Every once in a while i feel compelled to dash off some writing that I don’t know what to do with – so I put it at my other blog at Subtext Consultations and release it to the wild for it to do whatever it is supposed to do on its own.
You can read it over there if you like by clicking below:
illustration by the brilliant Cranky Muse Projects
I learned yesterday that a dear friend, colleague and collaborator, Jason Evan Mihalko, Psy.D. died last week.
I first contacted Jason after I came across a stunningly brave series of essays he had written after surviving a client’s suicide, and quickly we became fellow advocates for a new kind of transparency in our profession and the value of psychotherapeutic perspectives in our national social conversation.
He was a brave, loving, radically compassionate, fierce and funny man, who will be dearly missed by the thousands of people whose lives he impacted.
But his words, at The Irreverent Psychologist should speak for him. His beautiful series of essays: “Dear Young Therapist” remind us all of the core values that sit at the heart of this impossible profession.
And this is from my favorite of those essays:
I’m old enough to no longer care how my fellow psychologists evaluate me. I’m skilled enough to know how to wield these twin tools of relational growth and change within the safe boundaries of a therapeutic relationship.
I’m thankful that I’ve never met a patient that I couldn’t love or couldn’t learn to love. It’s from that space that I begin to see the seeds of where a person might be able to go, grow, and let go. It’s from that space that I can find the confidence to let go of wanting a patient to be something I need them to be (or society needs them to be) and let them go about finding what they need themselves to be.
Still, young therapist, I don’t frequently tell my patients that I love them. It is often dangerous and disruptive to use the word. Patients can become incredibly confused and conflicted. Too many therapists also become confused and conflicted.
Just because love is dangerous, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be thought about.
I am not afraid to love and to say that I do when a moment of genuine honesty is the best intervention. Don’t forget this, young therapist. Don’t forget that our work is built on a foundation of faith in humanity and love of the person who sits across from you.
Please go read this series and explore his blog if you haven’t.
I don’t know if this blog, What a Shrink Thinks, would exist if I hadn’t met Jason. He made me feel braver as I stuck my nose out into an online world and we made joyful noise together.
If you want to hear us gabbing and laughing our fool heads off you can listen in to the one podcast we had a chance to record before life took a detour that derailed us.
And if you feel so moved, please consider making a donation in his memory here.
Grateful for all that he gave. Words fail me.
There is a Bible in every wanderer’s bedroom, where there might better be the Odyssey. Greek polyistic complexity bespeaks our complicated and unknown psychic situations. ~ James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology
I took a vacation. I went with my husband and kids to a couple of Greek islands, a few days in Athens, a day trip to Delphi (I insisted on Delphi) and then home again.
We haven’t traveled as much as we’d like. It is expensive. And we’ve been derailed bit by – I guess you would have to call it – fate.
My son is especially ambitious and yearns to travel the world. He chose Greece. And my husband, the practical one who usually vetoes any wished for large expense surprisingly said: “What the hell! Let’s do it! Let’s go to Greece!”
Greece persists as an inscape rather than a landscape, a metaphor for the imaginal realm in which the archetypes as Gods have been placed. ~ James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology
My first thought, fair or not, was this: “He’s agreeing to this now because if I start dying in earnest and we didn’t take this opportunity – he’ll regret it forever.”
I thought the same thing, last spring, after a long fall and winter of inpatient chemotherapy, when he contacted the handyman and asked him to build a handsome fence around my vegetable patch. He knew it would make me happy and deepen my commitment to growing things. If I spent my last summer lamenting all the kale the ground-hog had devoured, he would hate himself for withholding the fence I had fantasized about.
Eat, grow vegetables, and go to Greece for tomorrow we may die.
Or, to be specific: I may die. Or I may not.
There is no knowing.
Critics are right when they see the “return to Greece” as a regressive death wish, an escape from contemporary conflicts into mythologies and speculations of a fantasy world. ~ James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology
I’d spent the past year acclimating to a daily oral chemotherapy to suppress a chronic leukemia that had emerged, mysteriously, strangely, uniquely, in my spinal fluid and central nervous system instead in of my blood or bone marrow.
Un-stageable. No predictions or prognosis possible.
They discovered it as I first felt excruciating pain, and then lost sensation from the base of my spine, down my right leg to my foot. They’d found a way to treat it, by giving me higher doses of chemo than those with the “normal” version of this leukemia, enough, hopefully, to cross the blood brain barrier.
And miraculously it worked. The pill I take each day suppresses any evidence of disease. My spinal fluid tests “all clear.” There are no more lesions up and down my spinal cord.
They say the life expectancy for “normal” people with this cancer is “10+ years”, if you look online. I did of course. Even though there is no way to know if these statistics can generalize to my circumstance or not.
Most see me now as “well”, the cancer as“gone” and “the worst behind us.” So, eighteen months post-diagnosis maybe I have “8+” years before “the worst” could re-emerge ahead of me. Maybe I would make it to see my children complete high school, maybe even graduate from college. Maybe I would live to sixty-three.
It is hard to feel “lucky” although I know that I am.
The “return to Greece” is a psychological response to the challenge of breakdown; it offers a model of disintegrated integration. ~ James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology
I take the pill every day and live with the side effects:
Curly hair that I am learning manage. Fatigue, which falls on me like a lead weight in the evenings. Susceptibility to infection. I’ve been told if I develop any cough at all I must contact my treatment team immediately because of the dangers of a particular fatal pneumonia. Bruising. Joint pain. Muscle cramps and spasms. Mouth sores. Anaphalaxis and angioedema (I’ve had both since starting this medication, they are uncertain if I am “allergic” to the chemotherapy or the cancer itself). Some memory troubles and fuzzy-headedness, as chemo-brain leaves me less able to retrieve dates and times, names and details.
And painful inflammations, which the doctors can’t really explain and don’t concern themselves with overmuch since the cancer has been so successfully controlled: a suddenly swollen hand, or elbow, or knee or foot, A “flare” of some sort, usually lasting four or five days. When it strikes a muscle or a joint on my leg or foot or hip it can be so painful that walking is impossible. In my arms or hands, it slows down texting or writing, requires that I ask others to open jars and bottles for me, and carry my bags. But then, after four or five days, the tightened skin, the throbbing bulge, recedes. As if it was never there.
Only then I am allowed to forget, but only for a week or so, that I am “sick.” I am, recognizable to myself for a brief interval. Until the next throbbing “flare” – even as the joint lays immobile through the night. I try to ignore it, but when I can’t my mind races: Is this damaged nerves coming back online? Is this nerve pain from a new lesion? Is this a muscle spasm from the medication? The heart is a muscle too – and of course I remember at 3:00 am that dangerous arrhythmia and cardiac arrest are possible “side-effects” of this medication.
Joint pain and mobility impairments came on slowly, belatedly as cumulative side-effects do – only emerging after taking the medication for a year or more. I had also been trying, although it was intensely uncomfortable, to reanimate my nerve-damaged body, to resurrect the dead zones and zombie-parts with intensive acupuncture. It remained unclear, a full year after lesions had been washed away by curing poisons, what might regrow, and what neuro-connections were severed permanently.
I had tried to attach to the cultural myth that sick people recover, get stronger if they don’t die. Now it seemed that I was as better as I was going to get. Getting worse was now more likely, even while keeping “the worst” at bay.
Was the medication saving me or killing me?
The divine physician is the sickness and the remedy… He who wounds also heals.~ C.A Meier, Healing Dream and Ritual
And the other “effects” – post-traumatic/existential anxiety that destroyed my sleep disrupting my dreams. No matter how philosophically, mindfully or thoughtfully I “processed” my experience in the daylight – at night my terrified-rabbit-body panicked in the bushes, heart-pounding, hiding in the dark from a predator that circled and sniffed mere inches away. No meditation or prayer or discussion or cognitive re-framing or acceptance or self-care could soothe it. I could only slow my pounding heart, by watching British real-estate home-shows on my phone, until my eyes grew heavy. Carefully courting sleep floating in a wash of comforting accents, borrowing the future of a proper middle-aged couple from London who hoped to start another life completely alien to the one they lived before.
The doctors suspect-guess that if I discontinue the medication that the cancer would re-emerge. It isn’t active, or detectable, but neither is it gone or considered curable.
It has all been, one highly educated, yet totally wild guess.
Mystery is the new “same old same old.”
My fate rests in the hands of the gods, like everyone else – but also, somehow not like anyone else at all.
But the “Greece” to which we turn is not literal; it includes all periods from Minoan to Hellenistic, all localities from Asia Minor to Sicily. This “Greece” refers to a historical and geographical psychic region, a fantasy or mythic Greece, an inner Greece of mind which is only indirectly connected with actual geography and actual history ~ James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology
Those who encounter me day-to-day, clients who come to my office for psychotherapy, friends who have supported me and deserve support back, the neighbors I encounter on the street, my amazing beautiful teenagers who I try to allow to be as selfish as they are developmentally entitled to be – often see me as “back to normal” or close enough. And, although I know nothing will ever be normal again in my life I try to let them think what they need to. I live in this strange space full-time but I’ve learned that others can only visit these existential realities for a few minutes here and there. In my daylight hours, I’ve learned to stop talking about the things I really think – about how feral and brief and random our lives are – I lock it in the vault so that I can listen to their normal worries, their hopes and fears for the future, their “five year plans,” the expectation that they will simply “go on being” their need to fantasize about a future that I may not be around for. I try to join them where they are, and do everything I can to avoid disrupting their necessary denial of the unfathomable, relentless, traumatizing uncertainty of life.
When they ask how I am, I tell them I am fine, or maybe complain a bit about an ache or a pain.
I can’t explain how much work it is –to see living and dying as present, concurrent and continuous events – in a world that insists they are opposite and antithetical to each other. Whether it is a reasonable goal or not – my aspiration in the face of this ruptured denial of death – is not to just stuff it back into the basement and forget it. I don’t want to fight it, or conquer it. I want to live with it, along side it.
I can very nearly imagine a way of being that can apprehend life and death as the warp and woof of the same fabric. What would it mean to be awake to death as ever-present in every aspect of life – and the mirror-world – life as never absent from death? What if they need each other for both to exist? What if matter and anti-matter are not merely opposites, rivals, enemies but intimate partners that have forged the entire universe?
For the “return to Greece” offers a way of coping when our centers cannot hold and things fall apart. The polytheistic alternative does not set up conflicting opposites between beast and Bethlehem, between chaos and unity; it permits the coexistence of all the psychic fragments and gives them patterns in the imagination of Greek mythology ~ James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology
I am trying (and some may think it foolish of me):
to tolerate this paradox,
to see what happens if I suppress nothing,
to attempt to withstand it, to see what might emerge from the excruciating tension,
to integrate non-being and being into something truthful and whole.
I may be too ambitious.
Two of my oldest, dearest friends lived every minute of their adult life, eighteen until their mid-thirties and -forties with HIV and AIDS. But they are not here to coach me through this – and I know that my own existential-terror-death-denial cocktail offered them no real companionship or support with the load that they carried. When her time came to face mortality my mother relied on her favorite life-long defensive maneuver: “I just try not to think of it.” Younger friends and loved ones “kept fighting” – as a young person should- right up to the moment that the possibility of continued living was taken off the table.
Nothing is as firmly based on the subjective conviction as the spiritual element. If the patient needs it for his cure, he must discover it by himself, in himself, it may be said to his own great astonishment, as the result of his most personal research and effort. ~ C.A Meier, Healing Dream and Ritual
I try to work this through in the daylight: as I read, write, meditate, pray, walk, daydream. But even so the terror, the hum and buzz and crackling static of Precariousness and Uncertainty, Mystery and Aloneness creeps out at night and seizes me, while my defenses and cognition rest. When all the humans I love and care for are sleeping deeply I talk to the dead and wrestle with my pounding mortal heart alone.
I remember a chaplain who came briefly to visit my mother the day we removed her from her apartment, her cats, and everything she cherished, and placed her in residential hospice.
“Dying is such hard work” she said. “No one understands what hard work it is.”
Forging a relationship between living and dying is hard work too – but it is work that ends only at “The End” – and every kind of labor requires that we take some rest and recreate ourselves.
But this goal is an achievement not easily attained. The illness must yield a meaning. This is the age-old pious concept that behind the sickness a meaning lies hidden which demands recognition – philosophical the causa finalis. ~ C.A Meier, Healing Dream and Ritual
So Greece was now, or maybe never.
This was the moment to strike, and the day to seize, I suppose.
Friends and acquaintances would squeal with anticipatory vicarious glee:
“I’ve never been! I’ve always wanted to go! Oh my god, you will love it! It is one of my favorite places! You have to be sure to go to (fill in the blank)! You so deserve it!”
But I couldn’t feel it. Why should I travel halfway across the world for a farewell tour when all I wanted was for the gods to grant me permission to remain at home and watch my children grow as long as possible?
I was frightened of being far from my medical team in case of emergency.
Frightened of being exposed to some respiratory illness on the plane.
Frightened my night-fear would be impossible to contain in a shared hotel room.
Frightened of sitting through a long flight, of muscle cramps and nerve pain.
Frightened that fatigue or a “flare” would emerge to disappoint my kids, my husband, myself, confining me to a dark hotel while they set out on a gorgeous adventure.
And no one wanted to hear me fret about traveling to Greece for god’s sake.
I mean, would you?
When the dominant vision that holds a period of culture together cracks, consciousness regresses to earlier containers, seeking sources for survival which also offer sources of revival. ~ James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology
So the week before our flight I stuffed my anxieties in the bottom of the suitcase along with a fat stack of books to read or re-read: James Hillman would be perfect to sink into in Greece, a delicious poolside consolation prize if I couldn’t go exploring. I limped to the drugstore to grab travel size toothpaste and a bottle of something over-the-counter sleep aid to knock me out at night – reluctantly surrendering to the necessity of “even more pills” – so my 3:00 am thrashing and fretting wouldn’t disrupt my children’s sleep.
And off we went, to the first Cycladic island on our journey.
We are trying to understand both what is this “Greece” that so draws the psyche and what the psyche finds there. ~ James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology
A valium swallowed on the plane helped an inflamed knee to release and relax so that by the second day on the island I was no longer limping. I was relieved to be reminded what slug-a-beds teenagers are and how willing they would be to nap while I rested and read in the late afternoons. They helped with my bags and opened my water bottles through the airport while my hands were swollen, but soon the full range of motion returned to my fingers.
Then to the precincts of Gods we went: I was strong enough to lead the charge as we explored the birthplace of Dionysus, climbing the hill to a temple honoring Demeter – whose grief over her separation from her child was so overpowering it ground the whole world a halt, my own terror at being torn out of my children’s life validated.
We hiked to a sacred spring. We gazed at the sea through the Portera of Apollo. I passed people younger and healthier than me on the hot, dusty trails.
Instead, Greece offers us a chance to revision our souls and psychology by means of imaginal places and persons rather than historical dates and people, a precision of space rather than time. We move out of temporal thinking and historicity altogether, to an imaginal region, a differentiated archipelago of locations where the Gods are, and not when they were or will be. ~ James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology
We were all hungry to linger in vacation-time, deep-time, dream-time, mythic-time. To eat the healing sunshine as it photosynthesized and infused every drop of olive oil, bite of fruit, taste of cheese, spoonful of yogurt.
We swam in the sea, floating on our backs, staring at the sky.
We generally consider Hippocrates as the “father” of medicine as a “Western” and “rational” science. But Hippocrates was raised in a famous healing temple called an Asclepieian, his father a priest-physician (a therapeutae) in service of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing and medicine. Most of us are vaguely aware of the snake wound around the rod of Asclepius painted on the side of an ambulance, or in the logo on their pediatrician’s website.
You marvel at the serpent curling around him and say that it is the symbol of the healing art, because just as the serpent sloughs the skin of old age, so the medical art releases from illness… For gods of this kind must have wounds and physicians. ~ Theodoretus, Graecarum, Affectinoum Curatio VIII, 19-23 quoted in: Emma Edlestein and Ludwig Edlestein, Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies
And here is what happened in an Asclepieian: supplicants would arrive, sleep among the sacred snakes in the inner chamber of the temple and in the morning they would tell the priests the dreams they had in the night.
And their dreams would cure them.
And occasionally, when the dream itself did not complete the task, it offered up a prescription, a directive to be followed which would consolidate the cure.
Asclepius as a giver of dream oracles only made use of that means by which gods and men were supposed to communicate. In dreams, the soul came into contact with those divine powers surrounding men and the world which it could not apprehend while awake. ~ Emma Edlestein and Ludwig Edlestein, Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies
That dream prescription was usually a compensatory or paradoxical one: The weak must move a heavy stone. The wasting patient must eat a food they had no hunger for. The frenetic must stay still. The stagnant must move. Baths to re-invigorate a waning life-force.
