to place duty and professionalism above desire or intimacy. His detachment is seductive in its own way, for it echoes aspects of my own lingering discomfort with my gender.

Before I began to work with my animus consciously through meditation and dreamwork, I often found him in the people I dated — men who were rational and dutiful almost to a fault, who valued my intelligence and confidence but often held me at arm’s length, seeing me as too mature for “girly” things like romance or emotional vulnerability. Yet during arguments, my animus would lock horns with the suppressed anima in my partners: when I most wanted to be taken seriously as an intelligent person, defending my position with my animus’ fiery blade of devastating logic, they would see me as their own projected trickster-anima, the dangerous wild-woman, irrational and unpredictable.

As so often happens when we are taught that who we are isn’t quite acceptable, I came to dislike those parts of myself that identified me too strongly as “female” even while I tried to embody a particular ideal of femininity projected onto me by others. For a long time, my own animus — aping the impersonal disdain I found in the culture around me — prevented me from valuing the complexity of the feminine, both in others and in myself. I resented being seen as unpredictable or irrational, and I despised depictions of idealized women in mythology who behaved in ways that portrayed them as weak-willed and vulnerable to passing whims. Although intellectually I valued the diversity and equality represented in polytheism with its many gods and goddesses, personally I found it hard to imagine a female deity worthy of worship.

No goddess provoked my resentment more than Blodeuwedd, the flower-faced maiden in Welsh mythology, who had been crafted out of blossoms by the magician-god Gwydion to be a wife for his nephew, Lleu Llaw Gyffes. Made to suit the desires of men, Blodeuwedd was the ideal woman, perfect in every way and far superior to the flawed human women whom Lleu had been forbidden to marry. She was soft, delicate, beautiful, and completely loyal. That is, until she fell in love with a brawny huntsman who came along during her husband’s absence, and together they plotted to kill Lleu and usurp his place as ruler of the land. I rolled my eyes at how typical this “feminine weakness” seemed to me, how insulting it was that she should be so fickle and easily won over by the first handsome stranger to flex a bit of muscle her way. Far from celebrating her passionate love, or admiring her youth and beauty as a maiden goddess of the spring, I couldn’t help but think of her as “part of the problem.” When Lleu took his revenge for her betrayal, transforming her into an owl and cursing her to haunt the night hated by all other birds, my sympathies were entirely on Lleu’s side. My animus, his sword blazing, stood guard with a watchful eye on the castle turrets, listening to the owl’s eerie cry, satisfied that justice had been done.

I did not come to appreciate Blodeuwedd until I came to see her as an initiator of the Self. According to Jung, when we begin the work of integrating our animus or anima, we will often be confronted by the figure of an old wise one, an elder, whose work it is to initiate us into wholeness. Although I could not connect to the young flower maiden, I found that sometimes I could hear her whispering as the owl-faced old maid of the forest. She moved on silent wings, slipping like a dark knife into the heart of the moonless night.

Young people today are so noisy, she whispered. Young people are cobbled together from bits and pieces of beautiful things. They make themselves a patchwork of expectation and desire.

Listening to this owl-faced goddess, it seemed to me that her transformation had not been a punishment at all, but a triumph.

I came to see the story of Lleu and Blodeuwedd in a new light: as a story of a young woman’s confrontation with her own animus, who was at times a husband of skill and authority, but at other times came to her as a dark and handsome stranger. I came to see how this confrontation transformed Blodeuwedd from a puppet of flower petals into a living, breathing being with a will and a life of her own.

And I saw that this ancient myth was also a story of Lleu’s transformation, with the lovely flower maiden acting, through her betrayal, as an initiator and guide to the depths of wild soul.

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As we work with our inner archetypes of gender and confront the power of the other as it is expressed in the animus or anima, we often discover that the strict duality of male and female begins to break down.

My husband has been working with his anima for years as a guide to wisdom and wholeness. She shows herself now not as the beautiful young maiden, but as a wizened wild thing familiar with the shadowy ways of the subconscious.

I, on the other hand, still have work to do. My animus still appears sometimes as the handsome man of unrequited longing. But I have also had dreams in which I am the one who bears the flaming sword, and I raise it above my head not as a weapon against my enemies or a defense against the unknown, but as a torch that casts its steady light to dispel the darkness. On the hilt, I can see sometimes the entwining vines of plants and androgynous figures, neither male nor female, whose nakedness speaks of the strength and courage to be found in complexity.


This piece originally appeared in SageWoman Magazine, Issue 84. (August 2013)


Photo Credits:
• Tree sketch in Moleskein, by Steve Loya (CC) [source]
• “The Bird Woman,” by June Yarham (CC) [source]
• “point of no return,” by jinterwas (CC) [source]