YES! JUDGE THE BOOK BY ITS COVER

Review of two collections: The Dream and Its Amplification, edited by Erel Shalit and Nancy Swift Furlotti, Fisher King Press. 2013. And Marked by Fire: Stories of the Jungian Way, edited by Patricia Damery and Naomi Ruth Lowinski, Fisher King Press 2012.

The ebullient cover art serves as the gateway to The Dream and Its Amplification. Howard Fox’s painting “A Giant Dream” draws us into a sumptuous, archetypal world of mountains, gargoyle-laden temples, to a bridge with a naked, giant sleeping with his head upon a fire truck. In the canal below, a man treads water as a mermaid speeds toward him in a motorboat.

Speculation abounds.  Who is the man in the water? Is the sleeping figure on the bridge a giant or a god? Who are the people lurking in the shadows of the temple – or is it a castle?

Surely this book cannot live up to such a cover. And yet, in essay after essay from Jungian analysts across the globe, it does, offering a hologram of perspectives, even as any given dream, if tended from different angles, can yield multiple meanings.

And meaning is very much at the core of this work.  We follow Ken Kimmel into the world of the Maya Shaman, Ronald Schenk opens us to Gnostic myth, Gilda Frantz traverses the interplay of dreams and death itself. The latter brought me a great sense of understanding a peace, as she writes about the dreams that prepared her for the time when death would “call” upon a loved one.

Erel Shalit evokes an Israeli man’s dream of a handless Arab child. Beside the child, the Earth herself extends four hands severed from their limbs up through the asphalt, as if crying to all of us: when will we grow the hands –and the arms–we need to grasp each other across the barriers of ancient conflict?

This cry of the archetypal Feminine echoes throughout.  I found myself returning to the mermaid on the cover in the speed boat (or is she a mermaid? We cannot see the end of her green body…a tail or a bit of clothing??) She hurries through the water to this drowning man…or is he simply out for a swim in the canal, and it is we ourselves who make crisis of it, rush to rescue, when perhaps what is needed is for us to stop the motor and allow ourselves to drift for awhile in our own reverie…?

I was familiar with Nancy Qualls-Corbett from her seminal work, The Sacred Prostitute (Inner City Books, 1988). How lovely to encounter her again in Redeeming the Feminine: Eros and the World Soul.   She shares the dreams of a patient, a very hard-working, high-functioning woman, who, like so many of us, grew up with a mother who could not give the depth of love she needed in childhood.  Her dreams are a descent into an ancient archetypal world that guides her, ultimately, to the discovery of her buried feminine nature. This opens in her a state of being that allows a new masculine energy to emerge and join with the conscious feminine.  Qualls-Corbett goes on to weave the strands of individual healing into the wounded feminine of the great Mama to us all: the Earth.

Similar stories of transformation abound in what I consider a companion work, Marked by Fire, Stories of the Jungian Way.  Though these volumes were published a year apart, I found them deliciously complimentary.

On this cover we encounter  Barbara McCauley’s painting, Flight Into Egypt, a dream-like scene of a woman in a bright pink pants-suit sitting sideways on a grazing white horse. Behind her, in the mist, an enormous ghostly figure (a god? a man? a monster?). The woman looks directly out at us, seemingly unaware of the looming presence behind her.  In her eyes, a curiosity, a searching, even as her body rests in contemplation on a motionless steed.

Once again, the imagination soars: who is she? What is the looming vision behind her? Why doesn’t she turn around? What is that tall shape in the foreground – a giant flower? A pillar? A sign-post?…..

Again, the work lives up to its cover, nourishing us with essays by some of the same Jungian analysts who grace the pages of The Dream and Its Amplification, and many new ones, each offering riches.

I will close with a sampler. Naomi Ruth Lowinsky’s Drunk with Fire is a fluid journey of poetry and prose that begins with Ms. Lowinsky’s frustrations with her mentor, C.G. Jung. This frustration is gloriously resolved with the publication of The Red Book. She writes, “He ‘outed’ himself as a poet and painter. He writes directly out of his vulnerability, working out his relationship with his soul in the depths of the mythopoetic imagination, just as I do.”

She proceeds to share an Active Imagination that is as entertaining as it is enlightening: a dialogue with C.G. Jung himself. At one point Jung takes on the energy of the trickster, morphing into Groucho Marx!

The humor is balanced with the profundity of the journey. Here is a soul’s awakening in the fullness of the human dimension. The poetry – inspired by dreams or images of waking life – shows us how the creative process can be endemic in making the soul whole.

I commend both of these beautiful books to you, as gifts for thoughtful friends, or an offering to yourself. They stand alone, but taken together, grace the reader with a cornucopia that invites the reader to call forth the thunder bolt of your own creative fire.

THE DISTILLATION OF HOPE

distillation –  The evaporation and subsequent collection of a liquid by means of condensation as a means of purification. – The American Heritage College Dictionary. Houghton Mifflin New York. 2000.

We sit in a cradled silence on the patio of my cousin’s home in Arizona. The air is of a warmth that dries our eyes and invites stillness. Soft sunlight caresses the lightly bowing bougainvillea. Hummingbirds buzz our heads: my cousin’s, his wife’s, and mine.