Asclepius was the son of Coronis, a mortal princess, and a god, Apollo who forced himself upon her. When Coronis laid with a mortal man while she carried the god’s child, Apollo retaliated by sending his sister to murder her. As Coronis burned on the funeral pyre, Apollo reached into the flames, and tore the infant Asclepius from her burning body. Asclepius was placed with The Centaur, Chiron, to be raised by him and instructed in the healing arts.
A demi-god born of death, Asclepius became a master physician, and dared to raise a mortal man from the dead.
Wherefore (Zeus) The Thunderer, in his anger, struck him with a bold of lightening and deprived him of his life… But this Asclepius who was born, rescued, reared and burnt in the aforementioned way, they enrolled among the other gods, made sacred precincts for him, and consecrated altars to him… ~ Theodoretus, Graecarum, Affectinoum Curatio VIII, 19-23 quoted in: Emma Edlestein and Ludwig Edlestein, Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies
And I began to dream again for the first time in months:
I dream I am brought to my knees with all I have lost, grieving.
I dream of a circular graphic that depicts psychotherapy as a hopeless strange loop.
I dream of caring for stubborn cranky old people, who insist on going to an ancient stadium/amphitheater. They fall down the steps, break their brittle bones and worse.
I dream I am sick and need to ride a large bus to the hospital.
We moved on to the next island – and our explorations continued . I was sometimes nervous: We went to swim in the sea near large slippery rocks. I needed my husband to demonstrate a viable way back up to shore I could negotiate with a deadened foot. He found a pathway for me. We climbed steep stairs, and rocky volcanic hills and jumped off of the side of a tour boat to swim to a hot mineral spring.
We watched the sunset over the sea.
In the afternoons and evenings I would read and rest and stare at the horizon and the sea and the stars as the rest of the family explored in shifts and brought dinner back to eat together on our whitewashed patio.
One night I received a text from my daughter, off exploring:
“LOOK AT THE MOON! ECLIPSE!” and I looked to see the moon had turned blood red.
Soon the temple servitor put out the lights and bade us fall asleep nor stir nor speak whatever noise we heard. ~ Aristophanes, Plutus, quoted in: Emma Edlestein and Ludwig Edlestein, Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies
That night I dream:
I follow a path to a grove of intentionally planted trees. They are planted in rows, in tiers, in an arc, three-quarters of a circle. I walk along the first line of trees.
Friends and family are just behind me.
The tree trunks are weathered, twisted and ancient, like the trunks of old olive trees, but the leaves are larger, the size of my palm, and shiny.
I notice the leaves are turning black.
I move to the side of one particular tree. My friends and family station themselves throughout the grove, near all the other trees. We find some kind of hydraulic pump, that we must press vigorously to send water and minerals and some kind of “treatment” deep down into the roots of the tree. The work is muscular and frantic and sweaty. The ground becomes saturated, and we continue to pump and there is a sense that if these trees are to survive we must drive this tree medicine deep into the soil and up into their roots as quickly and continuously as possible.
But the ground is also flooding, and over-saturation can’t be good for the sickened trees either – as we pump and pump I am feeling increasingly anxious that the root treatment could be harming the tree, killing it – even as it is treating the disease. Someone from a nearby tree comes to take over my pump as I begin to tire and doubt our efforts.
As I circle the tree to assess its status, I spy some small green shoots, some new life, sprouting like fuzz, like delicate baby hair at the top of the tree. I do not know if this is the tree’s last gasp, if this new growth will be enough to sustain this old trunk or not – but I know that either way, this growth must be exposed to full sunlight. I begin to grab the lower branches and shake all of the large dead leaves off of the tree. I snap off the deadwood branches and leap in the air to reach the next branch to shake it as hard as I can. Old leaves rain down on the ground like a fall day. At last the tree is bare. A naked stump with silly green shoots growing from the very top. As disproportioned and ridiculous as it looks this tree will live or die growing, with its new leaves unfurling toward the sun.
I awoke in the morning like an astronaut who had just returned to earth from deep space.
Thus in cases where the inner sense of sickness is personifies and expresses itself through symbols, a cure can take place. ~ C.A Meier, Healing Dream and Ritual
We left the Cyclades in a few days more, and moved on to Athens. We of course visited the Acropolis: We filed past the temple of Nike, the Erechtheion and the Parthenon. We scaled the steps of the theater of Dionysus, and passed the shady Asclepieion where the sick came to sleep among the snakes, incubating healing dreams or soliciting a dream prescription from the healing god.
We moved through the city past the Agora, and circled the Temple of Hephaestus and on to the Kerameikos and Athens’ ancient cemetery. Monuments and memorial stones lasting thousands of years beyond the life they were carved to commemorate.
A pomegranate tree grows near the entrance. A reminder, that if Hades captures you, as he did Persephone and drags you to the underworld, don’t eat a single thing, not even a pomegranate seed or you will walk half of every year in the land of the living and spend the other half in the realm of the dead.
By stepping back into the mythic, into what is nonfactual, and nonhistorical the psyche can re-imagine its factual historical predicaments from another vantage point. Greece becomes the multiple magnifying mirror in which the psyche can recognize its persons and processes in configurations which are larger than life but which bear on the life of our secondary personalities. ~ James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology
We took a day trip to Delphi, to Apollo’s temple and the oracle.
That night I dream again:
I am in a suburban kitchen. There is a large kitchen island diving the living room in half, green wall to wall carpeting, and the ivory floor to ceiling drapes have been drawn closed. I have been brought there, like Neo in The Matrix to face the Oracle.
She comes into the room, and hitches her big middle-aged bottom up onto a kitchen stool, with one foot still on the floor. She is blonde. Older than I am. Her hair is long and in a large bun on top of her head, like a plump school teacher.
I think to myself in the dream: “I guess the oracle comes in whatever shape it thinks is both familiar and unsettling to you.”
She asks me about the suburban community I now live in. I say: “It’s okay. It’s fine. I don’t feel particularly connected…” She asks who we know in town: “Just a few people, slightly really. We’ve had a lot going on—”
She cuts me off – it becomes clear that this is idle chat, meant only to put me at ease – and I am answering too deeply.
“Listen,” she says, impatient with this scenario and wanting to get down to brass tacks:
“You just need to do something totally different. Forget anything you were doing before. You have to start something totally new. From scratch.”
“Just pick something. Anything. Like, take up… cake decorating…” she makes a dismissive gesture with her hand implying “…or whatever.”
I wake up.
The main offering to Asclepius, as performed in early centuries, again, is attested only for Athens. Honey-cakes, cheese-cakes, bakemeats and figs were laid upon the holy table of the god. ~ Emma Edlestein and Ludwig Edlestein, Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies
And my first thought upon waking was:
Great. Thanks. Super practical. I’m sure I can set aside 30 years of developing mastery as a psychotherapist and a supervisor and support my kids by opening a little shop decorating cakes.
But the part where I had to let go of everything that has come before?
It felt portentous, important, and perhaps a little frightening. I’d let go of so much. Must I remove even more dead wood?
But it also felt essential.
Shed all dead skin, shake off all dead leaves, let go of anything – any belief, any practice, any obsolete way of being. Strip down to newly exposed flesh.
“Renaissance” (rebirth) would be a senseless word without the implied dissolution, the very death out of which that rebirth comes. ~ James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology
Death serves life.
Life, growth, consciousness does not exist without death, decay, unconsciousness. Death is not merely the consequence, the goal, the outcome of life, or the tax we must pay to live a life at all – it is the stuff of life itself.
Our food, our fuel, our very being emerges from and returns to it. Leaves and branches die. Shoots may grow from severed stumps. And if not, moss, fungus, worms and bugs will convert the deadened wood into rich dark loam from which life will sprout.
You cannot separate the fuel from the flame.
To see death and life as mere opposites is to succumb to an illusion.
Decorate cakes for tomorrow we may die – and still be of service to life in some new form, completely alien to the life we lived before.
It is time to start from scratch, as ridiculous as it seems.
And when this phase of being has run its course, we will start from scratch again.
We are not sick or well, alive or dead. We are sick and well, living and dying.
Withstanding the tension of the opposites, allowing the paradox to synthesize, brings us face to face with the healing god.
Indeed, the physician must be able to make the most hostile elements in the body friendly and loving toward each other… It was by knowing how to create love and unanimity in these that, as these poets here say and I believe it, our forefather, Asclepius established this science of ours.
~ Plato, Symposium, 186D, quoted in: Emma Edlestein and Ludwig Edlestein, Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies
And perhaps the healing is found in the gift of facing our fear of death with some small piece of lucidity, as Socrates did – his final words expressing thanks to the Divine Physician:
Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius, do pay it. Don’t forget.
And that reminds me:
I didn’t have another episode of joint inflammation for the entire two week trip.
Nor have I had one since.
Sensation has incrementally begun returning to my numbed and paralyzed body parts.
I still wake sometimes at night – but soon my thoughts “return to Greece” and I drift back to easy sleep and dream of non-binary worlds governed by a pantheon of gods who are never merely good or evil, mortal or immortal, impotent or powerful.
Do I think a dream healed me? Do I think the dream told of a healing that was already unfolding, or perhaps represented a psychological a resolution I had forged myself? Maybe the dream was merely a somatic one: a dream of deadened nerves starting to regenerate.
Or else, a randomly and impulsively purchased over-the-counter dose of acetamiophen and diphenhydramine counteracted chemo side-effects, enabled sleep and prompted dreams of sweet relief.
People went to the Asclepia, they had dream visions and awoke healed, or at least informed what to do to heal themselves. ~ Emma Edlestein and Ludwig Edlestein, Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies
Dreams may simply show us the ways that we already know to heal ourselves.
Healing may mean cure, it may mean relief from suffering or symptoms, or it might mean acceptance of reality as great and terrible as it is.
The god himself, or his priests never asserted that he could do everything, nor did they promise immortality; they promised assistance. ~ Emma Edlestein and Ludwig Edlestein, Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies
Aseclepius was known to request and inspire offerings of written testimony, prose, poetry and hymns from any of those who might find language for their experience.
I have not (yet) baked a honey cake.
But I will gladly offer up thank offerings for the assistance I have been granted.
And, luckily for me, as I struggle to compose a fitting paean to Ascelpius –
it is the the most personal of offerings,
and the simplest gifts,
– that please him best.
Those of you who have followed this blog may have noticed that I am not posting “public” essays as frequently – and there are a few reasons, that I realized that I should share with readers and subscribers.
In addition to the subscription Seminar essays which I am writing as small online “lectures” for psychotherapists and counselors – I am working on two larger projects – I imagine them as books although – who really knows?
The first is a piece, started just before I was diagnosed, of memoir and analysis, currently called The Good Thief, exploring archetypes of good and evil, through my memories of and my research into the life of a mysterious priest who played a pivotal role in my family history. I am looking forward to exploring some archived church files at the end of this month as part of this project.
The second project is the 45 Dreams project. I have spent the past six months collecting and sorting though thousands of dreams about our president, on Twitter and through the 45 Dreams blog. I have been sorting them into categories – which has been simultaneously fascinating, encouraging and frightening – and will be discussing these dreams alongside the writings of Charlotte Beradt – a German analyst who collected and analyzed about 300 dreams during the rise of the Third Reich.
So, please rest assured that I am hard at work, and you will hear from me again – I will share the outcome of these labors here with you in one way or another.
And promise that I will, when the spirit moves me, post an essay that asserts itself. And as one or the other of these projects draw to a close – I will return to writing shorter form essays to share again with you here.
For updates feel free to follow my Twitter feed or the What a Shrink Thinks Facebook page.
And thank you all, for your continued good wishes and support.
Perhaps, long long ago, once upon a time, in the year of our Lord, when the world was new – tribes of giants really walked this earth. Maybe we slayed them all or maybe they were so dim-witted and so aggressive that they destroyed themselves. Maybe giants were just really very tall people, not really giants at all. Seven or eight-footers, the kind who still roam the earth today – and who are weary of strangers asking if they play basketball.
There is no fossil record of a giant humanoid to measure out in cubits.
In the psychical world, however, giants do still exist.
It is completely beside the point whether they really exist.
~ C. G. Jung, Children’s Dreams
We live in a time of giants. Whether they exist or not.
There are giants on every side: In our personal and professional relationships, in our communities, our economies, our media, our political systems, and in public office.
And also in our hearts and deep inside our instinctive lives – giants live.
We’ve been facing giants together and on our own for thousands of years.
We write about it, and pass the stories on from generation to generation.
And a generation or two ago, all the psychoanalytic theorists and practitioners, living through the aftermath of the Holocaust told their own stories of facing dangerous giants – in the world and in themselves, wrestling with the cowardice and the heroisms they had each shown and seen in the face of a great and insidious horror.
They spoke plainly of the problem of evil:
I can tell you stories which say if you meet evil you must fight it, but there are just as many which say you must run away and not try and fight it. Some say to suffer without hitting back; others say don’t be a fool, hit back!
~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
Our era has its own giants to battle and it seems to me to be a time to take a account of wisdoms generated by our ancestral struggles and successes against such destructive creatures.
Giants are half-human creatures, larger than life, who obscure the sun and cast a cold shadow over the land. Giants crush and devour tiny mortals, sniff human meat out of its hiding places, and use their victim’s bones to pick their teeth.
Entities who – at first – appear to loom so large, make us feel so powerless “to ourselves we seem like grasshoppers, and so we seem to them” ~ Numbers 13:33
Yet, for thousands of years, we’ve recorded – in great detail – in scripture, myth and in fairy tale, the various methods we’ve employed to bring them down.
Generations of giant-wrestlers offer us their legacy as an inheritance.
There are tactics to avoid, but if you are wise and listen closely, you will see that there are a hundred ways to subdue a giant. And when we are clever, brave and thoughtful, when we pay careful attention?
Giants always fall.
Hercules learned, when assisting the God’s of Olympus in their battle against the giants – that giants can never be defeated on their own turf, and if they are brought down on their own terrain, they must be dragged from their land in order to be destroyed.
Giants cannot be defeated on their own ground.
And later, when facing down the Twelve Labors, Hercules took note of another important pattern:
A celebrated exploit of Hercules was his victory over Antaeus. Antaeus, the son of Terra, the Earth, was a mighty giant and wrestler, whose strength was invincible so long as he remained in contact with his mother Earth.
He compelled all strangers who came to his country to wrestle with him, on condition that if conquered (as they all were) they should be put to death. Hercules encountered him, and finding that it was of no avail to throw him, for he always rose with renewed strength from every fall. ~ Bullfinch’s Mythology.
A giant’s skills cannot be used against him.
If you use the giant’s methods, he will only be strengthened.
If you try to take him down with brute force, he will rise again.
Hercules found his own solution, he raised Antaeus high up, lifting the giant’s feet from the ground, and strangled him in mid-air.
When David faced Goliath, it seemed he had learned or thing or two from Hercules.
And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. ⁵ He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. ⁶ He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. ⁷ The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; ~ 1 Samuel 17: 4-7
For forty days the giant stood at the front and cried out his challenge. Until, David, a shepherd boy heard the giant’s call and decided he would answer it. He had battled bears and lions to protect his sheep, and this giant seemed no more of a danger to him than that. King Saul accepted his offer, and prepared the shepherd for battle:
Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. ³⁹ David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them. ⁴⁰
David refused to dress himself in armor inauthentic to him.
He faced the giant in his own skin, no matter how exposed.
He would not match weapons with a giant.
He chose to protect himself and those he loved using only in the most natural, the most elemental artillery: five smooth stones, polished by a river – that fit perfectly into a leather sling.
Others trembled for him. The giant was contemptuous, certain of his dominance:
The Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. ⁴⁴ The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.” ⁴⁵
But in the blink of an eye:
David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground…There was no sword in David’s hand.
~ 1 Samuel 17 1-58, The New Oxford Annotated Bible
If our nighttime dreams gather up our unnoticed fears and hopes, intuitions and instincts in response to the challenges of our daily lives – then myth, scripture and fairy tale are our the records of our collective dreaming, the counterpoint of our collective consciousness.
Compensatory tendencies are to be found in fairy tales everywhere, so before I finish an analysis or interpretation I always say to myself: to whom has such a story to be told? Who needs that? ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
I have my own questions: What function do these stories serve? Why do we tell, and retell and revel in stories of defeating dominating, slow, cruel aggressive giants? What are “giants” when you dig right down into it, and why have we had to devise and record so many different giant-killing methods? What messages might these tales transmit forward from generations past?
In her extensive life long studies of fairy tale – Marie Louise von Franz, as a student, translator, and later a collaborator of Carl Jung’s – sought out the warnings and the wisdom embedded in simple folk tales of daring, magic and adventure.
Giants, she explains, emerge in creation myths all over the world, – and were “abortive, not very successful” attempts to produce human beings. They are lumbering, their thoughts move slowly, and they are irritable and reactive. They are also perniciously unaware, or unconcerned by the destructive impact that have on the earth, and on those of us who inhabit it with them.
Giants are mostly responsible for the weather: they create mist and in many countries even now, if there are thunderstorms, it is said that giants are playing in the heavenly countries and rolling their balls or bowling. There are thunder giants, lightening giants, and giants responsible for landslides and for boulder or rocks falling from the mountains; when the giantesses have their big washday, then the whole country is covered in mist. From these associations we can see that they represent the brute, untamed power of nature. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
We are overpowered by giants, as we are by nature and natural disaster – and in our inner lives, we also have storms and tantrums and moods which can sweep through us like tidal waves, settle down on us like a thick mist, or leave us as crushed as if we were pinned under a giant’s boot. The emotional currents of our lives, our internal weather-systems, can overpower us in an instant:
Jung himself, sees our interactions with giant as imagery that depicts what happens when we are possessed by archetypal instinct. We can be swept up in energies which may destroy or devour us – or swell and inflate us, transforming us into monsters ourselves.
The connection of the giant with emotion and affect is practically visible in the fact that whenever one gets emotional, one begins to exaggerate: we make, as we say, elephants out of lice. A little remark by another person, or any detail, becomes an enormous tragedy as soon as we are overwhelmed by our emotion. The emotion itself is what is powerful and magnifies everything in our surroundings. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
Perhaps we tell stories of battling and subduing giants as a means of gaining control over our inner storms and tempests: our uncontrollable, illogical, thick-headed, reactive, and irritable emotional lives.
That is why the giants between the gods and man are generally destructive. Their stupidity is easily understandable if we look at them from this angle, because everybody who falls into a state of affect becomes automatically stupefied. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
Giants may be big, imposing, and destructive, but you don’t need to be a genius to outwit them:
Take Jack for instance:
He wasn’t the brightest boy, he traded the family cow for a handful of magic beans after all. And we all remember what happened overnight after his mother tossed them out the window.
Jack, of course, climbs the beanstalk that reaches high up to the giant’s kingdom. His knock on the castle door is answered by a tall woman, the giant’s wife, who quickly takes pity on him and hides Jack in the oven (perhaps he set off on this adventure only half-baked, needed some more time to rise to the occasion).
Fe Fi Fo Fum! I smell the blood of an Englishman!
Be he alive or be he dead I’ll grind his bones to make my bread!
Jack’s giant may be brutal and dim-witted, but he lives close to his raw instincts. He can smell Jack’s humanity, or perhaps he just smells Jack’s fear. Mrs. Giant has a cover story ready: “It’s only some bones that the raven’s have dropped down the chimney” she says.
When the giant falls asleep – Jack is able to get away with a sack of gold. And here we see that the giant is easily confounded by his bride, as the same human odor is easily explained away when Jack returns twice more to steal the hen that lays golden eggs, and the magic golden harp that plays the sweetest music in the world.
Jack seems to have learned from Hercules and David experiences: He does not attempt to battle the giant on his own land, but relies on hiding, observation and stealth in order to lay claim to the giant’s wishes.
And when the enraged giant impulsively follows Jack down the beanstalk, Jack doesn’t engage (or inadvertently empower) the giant directly in any way. He does not attempt to respond to dominance by attempting to dominate in return, nor does he use the giant’s weapons. He doesn’t even attack the giant – Jack simply cuts off the structures that support him. With a stroke of an axe, Jack made sure the giant lost all footing and came crashing down to earth.
Only by avoiding direct confrontation, by becoming small, silent, swift and strategic is Jack able to get to the “core of (the giant’s) being whence he draws all his secret energy.”
You can’t “out-rage” a giant.
You will only strengthen him if you do.
It really is the same thing when one is confronted with somebody who is in an overwhelmingly emotional state. It is of no use to openly fight another person’s emotion. Trying to talk somebody out of a rage will just send him sky high. But if one can get at the secret curse behind it, at the basic motif, which the person generally does not know, then one may get at something to make the whole thing collapse. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
If we follow those tidy ravens – that deposited their trash down the giant’s chimney – eastward as the crow flies, from Britain to Germany, we may find more clues about the moral nature of giants:
It turns out that ravens like to drop their bones down the Devil’s chimney too.
In Grimm’s The Devil With Three Golden Hairs, a duplicitous King send a brave and fortunate boy on an deadly quest: to return from Hell with three golden hairs from the Devil’s head.
On the road to hell, the brave boy passes through two villages who ask him for help with their communal troubles: a magic fountain has run dry, a golden apple tree no longer bears fruit. He also meets a ferryman doomed to never stop rowing who asks to be freed from his dilemma.
“I know everything” the brave boy answers “only wait until I come back”
He may not have the answers at top of mind, but he trusts that if he is courageous and patient, the answers will come.
As he approaches the Devil’s house, the Devil’s Grandmother decides to protect and assist him – transforming the boy into a tiny ant, and hiding him in the hem of her skirt.
The Devil also sniffs out the scent of human vulnerability, is placated, and eventually falls asleep with his head in his Grandmother’s lap. Once he snores she suddenly plucks a golden hair from scalp: “Do not take it ill,” she says each time she jolts him awake for another hair, “I did it in a dream.”
“Who can help bad dreams?” she says.
The Devil asks about her dreams – she tells him she dreamed of a town whose magic fountain has gone dry, a village whose golden apple tree is dying, and of a sad ferryman who must row forever. The Devil tells her he has blocked up the fountain with a toad, he has set a mouse gnawing on the tree’s tap root, and that the ferryman has only to hand his oars to an unwitting passenger to be released from the Devil’s curse.
When the Devil had gone out again the old woman took the ant out of the folds of her dress, and gave the child of good fortune his human shape again. ‘There are the three golden hairs for you,” said she. “What the Devil said to your three questions, I suppose you heard?” “Yes,” answered he, “I heard and will take care to remember.” “You have what you want,” said she, “and now you can go your way.” He thanked the old woman for helping him in his need and left Hell well content that everything had turned out so fortunately ~The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales
The brave boy leaves the gates of hell behind him, releases the villages from their dilemmas, and tricks the cruel King into accepting the ferryman’s oars.
Perhaps is he ferrying still? If he is, it is because no one has taken the oars from him.
Here our hero is trapped between two evils, a lying mortal king and the Devil himself. He doesn’t enter into any combat with these forces at all, but in the end, undoes them both by setting them against each other. He has no tools. No tricks, no arms, no armor, no axe. Not even five smooth stones.
He is confident, that if everyone can be patient, he will eventually find the answers that will liberate others from their suffering and fulfill his own quest.
He relies upon grand Mother Nature to protect and guide him.
He is willing to become small and still.
He takes care to remember.
He will not be distracted from his purpose.
The phenomenon of evil is simply the appearance of something demonic or abnormal, a kind of overpowering nature phenomenon, which does not pose any ethical problem but the purely practical one of how to either overcome or successfully escape it. It becomes a question as to whether one can overpower the phenomenon or whether one simply has to save one’s own life. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
Holding back to assess the circumstances rather than going off half-baked, is necessary in order to assess what kind of evil we are encountering, what its motives, strengths, and vulnerabilities might be. We need to first understand what kind of giant we are facing before we can develop a strategy to survive it, or defeat it. It is necessary to spend some time hiding in the oven, under the bed, or in the folds of a skirt in order to determine what kind of evil we are up against.
von Franz speaks of the temperamental differences in myth and folktale between fire giants and ice giants – and the importance of discerning between “hot evil” and “cold evil.”
Hot evil – is passionate, reactive, irritable, explosive, angry, volatile. But it is also more easily confined, restrained. Its fire flares and recedes. The raging giant spends himself and falls asleep at predictable intervals. Our heroes have, so far, encountered irritable giants with hot tempers, and fiery emotions.
But there are cold and calculating giants, giants who feel nothing, whose blood runs with ice and who send chills down the spine of any who encounter them. Cold evil requires entirely different methods to survive, restrain or defeat. von Franz recounts a tale of an encounter with cold and deadly giant which I will tell you briefly:
The Giant Who Didn’t Have a Heart in Him:
A king sends six of his seven sons out to search for brides. On their return journey a giant turns them all, six princes and six princesses, into stone. The youngest, seventh son sets out, upon an old, slow horse, to rescue his brothers and their wives.
Along the way he meets a starving raven and shares his food.
He meets a salmon, trapped in dry mud, gasping for air, and returns him to the water.
He meets an emaciated wolf, who offers to carry the prince on his own back, if only he might eat the prince’s old horse. The prince gives the wolf his horse and the wolf becomes very strong, and the prince is able to harness him and rides him to the giant’s court. The wolf shows the prince a secret door, and there he meets a young princess, who agrees to help him conquer the giant and save his siblings.
The princess informs the youngest prince that no one can kill this giant because “his heart is not with him.”
She tells the prince to hid under her bed, to keep still, to listen carefully.
Like the Devil, and like Jack’s giant, the giant without a heart detects the smell of humanity – each time he returns to the room: And as before, the princess deflects and blames the birds for dropping bones down the chimney.
Just before sleep, for three consecutive nights the princess asks:
“I would like to know where your heart is”
He tells her it is buried under the threshold, hidden in cupboard. She and the prince search in those spots, and leave a wreath of flowers when they cannot find it.
The third night, simultaneously flattered by her apparent devotion and calling her a fool for believing him, he offers up the truth:
His heart is where she can never reach it: Far away, on an island, on a church well, on which a duck sits, “inside which there was an egg, which was his heart”
An infertile heart, unhatched, unborn.
The wolf carries the prince to the island. They summon the raven to help them find the key to door in the church wall. The duck releases its egg, which sinks to the bottom of the well only to be retrieved by the salmon.
From this point, to the end of the story, it is the wolf that directs the action:
“Squeeze the egg!” he directs the prince. The giant buckles in pain and begs for his life. “Tell him,” the wolf says, “to turn your brothers and their wives back into human beings.” The giant does this, and pleads to be spared.
And the wolf says: “Now! Squash the egg!”
and the giant burst.
The princess, the prince, his brothers and their wives return to their father’s kingdom and had a great feast, with the youngest son honored with a seat at the head of the table.
Humans are warm-blooded passionate creatures, and we have some begrudging ability to identify with big, hot-headed fire-giants. We can succumb to our impulses and our tempers too, and hot evils, crimes of passion, are easy enough for us to understand and identify in ourselves.
But cold evil, when we meet it on this earth, can paralyze us with horror. We are shocked, and flabbergasted by its cold-bloodedness. We see that it is devoid of empathy, that it is merciless, unfeeling. And a common response to exposure to icy dehumanizing evil, is to feel frozen and objectified. As though we have been transformed into statutes of stone.
It seems to me that the story of the heartless giant expresses the archetypal pattern which underlies what psychiatry calls psychopathy. In psychopathic patients we often meet a seemingly complete heartlessness, no feeling, and no ethics. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
And we see that it is a far more complicated process, when facing a cold evil, to “get to the heart” of the matter, it takes many more allies, and it requires a longer “journey” to get to the core.
And only if we have the giant’s heart in our hands – when we have brought the heartless giant to his knees – we may see a shred of his half-humanity: He pleads for his life. We may identify with his terror momentarily. But if we are in the presence of a sociopathic evil – these are likely crocodile tears – shed only for the self, and not tears or repentance or regret. If we have not assessed the circumstances accurately, we may hesitate, entangled in a misplaced compassion.
(Socipathic evil) … behave(s) as if they had the right to lie, cheat and murder with no self-doubt, and no self-criticism. Underneath somewhere is also an ego-centric baby full of idealistic delusions, which, by its touching innocence hauls others into wanting to help and rescue the poor person; but that inner infant is a parasite – it never develops and therefore sentimental pity is inappropriate. . ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
And our young hero doesn’t make this determination himself, to destroy the giants infertile heart. The animals he has forged an alliance with carry him through to restoration. It is as some parts of our young prince, his complex moral reasoning is stunned and frozen – turned into stone as well – and other instinctive animal energies must see him through.
… one must never hurt the helpful animal in fairy tales… If you do not listen to the helpful animal or bird, or whatever it is, if any animal gives you advice and you don’t follow it then you are finished. In the hundreds and hundreds of stories that is the one rule which seems to have no exception! ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
Ravens carry messages from the heavens down to humanity. Salmon carry intuitive knowledge up from the water unconscious to the surface.
And the wolf?
The wolf shows what to do: with grim determination he squashes the egg and kills the giant. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
We cannot take necessary action in the face of evil with out harnessing the wolf and all that it represents. We cannot make such decisions with our simple, young, idealistic humanity. We must know when to allow our response to be directed by a well harnessed, primal, animal instinct.
This would mean that obedience to one’s most basic inner being, one’s instinctual inner being is the one thing which is more essential than anything else. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
So many fairy tales warn us of the danger and destructiveness of unrestrained wolfishness. And we’ve learned to beware wolves when we are carrying goodies through a dark forest. But it is important to recall that according to Red Riding Hood, and the Three Little Pigs wolves who are not reigned in, will die by their own greed and destructiveness.
In its negative aspect the wolf is dangerously destructive… There is a saying that if one speaks of the wolf, it appears – just as when you speak of the Devil. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
But once we have forged an alliance and reigned in our own destructive impulse, we can see that it serves a natural, essential purpose, necessary to maintain the collective balance.
The wolf’s dark, dangerous firmness, which, if used at the right moment, is sometimes absolutely necessary in the process of individuation in order to mobilize the right values against evil… In such a moment one needs grim determination, the decision of a surgeon who has to cut off a limb to save the rest of the human being. This is what the wolf represents here. The surgical determination to cut something where there is no possibility of evolution. The combination of egg and giant has to be destroyed as a whole and then a new life begins away from this area. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
Sociopathy summons sociopathy. Encounters with giants will activate our inner wolves.
In von Franz’s words:
To look upon evil is to become infected by it.
And we can feel our hunger for justice, our desire to dominate and destroy, a killing rage rise up inside of us.
And there are times when must repress it.
And circumstances where we must bide our time.
And dangers we must sometimes run from
And there are crucial moments, where we must summon our own capacity for destructiveness, harness it, focus, and use to it cut off an overwhelming force of unrepentant evil.
There are tales of mighty saints who were able to harness the powers of the greatest giants, taming and training them to building enormous cathedrals.
These are not simple tales of good versus evil. Wives and grandmothers betray their partners. Giants are undone by thieves and tricksters who would steal their treasures and the very hairs off their head. Wolves remind us that idealistic compassion is not always simple, not always wise.
These are tales which show us that evil is a universal condition, present in each and every heart.
We may either harness it and use it wisely, or we may succumb to it.
Or worse, we could become giant.
The greatest challenge in battling giants, as von Franz would suggest, may be “stepping out of a problem of evil by getting beyond the problem of the opposites, getting close to an inner center beyond the duality of good and evil and its fight.”
The only way to defeat a giant is to use one’s wit, to be wiser, cleverer, more intuitive.
Those who know their own evil well and intimately, who have an alliance with it, who have harnessed their destructive capacities – hold the advantage over those who are merely possessed and driven by the desire for dominance.
Knowledge, if linked with a state of higher consciousness, is perhaps the greatest means of fighting evil; dissociated from consciousness, it is just one magical trick against another… The rival whose knowledge means wider or deeper consciousness will probably win against the rival who simply uses traditional knowledge without knowing its real meaning, not being essentially connected to it. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
I have one more story to tell you.
It is the story of The Valiant Tailor, retold from the Brother’s Grimm.
There was once a brave little tailor, who killed seven flies with one swat of his tea towel, and who took this stroke of fortune as a sign that he should venture out into the wider world and encounter the adventures that called to him. Before he left he embroidered his waistband with the words “Seven at Once!”
He quickly encountered a tribe of irritable giants who challenged him to a contest of strength, which the tailor wisely side-stepped with clever sleight of hand. He was able to squeeze “water from a stone” by replacing the stone with a round of cheese, and tossed another “stone” (in actuality a small bird) so high into the air that it never returned to the ground. These wondrous feats coupled with the emphatic message on his waistband, convinced the dull-minded giants that the tailor was a fearsome enemy.
A king would hear of his branded waistband and his giant victory and would conscript the tailor into tending to two more troublesome giants “who caused great mischief with their robbing, murdering, ravaging and burning.”
The little tailor, not idle gathered two pockets full of stones, and with these climbed up the tree. When he was half-way up, he slipped down by a branch until he sat just above the sleeping giants, and then let one stone after another fall on the breast of one of the giants. For a long time the giant felt nothing, but at last he awoke, pushed his comrade and said: “Why are you knocking me?” “You must be dreaming” said the other, “I am not knocking you.” They laid themselves down to sleep again, and then the tailor threw a stone down on the second. “What is the meaning of this?” cried the other. “Why are you pelting me?” “I am not pelting you,” answered the first, growling. They disputed about it for a time but as they were weary they let the matter rest, and their eyes closed once more. The little tailor began his game again, picked out the biggest stone and threw it with all his might on the breast of the first giant. “That is too bad!” cried he, and sprang up like a madman and pushed his companion against the tree until it shook. The other paid him back in the same coin, and they got into such a rage that they tore up trees and belabored each other so long that at last they both fell down dead at the same time. ~The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales
The cleverest ones may avoid engaging in false moral binaries all together, they side-step displays of dominance, and seek out a safe perch above and outside of the action. They may rely on the nature of giants, and Nature Herself to take care of the problem and correct those who have embraced and who exploit psychological imbalance.