A vireo appears, his egg-shaped belly as grey as our hair. His short round beak is not slim enough to penetrate the tiny hole at the bottom of the hummingbird feeder. Undaunted, he dangles upside down, jamming his beak into the hole, again and again. At last he gets a rush of the clear, sweet liquid, flicks his tail in triumph, and is gone.

My eyes drift to my cousin’s face, so slender now, month 13 of stage 4 cancer.  He walks across the yard to water the olive tree, his lanky gate as slow as a great blue heron stepping through thick water.

As the week unfolds, we revolve around a mysterious, unspoken stillness, orbiting in emotional extremes where even memory is dangerous.  Any topic of tenderness ignites a grief so deep, my cousin’s body shivers in the expression of it. His eyes beg us to help him not go there. We comply. Better to laugh at politics, or land in the life boat of the ordinary: “all the fruit has ripened at once, however will we eat it all before it goes bad?

By day we count hummingbirds, pour over bird field guides: is the interloper a grey vireo or a Lucy’s warbler??  My cousin has no energy for walking, so we drive, ending up at bookshops, and video stores, in search of mirth.

In the evenings we watch comedies, those movies never so funny. We cook food, salmon with chipotle and honey, never so sweet. Whatever lies at the center of our extremes, we cannot speak of it, and yet we sense it is there: more than a mere avoidance of the prognosis, something else…

On the last morning of my visit, I clamor out of restless sleep and unremembered dreams to find my cousin greeting me with a child’s voice, as if  we are children again, ready to raid my Grandpa’s chicken coup.

“I didn’t know if I would see you—“ he says. “It is so early.”

“I’m glad I got up in time,” I whisper, sliding my arm around his so slender frame.

His wife’s face is drawn, her fingers spilling the coffee grounds. They hurry off to the hospital, for a cat scan none of expects to go well. They won’t let me go with them. “It will be good to have you here when we come back,”  she says.

On the patio the hummingbirds animate their shadows. I reach for the books that have come to me in this time of orbiting the unknown and the known. My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer by poet Christian Wiman, who walks his own cancer journey, and Marked by Fire: Stories of the Jungian Way, a bounteous compellation of analysts’ essays edited by Patricia Damery and Naomi Ruth Lewinski. In the latter I find my way to the section, “Dark Night of the Body”. It provides some of  the nourishment – and the perspective – to understand and hold this terrible, vibrant journey.

Henry Abramovitch writes of the peeling away of persona as he descended into his own journey with cancer:

but one day after chemo, touching my chin

to see my beard fall like snow

I let myself remember two days ago, as I sat in the Barnes and Noble café with my cousin. I showed him the picture of Christian Wiman, also a slender man with little hair. “Reading it makes me feel I can walk this road with you,” I said.  We wept, holding hands. “I can’t imagine what people do,” he whispered, “who have to walk this alone.” We allowed ourselves this moment, to feel united in the depth of our love.  Then, we had to move apart, this touchstone in our emotional orbit simply too painful.

The hummingbirds hover close to my head, forming a winged shadow Chimera that pulses, then vanishes. In my mind I hear the voice of my father in the last year of his cancer, some 30 years ago, “How many people have walked this road, and I am still here?”

I fall into a gentle, restful sleep.

“Hi!” comes my cousin’s voice.

His wife is smiling, “Good news! The chemo is working. The cancer isn’t spreading!

We grow giddy, the air light, the sunshine bold.

We all know this is not a cure, but a reprieve. It doesn’t seem to matter. Not today.

We go for a walk, hope giving my cousin’s legs the agility of a brown skipper dancing over rocks. And, from this place we can talk about the fear, the despair, and oh darling irony, the promise of a spiritual continuity that holds us all.  We don’t need to fly from mortality, or hide out in distraction or the mundane.  There it is, our connection to the unity of all things, at the center of our emotional orbit all along, waiting for us to notice.

THE MAGIC OF COPENHAGEN

This summer, Lindsey Rosen and I were invited to perform my new play, On the Doorstep of the Castle, at the International Jungian Congress in Copenhagen. What a fantastic experience! Such a thrill just to be there – all the voices in languages across the world. Lindsey made contact with legendary dance therapist, Joan Chodorow, at the pre-conference workshop on the body and active imagination. All of the dance therapists became our colleagues for the week. We began the Congress by attending a workshop led by David Gerbi, a Jew from Libya, and an analyst, actor, and refugee. He was so excited about our play, which deals with the oppression of the Jews in 16th century Spain. Lindsey and I were blown away by David’s workshop – he has lived what we are portraying in art. Meeting him gave a depth and meaning to the entire week, as we attended workshops on such a grand scope of topics, including evidence-based research on the validity of Jungian therapy and the use of symbols, metaphor, and emotion to promote mental health. We played hooky some mornings to take in the sights of Copenhagen. What a beautiful city! We were able to immerse ourselves in a classic European city. Bicycles everywhere – families – a sense of relaxation and care for the people –priority space on the buses for baby carriages and old people. And, oh, my , the town square of cobblestones – Olympic gods and goddesses atop ancient buildings – fountains filled with frog-spitting statues; breast-feeding goddesses with water spouting from their nipples– a sense of ebullience everywhere. Of course, our own ebullience was matched only by how nervous we were as the time for the performance drew close. We had no time to rehearse lights or sound, but Murray Stein’s Red Book performance came right before us, so the room was at least set up, with a stage big enough to dance and act on. And, true to old theater lore, after all the angst, the performance was a dream. Our characters connected with so much electricity, passion, and depth. Standing ovation. We were sticky with sweat, but accepted the embraces of Joan Chodorow, Jean Shinoda Bolen (one of my icons: author of The Goddess in Every Woman), Naomi Ruth Lewinsky (author, analyst, poet), David Gerbi, the dance therapists, and many others…I am still walking on air, and lo and behold, the greatest gift –such irony — the inner active imagination I did all week to calm my silly nerves inspired a profound shift in my inner world, even as we traversed the adventure of the outer one.