Nemesis comes from the word nemo, which means to distribute, to attribute each one his rightful lot. Nemesis is a principle of natural justice by which everyone gets what he or she deserves. We cannot avoid seeing that there is such a principle in the unconscious, which has a curious way of exactly what one feels is somehow deserved. It is not justice in the human sense of the word, but there is an uncanny regulating force in nature which acts like justice and strikes one as being meaningful.~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
Nature abhors a vacuum, but that is not all it abhors, like a pendulum, like the weather itself, Nature compensates and corrects any imbalance, overgrowth or inflation it detects.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall.
There is not one story.
We all have our own giants to face, and we will each have to face them in our own way.
But our ancestors have offered us valuable clues to support us as this fearsome crossroads in a land of giants:
Don’t fight them on their own ground.
They will be strengthened by your aggression.
Trust your instincts.
Don’t use methods that are not natural to you.
Women know. They live with this every day. They know how to operate safely behind enemy lines.
Don’t let the monster eat you alive.
Wait until your foe falls into unconsciousness. Giants always do.
Knock the supports out from under them.
Get small. Stay still.
Be confident that the answers will come.
Help others along the way.
Trust Mother Nature to do her work.
Don’t forget those who have been turned to stone. They may be released.
Always listen to the helpful animal.
Know your enemy. Evil is infectious.
You cannot out-rage a giant.
Harness your wolf. But trust him and let him loose if you have to.
Celebrate your small victories and let them strengthen you for larger ones.
Simpler is better.
Know yourself. Be brave. Be clever. Be simple.
And remember that no matter what, one way or another:
Giants always fall.
I’ve started a project – that I will ultimately write about in some form:
I’m collecting the dreams that others have had about our current president. I have no idea where it might lead us individually or collectively. But it seems an important time for us all to listen for collective wisdom:
I’ve set up a blog for the sole purpose of gathering/archiving dreams for now.
You may share your dreams in the comments, which will be unpublished until they have been stripped of identifying information.
Click here to hear the stories of our collective dreaming…
I was ashamed to tell this once, but now . . .
He came like a wrestler, magnificent, took me down and breathed his fire through me and – I yielded, then at the climax I recoiled -I deceived Apollo –
Even then I told my people all the grief to come.
Once I betrayed him I could never be believed.
~ Aeschylus, The Oresteia, Agamemnon
The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.
~ Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman, M.D.
Dusk. I stand in a bay window scanning the scenery. It is bucolic; a lake in the foreground, a village nestled between the far shore and the surrounding woodlands and ascending foothills. A small mountain range cuts a jagged line across the sky. The evening light is purple, and I notice, the peaks are backlit, glowing. I know, instinctively, that the far side of the hill is aflame, and that this raging wildfire will spread, climbing toward the crest, and then descend toward the woods, engulfing the village, and surrounding the house I am standing in.
My housemates insist it will be fine. “The flames are miles away. It would take days before it would reach us, if it were even to head this way. The winds could switch, the rains could come. There was no emergency-broadcasting signal; no firefighters had called for evacuation.” I am too alarmed, they say, and prematurely, over a remote possibility.
And although I wanted to act with every fiber of my being, my warnings had fallen on skeptical ears. “Go to sleep” they tell me. “You are overreacting,” they say.
But I know. I feel it in my bones. I have been burned before and I can see exactly how it will all unfold.
The others in the house head off to bed. I won’t preserve myself alone, nor do I want to. I need us all to move to safety.
And because they will not, I cannot either.
I fall asleep with the others.
The smell of smoke and ash wakes me. The hills, the valley, the forest, the village are all on fire. As I stare out the window in horror, hundreds of wild animals, panicked deer, bobcats, bears, coyotes are tearing through the streets, barreling toward us, fleeing the flames. Their eyes roll with terror. They trample anything, anyone in their path.
I wake my housemates: “Move!” I scream. “Go! Now NOW!” The volume and primacy of my scream mobilizes them. As they scramble protect the valuables. I am rooted in place. Watching. Seeing. Screaming.
My labor has all been channeled into seeing, anticipating, and withstanding the mounting fear and horror alone, until it hits an intensity that others can experience.
A canary in a coalmine. A Cassandra.
And as I scream I see the very ground beneath us is glowing hot and orange. Boiling magma. The world itself is on fire.
So many Cassandras.
In my 25 years as a psychotherapist, I don’t think I have experienced a single workday that did not contend with the aftermath of sexual violence, violation, or harassment in some form. Every day of my professional life has involved sitting with another Cassandra who no one else would believe.
Raped, abused, harassed, molested, groomed, threatened, assaulted, stalked, terrorized, groped, forced.
By their fathers, uncles, brothers,
By their parent’s friends, and their friend’s parents,
By teachers, coaches, doctors, priests, and other therapists,
By dates, friends, husbands,
By customers, bosses, co-workers,
By neighbors. By strangers.
And I’ve sat with boys and men who have been abused as well as those who have perpetrated abuse. And so often, these were the same people.
Those who were shamed and ashamed, and those who were proud and unrepentant.
This fire has been burning for centuries, since the beginning of recorded time.
There is nothing new under Apollo’s sun.
And because I cannot share the private stories that women have shared with me, and because I cannot tell the details my of own experience, I will speak through Cassandra’s archetype, for the vast and hidden army of Cassandras.
But I will say this first for myself: of all the varied experiences of sexual violation that I have experienced in my lifetime, from age 12 on, across the continuum from the merely icky to psychologically traumatic: there were none that I could stop, even when I saw them coming. Even when I saw the smoke and knew the fire would follow.
They were all bigger, or older, or stronger, or wealthier, with greater status.
They all held the power to both corner me and render me unbelievable.
I spoke up, when I could, when it seemed prudent and viable.
It changed nothing except this:
It conscripted me into the secret sisterhood of Cassandaras, who no one would believe.
But we believe each other.
And the innocent boys I knew long before they were perpetrators – they were once Cassandras too, who escaped their curse by assuming Apollo’s throne.
Cassandra in her youth was drawn into the service of Apollo, the God of Truth, of Music, Knowledge, Foresight, and Healing. God of Sun and Light.
Zeus’s son, the Patron of Patriarchy.
And young Cassandra caught his eye.
Cassandra, the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, once fell asleep, they say, in the temple of Apollo after growing weary from play. Apollo wanted to ravish her, but she refused him access to her body. So he made it that no one believed her though she prophesied the truth. ~ Apollodorus’ Library and Hyginus’ Fabulae: Two Handbooks of Greek Mythology
And even sun gods have their shadows and Apollo’s father, Zeus, saw sexual dominance as his godly entitlement too.
Apollo is a pervasive cultural archetypal force, the patriarchal principal, which allows any human channeling its energies to momentarily see themselves as a shining god on a golden throne.
CASSANDRA: But the lust for power never dies – men cannot have enough. No one will lift a hand to send it from his door, to give it warning, ‘Power, never come again!’
~ Aeschylus, The Oresteia: Agamemnon
It is wise to remember that the gods hold powers that mere mortals cannot sustain, for Nemesis, the goddess of Divine Retribution will, eventually, topple all mortal hubris. The reckless power-drunk, imagining they are as omnipotent as gods, ignite the fuse of tragedy, which burns towards its explosive end – destroying the innocent in its path, and destroys the pseudo-god as well.
CASSANDRA: God of the long road, Apollo my destroyer – you destroy me once, destroy me twice. ~ Aeschylus, The Oresteia: Agamemnon
Cassandra is twice destroyed, first by the assault, and then by Apollo’s curse, the curse that she would never be believed.
CASSANDRA: See, Apollo himself, his fiery hands -I feel him again, he’s stripping off my robes, the Seer’s robes! And after he looked down and saw me mocked, even in these, his glories, mortified by friends I loved, and they hated me, they were so blind to their own demise -I went from door to door, I was wild with the god, I heard them call me ‘Beggar! Wretch! Starve for bread in hell!’ And I endured it all… ~ Aeschylus, The Oresteia: Agamemnon
Apollo’s ability to control the narrative, to enlist and conscript the community to enforce his curse, speaks to the ways that we collectively defend against the existentially intolerable realities of trauma and abuse.
The knowledge of horrible events periodically protrudes into public awareness but is rarely retained for long. Denial, repression, and dissociation operate on a social as well as an individual level. ~ Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman, M.D.
In Trauma and Recovery, Herman describes the cycles of collective cultural examination and denial of the pervasiveness of abusive trauma, and names three distinct historical-political eras that permitted and withstood a legitimizing study of trauma and its aftermath: The decade when Freud and his mentors undertook the study of hysteria and explored its connection to pervasive sexual abuse, before Freud, (and not Freud alone but the entire medical/neurological/psychological community he was embedded in) “glimpsed this truth and retreated in horror” from its implications. The study and legitimization of “shell-shocked” soldiers, previously defined as cowards or malingerers, culminating in the formalization diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. And the focus of second wave feminism on sexual violence and the emergence of rape and domestic violence crisis centers.
The systematic study of psychological trauma therefore depends on the support of a political movement. ~ Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman, M.D.
We are in such a moment of political potential now as our entire culture contemplates yet again whether or not we will enforce or fight against Apollo’s curse of disbelief.
Trauma is endemic, inherent, natural. Animals are traumatized by wind and weather, by flood and fire – and they experience trauma inflicted upon them by other animals, and by other members of their own species.
Maybe we are designed to survive simple trauma. But abusive trauma is compounded by a culture of stigma and disbelief. We are surely not designed to withstand being scorned, stigmatized, or banished from the troop of human monkeys for stating concrete experiential truths.
And the Curse of Disbelief is damaging in large part because it disrupts the process of meaning making, blocking Cassandra’s ability to use her injury in service of protecting others. It means that Cassandras cannot warn or insulate others who may also be in harms way. Pending disasters, clear and present dangers cannot be averted.
Cassandras are doomed to watch horrors that could have been stopped, unfold. We must watch, speechless, as the harm and the human toll mounts.
Those who do speak up to sound the alarm risk being crushed – depicted as defiled, liars or insane, and may grant their perpetrators even more power and sadistic pleasure. Who can take the risk, of empowering their abuser and harming themselves further while sparing no one else?
I cannot calculate how many hundreds, maybe thousands of women, and girls and boys might have been spared if the curse were lifted in my life alone, if I had the power to stop the cycle and cauterize the damage at each and every instance. If all of the Cassandras could disrupt the tragic cycle from unfolding at the moment of ignition, what new myth might we be living out?
CASSANDRA: Apollo the Prophet introduced me to his gift.
Abusive trauma may leave life-damaging symptoms: dissociation, constriction, intrusive thoughts and memories, hypervigilance, fearful arousal. But traumatic exposure also does something else: It gives us a glimpse of a larger and more terrible truths.
The Sun God you worship may also violate and curse you.
Civilization is a thin veneer.
The wilderness is amoral.
Human beings are also human animals.
Cassandra has been shown the truth about the feral universe – and this truth disrupts the hubris of those who believe in the safety of civilization.
We like to imagine that civilization is a secure proposition.
That safety and fairness are the normal baseline that the walled city cannot fall.
We like to believe that forces larger than us are fair ones, that if we are “good” and our intentions are “good” and we make regular offerings, that the gods will concern themselves with fairness and justice.
Cassandras know that the wilderness exists in our most civilized spaces: the temple, the office, the home, and the public square.
Cassandras have learned: abuse can be as bold as broad daylight.
Stability is temporary, and security is insecure.
Cassandra’s eye was opened and she could never blind herself to that reality again.
CASSANDRA: When all is well a shadow can overturn it. When trouble comes a stroke of the wet sponge, and the picture’s blotted out. And that, I think that breaks the heart ~ Aeschylus, The Oresteia: Agamemnon.
To hold traumatic reality in consciousness requires a social context that affirms and protects the victim and joins victims and witnesses in common alliance. For the individual victim, this social context is created by relationships with friends, lovers and family. For the larger society, the social context is created by political movements that give voice to the disempowered. ~ Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman, M.D.
And when the necessary social contexts are not in place, our communities will not heed the visionary warnings of the disempowered, which places the entire collective in harms way. Ultimately the Curse of Disbelief destroys us all: Trojan Horses are accepted as gifts to the gods, despite all the signs and warnings of the danger, the downfall, that lurks hidden and silent inside.
Overjoyed, they dragged the horse in, set it up next to Priam’s palace, and discussed what to do. Cassandra said that there was an armed force inside, so some decided it was best to burn it, and others to hurl it down a cliff. But most decided to leave it alone since it was an offering to a god. They then turned their attention to sacrifice and feasted. ~ Apollodorus’ Library and Hyginus’ Fabulae: Two Handbooks of Greek Mythology Trzaskoma, Stephen M.; Smith, R. Scott
And the kingdom falls. The walls of civilization are breached and the world is revealed to be ruled by wild and feral gods, concerned only with power and not with justice.
As moral as a brush fire.
Captured by the invading king, foreseeing his destruction and her own, her community and kinsman in bondage, Cassandra finally revolts against her god:
CASSANDRA: Before I die I’ll tread you (ripping off her regalia, stamping it into the ground) Down, out, die die die! Now you’re down. I’ve paid you back. Look for another victim -I am free at last -make her rich in all your curse and doom. ~ Aeschylus, The Oresteia: Agamemnon
Cassandras can become a dangerous force in themselves. Volcanoes may sleep, dormant for hundreds of years in between violent fiery eruptions. And silenced screams become more dangerous and destructive over time as the pressure builds.
Her screams become embodied curses, calling down the unceasing anger of the avenging Furies, who destroy their enemies by shredding them to pieces with a studded scourge.
We have enacted Cassandra’s ancient cycle since the dawn of Western civilization. Can it ever stop? Will the curse be lifted?
The myth leaves us with no solution. Only destruction. Troy falls. The ruling members of both parties – the Greeks and the Trojans are destroyed by The Furies, by each other and by women’s rage. And Cassandra is killed by her captor’s wife.
Cassandra predicts this herself, foresees it all, unable to stop or derail the horrific events.
And Apollo is unmoved.
The myth is an inherently tragic one.
Our only hope is to live a different myth entirely:
A myth that values women’s voices exactly as men’s voices are valued.
A myth where children of all genders are cherished and protected.
A myth that transcends punishment and revenge.
A myth that does not require forgiveness or submission.
A myth that allows us to guard and keep each other,
To repent from our cruelties,
And to make meaning from our wounds.
With Gratitude to Geoffrey Holder
These early dreams are most important, and it is not unusual for them to give a prophetic picture of a person’s whole life. ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
At dinner recently, our daughter told us a long, rich dream, filled with many archetypal images and great emotional charge, a dream she will likely remember for a long time. When we asked her what she thought the dream was about she said:
“Nothing. Dreams are just nonsense. They aren’t about anything.”
We laughed at how effectively she had cut my husband’s and my life’s work off at the knees in one clean swipe. But then my husband said:
“Honey, there are dreams I had when your age that I’ve remembered for my whole life, and that am I only beginning to understand now. Just because it doesn’t seem to mean anything now, it might mean something to you much later.”
There are childhood dreams that can resonate through every major milestone of a life, that can tell a whole life’s story in a handful of images. Childhood dreams can seal your fate, and predict earthquakes in the ground of your identity. Dreams can be understood, and reinterpreted and reviewed and reassessed over and over again as additional layers of meaning peel away, closer and closer to the core.
I will tell you of a dream like that: A dream that is among my earliest memories, that has traveled along side, or perhaps just ahead of me. A dream that has instructed, warned, prepared, and initiated me into new ways of being over and over again. This is the dream of a life-time, and as this story unfolds, we will find that such dreams reflect our lives back to us in hundreds of different ways and in three-hundred and sixty degrees. There are mountains you climb once and conquer. And there are mountains that demand you ascend again and again, from every face and footpath before you can understand them at all.
I wake up in my blue bedroom. I am wearing my favorite yellow “trundle-bundle” (a colloquial term for zip up pajamas with footies). I know it is “too early” and I shouldn’t be up yet and that everyone else is still asleep. On the stand next to my bed its my night-light: a single Christmas tree light bulb glowing through round hole of a painted wooden birdhouse. A nearly blinding sunbeam shines in through the window next to my bed as the sun rises.
There is a tall black man standing near the foot of my bed in the doorway He is bald. He is wearing a black coat, a black top hat with a feather in the band, and has some kind of short staff or cane. His legs and his feet are bare. He is smiling a wide smile, and lets loose a distinctive laugh that I recognize and that terrifies me.
It is the Uncola Man.
He says, calmly, certainly, in his deep, distinctive voice:
“I have come to take you away.”
I know I have only one chance and I must be brave and swift. I charge toward him and as I reach the doorway he turns aside so that I may pass, as if he knows that I will return. He does not block my way or reach for me. I race down the long hallway to my parent’s room. I do not look back.
I throw open the door to their room – and it is empty, vacated, lifeless. The bed is neatly made. Only dust motes floating in the morning sun.
I race back to my room. The “Uncola man” now stands off to the side, patiently waiting and watching, as if he is revealing a scene that is necessary for me to face: My mother and father are seated on my small twin bed, engrossed in a Sears catalogue. My mother wears my father’s bathrobe. I tug at the sleeve, pointing at the man in the top hat. “He’s going to take me away!”
“That is nice dear…” my mother responds, only half listening, focusing on the catalogue. Defeated, I turn to the man in the top hat, who takes my hand and escorts me out of the room.
And then, the final image: a still scene from a cartoon, an illustration: I observe it from the outside, as if it is a framed drawing hung upon the wall: A silly drawing of me, in caricature, bound in a cauldron set above a pile of burning logs, the man in the top hat waiting nearby.
Waiting for me to untangle myself so we can go.
I wonder where we are going?
I wake up suddenly, too early, in my blue bedroom. I am wearing my yellow trundle-bundle. Everyone is still asleep. My night-light glows next to the bed. The glare of the sunrise hurts my eyes. I run down the long hallway to my parent’s bedroom. I wake my mother and tell her that I had a bad dream.
“If you tell me the dream” she says sleepily, not lifting her head from the pillow “you won’t ever have that dream again…” she nods intermittently, belatedly, her eyes shut, drifting in and out of sleep as I tell her the dream.
When such dreams are very impressive, they may remain, indelibly stamped on the memory, through a whole life-time. ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
But my mother is wrong. I do have that dream again and again – several times a year, for the next twenty years of my life. Each time I wake, it is as vivid and unsettling as the first. The dream changes only in the subtlest of ways – sometimes the Uncola Man has no hat, or a white fedora. Sometimes he laughs aloud. Sometimes he just smiles a huge smile. It is not a merely happy laugh, or a simply friendly smile, but it isn’t evil. It is unsettling, mocking my naïveté. His laugh strips something away. It is unclear to me what amuses him, and his laughter stings as it reveals that what I cherish most are merely ridiculous illusions. It is a contagious laugh, that pulls me in, seducing me to laugh along nervously at my own expense.
Warning dreams come early, because these identifications are so exceedingly dangerous. Consciousness does not know of them, but nature does. Just as the unconscious reacts to a physical infection although consciousness knows nothing of it, so it reacts to such identifications. ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
The only thing that transforms significantly about the dream over time is the final scene: I eventually learn, probably after developing a phobic avoidance of the Uncola Man commercials that he is a character, he is portrayed by a real man, Geoffrey Holder, actor, painter, dancer, choreographer. Sometime after I move into upper elementary school the cartoon cauldron is replaced by a black and white photograph –of Geoffrey Holder on a bare stage in mid-leap – frozen in flight, a silhouette against a spotlight.
It is an astonishing fact that a child already has, unconsciously, grown-up psychology. The individual is from the time of this birth, one could say even before his birth, that which he will be. The ground plan is laid very early. Such early dreams come out of the wholeness of the personality. ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
The dream faded sometime in my early twenties. After studying dance and theater. After I moved to New York City, and stood in the center of many bare stages, after I took flight from my family of origin in more ways than one.
Maybe it stopped when I separated enough from the vortex of home. Or maybe it left me when I found my partner. Or maybe it stopped when I started therapy and told the dream to someone who stayed awake and kept their eyes open.
It returned briefly when I left the theater and went to social work school. For a decade or so I thought of the dream in terms of the relational psychotherapeutic models I had trained in, as a reflection of unconsciously perceived family dynamics: An emptiness in my parents bedroom spoke to a sexless marriage. The “un-cola” man in the top hat was perhaps some “un-conscious” drive to separate from my parents, which activated clingy fears of abandonment and ambivalence. My parents in my child’s bed spoke to the ways that they did not occupy the adult spaces in the house, but sat upon childish developmental structures. My mother wearing my father’s bathrobe referred to the ways that she had subverted her own identity, and wrapped herself in my father’s values. And that although they could outfit our home with essential appliances, there were more primal needs that would take me away from them that they could not respond to.
I didn’t have a clue about the cartoon and the giant cooking pot. Just some random dream nonsense, probably random static. The only association that came to mind is that it was drawn just like my very least favorite episodic cartoon from the Underdog Show: called Commander McBragg. It was a supporting segment of the animated show that I suffered through like the horse latitudes, until the good ones came back on. I hated it. The drawing looked just like that, but with me in the pot in the Commander’s place.
And Geoffrey Holder on stage? That seemed obvious enough: I would soon enough become a community theater kid, an insufferable triple-threat singer-dancer-actor by junior high. (David Letterman once said: You know, if you kill a singer-dancer-actor, that is the same as killing three people.) By high school I was a hard core drama geek. In college: a theater major. An eventual move to New York City (that empty stage, that spotlight) and for a handful of years, a professional actor and unemployed actor in intervals. The world of the theater had become my escape, my rescue, my chosen family, my new home. Theater was my Up and Out. I had been lured down the yellow brick road from a black and white home toward a technicolor world: Geoffrey Holder, on stage, taking flight.
I also noticed that the dream was often associated with transitions from one life phase to another: It seems to have first emerged when I was approaching readiness for pre-school, and its re-emergences clustered around major milestones: entering elementary school, moving houses, my parents divorce, their remarriages, moving states, moving up through middle school and high school, my parents second divorces, starting college, leaving college, moving across the country to New York City, leaving the theater, starting social work school.
So, there. Done. Interpreted. Obvious.
A dream from childhood which is still remembered in adult life is not just any dream; such a dream remains fixed in the mind because it embraces a period – longer or shorter – of human life. If we look at such a dream carelessly, we do not at first understand why it should have been remembered; but if we are in a position to follow it up, we can usually find clues to show us why it was so important. ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
Despite its repeat and deep familiarity, the emotional charge of the dream: the fear, the hope, the grief, and the uncanny comfort of the man taking my hand never diminished. It lingered, like a strangely comforting haunting, a familiar ghost. I stopped thinking of the man in the top hat as the Uncola man, and began to think of it simply as “the Geoffrey Holder dream” and as I followed the path of liberation from my oppressive family toward a new life in New York City, I began to experience the dream as a gift, a secret invitation that I’d received from Geoffrey Holder’s creative spirit. I experienced the dream, and the man in the top hat, as a guide leading me into a new way of living.
It was when I first sat down to study Jung, for a post-graduate class in 2001 – and read Anima and Animus that I first recognized the Man in the Top Hat as an archetype, a psychopomp. The day before the planes flew into the World Trade Center I underlined this passage and wrote in the margins: “* Geoffrey Holder/Uncola Man!!!!“ in bright red ink.
…the voice of a wise magician, who goes back in direct line to the figure of the medicine man in primitive society. He is, like the anima, an immortal daemon that pierces the chaotic darknessss of brute life with the light of meaning. He is the enlightener, the master and teacher, a psychopomp ~ C.G. Jung, Anima and Animus
The light of meaning. A dawning awareness. A small comforting light in the night. Enlightenment. The master and teacher who awaits me when I wake too early and alone, and presses me to face frightening truths.
Traditionally, a psychopomp escorts the dead to the underworld, functioning only as a guide, not a judge. In Jungian thought the animus (bright/light/yang energies) can constellate in the psyche in the form of an archetypal psychopomp – to guide our consciousness into the realm of the (dark/hidden/yin) unconscious self. The Un-cola man as escort to the upside down world.
So in order to get at the real meaning of a dream, to elucidate it, I try to concentrate on the starting point, and there allow things to happen from all sides. ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
Jungian study also opened a new world of working with and processing dream content, more tools to try to decode the multiple layers of meaning of “my Geoffrey Holder dream.”
Ego psychological and relational psychotherapies generally rely exclusively on association to tease out potential meanings and implications of a dream: So what are your thoughts about X, and what is the thought after that, and what is the thought after that? Jung sees the path of association as always and inevitably leading back to the dreamer’s core conflict – the gravitational pull of our central struggle will eventually drag all of our associated thoughts toward it.
For Jung, once this core conflict/complex has been identified, association becomes a dead end process, which offers no creative route toward meaning making, just a perpetual and tedious circle back to the site of injury or arrest.
For Jung, the process of dreaming and other similar investigations of the human unconscious has the potential to offer so much more.
The dream is, as you know, a natural phenomenon. It arises from no conscious intention… It has a definite manner of functioning which is quite independent of the will or desire, or of the intention or aims of the human ego. It is an unintentional happening, like all events in nature. ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
A dream is considered the voice of nature itself speaking within us – warning us, preparing us, challenging us, steering us, girding us to shape manifest and fulfill our natural fates, whatever they may be.
He proposes in place of association, a process that he refers to as amplification: So what are your thoughts about X, and what else occurs to you about X, and are there any other ideas about X that come to mind? This process keeps the dream itself, and the dream symbols in the center of the exploration – rather than use the dream as spring-board to other themes. But this is not only restricted to the amplification of symbolic content through research and cognition – but by expanding the subjective, emotional nuance within the dream as well:
When you hear such dreams, it is of course necessary to use your mind, but it is sometimes much more important to consult your feeling function. With understanding alone, even the most excellent understanding, you cannot get the psychological meaning; you must also include the feeling value. ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
Jung uses a simple outline to help to organize these amplifications and investigation of dream content.
To amplify such a dream: we start at the beginning, who are the people involved?
Firstly, my parents & myself: This is a dream that at a minimum is focused on my parental complexes.
The Uncola Man: (unconscious, underworld) in a top hat. Certainly my first childhood thought, and probably my first amplifying association to Mr. Holder’s primary prop is the top hat of magicians and magic. Pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Making something from nothing, also making things disappear. My only other experience of Mr. Holder beyond his 7 Up commercial, was his appearance in the children’s film, Dr. Doolittle, where he portrays a character named “William Shakespeare the Tenth,” ruler of a peaceable kingdom on a floating island that had broken off of the African continent. The kingdom of black men and women that he oversees is a perfect, peaceful, cultured Edenic community – with arts and theater festivals, public libraries, and every citizen is named after their favorite playwright.
The only strife they experience is when white men come.
The first action is waking up too early, the only conscious person in the house. This is in itself a kind of danger. The dream suggests that some awareness is dawning too soon. There has previously only been a small light, a single candle bulb peeking out through a small hole in the darkness, but now the light of a dawning awareness is pouring into the scene – something that is uncomfortable to see, painful, blinding.
Perhaps part of the function of this dream, and the reason for its emergence and repetition was to bundle and insulate the fear and discomfort of this premature awareness within the dream itself – like an abscess. This awakening is earlier than would be developmentally ideal. It would be better to “wake up” to at a later time.
A split takes place between what is too childish, too primitive on one side, and the too mature psychology on the other side… it is because these splits in the personality can be very dangerous that the unconscious tries to counteract the process by means of such dreams. ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
The sense of danger is then embodied by the appearance of a stranger, in the form of the Uncola Man in a top hat who tells me that he has come to take me away.
He has come to take me away from what? At the start of the dream I don’t experience myself as needing to be taken away from anything. The statement is at first a threat (only later in the dream does it become a rescue). The Unconscious Man is already informed of some scenario of neglect, some lack of protection that he is either inserting himself into as a protective force, or exploiting. How could he just expect appear in a household with adults present and “take” the child without any parental protest?
He knows that this is as simple as taking candy from a baby, but I do not yet have this knowledge, or have not yet come to accept it. I have one single chance to reach my parents in their room. I run from a dawning awareness, and try to reassure myself in my belief in my parents as young Gods.
Exposition/Representation of the Problem:
A stranger, a man, a sorcerer or a god has come to take me away.
(The child) is only just emerging from a protected and cared for milieu, surrounded by faithful and devoted parents, nurses, aunts, doctors and grandmothers. And now the outer world is approaching him, and that is very disconcerting. This dislike of the outer world you can observe everywhere. In the child’s own family everything smells right, other people smell wrong, they are cruel and one cannot trust them… Children have an outspoken dislike of people whom they don’t know; they represent just that outer world. . ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
Xenophobia is an appropriate and necessary developmental phase. We need to learn who is family, who is friend, who is selected in and vetted as safe, who is selected out. Separation anxiety is the outcome of learning basic xenophobic realities. Children are not safe with any random stranger. They cling to what is familiar, of the family, and they retreat in fear from what is alien.
How afraid they are of strangers, and how hostile they are to them. And why really? Because a stranger seems sinister, offensive. They accept nothing from strangers. Therefore this child, out of his protected surroundings in which he experienced only agreeable things, has a resistance to the unknown life which is coming. ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung (emphasis mine)
A resistance to the unknown life: The task of leaving my family and my childhood behind, shedding the warm insulation that I had been safely bundled in, of heading out into a wide and unknown world, away from the familiarity of home.
My psyche selected The Uncola Man, an Afro-Caribbean man to stand for the Unknown Life. There were many white strangers in my world, and almost no black strangers that I had ever encountered. Why did “The Stranger” take this form? Because my parents, who could not differentiate from their families world view, who sat upon a child’s bed, who believed that their view upon the world was universal, remained possessed and controlled to varying degrees, by their xenophobic fears. The Stranger in my dream was black, in part because that was the form and race of the Other that my family, my immediate community, and white America in general consciously and unconsciously feared.
The grown ups were afraid, and my fears mirrored theirs.
I first had this dream in 1969, when I was five years old. The Watts Rebellion took place when I was an infant. Popular culture and media were processing the necessity of the civil rights movement, and the imperative of desegregation in nearly all of its programming. Martin Luther King had been murdered, on my birthday, the year before. I had watched the news reports of the major events of civil rights movement on our black and white television screen, my mother whispering explanations of the heroism I was witnessing, and silencing herself whenever my father entered the room.
The Turning Point (and the possibility of catastrophe):
I race down the hallway to my parents’ room with complete faith in them as the Face of Love. They are, to my child’s mind as powerful as Gods and when I open their bedroom door I expect that I will find them enthroned, their backs resting against the regal headboard of their bed. My sense of safety in the world depends upon them as omnipotent and all-loving.
But when I open the door, it is empty.
And not just empty – desolate, dusty. The heart of the family is dead. It is a ghost town in there. This is the turning point. This is a catastrophe.
Moods and secrets are sensed through the unconscious ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
I return, I regress, back to my child’s room. But when I arrive: I am stunned and confused by the sight of my parents in my bed. My parents are like children in a child’s bed. Their feet dangle over the edge. The Man in the Top Hat steps aside to show me this. He is a little sad, a little reverent. He is not teasing me now. He is still. He steps to my right and out of the corner of my eye I can see that his head is bowed. Just a little. Like you do in the presence of death.
I turn back to my parents and offer one last opportunity to save me, not much, not frantically anymore, but more as a token to them, to give them one last chance. “The man is coming to take me away…” I say, calmly. My father, no longer a god but a child, is too engrossed in the simplest most concrete of tasks: looking at appliances in a Sears catalogue. He is impenetrable. My mother is not wearing her own clothes, but is wrapped up my father’s robe – an extension of him, her personality covered over. She half hears me, and only barely perceives that she is about to be left behind. She responds, but not to the reality in front of her: “That is nice dear…”
It may be, also, that the unconscious must free itself from just these complexes, that it must come to terms with them; perhaps the achievement of the unconscious lies just there! The complexes are the real disturbers of the peace, and it is entirely possible that the unconscious itself stresses the natural functioning and strives to guide us out of this mouse-trap. For the complex is a mouse-trap. ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
The meaningful conclusion or the compensation:
I take the hand of the Uncola Man and we leave together. I leave with him voluntarily. I am not particularly sad or frightened any longer, leaving my parents behind now simply feels inevitable.
Always, when an essential increase of consciousness takes place the danger of a split arises: When one gets a new idea, one simply goes off with it; one is hypnotized and loses consciousness of everything else, everything else vanishes from one’s memory ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
Am I being adopted? No, his relationship to me feels elemental but not personal. He is not attached to me in a familial way. He is a functionary, I am his job. He will, I believe, press and test me, expose me to trials that I may either pass or fail. He has made some assessment, but has no stake in the outcome. There is a feeling of being, not selected as special in anyway, but rather salvaged from being wasted. Perhaps I am being taken as an apprentice. No matter, I am not alone. I am with the Man in the Top Hat who, whatever he is and whatever is going to come next, he has showed me the truth – and there is some cold comfort in that.
(Or perhaps preview of things to come) I observe, from outside the action: an image from cartoon, unrealistic, pretend, silly, sometimes stupid, sometimes boring, like the all the cartoons that aired on Saturday afternoons. Old cartoons infused with racist images: a mammy’s skirt and tiptoes surrounded by mice, black face parodies, minstrel numbers, Al Jolson jokes. Cartoons embedded with stereotypical racist tropes of “headhunters” and “cannibals” – standard children’s entertainment of the early nineteen sixties. The man in the Top Hat is now a full blown caricature – he has been drawn with feathered headdress, a spear in his hand, and a skirted loin cloth. He is standing nearby, neither helping me or restraining me.