An affirmation of this work, the International Jungian community — all of us who love art, psyche, and each other!
Footnote: The published book of On the Doorstep of the Castle is now on Amazon with stunning cover art by Seattle Jungian psychotherapist, Patrice Donahue.

ON THE DOORSTEP OF THE CASTLE

On the Doorstep Premieres at the Copenhagen IAAP Congress

On August 22, 2013 – 22:00
at the IAAP Congress Copenhagen
don’t miss the premier of
On the Doorstep of the Castle
A play of Teresa of Avila and Alma de Leon
by Elizabeth Clark-Stern

Book Publication Date coincides with the premier – August 22, 2013 – Advance Orders Welcomed. http://fisherkingpress.com/shop/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=22&products_id=199

Our setting is 16th century Spain. The Inquisition has expelled the Jews or forced them to convert. Teresa of Avila is igniting the imagination of the country as the nun who receives messages directly from God. Alma de Leon, a young Jewish converso, appears on Teresa’s doorstep, petitioning to become a novice in her care. Their complex relationship explores the feminine archetypes of the Amazon, and the Medial Woman, in a story that unveils the foundations of psyche’s movement toward wholeness: Kabbalah, and Christian rapture, in an oppressive yet luminous time.

This play is a work of creative imagination based on the interaction of a true historical character and a fictional one. Teresa of Avila is admired to this day not only by Catholics and Christians, but by Taoists and Buddhists, psychologists and poets. Carl Jung was fascinated by her master work, The Interior Castle, for its description of the journey of the soul toward intimacy with God. The fictional character, Alma de Leon, is inspired by twentieth century Jewish philosopher, Edith Stein, who chanced to read Teresa’s autobiography, and experienced a profound spiritual awakening that led her to become a Carmelite nun. “What if these two were to meet?” the playwright asked herself, crafting the character of Alma as a Jewish woman true to her time and place in history. The teaching of the ancient Jewish mystical tradition, the Kabbalah, was strictly forbidden by the Inquisition, and yet Alma is haunted by it, even as she dons the habit of a nun and struggles to find her identity in the presence of her passionate, spiritually adventurous mentor.
ON THE DOORSTEP OF THE CASTLE:

A Playwright’s Search for Voices from Psyche’s Mystical Past

Alma: Is this (rapture) not a conjure of your imagination?

Teresa: Valgame Dios! They are as different as the night the day! When my little mind thinks to fashion a colloquy with God, it is like scratches on parchment, all froth and fantasy. When the rapture captures me, unbidden, the voice echoes with all the chords of eternity, my mind awake as the sky at dawn.

 What happened to Teresa of Avila when she received messages from God? Were the raptures an expression of her unconscious, or did they emanate from somewhere beyond her personal psyche? What is the nature of mind, and how do its voices shape our values, beliefs, personal development, relationships, creativity, and destiny?

These are some of the questions that haunted me as I researched and penned my new play, ON THE DOORSTEP OF THE CASTLE.  Where did my idea for this play come from, and how did I learn to listen to the voices of my characters, transforming an intellectual quest into an expansive journey into the depths of the soul?

It began some years ago, with a story seemingly far removed from the arid plains of Sixteenth Century Spain. One night I watched a PBS documentary on the twentieth century philosopher, Edith Stein. Born into a Jewish merchant family in 1890, she lost her father when she was two years old. Her mother took over the management of the business while single-handedly raising seven children. Edith’s character was shaped, in part, by learning from her mother’s determination and confidence. This would serve Edith well as she fought throughout her life to follow a calling unique in any era, but certainly for a Jewish woman in early twentieth century Germany.

Edith had a quick wit and sharp mind, and in young adulthood, moved from the traditions of Jewish faith to the study of philosophy. She apprenticed with pioneer phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl, and wrote her doctoral dissertation ON THE PROBLEM OF EMPATHY in 1916. In this work, she asserted her own theories, including what she called “non-actuality”, the concept that early experiences in a person’s life can exist in the background of the present and still have an effect. She appears to have arrived at “Non-actuality” independent of Freud’s theory of the unconscious.

Clearly this was a woman who possessed tremendous powers of analysis, rational thought, and creative synthesis of complex material. How intriguing to discover that in 1921, when Edith was visiting friends, she plucked a copy of Teresa of Avila’s autobiography from the bookshelf, and upon reading it, heard the voice of conversion. In the teachings of this modest nun, Edith Stein discovered what she had been searching for all her life. She not only converted to Catholicism, but joined Teresa’s Carmelite order, to the great amazement of her Jewish family and philosophical colleagues.

I was aware of Teresa of Avila, but had never read her work. If her autobiography had such an impact on Edith Stein, a devout Jewish woman whose studies of philosophy had turned her into an atheist, I had to see for myself what could possibly have inspired such on-the-spot enlightenment.

In TERESA OF JESUS:  A LIFE, and her masterwork, THE INTERIOR CASTLE, this self-deprecating nun guides her readers on a journey into raptures with Christ and angels, encounters with the devil, and tells of her transformation from a daughter of privilege to a barefoot nun pioneering a monastic order on the model of Saint Francis of Assisi.

What a story.

I was entirely hooked, and realized that I too was searching for something. Teresa’s story, and Edith’s, reawakened my longing to know the nature of psyche’s relationship with the divine.

Enter my first great love, theater. In May, 2011, Rikki Ricard and I performed OUT OF THE SHADOWS, A STORY OF TONI WOLFF AND EMMA JUNG for the Archetypal Theater Company in New Orleans, accompanied by our technical crew, Donna Lee and John Stern. That experience was so fulfilling, on so many levels, I returned with the desire to write another play.

In her essay, STRUCTURAL FORMS OF THE FEMININE PSYCHE, Toni Wolff articulated four feminine archetypes: 1. Mother, 2. Hetaira, the Greek word for “female companion”, the Mother’s opposite, a woman who nourishes the animus, either in an actual man, as Toni Wolff did with Jung, or, arguably, in a more modern sense, a woman who has a relationship with her own inner animus, or creative drive.

Wolff’s other opposing feminine archetypes are 3.Amazon, a woman like Edith Stein’s mother who fought to make a living and raise a family, and Edith herself, who fought to find her own truth and bring it to the world, and 4. Medial woman, one who mediates between heaven and earth, or the unconscious and conscious realms. This includes Cassandra, of ancient Greece, modern analysts, and therapists, healers and clerics.

There can be an intimate interaction between the voices of our archetypes, and our conscious functioning in everyday life. Women, and men, can call the archetypal Mother to help us through a bad day. We can allow the Amazon’s strength and courage to flow into us before a job interview, and when the medial person needs a break, Hetaira can say, “Take your beloved out to lunch!”

I realized Toni Wolff and Emma Jung embodied the Hetaira and the Mother. What historical characters could embody the Amazon and the Medial woman?

The answer was in the pile of books beside my bed. Teresa of Avila is the rock star of Medial Women. And then I was aided by the archetypal Hetaira from the dream world – not to mention my research.  I awoke in the middle of the night from an unremembered dream with the notion to transpose Edith Stein into 16th century Spain. A fictionalized “Edith” could walk up to the convent door and apply for admission. They could meet!

Thank you, oh thank you, imaginal part of my brain.

A young Jewish woman of the 1500’s would have been subjected to the persecution of the Inquisition, even as Edith Stein was persecuted by the Nazi’s. She also would have been raised with the great Jewish mystical tradition, Kabbalah, which was kept alive in secret rituals that echo into our present day.

I poured over texts on Kabbalah, stuck by the conception of construction of opposites in every dimension of the human soul, thousands of years before Jung and Freud.

I didn’t want to create a literal character of Edith Stein, and began to see her, not as a philosopher, but as a woman much closer to the earth;  a woman who loved color, movement, sound, music. One night, this emerging character whispered to me that she was descended from Moses de Leon, author of The Zohar, sacred text of Kabbalah. A friend told me that Alma means soul in Spanish, and the character “Alma de Leon” was born.

I pulled out butcher paper and began writing scenes between the characters – how they met, how their story progressed –  how they felt about each other. On this big surface, I felt free to pour in every historical character from Shirley du Boulay’s biography of Teresa , the “kitchen sink” approach to creative writing.

I began to see Lindsey Rosen as Alma, and was thrilled when she agreed to play the role. And, Teresa? I was already reading her works aloud, and could feel her creeping in to that part of me that portrays characters quite opposite of myself.

But I couldn’t make the leap from my Jackson Polluck-style outline on butcher paper to the terror of the blank computer screen.

Then, I began to hear Alma and Teresa, talking to each other as I stood in line at the grocery store, in between therapy sessions, waking me in the middle of the night.

“What are you waiting for?” said Teresa.

“Enough with the butcher paper, “ said Alma, “Stop giving in to your fear (“Who am I to write about these women? I’m not a  Carmelite or a Jew? Alma isn’t a real person…What does this have to do with psychotherapy? Who cares about these women?…blah blah blah”) Alma wouldn’t leave me alone. I had created an Amazon, and she wouldn’t let me be a weenie!

I moved to the computer and faced the horrid blank page. Interestingly, the writing began, not with voices, but with mental images and sensations. I could see the dusty arid plains of Avila, hear the sound of donkey carts, the rustle of a nun’s habit in the hot breeze.