Understanding the position of the dream and the dreamer within the prevalent cultural historical socio-political mythology is an essential layer of any dream. To what degree are we dreaming the unconscious aspects of the culture we are embedded in? What are the truths, the narratives that our nation, our cultures, our communities are actively trying to repress? What are the problems our culture is struggling to become conscious of? Our unconscious does not just gather up perceptions from our immediate environment, it is stuffed with symbols from books, advertisements, news coverage, entertainments and images from “popular culture” (aka the prevailing myths of the era).
My dream is also the dream of the dominant narrative of white privilege and supremacy, a dream of oppression and a dream riddled with racist tropes. There is no way to escape that. This is how it gets in. This is how it penetrates and how we are infused with it. A five year old white girl assembles her dreams from the racism that surrounds her. This is the lens I was taught to peer through at black people. These were the images of movies and cartoons, of comic books of children’s literature, of Doctor Dolittle and Gilligan’s Island: Sorcerer. Magician. Noble Savage. Witch Doctor. These were the first images of black men and women I would be permitted to encounter. This is how white babies were fed a culture of superiority – mixed in with a little maple syrup poured from a black woman’s head and stirred into warm wet cereal with the face of a smiling black man on the box.
My dream spoke out of the failures in my own household, my mother’s secretive empathy and complicity, my father’s overt racism, He was explicit and unapologetic with regard to racism, homonegativity, and misogyny. Derogatory jokes and denigrations were consistent and no amount of reasonable argument, calm discussion, pleading, yelling or tears could disrupt his relentless need for ridicule and contempt. My mother would flee from him in just five more years. In twenty more years, I would estrange myself from him, with only a few more brief and futile attempts at non-toxic contact, for the rest of our lives.
And the dream showed where my allegiances must lie. And what I would lose and leave behind if I struggled to free myself from the bind, the knot of whiteness I had inherited, and what I would have to sacrifice if I were to choose the path of liberation.
It is as if the dreamer should be prepared for a collective role. Such human beings are destined for humanity, they are not meant for a happy family life, they will be torn to pieces by their collective fate. ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
We dream all that is unacknowledged around us.
We dream histories that were never written down.
We dream of the oppressions we enact, and the oppressions that we withstand.
Our dreaming is embedded in time, in space, in culture, in a socio-economic-psycho-spiritual political-historical context.
We dream the repressions, projections and distortions of our era.
We dream in bias and stereotype.
It seeps into our unconscious through the walls and the floorboards, the transistors and the screens.
This is a dream about the individual, subjective the particular illusions I was stripped of in my familial life, this is a dream of parental complexes and archetypes and this is also a dream that reflects the collective and racial distortions that infused my era, and that I was taught as the alphabet of my culture.
We dream in our first language, with all its invective and epithet.
And may we dream our way out of the tangled knots that bind us all.
I know that do not like this least-favorite part of the cartoon line-up, this illustration and this scene annoys me particularly.
I am in a cooking pot. A cauldron. Here we encounter the mother-complex again. The cooking pot and the cauldron are archetypal symbols associated with the underworld, with goddesses and with witches. Ingredients are disintegrated and creatively reconstituted into something new.
… the dead man is given over to the chthonic underworld, the cooking pot of creation, to be dissolved… It is a devouring mother, a negative mother, who instead of giving birth, devours everything. But in this there is a germ of the positive: under certain conditions a new birth is being prepared ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
This illustrated drawing of “me” is wound with a rope, like a spool, my arms bound to my sides. But it does not feel like the end of the adventure. I see that am left in a bind for a period of time, and it will take me some time to figure out how to escape on my own. And it will be boring and restrictive until then.
It seems, that even though I may be leaving an illusory idealization of my parents behind, that I will not escape the bind of my parental complexes so easily. I will have to come to terms with the challenging reality of a disengaged and devaluing father, and a half-awake dependent mother. But even more than that: I must disentangle myself from the archetypal parental complexes that I am bound up in.
For Jung, we must use our consciousness to observe, monitor, be informed by and differentiate from our instinctive lives. When we find ourselves controlled by an instinct that is destructive or useless, Jung would say we are entangled in a “complex” or “possessed by the archetype” So when we talk about Mother as an archetype we are not talking necessarily talking about the actual personality of the mother. We are talking about a cluster of evolutionary, instinctive, and cultural expectations, fantasies, desires, fears that humans animals have about Mothers generally. This dream isn’t merely about my mother. It is about my Mother complex. And in truth, the work will be restrictive, and I must use my wits and my feet will be held to the fire as I try to disentangle myself not only from my actual particular parents, but from my larger wishes to be parented in general.
In this image the Man in the Top Hat/Mr. Holder is neutral. He is not inflicting anything upon me, nor is he offering assistance. This is a knot, a bind that I must untangle myself. He waits nearby. He won’t free me from it, but he did not create the bind. The struggle is one that I will have to contend with on my own. Or a power greater than the Uncola Man will have to intervene. A trial that I will survive by my own skill or by a stroke of luck or the intervention of the gods. He will likely escort me to another challenge, when this one finishes. And another after the next.
The heat may be on- but I do not think my goose is cooked. This dilemma contains within it the possibility of a solution: Fire destroys, but it also purifies.
The fire is the catastrophe. And vanishing in flames is the solution. The whole thing goes up in smoke. One could ask if that is really a solution… Because the whole thing is really a scene at which she is looking, we must ourselves stop at the picture and here indeed it is a question of the solution… There is an emotional tension which dissolves, as it were, in the flames ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
Flames, where all the impurity is burned away. ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
Over decades, the bind releases, and perhaps the smoke carries my pleas heavenward, and the gods intercede on my behalf: The dream modulates. Now I gaze, again from the outside, at a photographic image of freedom, of liberation, of creation and anti-gravity. This is a snap shot of a documented reality. This is a touchstone. This is real life, not a cartoon. The light that shines on Mr. Holder mid-leap is focused and direct. It is a beacon. There are no stereotypes here. This is not pop culture. This is Art. This is sacred. This is the creative impulse. This is living individuation.
My early exposure to Jungian thought gave me more tools, allowed me to dig deeper, and excavate another substrata of the psychological archeology of the dream. I hadn’t accrued much in the way of general mythological study at that time, I only had awareness of a few various religious scriptures I had read in my philosophy of religion courses undergraduate, the Greeks I knew a bit from studying theater, and of course the basic Grimm’s fairy tales and Mother Goose rhymes. I saw no obvious archetypal themes beyond the ones already noted. I assumed that the dream was sufficiently investigated as a product of my idiosyncratic personal unconscious, that I had plumbed the depths of it, and gone as far as I could go.
In the ten years that follow, my “Geoffrey Holder dream” rarely crossed my mind. I focused on other things: becoming a mother, raising children, reading myth and fairy tales, running a therapy practice, earning a living, starting a blog, forging some time and space to write and re-connect with my creative self.
Somewhere along the way, my half-awake and medically disabled mother, fell into a state of medical and financial dependency, and I moved her from the Midwest to a studio apartment about ten blocks away and took on her care. A few more years and my mother was diagnosed with an aggressive triple negative breast cancer, had a mastectomy, and completed a brutal six months of chemotherapy and was declared to be “cancer free.” I was exhausted beyond anything I have ever known between client care, child care, and elder care. The dream was mostly forgotten, or when reading some Jungian text reminded me of it, I was mostly just satisfied with the treasures I have excavated from its depths. It no longer haunted me.
But the dream was merely dormant, not gone.
If a fatal destiny lies before us, the thing leading up to it catches us beforehand in the dream, as it will overwhelm us later in reality. ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
Soon the haunting would resume in earnest.
“The thing leading up to it catches us beforehand.” Jung is not being cryptic when he writes this. He means this. Jung views certain “big” childhood dreams as communications from a timeless, unified, non-linear collective unconscious. As messages from an internal oracle, offering us information about our inevitable, already complete, and unavoidable fate, although perhaps not our destiny.
The concept of time in the sphere of the unconscious is peculiar to itself, it is a little out of joint; that is, time in the unconscious always seems to remain outside or apart from the course of time as it appears to us; it perceives things which still are not, in the unconscious everything is there from the beginning… The unconscious does not bother about our sense of time, or about the causal connection of things. ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung (emphasis mine)
His long and rich correspondence and friendship with physicist Wolfgang Pauli heavily influenced Jung’s sense of linear time as an illusion associated with our narrow scope of consciousness. Whereas the unconscious, Jung believed, attempts to speak to us about the true nature of the universe, not as our limited consciousness perceives it.
The real order of the dreams is a radiation, the dreams radiate from a center. ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
This center, in Jung’s view, radiates forward and backwards into our past, our future, and every nook and cranny of our present. If linear time is an illusion, or a misperception (or perhaps more accurately a partial perception) of consciousness, then past, present and future are all aspects of an un-severed whole. For Jung, dreams don’t simply “tell the future”, and aren’t merely “predictive” or prognostic – they are reflections of an indivisible whole.
Time in itself is non-existent. There is only the current of events which we measure with the time-concept. For the… man close to nature, the course of time is not an abstraction; the course of time is not an abstraction; for him there is only what is just before one, the now, and what is behind. He has no clock by which he could read the time with numbers; he is entirely in this stream of events which steadily flows on down into a dark hole. It meets us out of the dark future, flows through us, and sinks down behind us again into an endless darkness. ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
Commonly we think of dreams as emerging from our forgotten past, and reasserting the past into our present. For Jung, certain kinds of “big” dreams reverse this course, flowing into us from the future, and disappearing behind us into the past.
There are high-points later in life, and the turning point when we leave youth behind us, and then the great dreams reappear that are dreamed out of the depth of the personality. ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
In my 2014 dream journal I noted:
“October 5th: Had the Geoffrey Holder dream again. I haven’t had it in years wtf?”
But life was too busy with play-dates, and cello-lessons and math homework, and follow up doctor’s appointments and the usual everyday crises for me to have thought about it much more than that. A young father at our children’s school, a man I did not know at all, had died of a heart attack while on a school field trip in the previous week, and I had to search out a crisis team to come to the school to help the community process the death. I had started an essay, about the myriad ways we find ourselves impacted by the lives and deaths of strangers – of all the ways we grieve in disenfranchised and atypical ways for people we have never known. I pushed the dream out of my head and focused instead on the tasks in front of me.
On the morning of October 8th I posted the essay, Death Notices, and as I forwarded it on through social media a link floating past me on the sea of digital data caught my eye: The link read:
“Out and About NYC Mag: ‘Geoffrey Holder 1930 – 2014 from his son Leo’”
“1930 – 2014.” Geoffrey Holder had died.
This seemed impossible. I felt more stunned by this news than the death of my father. The Man in the Top Hat had been with me my whole life, from my first moments of remembered consciousness. He had practically raised me, filling in a parental void. I hadn’t I just seen him a few nights earlier? How could he be dead? He was gone? The grief was instantaneous, visceral, disorienting, as if I had lost a primary family member. As if my mother had died. Or someone more stabilizing to me than a mother. My psyche had constructed and saved itself relying on this man’s visage. He’d roamed around inside my skull as a guide for a full forty five years.
I shook myself out of it: I never met this man. I knew little to nothing about him, other than the barest bits of his general professional biography. This was that crazy thing that people to celebrities all the time: Project on to them, conscript them, co-opt them, take ownership of their image, pretend that the celebrity “belongs’ to them somehow. I’ve worked with enough “famous” folk to understand something of what it feels like to live on the receiving end of those projections. I thought of my own experiences of over-stimulated fandom: my childhood worship of Danny Kaye, and Fred Rogers, the musicians I listened to in high school and college and how “stars” become part of our inner landscape.
Was this so different from that? I could be saddened that a celebrity I admired from afar had finished their story on this earth, but this wasn’t my loss to mourn. I had never even seen Geoffrey Holder dance, not once. I had never seen his paintings, never cooked one of his recipes. I had never seen his choreographic work. I knew little about his life other than the thinnest biographical data, the kind you learn from the Sunday newspaper entertainment sections:
I knew he was raised in Trinidad. That he was primarily a dancer and choreographer. I knew he had starred on Broadway in House of Flowers, based on a story by Truman Capote. I knew he was married to Carmen de Lavallade. He was in Dr. Dolittle, which I’d seen a bunch of times as a kid. I knew he did 7 Up commercials. That he had starred in some James Bond movie that I had never seen, although I do remember seeing dramatic photographs of him with Jane Seymour on a beach. I knew that he had directed and designed The Wiz. That he was a painter.
And that was all. Nothing else.
I had no entitlement to the unreasonable wave of grief that rolled through me.
Whatever I felt I “knew” of Geoffrey Holder was solely derived from the psychological function that “he” had served in my dream. Yet, I felt as irrationally bereaved as if I had lost the master of a life-long apprenticeship. A rug had been pulled out from under my feet.
I took a deep breath. I clicked on the link.
(I encourage you to as well)
And I read his son Leo’s account of his last days on this earth:
…In his truest moment of clarity since being rolled into I.C.U. he said he was good. Mouthing the words “No, I am not afraid.” without a trace of negativity, sadness, or bitterness.
“I am not afraid” This is the voice and the resolve of the Man in the Top Hat who I have dreamed of for half a century.
Then he summoned me to take his hands, and this most unique dance/choreographer pulled himself up from his bed as if to reach the sky. It was then I broke the code. He was telling me he was going to dance his way out…
He is going to dance out. I was breathless as I read.
…They remove the tube that has imprisoned him for the past 9 days and robbed this great communicator of the ability to speak. I remove the mittens that prevent his hands from moving freely.
Tears came – imagining the powerful, laughing psychopomp of my dreaming, who escorted me through so many years of challenge and transition, now weak, tired, voiceless, shutting down. I was flooded with gratitude for all this archetypal entity had given to me. I knew that the man in my dream was not literally Mr. Holder, but it seemed certain that Mr. Holder was fulfilling the mission of the Man in the Top Hat, in his heroic dying. This joy, dignity and power were exactly the powers I associated with the Man in the Top Hat. Unafraid. Utterly alive.
I start the music, take his hands and start leading him, swaying them back and forth. And he lets go of me. He’s gonna wing it as he was prone to do when he was younger. Breathing on his own for the last time, Geoffrey Holder, eyes closed, performs his last solo to Bill Evans playing Faure’s Pavane. From his deathbed. The arms take flight, his beautiful hands articulate through the air, with grace. I whisper “shoulders” and they go into an undulating shimmy, rolling like waves. His Geoffrey Holder head gently rocks back and forth as he stretches out his right arm to deliver his trademark finger gesture, which once meant “you can’t afford this” and now is a subtle manifestation of pure human spirit and infinite wisdom. His musical timing still impeccable, bouncing off the notes, as if playing his own duet with Evan’s piano. Come the finale, he doesn’t lift himself of the bed as he planned; instead, one last gentle rock of the torso, crosses his arms and turns his head to the side in a pose worthy of Pavlova. All with a faint, gentle smile…
My head spins. All the forces of consciousness and nature were suddenly tangled together: the past the present, inner-life and outer-world. How could I have dreamed of this man for a lifetime, and how could it be that he would guide me through life transition after life transition, and now, through the extraordinary generosity of his son’s words, demonstrate how to dance through our final moments on earth? My minds eye summoned the dream image of his glorious leap – in flight, surrounded by a shining light. He is dancing out. Of course he is.
…Another several minutes go by, he’s still breathing. Weakly, but still breathing… then his right hand starts to move. It looks like he’s using my mother’s note like a pencil, scratching the surface of the bed as if he’s drawing. This stops a few minutes later, then the left hand begins tapping. Through the oxygen mask the gurgling starts creating it’s own rhythm. Not sure of what I’m hearing, I look up to see his mouth moving. I get closer to listen: “2, 3, 4….2, 3, 4… He’s counting! It gets stronger, and at it’s loudest sounds like the deep purr of a lion, then he says “Arms, 2, 3, 4, Turn, 2, 3, 4, Swing, 2, 3, 4, Down, 2, 3, 4….”
…His closed eyes burst open focused straight on us like lasers and he roars with all his might: ”SHUT UUUUUUUUUUUUUP!!! YOU’RE BREAKING MY CONCENTRATION!!!!!!!”
We freeze with our mouths open. He stares us down. long and hard.
Then he closes his eyes again, “Arms, 2, 3, 4, Turn, 2, 3, 4, Swing, 2, 3, 4, Down, 2, 3, 4…”
My sobs were wet and wracking by this point. My heart breaking and bursting with gratitude – I feel, viscerally, that this man’s professional persona and way of being somehow had taught first me to survive, and later, taught me to live. And now, it seemed that he was showing me how to dance through to death.