From this imagined reality, the characters began to speak. I “took dictation” as they gave voice to the subtle dynamics of their relationship, their struggles in the world, the expression of their inner reality.

They took me to places I could never have predicted, speaking not only in dialogue, but in movement, dance, music and visual metaphor. Our cast and crew are terribly excited to bring this work to an international audience on August 22, at the Jungian Congress in Copenhagen. After that my vision is to offer it in book form to colleges, meditation centers, Jung societies and theater companies, to mount their own productions.

AS WE LIVE IT

“We have only now, only this single, eternal moment opening and unfolding before us, day and night.”  –Jack Kornfield

How do we live “in the moment”?  What does that really mean?  Why does it sound so simple, yet prove so illusive, for so many of us?

This was recently brought home to me in a way I can only describe as transformative. My husband and I met my cousin and his wife in California. My cousin has been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. He is doing well, on a pre-chemo medication that has fewer side effects, but his energy, hair length, gaze and laughter have changed forever.

And yet.

And yet.

Our goal was to find joy. No one needed to state the obvious: live in the moment.

It was terribly difficult. There seemed no place to behave from – no making light of, no hiding, no detour. The fragility of life pulsed in every moment, even as we extolled the beauty of flowers, trees, birds, each other.

My cousin became our mentor and our guide.  Always a sensitive, artistic, and intelligent person, he crafted the ability to savor every moment, without forcing happiness or soliciting despair.

I learned from him that optimism is not about embracing hope. It is about life itself: lifting a shell from the beach, laughing with the waitress as we order breakfast, allowing our gaze to settle on one another’s eyes.

We were liberated from any speculation about the future, any planning, any philosophizing about the state of the world. For those precious days, we lived outside of Time. Nothing to be accomplished or figured out or mastered. Only a glance at my cousin’s face, a noticing of the slowing of his steps, someone saying, “Shall we sit for awhile?”

My cousin would smile. Not because he was being rescued, but because he was being seen.

We sat at many an outdoor table, a wide umbrella shielding him from the sun. How we noticed the children! A little girl giggling as her father jostled her, a baby reaching tiny fingers to a low hanging palm, pink buds poised for eruption, our collective gaze ever-turning toward each new life form.

We created our own rules of the road. No one had to set limits, or care take or make a disclaimer about what was or was not a “depressing” topic. We moved toward beauty and joy and mischief and silliness and silence, allowing this duel reality to define our little group. What duality, you ask? Life and death, connection and separation; joy and a darkness we cannot know.

Saying goodbye at the airport my cousin wrapped us in his long arms, the four of us, one.

Away from him I hold it still, learning, as he is learning, to greet this eternal moment, opening, unfolding, in the shadow of his eyes.

MAN IN SEARCH OF HIS ANIMA

A review of Mel Mathews’ Menopause Man –UnpluggedThe Chronicles of a Wandering Soul: Book Two.  Fisher King Press. 2012  Author blog: melmathews.com

It was – in retrospect – a risky thing to do : read a book written by my publisher. It is fiction, but every writer’s soul and character comes through in their work. What if his book revealed a person different from the one I knew through phone calls and emails? What if I didn’t like it?  All reasonable cautions. But I was curious. As it turns out, so is Malcom Clay, the protagonist. Curious, rebellious, always drawn to the off-center. Well, so was I, starting with the second book in the series, after giving the first, LeRoi, to a friend.

“I loved it,” he said, “A male Eat Prey Love.”

I was intrigued. I learned from reviewing another Fisher King Book, Eros and the Shattering Gaze: Transcending (Male) Narcissism by Ken Kimmel, that a woman can learn a great deal about herself by reading books about men.

I was still nervous. I knew  Mathews’ book wasn’t academic like Kimmel’s. Mel had to be capable of creating a fictional world I was willing to dive into, get lost in, and enjoy, or would I be lost in a quagmire of words and images I couldn’t relate to?

Turns out, my worries were a totally ridiculous spinning out of my own “dark side”. I fell right into this book – a true Page Turner. While it is technically fiction, it reads like the journal of a very real man, with all his quirks, complexities, and goofball humor, falling for the wrong women, drawn to the wrong situations while desperately searching for the light . I don’t know if this was Mathews’ intention, but it reads like a prose version of the goofy guys in movies like Hangover – with a very real quest at its core. He throws in poetic references that belie his superficial kick-back persona, such as a framed copy of The Definitive Journey by Juan Ramon Jimenez, Spain’s great poet and author of one of my favorites, Platero and I.

At the top of this tale, we find Malcom in a self-described midlife crisis. He quits his boring job, and moves to a funky flat in Carmel, writing, dreaming, and struggling to find a woman he can connect with in all the completeness of sexuality, and belonging.  A tall order, in a world where all the women he picks seem to leave him in the dust.

He turns to male friends for illumination, companionship, and contrast. One pal is married and has kids, “ A great marriage,” according to Malcom.  His pal urges Malcom not to ruin it for the rest of the guys on the planet by finding the right woman. His continual mis-fires create a kind of perverse voodoo for all the married guys, “You’re doing it for all mankind,” chirps the married guy.

Funny, but not so funny, for our menopause man struggling to find his anima (Greek for soul) in the exterior women in his life.  This is my Jungian therapist’s interpretation, but I can’t help it. I have sat with many men who spend so much time looking for it “out there” in a woman, when the true relationship they long for is with the archetypal feminine energy buried within their own inner life.

If Malcom were reading this review, he might ask, “Just what is an inner life anyway?” It is as individual as it gets. To one person it is the dawning awareness of their own feelings after years of repressing them. To another, it is a rich life of the imagination in which the anima (the feminine soul in a man) or animus (the masculine soul in a woman) are personified in archetypal characters who come to be as real as people in “real life”. To another, it is an inner dialog with a voice Jung called the “god image”, as distinct from a God as defined by organized religion. Often this inner oracle surfaces when most needed, with wisdom from the depths of the unconscious mind.

Back to Malcom. If we go with the premise that he is searching for his soul in all the wrong women, we find another parallel with Eat, Pray, Love.  In Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, in the Pray section, she meets a man who is also suffering and searching. They become friends. In Menopause Man, Malcom has Shiela, a woman with whom he shares so much, a woman with whom he can be totally himself, a sister, a true friend. “I love you,” he tells her, while clarifying to himself that he is not in love with her.  An important distinction, and seen in tandem with Gilbert’s man-friend, it begs the question: in the transition from wrong-way woman to a relationship with his inner anima, is it desired, even necessary, to find a person of the opposite sex to love purely as a person, without the projections and neurosis so often attached to sexual-romantic love?

I suspect the answer is as eccentric and varied as the nature of an inner life. With regards to Malcom, I leave you in suspense. Does he find his true calling, the right woman, a breathtaking connection to his inner anima/muse? Does he turn one day to Shiela and realize he can love a true friend with all the passion and devotion he once reserved for the women in his fantasy life?  Or does he continue the journey into his new book, third in the series, SamSara?

A final tip of the hat to its author who manages to ignite our awareness of these deep psychological themes while spinning a highly entertaining narrative about ordinary people bungling through life. It is also a great treat as a woman to get such an intimate and hilarious window into what men really talk about when there are no women around. I always suspected it, but holy cow, it explains a lot!

Great soul food, for all of us.

 

FORM FOLLOWS FIRE

Revered American architect Frank Lloyd Wright is known for creating some of the most unique and dynamic structures on the planet. His guiding artistic principle was “Form Follows Function”. He believed that every building grew forth from its intended purpose. His task as a creative artist was to discover the “function” of each building, a marriage of the practical and the imaginative issuing from a source hidden deep within both the art and the artist.

As Spring bursts forth in our world, I am struck with Wright’s principle as it relates to the creative process in all of us.  In my own creative work, and in my observation of others, I am aware of how important it is to let go of preconceived notions of form, and, like Wright, allow the shape and medium of the work to come from within.

This applies to form in the broadest sense of the term. If we are attached to the idea that a creative life means garnering fame or approbation from significant “experts”, it can prove a huge distraction from entering into the process of creative work.

If we believe that to be valuable we have to earn a high degree, or sacrifice our free time to earning more money so we can impress others, we become a slave to form.  If we believe we must be married in order to live a “respectable” life, or bandy about a wedding band our loved one cannot afford, we are missing the forest for the sake of one showy tree. This leads to a hollow sense of self, and the persistent suspicion that the life we are living is not our own.

These are obvious examples. Often our enslavement to form is more subtle. We believe we are creating from our own fire, only to feel devastated and envious when we encounter someone sporting greater exterior wealth. We experience a moment of deflation, a “I’ll never be like him” moment.

Envy can actually be a valuable tool. It lets us know what we want for ourselves. Instead of envying someone else’s success, we can ask, “Whoa – what is this telling me? I should be asking not, ‘How did she get that novel published?’, but ‘Do I have a novel in me?”

Our commitment to building and re-building the fire of our own inner creative source must be renewed every morning, across the span of days. “That’s a lot of work,” you may say. Indeed, but the rewards echo throughout the psyche, into every corner of “ordinary” life. When you are ablaze with your own curiosity, the most mundane task can take on new meaning. Everything becomes fodder for a creative project. A child’s voice in line at the grocery store can become the opening line of a poem.

Mind you, it is not all ebullience and rapture. Working through tough creative problems is precisely that: work. And the rewards are often not monetary or conventional. But those who embrace it come to realize they have no alternative, no matter how long it takes to find all the right timbers to burn in one’s inner fire. Frank Lloyd Wright did his formative work in his golden years, an inspiration to us all.

I close with a passage from Leo Tolstoy from a letter to his wife, Sofya, written May 3, 1897, in his elder years,

“The extraordinary beauty of spring this year in the countryside would wake the dead. The warm breeze at night making the young leaves on the trees rustle, the moonlight and the shadows, the nightingales below, above, further off and nearby, the frogs in the distance, the silence, and the fragrant, balmy air – all this happening suddenly, not at the usual time, is very strange and good. In the morning there is again the play of light and shade in the tall, already dark-green grass from the big, thickly covered birch trees on the avenue, as well as forget-me-nots and dense nettles, and everything is just the same as it was when I first noticed and started to love its beauty sixty years ago.” *

My deepest wishes for a resplendent and creative spring.