How could a man I never knew have given me so much? It made no sense. My tears were disrupted by self-consciousness –I knew there were no words to explain to anyone how deeply I felt the loss of a man I had no actual connection to. My response felt indulgent, greedy as if the scope of my sorrow was beyond my rights. This was Leo’s loss. And Carmen’s. And his friends, and his mentees, and the loss of generations young choreographers and dancers and designers in the theater community, and especially the black artists and performers he had paved the way for. How could I lay any claim to Geoffrey Holder as a benefactor, a mentor?
That is the mystery of dreams, that one does not dream, one is dreamt. We suffer the dream. We do not make it… ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
I had an internal relationship with a unconsciously generated symbol that took the shape of Geoffrey Holder. And in sharing the story of his dying, his son was generous enough to give me, and all of us, a glimpse into the soul of a man who was nearly as powerful as the archetypal sorcerer of my dreams. It was an honor to have been his apprentice, his student, in whatever strange way that I was. And it felt like his dying was the final masterwork he would leave with us.
He continued counting ’til it faded out, leaving only the sound of faint breathing, slowing down to his very last breath at 9:25 pm.
Still Geoffrey Holder.
The most incredible night of my life.
~Geoffrey Holder 1930 – 2014: From His Son Leo
It was incredible. Who wouldn’t want to die in that kind of power, filled with that kind of relish for every last drop of life? A good death. I’d thought of those words before, but the construct was entirely theoretical. Now, I had a model of a dying process to aspire to for myself and others.
And the story of this dream and these archetypal events could come to a satisfying ending right here. It seemed like it should. It would be more than enough.
But it kept going, gathering an uncanny momentum:
On October 10th, I decide to share the story and some of its personal meaning to me on my Facebook page, and Twitter account:
This is an extraordinary story of an extraordinary man and his death.
And a strongly felt meaningful coincidence:
I had a reoccurring dream, starting around age five, of Geoffery Holder, who came to take/rescue me from the stifling unspoken aspects of my home. It was a dream that was sometimes joyful and sometimes terrified me- as is always true of liberation. It was a dream I had for many many years.
I knew him to be a dancer. And he would show up in my dreams and dance away with me.
I saw him as a symbol of a kind of wild, wide-open creative freedom and I am deeply moved, that in this week that I have spent contemplating death, and the things I have learned from the dead I have never met – that Geoffery Holder’s son shared this amazing man’s joyful exit.
I don’t know how or why this public figure took up residence as a psychopomp in my child-mind. But he has been an amazing unmet and unexpected guide. I hope I live and die as joyfully.
Filled with gratitude for all he left in his wake.
An hour or so later, I received a direct message notification. I clicked to find this message from a stranger: (which I share with permission):
10 Oct 2014
@psychesymbols: Again a strange thing. I entered twitter, a tiny voice in myself told me so, and I found your tweet about Geoffrey.
The other half of my USA family received Leo’s message b/c of your tweet. Many of Geoffrey’s friends are in their 80’s.
For my parents-in-law and their children your tweet was very important. Thanks again.
I’d somehow inadvertently informed some personal friends of Mr. Holder of his death? Of course I wrote back:
@shrinkthinks: You have a connection to Geoffrey Holder? Oh. This makes me weep. I can’t explain how I attached to him in childhood, at such a young age, Dr Doolittle perhaps? But I knew him to be a dancer and he would come to my dreams and we would dance away from my oppressive home together. I studied dance and acting later – and it is what carried me out of my home. And I always felt like he led me out.
How odd is that? Please tell anyone who knew him what he symbolized to me.
And I feel like his son’s story shows me how to face the Second half and eventual end of life. A great teacher.
@psychesymbols: Now I am sitting here and weep. My husband, who knew him says: Geoffrey really was like in your dreams. He would have done that for anyone. Geoffrey was magic. He had the ability to warm your heart just by thinking of him.
He was magic. Powerful magic.
@shrinkthinks: I never met him. But he did exactly that for me. Thank you for sharing this with me. It means more than you know to share this with those who knew him. It is very validating.
I felt so touched, so blessed. My peculiar bereavement was somehow enfranchised. I’d had the chance to share my grief with someone who it made sense to, who mourned him too. I’d done Mr. Holder and his family a service by informing some far away friends. And this sentence: “He really was like in your dreams. He would do that for anyone.”
“I create for that innocent little boy in the balcony who has come to the theater for the first time,” he told Dance magazine in 2010. “He wants to see magic, so I want to give him magic. He sees things that his father couldn’t see.”
~ Geoffrey Holder, quoted in his New York Times Obituary.
He sees things his father couldn’t see. I gave myself permission to consider that he had done exactly that for me, somehow. Remotely. Magically. Symbolically. And I was allowed to mourn my loss and feel gratitude for the symbolic psychological gift he had given me.
Somehow, somewhere, in some realm – this was real.
(This would be a lovely stopping point too. But its not done yet.)
My heart felt full to overflowing. When I went to pick up my kids from school, as we waited in the hall together for our kids to be released, I mentioned the meaningful coincidence to another mom. She looked very surprised, and told me that her husband grew up as Geoffrey’s and Carmen’s next door neighbor, and had been essentially adopted by them. He was with Leo and Carmen, preparing for the funeral as we spoke. She assured me that she would pass my condolences on to Geoffrey Holder’s widow and his son. She told me that it would mean a great deal to them but that they would be in no way surprised to hear that he had had such a powerful effect on my life.
“That was just who he was.” she said. “He served that function for so many young people.”
I had now, inadvertently, fortuitously, vicariously, shared my bereavement and my gratitude directly with his wife and son, slipping, in the smallest way, into the inner circle of loss.
I didn’t understand how this was happening.
My 11 year old son – who had listened with interest to the end of the conversation – and I walked on down the streets of Brooklyn, grabbing an after school snack, returning a stack of library books. And the most peculiar uncanny synchronicity of all: As we passed a side door of an old Brooklyn church, the door swung open, and a woman stepped into the doorway. She looked directly at us, calmly speaking the words: “Geoffrey Holder” and shut the door again.
That was all. Just that. The street was silent, like it had never happened. I held my breath.
My son turned to me: “That was random. Isn’t that the guy you were just talking about?”
It wasn’t just me? I assumed it was merely a projective mondegreen. Probably I’d just reorganized a cluster of homophones into the sound “Geoffrey Holder” since he was on my mind. Maybe she’d said something like: “Just hold on there!” and my over-stimulated brain had just misheard “Geoffrey Holder”
I double checked with the boy. “You heard that too right?”
“Yeah. That was weird. She just looked right at you and said ‘Geoffrey Holder’ out of nowhere and then shut the door.”
One can observe in everyday life how the unconscious anticipates things… Such peculiar beside-the-mark perceptions are very frequent… one generally overlooks them and thinks: ‘What a coincidence!’ But there are examples which are really marvelous… I am in the habit of saying ‘Now you must watch, now something will happen!’ ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
Jung was right: something happened.
In fact, a lot of things happened, and then just kept happening.
…dreams which anticipate the future psychical contents of the personality, although they are not recognized as such at the time. These contents point to future situations or activities of the dreamer… Especially in children’s dreams events which belong essentially to the future can be anticipated in the most surprising manner. ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
My mother, diagnosed with cancer the year before would very soon come out of her brief remission and be dead by June 2015.
And one short week after Mr. Holder died: our beloved Crawford-Amarel family friend Ellie, a truly chosen sister, fifteen years my junior, an aunt to my children, who had helped care for my sick mother like a daughter, would send me this text message:
Hey Crams, just wanted to let you know I’m ok but I’ve been in cardiac care at Beth Israel since yesterday afternoon. I had about a liter of fluid around my heart (pericardial effusion) which explained A LOT. I was severely short of breath just by walking a few steps and my new job was just so difficult all last week. Anyhoo! M. has been by my side since I was admitted and she’s taking really good care of me. The fluid is being tested, I’ll keep ya posted and let you know when I’m out! Love to the whole family
She would be diagnosed with a rare, and essentially untreatable lymphoma, although she tried every potential treatment that was available to her. In June 2015 Ellie would learn that her treatment attempts had failed. She would leave us early in the morning New Year’s Day, 2016.
Eight months after Ellie crossed over, I would stand with my own toes curled on the edge of the abyss. I picked up the baton of our cancer-relay – diagnosed with a uniquely peculiar and dangerous form of a common chronic blood cancer that had emerged, instead, mysteriously and anomalously, not in my blood at all but only in my central nervous system, up and down my spine. It had likely been growing slowly in my body for several years, undetected.
My life, from the moment the Man in The Top Hat returned, was consumed with a bittersweet joy in life while striving for a “good death” for my loved ones, and for myself.
And although I did not notice it at the time, Geoffrey Holder had most certainly, yet again, danced me out of one phase of life, into another.
Fittingly enough, it expresses its meaning in the opinion and voice of a wise magician, who goes back in direct line to the figure of medicine man… He is… an immortal daemon that pierces the chaotic darknesses of brute life with the light of meaning. He is enlightener, the master and teacher, a psychopomp. ~ Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, C. G. Jung
“I’m telling you that there are dreams I had when your age that I remembered for my whole life, and that only now am I beginning to understand them.” my husband said to my daughter, a few weeks after I learned that my disease was being successfully managed by a daily dose of oral chemotherapy.
And the moment he said that, I remembered that the dream had reasserted itself just before “the troubles” that befell us. It became clear that there was more work to do: more layers to peel back. The dream had re-emerged bringing yet another load of guidance that I had left sitting there, untouched, unexamined, for three years, while I had been immersed in a continuous and intense initiation into the lessons of living in conscious relationship to death and dying.
Our final Christmas together, my mother had given me a bound hand-typed “multigraph” of student’s notes on Jung’s 1938-39 Autumn-Winter seminar on Children’s Dreams. (These seminar notes , from 1936 to 1940, were eventually compiled together and published for the first time in 2010, edited by Lorenz Jung – all the citations here are from the original multigraph in my possession) I have no idea how it came into her hands. Knowing my mother, she probably found it on Ebay. I have no idea how much she may have spent on it. It is the most precious gift she left with me, and I decided to start my investigations into the resurgence of this dream by reading it exclusively in my own service, applying Jung’s teachings directly to my own dreamwork. I pulled the multigraph off of my shelf, cracked it open and flipped through it to see if I thought some chapters might be more pertinent to this labor than others, or if it warranted a thorough cover to cover re-read.
My eye stopped on this passage:
The call of the spirit, being spoken to by a ghost, is an uncanny experience. It means an invitation to the kingdom of death… the paths which led into a village were usually guarded against the ghosts that could come back in the night to fetch their relations. Ghost-traps were set, or little bundles of herbs – “medicine” were hung up, which could keep the ghosts away. For they have too great an influence on the living. That goes back to the idea that one comes under the shadow of death when one loses a near relation. A certain lowering of the will to live takes place then. One is partially drawn down into the grave, and this can have far-reaching and destructive effects; it may result in neurosis and physical illness. Or a transformation of the whole personality may occur. Such changes of character take place because the dead wander over into the living and continue to live there. If the dead have had a positive influence during life, it may continue after death, but even then it is somewhat questionable and sinister. It is always pretty gruesome when the dead continue to have an effect upon people. . ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung (emphasis mine)
A mother and a sister had disintegrated out from under me simultaneously, and my powerful attachments to them had certainly drawn me partially down into the grave.
Okay, yep: I would be re-reading the seminar notes cover to cover.
When a historical name appears in a dream I am careful to look up what the name meant in reality. I look up what kind of man he was and what his surroundings were, for in this way the dream can be interpreted. ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
Why hadn’t I ever looked more closely into Mr. Holder’s life and history? I suppose I felt that I knew “enough” that I’d had some private unconscious portal into his essence – like the secret doorway into John Malkovich’s brain in the Spike Jonze film. To seek him out further – by following his career or his work too closely would be “too much” and besides the point. I didn’t want or require anything from Mr. Holder as man in reality. His function was purely symbolic, and I assumed, that I had sufficient alternate pathways to suss out the many meanings of a multi-determined symbolic image.
Time to start: I followed my nose on the internet to recreate a rough chronology of his career and the ways that I may have encountered his image: My mother had the 1954 cast album of the House of Flowers (she was a Pearl Bailey fan – and I remember listening to all-black Hello Dolly cast album while cleaning the house on Saturday mornings), and perhaps there were small photos of Mr. Holder on the back cover.
I learned that Dr. Dolittle had premiered in 1967, and that his character, the highly educated, cultivated, William Shakespeare the 10th – costumed in an orange loin-cloth, a feather headdress and a painted face – was a role created for the film. It was considered to be a more “sensitive” rewrite of an even more paternalistic and racist story line from the original book: “Prince Bumpo” who begs Dr. Dolittle to fulfill his greatest desire and “bleach him white.” In the film, the plot twists on the expectation that Mr. Holder’s character is a “savage” who will only be able to speak in pidgin English, and who surprises the main characters and the audience by being highly conversant in Euro-centric culture, literature, and manners.
Mr. Holder negotiated racist stereotyping off the set as well:
(Rachel) Roberts (Rex Harrison’s wife) was rude to him almost immediately (“I don’t have to talk to you, do I?” she asked him by way of introduction), and during a cocktail party given for the cast and crew on Harrison’s yacht Holder had a run in with a young member of Harrison’s entourage. “I’m standing on the deck, all dressed up, and I see St. Lucians loading a banana boat with bananas. And this English girl says to me ‘How do you like being on this side of the boat?’ Well, what could I expect.” ~ Mark Harris, Pictures at a Revolution; Five Movies and the Birth of a New Hollywood
Rewatching the film, I also understood why he had accepted the role: despite the restrictive stereotypical tropes there was an opportunity for Mr. Holder to speak some anti-colonialistic truths as well: He informs Dr. Dolittle’s party that his is a happy and peaceable kingdom, whose only strife occurs when white men come to the island and “begin killing people before they are even properly introduced.”
Willie Shakespeare the 10th, is a neutral and legalistic character – who is bound to burn Dr. Dolittle and his party at the stake – “a death of one thousand screams” because they unwittingly violated a sacred tribal prohibition. He is polite, formal and detached from the ultimate outcome. It seems to make no difference to him whether these intruders live or die – he is solely committed to fulfilling a sacred collective mandate.
Dr. Dolittle and his party are bound with ropes like a spool – and stand on a pile of logs and sticks which are to be set aflame. Reprieve from the flames comes through a combination of Dr. Dolittle’s resourcefulness and the hand of fate, when a heroic prophecy is fortuitously fulfilled.
Clearly several elements my dream had been gathered from my exposure to the film. Many people use such correlates to dismiss their night dreams as mere detritus of the day – and interpret dreams as a simple effect to a causal exposure. But that doesn’t explain why some images are selected, juxtaposed, charged with affect or remembered, when other’s are not. And it certainly doesn’t explain a full half-century of dreaming. But this certainly does seem to be the raw material that dreams are made of, the clay that I formed into the central and repeating psycho-spiritual themes that would play out for the rest of my lifetime.
The Seven Up “Uncola” commercial debuted in 1969, the year I first had the dream. Mr. Holder had broken a racial-barrier by securing the role: this was first time the 7-Up company had allowed a person of color to be cast in its TV ad.
When I was in 3rd grade, the James Bond movie, “Live and Let Die” was released. I assume my parents saw it. My mother was a Sean Connery fan, and may have been too loyal to him to embrace Roger Moore’s first film in the role. I knew the Paul McCartney theme song, it played continuously on the top 40 radio station that blared out of my portable transistor radio.
Watching the film as research was a trial. The plot was thinner and even more strained than the few James Bond movies I’d seen in my life and were at best “not my thing.” It assumed the tone and style, as well as the painful stereotypes and tropes of the blaxpoitation films that were popular in that era. And like my dream – and like most of the popular media that featured black actors of that time, it presented blackness in ways that were simultaneously empowering and a denigrating. Mr. Holder plays an assistant/henchman to Mr. Big, the head of a Caribbean drug cartel cultivating heroin on a fictitious island. Mr. Holder’s character is able to control the naive islanders by exploiting their belief in “voodoo”* and their “fear” of an entity named Baron Samedi.
(* Note: I place quotation marks around “voodoo” – the term and spelling used by white supremacist culture with it’s racist distortions emphasizing “black magic” “zombies” and “evil spirits” – to distinguish it from the actual syncretic religious practice of Vodou.)
It is unclear if Mr. Holder’s otherwise nameless character is supposed to be a “voodoo priest” practicing magic and channeling Baron Samedi, a human manifestation of a “evil” supernatural entity, or if he is merely a human drug trafficker cynically exploiting and manipulating the poppy field workers’ “superstitions.” In the ultimate battle, James Bond defeats him by flinging him into a coffin of poisonous snakes and shutting the lid. In the end this ambiguity is clarified by a final shot of Mr. Holder as Baron Samedi, apparently magically risen from the grave, riding on the outside front of train engine that is carrying Mr. Bond, imbued with supernatural powers in some form.