* Quoted from Tolstoy, A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett

A HUMAN PORTRAIT OF THE WORLD’S MOST PERFECT WOMAN

Book review of The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin. 2012. Scriber. New York.  Theatrical debut of Toibin’s adaptation of the book opens on Broadway this Spring. Previews begin at the Walter Kerr Theater on March 26, opening April 22. Featuring Irish actress Fiona Shaw as the Virgin Mary.

Whether you are a Christian, a student of archetypal psychology, or a person who is simply curious about un-masking the myth of perfection,  Colm Toibin’s compelling novella is for you. I doubt it is fare for fundamentalists, who would be horrified that this Mary doesn’t believe her son’s claims of divinity, but this seems a tragic irony. The very people who want to be closest to the Virgin Mary, would reject Toibin’s beautiful characterization as “heresy”.

Their loss. Surely, if these folks could hold their breaths, and delve into Toibin’s prose, they would feel their hearts open to the struggles of this older woman looking back on a hard life, alienated from her community, following the years when she lost her son on the cross.

Toibin enters the mind of a mother, and, like any human mom, she has known her son from birth, was skeptical of his self-made ministry, seeing clearly how influenced he was by those who needed him to be the God he is not.

If this has the flavor of the 1960’s Paul Newman film, Cool Hand Luke, the parallel is accurate. In that gritty tale, the inmates of a Southern chain gang came to idolize Luke, a rebel and a loner, projecting into him a hero status they could not aspire to on their own. In much the same way, Toibin’s Mary sees the apostles maneuvering the young Christ, inflating his ego, spreading tales of his miracles.

And yet, Toibin weaves a complex tale. As the stories of the miracles are told in flashback, Mary has no clear explanation for some of them. In the wedding scene she sees a vat of water which become wine – but was this slight of hand? She sees the “resurrected” Lazarus, but was he truly buried in the first place?  She does what most mothers would do: love her son, tell him home truths, feel despair when he doesn’t listen to her, and struggle to survive his tragic choices she cannot prevent.

The Testament of Mary awakens a new version of the archetype mother goddess, and, for Christians, invites empathy for a woman who did not allow herself to be the victim. Toibin’s Mary sees the world and human nature with a discerning mind. She can have doubts, feel remorse, be cranky about getting old, question authority, and long for the babe she once held in her arms. There is great freedom in realizing you don’t have to be perfect, that your job is to be real and whole and flawed and alive on this earth, as she was.

BENEATH THE CARDBOARD VALENTINE

“The act of acceptance, of acknowledging that change is a natural part of our interaction with others, can play a vital role in our relationships. These transitional periods can become pivotal points where true love can begin to mature and flower. We are now in a position to truly begin to know the other. To see the other as a separate individual, with faults and weaknesses, a human being like ourselves. It is only at this point that we can make a genuine commitment, a commitment to the growth of another human being – an act of love.”  –Howard Cutler quoted in Offerings: Buddhist wisdom for every day by Danielle and Oliver Follmi.

This month, as we are barraged by candy displays, fluffy pink bears, and all manner of Valentine cards, it seems a good time to reflect on the complex and ever-changing nature of intimate relationships. In this regard the popular media has seldom been our friend, ever pandering to that very real part of us that hums, “Someday My Prince Will Come”, longing for a perfect, unconditional love that replicates the infant/parent bond. It may be that we long for this in proportion to the trauma we experienced in early life, literally seeking in a romantic partner what we did not get from our parents.

In his landmark book, Getting the Love You Want , Harville Hendrix proposes just this: we seek what we did not get in childhood in our mates, and it is up to both partners in the relationship to articulate this, and to find this fulfillment in adult life. There is much truth to this, but I find that people also need to develop an independent and self-nurturing capacity, ie, do both: learn to love yourself, and then, out of this love, choose a partner from your own high self-esteem who is just as capable of self-love and intimacy.

A tall order, particularly because so many of our choices of a partner are made on the surface, when we are so young we don’t have a depth of understanding of mature love that Howard Cutler writes about.  We “fall” in love, the very term betraying a plunge from rational consciousness. “Love is blind”: we are motivated out of passion, obsession, desire. Our films and legends are full of this, and no matter how often we see the dark side of love portrayed (From Romeo and Juliet to the beautiful Danish film, A Royal Affair), we continue to “fall” again and again.

The makers of Valentine chocolates and floral displays know this all too well. Ironically, the real Saint Valentine was a rebel priest living under the oppression of the Roman emperor Claudias (Some may remember the marvelous BBC series with Derek Jacobi as the stuttering emperor). Valentine was all about promoting monogamy in a promiscuous society where women had no rights and were predominantly victims of polygamy, slavery, or prostitution. Claudias enacted a decree that prohibited the marriage of young people. He believed that unmarried soldiers fought better than married ones, because married men might be afraid of what would happen to them or their wives and families if they died.

Valentine set about to marry young people in secret, believing not only in the Christian sanctity of marriage and family, but that people needed the sacred bond of intimacy in order to become most fully human. For his conviction and Romantic beliefs, he was imprisoned, and tortured. During his incarceration, he was able to pray with and reportedly, to heal the blind daughter of a magistrate. Ultimately Valentine was assigned to a three part execution of beating, stoning, and decapitation. His last words were an endearing letter to the magistrate’s now-seeing daughter, “from your Valentiine.”

It is fascinating to contemplate how Western society transformed this tragic tale into hearts and flowers. Some would say commerce knows how to manipulate mass psychology. Indeed in the early twentieth century, Sigmund Freud made a voyage from Vienna to America and met with innovators of the advertising agency. The result, among many other mass manipulations, is “Valentine’s Day”.

Am I a Scrooge about Valentine’s Day? Quite the contrary. Whatever its origins, February 14th is a marvelous opportunity to express the depth of your love for everyone in your life: partner, children, parents, relations, dear friends. By peering beneath the cardboard heart, we can open ourselves to the complexity and bounty of love. As we love ourselves, so we can deepen our love, enthusiasm, and expression for others.

I close with another quote from Offerings, by psychologist and Buddhist monk, Jack Kornfield: “Our capacity for intimacy is built on deep respect, a presence that allows what is true to express itself, to be discovered. Intimacy can arise at any moment; it is an act of surrender, a gift that excludes nothing.”

And a final tip of the hat to the real Saint Valentine, who had the moral courage and self-esteem to value own judgment above the dictates of a corrupt authority. A healer, who honored the value of women, and the loving heart in all of us.

HIS SISTER’S KEEPER

Book review of FREUD’S SISTER by Goce Smilevski, translated from the Macedonia by Christine E. Krammer. Penguin Books, 2012

Some weeks ago I was talking with a friend who had just read the Joyce Carol Oates review of FREUD’S SISTER in the New York Times. She was shocked and outraged to learn that the factual event embedded in Goce Smilevski’s lyrical novel is Freud’s abandonment of his four sisters in 1938 Vienna. He could have procured a visa for them. Instead, he packed up his nuclear family, his servants and his dog, and fled to London, leaving them to deportation and death in a concentration camp.

“I wonder if they ever forgave him,” I asked.

“I would curse him with my dying breath!” said my friend.

We left it hanging in the air, and yet the conversation returned again and again to the theme of emotional justice.

In his opening artist’s note, Smilevski quotes one of Freud’s letters, referring to the novel’s narrator, Aldofina as “the sweetest and best of my sisters”. Smilevski feel a kinship with her, and states he hopes to “rescue in fiction one of the many lives forgotten by history”.

In doing so he also creates a portrait of Sigmund Freud seen through the eyes of his closest childhood playmate, his confidante, at once placing herself at a distance from him, and longing to return to the closeness of their early childhood, throughout her life.

Aldofina is delightfully unpredictable, in her choices and her colloquy with her bother. She tells him that beauty, not religion, is the greatest comfort in life, yet takes on his atheism as arrogance: “The rest of us will perish, but the great Sigmund Freud will live on, in immortal works”. Indeed, Freud’s high opinion of his immortality is palpable. He  tells a male colleague, “Copernicus taught man that we are not the center of the universe, Darwin taught man that he is descended from apes, and I have taught man that he is not who he thinks he is.”

Yet Aldofina claims this narrative as her own, ever moving toward meaning, passion, love and truth. Being so close to Freud, she is loathe to adopt his theories blindly. His internal anti-Semitism is exposed in her critique of Moses and Monotheism, where he asserts Moses was an Egyptian, not a Jew, fashioning his concept of God to appease the pharaoh. One could speculate that his rejection of Orthodox Jewish faith and identification with all things German may have played into Freud’s abandonment of his sisters, on an unconscious, if not conscious level. The novel wisely lets us do our own speculating, by simply allowing Aldofina to tell her story.

One of her greatest gifts to the reader is to pose implicit questions essential to our modern time, to all time: What is “normal”? What is “madness”? How are we to bear the loss and betrayal inherent in our lives?  And embedded in the circumstances of the story, and in the heartbeat of Aldofina, so beautifully evoked we can almost hear it, as if listening to an audio book: what do we owe to our family? To our fellow our fellow human beings?

It is incumbent upon the reader to provide answers, or, indeed, ask more questions: where are the boundaries of what we owe to our own self-development, and where we owe attention, love, and support to others?

A related question: what is the place in our world for the mentally ill?  In the novel this is graphically etched for us when Aldofina finds respite for her depression at “The Nest”, a home for those identified in Victorian Vienna as “mad”. We enter the corridors of the fascinating souls who live here. Is it horribly bleak? In some ways, of course, but our author also provides a project for the inmates to put on a carnival for the entire community. Costumes are created that evoke the “mad” souls’ greatest fantasies of self-glory, recalling the film of the 1970’s, King of Hearts.

Aldofina’s  brothers pay for her long stay at The Nest. We see evidence daily of what happens in our modern world to the mentally ill who do not have family resources.

FREUD’S SISTER gives us a canvas broad and deep. Can we respond in kind, by allowing its beauty to inspire our own inquiry, contemplation…action?