The film aged badly, (although Mr. Holder’s presence was electric during his too brief screen time). In its the time it presented another “first” across the line of racial segregation: the first black “Bond girl” and offered skilled black actors such as Yaphet Kotto and Geoffrey Holder “juicy roles” and a major international screen presence and a paycheck, albeit in roles that tantalize and reassure white audiences projective fears of black men as drug dealing criminals and evil “witch doctors” while a heroic white man cavalierly defeats them all.
We were all dreaming a dream of white supremacy and the struggle against it.
We were all dreaming a dream of suppression and liberation.
My nightmare was an extension of our national dream.
And this: in this strange and ridiculous spy flick – I recognized the complete representation of the man in my dreaming; more than Geoffrey Holder, more than the Uncola Man, more than a dancer on Broadway, more than the be-feathered king of a peaceable island.
The Man in The Top Hat was the top-hatted Baron Samedi, whoever, whatever that was.
I’d never heard of such an entity before, but that was unquestionably the character who had arrived in my bedroom to take me away, and with whom I willingly left. I had no idea if Baron Samedi had anything to do with some kind of “real voodoo” or if it was a purely fictional construct for the movie.
The unconscious functions in accordance with the archetypes. If it functions rightly, it could lead to the discovery of the world, or to all the history of the world. We do not make these images, they are in us, and we shall develop after their pattern… ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
The Wiz on Broadway, 1975: I was in fifth grade.
“It’s because ‘The Wiz’—Dorothy’s search for Oz is a universal story of growing up. Everyone black, red or green—goes through it; that rebellion, that confusion about what the world is like, all those fears, until they know that they can always go back and find it. What is it? That love they have at home, of course. That’s why Dorothy is grown up at the end. She’s understood this.” ~New York Times, May 1975, Geoffrey Holder: The Whiz Who Rescued ‘The Wiz’
The Wiz made Mr. Holder into the first black man to win a Tony Award for directing, the first black man to win a Tony Award for costume design, the first black man to be nominated in either category. His professional life was one of being the first man of color in a segregated white world.
A People Magazine article written about his last minute rescue of the failing show stated that “although Holder had been raised an Episcopalian” he had “instructed the cast to pray while he burned incense in a voodoo ritual and exorcised evil spirits from the theater.”
Was this real? “Voodoo?” Was this a metaphorical and theatrical gesture performed for cast morale? One that made campy reference to his turn as a Bond villain? Or was this an actual piece of vodou liturgy or a formal ritual from Trinidadian obeah? These were synergistic religious practices – being an “Episcopalian” would be no barrier to initiation into the folk religious practices of the islands.
The magical something that takes over always happens at night. “That’s when the gods are out and you have to be there to receive them. I don’t need more than about three hours of sleep a night. Often I paint all night—my painting has sustained me through everything.” ~New York Times, May 1975, Geoffrey Holder: The Whiz Who Rescued ‘The Wiz’
Either way, whether it Mr. Holder appreciated the symbolic and theatrical gesture, or a undertook a formal petition to the spirits of a folk religion, “voodoo” was emerging as a thread running through Mr. Holder’s life into my dream.
If I had any hesitation about this, Mr. Holder’s New York Times obituary made it made it crystal clear, that I would need to understand more about the archetypal gods and spirits of the Afro-Carribean religious practice in order to understand the deeper layers of the dream and its re-emergence in my life.
One character Mr. Holder played in the musical (House of Flowers) was the top-hatted Baron Samedi, the guardian of the cemetery and the spirit of death, sex and resurrection in Haitian Voodoo culture. Mr. Holder relished Samedi: he played him again in the 1973 James Bond film, “Live and Let Die” (the first of the Bond franchise to star Roger Moore), and featured him in his choreography — in his “Banda” dance from the musical “House of Flowers,” and in “Banda,” a further exploration of folk themes that had its premiere in 1982. ~ New York Times Obituary: Geoffrey Holder Dancer, Choreographer, and Man of Flair Dies at 84, Oct, 7th , 2014 (emphasis mine)
“Okay, okay!” I thought, “I don’t need to be hit over the head with a stick.”
I searched for footage of Mr. Holder dancing as Baron Samedi/Cimeterre
I wanted to see him:
And there he was, his top hat, bare legs, spinning his umbrella “staff.”
The man in my dream, exactly as my psyche had conjured him fifty years ago, Here was the Man in the Top Hat, dancing in the graveyard, joining the gorgeous Ms. Lavallade in her embodied grief, seducing her, escorting her through bereavement and unto death.
Dreams might indeed follow but none of them would have the importance of the dreams of her childhood. For the child is much nearer to the collective unconscious of than the adult… There are high-points later in life, and the turning point when we leave youth behind us, and then the great dreams reappear that are dreamed out of the depth of the personality. ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
“Oh.” I thought. “He’s Death. Baron Samedi is Death.”
Dreams of this kind always contain something mythological, which cannot be interpreted simply by questioning the personal amplifications… A definite knowledge is necessary in order to understand them. We must have a knowledge of symbols and of mythological motifs; we must know what is contained in the storehouse of the human mind, we must know the ancient folk-wisdom; the more we know, just so much the better shall we succeed in understanding certain symbols. ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
I had never consciously heard of Baron Samedi, knew nothing of the actual religious practice of Vodou beyond what white culture’s distortions of “voodoo.” I knew nothing about what existed beyond those distortions. I certainly had no exposure to vodouisants or the liturgy of vodou. I knew nothing of the entities and spiritual guides that they summoned. I surely knew none of this when I still slept in a yellow trundle bundle.
We have reached the realm of dream work, that lies beyond, or perhaps below the personal unconscious. This is the archetypal realm, the primordial soup of Jung’s collective unconscious: the birthplace of all human symbolization, where we assemble metaphorical representations from a collectively accessible pile of psychological building blocks. This is the stratum in our psyche where we anthropomorphize all of our hungers and desires and fears and hopes and impulses into saints and gods and angels and spirits and monsters and demons who whisper to our souls while we sleep or pray. The collective unconscious is like the pool of nucleobases that are assembled into the individualized DNA of our dreaming. This is the place where our lives and our perceptions of the world are built up from and boiled down to the seven basic plotlines, the Forms, the five Platonic solids, and the twelve Olympic gods and signs of the zodiac. The collective unconscious is the cluster of basic metaphors that we rely upon to structure our perceptions of the world, and to assign meaning to the events of our lives.
One can fix no particular time in which these figures first appeared. They are always a priori already there, they are to be found simply everywhere…When we perceive the same ideas in a child, we cannot assume that he has discovered them for the first time. They are invariably already there. Sometimes they are there because they have been told fairy-tales, for children swallow those easily. ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
I don’t know how to explain why an image of Baron Samadi, a intercessory spirit, (referred to as a lwa or a loa by vodouisants) the Haitian Lord of the Dead, would be summoned, selected and passed up from the unconscious of a white American mid-western kindergartener fifty years ago, activating a dream that would repeat and re-emerge at every major life transition.
To dreams that cannot be solved by personal questioning or personal amplification, the method of folk psychology must be applied. We must expand the horizon considerably in order to keep even with nature; in such a dream nature itself is speaking. ~ Children’s Dreams, C.G. Jung
By “folk psychology” Jung does not refer to “common sense” but an exploration of folkloric beliefs and practices use in service of psychological amplification. If my dream had produced an image of a man with winged feet and a cauduceus that I later recognized to be Hermes – another psychopomp – my task would be to investigate the folkloric function and narratives of Hermes, and to apply those themes to the psychological tasks at hand, and see if they offered any illumination, or guidance.
But, for me to undertake “folk psychology” with a religious practice that I am unfamiliar with, that has been appropriated and distorted by white culture, and that moreover, emerged as a liberating spiritual practice of enslaved Afro-Carribean people, required that I do so very cautiously, and respectfully.
Anything I could say beyond this point about Vodou would be problematic. The problem is inherent and unavoidable.
These views of Haitian Vodou… are continuously at play in our popular culture, where they manifest most frequently in references to an imagined religion called ‘‘voodoo.’’ Principally an invention of Hollywood—and of travel writers long before that—voodoo has power in the imaginations of many, in spite of the fact that it has little or no basis in fact. This imagined religion serves as a venue for the expression of more or-less undiluted racial anxieties, manifested as lurid fantasies about black peoples. ~ Haitian Vodou and Voodoo: Imagined Religion and Popular Culture, Adam M. McGee
So: a complicated knot, a bind wound tightly:
A dream of an actor embodying an archetype.
A white child dreaming of a black man, portraying an Afro-Carribean spirit.
An actor with a career-long relationship with a complex archetype, presented in ways both nuanced and distorted through the lens of the dominant culture.
As a performer: Geoffrey Holder stood at the intersection of “voodoo” and Vodou, just as Baron Samedi stands at the crossroads of life and death.
There are no pure symbols – or more correctly, we cannot perceive them purely, and will only ever be able to peer at these archetypes “through a glass darkly.” We are limited not only by our senses and the limitations of our individual capacities and cognition, but our lenses contain all the distortions of our cultural realities, mythologies and collective self-deceptions. We can only perceive the shadows of the archetypes, and we are dazzled and blinded when we try to gaze into the sun directly.
And any attempt I make to comprehend the archetypal essence that resides behind the tropes and stereotypes will be partial, incomplete.
It seems clear that real Vodou and imaginary voodoo have entwined destinies. ~ Haitian Vodou and Voodoo: Imagined Religion and Popular Culture, Adam M. McGee
Yet, this dream was nonetheless my dream, a dream that is and is not about Geoffrey Holder, that is and is not about Baron Samedi, that is about “voodoo” and Vodou simultaneously, that is and is not a dream about life and death, that is and is not a dream about oppression and liberation, a dream that is about a personal and a collective/cultural dilemma simultaneously.
There is no easy escape from the bind of whiteness, no way to see beyond the distorted lens.
Haitian Vodou, the people of Vodou (Vodouisants) and the Lwa owe you nothing and have no obligation to respond to your questions or your interest. If you are not a Haitian, simply do not have an inherent right to own or borrow Haiti’s spirituality, in whole or in part…
Do not take what is not yours unless and until you are given permission to do so. Sincerity and good intentions never excuse cultural theft. ~ Hatian Vodou: An Introduction to Haiti’s Indigenous Spiritual Tradition, Mambo Chita Tan
Quoting McGee, “in playing with these classic tropes,” we run “the risk of simply reproducing racist stereotypes”
My psyche selected and relied upon the tropes that surrounded me to represent my inherent developmentally normative xenophobia- a child’s fear of strangers. The dream also speaks to the racist matrix we are embedded in, and the ways in which we are bound and trapped in that cauldron, and the long struggle toward liberation.
And yet, there is a glimpse of something whole that exists beyond these distortions, even if I am not able to see or depict it with justice and accuracy.
The only way to move forward was to search out initiated and knowledgeable voices, and accept my profound limitations in comprehending an archetype, a symbol, from a culture that is not my own. And to be sure also that all who read this are warned: I am not capable of representing anything whole or accurate or nuanced about this spiritual character, or the religious practices that surround him, other than what has been digested and offered up by others. I can only skim the surface, noticing what resonates and illuminates.
All the Lwa are considered to be “the angels of God” working for Bondeye (the Creator) to keep the universe in good order and interceding on the behalf of those who serve them, just like a Roman Catholic prays for the intercession of the Jesus, Mary, the Holy Spirit and the communion of Saints . ~ Hatian Vodou: An Introduction to Haiti’s Indigenous Spiritual Tradition, Mambo Chita Tan
It is the Lwa who choose their servants, not the other way around. ~ Hatian Vodou: An Introduction to Haiti’s Indigenous Spiritual Tradition, Mambo Chita Tan
Everybody dies. Everybody has a relationship with the dead in some way: dead ancestors, dead relatives, the men and women buried in the cemeteries we pass every day of our lives or read about in obituaries. Some day we will be dead people too. Death is a natural stage of life, the final stage of our existence in this world (to our knowledge), and the Lwa also observe this natural order by having their own nation strictly for the spirits of the unknown and forgotten dead: the Gede Lwa. ~ Hatian Vodou: An Introduction to Haiti’s Indigenous Spiritual Tradition, Mambo Chita Tan
While the Gede Lwa in general represent death, Baron himself represents judgment and control over death: Baron may not actually kill a man, but he can give the order for a man to live or die by withholding or granting permission to “dig his grave” ~ Hatian Vodou: An Introduction to Haiti’s Indigenous Spiritual Tradition, Mambo Chita Tan
Because the Gede are closer to us than any other Lwa, they have a special love and concern for life and the living. They remember what it was like to enjoy life’s pleasure, and they miss them. They understand how important life and happiness are, and so they come back to visit as often as they can. We welcome the Gede and encourage them to give advice, heal the sick, divine the future, and offer their special protection and wisdom to anyone who will listen. ~ Hatian Vodou: An Introduction to Haiti’s Indigenous Spiritual Tradition, Mambo Chita Tan
Papa Guedé is almost identical with Baron Cimeterre, Baron Samedi, and Baron Croix, who is one god with three epithets, and all of them mean the Lord of the Dead. ~ Tell My Horse, Zora Neale Hurston
As befitting a man of his station – particularly a dead man of his station – he is dressed for the grave in a black suit and top hat. ~ Hatian Vodou: An Introduction to Haiti’s Indigenous Spiritual Tradition, Mambo Chita Tan
So dressed and fed, he bites with sarcasm and slashes with ridicule the class that despises him. ~ Tell My Horse, Zora Neale Hurston
Baron Samdei (Lord of Saturday) Baron Cimeterre, (Lord of the Cemetery) and Baron Crois (Lord of the Cross) one spirit with three names… ~ Tell My Horse, Zora Neale Hurston
The spirit of Guedé is Baron Cimeterre with social consciousness, plus a touch of burlesque and slapstick . ~ Tell My Horse, Zora Neale Hurston
Baron Cimeterre is very popular… He is also a doctor of medicine and prescribes a great number of healing baths for the sick people under his care.. ~ Tell My Horse, Zora Neale Hurston
How does a man know that he has been called? It usually begins in troubled dreams. At first his dreams are vague. He is visited by a strange being which he cannot identify. He cannot make out at first what is wanted of him… the dream visitations become more frequent and definite…~ Tell My Horse, Zora Neale Hurston
Guedé pas drah.” (Guedé is not a sheet), that is, Guedé covers up nothing. It seems to be his mission to expose and reveal. At any rate Guedé is a whimsical deity, and his revelations are often most startlingly accurate and very cruel. ~ Tell My Horse, Zora Neale Hurston
You must place your hand in his while you make your request of him. When he leaves, he will take away with him whatever he is holding. ~ Tell My Horse, Zora Neale Hurston
The dream of the Man in the Top Hat, the Uncola Man, Geoffrey Holder, Baron Samedi and Baron Cimeterre and the cluster of synchronicities which accompanied them all had erupted back into my life when Mr. Holder passed, when a cancer was growing slowly and as yet undetected along my spine, days before a chosen sister would encounter a terminal diagnosis, and my mother would face her own death and dying.
I required an initiation into a new phase of living, as it was time to face an “unknown life” which would come hard upon me. I would need, yet again, to leave the illusory safety I had been bundled in, and encounter the underworld. And I would discover its trials, and binds. I was as fearful of it as any stranger. I would struggle to procure and cultivate an opportunity for good and conscious death for those I loved, as Mr. Holder had shown me. I would take the hand of this stranger, and leave an old life behind. I would try to allow my old life to die, in service of a new way of living, one that included a much more imminent, intimate awareness of the eventuality of death.
As my mother died in hospice in New Jersey , she filled her room with beautiful hallucinations. There were regal “Egyptian” cats that she saw sitting upon her bed, or in the laps of visitors. There was ancient, golden calligraphy from a lost language, that would magically write itself, unfolding and breathtaking, across her wall. There were flocks of brightly colored tropical birds flying outside her window.
And there was a man.
“He is an older black man, and very handsome” she said.
“He is so well dressed. Very fancy!” she laughed. “And he is waiting for me.”
I felt chills run up my spine.
“Is it scary Mom?” I asked.
“No. It isn’t scary at all. He is just there. He is kind. He is just waiting patiently for me to go with him… I wonder where we are going?”
I wonder too, just as I wonder at the second chance at life I have been granted. And I am filled with extraordinary gratitude that the Baron has decided not to dig my grave, for now.
But of course he will one day.
And I am sure, that when that time does come, he will arrive to take me away, and I may at first fear him like a stranger. He may reveal hard truths, and maybe earlier than I would like. He will wait, patiently and I will take his hand, just as I have so many times before. And he will lead the way, waiting for me to extricate myself from the ties that bind me, and maybe I will catch a glimpse of liberation.
But until then, I will do my best to manifest the lessons of my apprenticeship, and honor the model of my unconscious mentor. I will love this life, and commit to living it moment by moment, as fully as possible, mindful that throughout our stay on this planet, we are all dancing in the graveyard.