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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.
By whatashrinkthinks in alchemy, Archetype, Bereavement, branches of psychotherapy, Death & Dying, Depth psychology, logotherapy, psychoanalytic theory, Shadow, Trauma No Comments Tags: archetypes, C. G. Jung, Pollyanna, psychotherapy, Viktor Frankl
“You don’t seem ter see any trouble being glad about everythin’,” retorted Nancy…
Pollyanna laughed softly.
“Well that is the game you know, anyway.”
“The – game?”
“Yes; the ‘just being glad’ game.”
As I slowly recovered from a period of intensive and debilitating treatment for cancer, as I transitioned back into the world of work, and social commitments, as I returned to the world, altered but alive, anxious yet hopeful about what a newly reorganized life might have in store for me – I suddenly remembered Pollyanna.
Maybe it was comments like these that summoned her from the sub-basement of my memory:
“Great attitude! Keep it up!”
“Such a terrific outlook you have on all of this.”
“Your attitude is really inspiring.”
What was this attitude (terrific or not) that I was able to summon for public consumption, for clients and acquaintances, and for my children and for all those that I felt I needed to care for or protect? And what attitude did I drop when I was in the presence of my husband or friends who could withstand the “dark night of the soul” along with me? What function did my “attitude” have? For me? For others? How authentic or essential was it to me? Was it part of my character? Or a learned behavior? Where did it come from?
Or maybe it was because I had relied heavily on Pollyanna through a tumultuous childhood, marked by high conflict divorces and remarriages, dramatic relocations and changes of circumstance and position. Pollyanna was a book that I discovered as an early reader in first grade, and re-read, and carried with me well into junior high- and then, once its themes were completely internalized, forgotten entirely for nearly a half a century.
Regardless of what had called her forth, I suddenly remembered what must have been an early edition hard bound book, covered in what my family called “Virgin Mary blue” cloth, with yellowing pages, and old fashioned type face – found high up on my grandparent’s bookshelf, her name and her author’s name embossed in light blue letters.
Pollyanna charted my course from one lost family to the next, and to the next after that. She had drawn me a map and guided me through waves of chaos, loss, and disruption.
In my minds eye: Aunt Polly’s house on the hill was identical to my childhood house on the hill. Mr. Pendleton who had a dark dusty mansion with “skeletons in his closets” lived in my paternal grandmother’s home. The streets and woods Pollyanna walked through from scene to scene were the ones I walked along. Jimmy Bean’s orphanage was superimposed over the “old folks home” that was on the other side of our village. Her church? The one that I attended. The young maid Nancy: bore a strong physical resemblance to my favorite babysitter. And the outline of Aunt Polly was filled in with the features of my brittle and severe paternal grandmother.
And this winter, as I found one life stripped out from under me yet again, and as I moved toward a new way of living in the world– a yearning for the consoling company of Pollyanna awoke in my heart.
Pollyanna was already an “old book” in my day – first published in 1913, a book my maternal grandmother, born in “nineteen ought-one” might have read in her early adolescence, and one my mother certainly read herself in the mid-1950’s. A Disney movie in the sixties starring Haley Mills superimposed itself over the novel in the collective mind transforming the tale into something brighter, spunkier, and less heroic than I understood Pollyanna to be. It wasn’t a popular book in the revolutionary era of the late sixties and early seventies, and it was not one that I talked about or shared with friends. At school recess we secretly passed around dog-eared paperbacks of the Exorcist and shocked each other by reading the most blasphemous bits in a whisper when the playground aids weren’t watching.
The old tattered blue book came with me -already dusty – to college, and then moved with me like a relic through a few young adult relocations, slowly disintegrating until it was eventually lost or tossed out in pieces.
I thought it would be nice to read again. I thought it would give my chemo-addled brain a rest. I thought it might be soothing. But strangely, as I re-read this old story for the first time in adulthood, after many losses and my first personal introduction to my eventual death – I found myself underlining passages, jotting down notes in the margins. And I was startled to discover that it not only withstood a fairly close reading, it made my own encounters with suffering, more understandable to me.
The story, for those that do not know it, centers around a young girl of eleven, a minister’s daughter, sent to live with her maternal “spinster” aunt, by the “Ladies Aid Society” after her impoverished, widowed father’s death. She arrives with nothing to her name, no transitional objects from one world to the next, except the one thing she inherited from her father: The Glad Game, which her father taught her in order to summon her resilience and negotiate episodes of painful deprivation and despair. She becomes an inadvertent teacher to her new community, most of whom have experienced significant loss, illness, or traumas of their own, as she demonstrates how she uses her father’s game to help her make sense of the tragedies she has survived. The town’s people adopt Pollyanna’s methods and make them their own – so much so that when she is struck by a new-fangled automobile and paralyzed they are able to share all the gladness and gratitude that her father’s game has given them, and support Pollyanna in finding hope and motivation to push herself toward recovery and rehabilitation.
Ms. Porter’s book was so successful – that it was followed by Pollyanna Grows Up, which Porter wrote herself, and spawned an entire series of “glad books” about Pollyanna written by other authors as well as stage plays, board games, and even “glad clubs.”
And without realizing it Ms. Porter had uncovered a national and generational archetype, a freckled sprite that seemed to embody the cultural myth of enduring American optimism.
But as Jung would remind us, an archetype’s power is drawn from its bivalence – every archetype has two faces: The Great Mother is both nurturing and devouring. The Healer is also a Charlatan, And God as an archetype is both loving and wrathful.
Like God, then, the unconscious has two aspects; one good, favorable, beneficent, the other evil, malevolent, disastrous.
~ C. G. Jung, Psychology and Religion,
And, as an archetype, Pollyanna has her own destructive aspects, and came to be known only for her cloying denial, her negating and saccharine naive cheer.
If you look up Pollyanna in the Oxford Dictionary here is the definition that you will find:
Noun: An excessively cheerful or optimistic person.
But the dictionary’s sample sentences reveal Pollyanna’s destructive shadow far more clearly:
- ‘what I am saying makes me sound like some ageing Pollyanna who just wants to pretend that all is sweetness and light’
- ‘Does this mean that we all should be brainless Pollyannas, cheerfully accepting whatever comes down the line?’
- ‘But that definition blunts the refreshing insight – that Pollyannas are often ludicrous opportunists – of George DuMaurier’s classic cartoon.’
- ‘Insofar as this is self-delusion rather than outright deceit, he is a Pollyanna.’
- ‘The Pollyannas and ostriches who advocate open borders want Congress to believe three things about their pending Social Security agreement with Mexico-all of which are false.’
- ‘Those whose cup is half full are the world’s optimists, the Pollyannas and the kind of people to be avoided at all costs, particularly at parties.’
- ‘I’m a terrible Pollyanna and have had bad things happen that I always seem able to put a good spin on – it gets almost tedious for some people around me.’
This is Pollyanna in her destructive aspect: A tedious, excessive, brainless, masochistically accepting, deluded, ludicrous opportunistic, ostrich to be avoided at all costs. An archetype which, when it is in possession of an individual personality, is experienced by others as oppressive, reality-denying, aggressively positive, dismissive of pain and complexity, who relentlessly enjoins others to “just be glad” as if happy thoughts were a panacea for the intractable suffering of the world.
And some of that shadow carries through into to present day “positive psychology” which can equate unrealistic optimism with happiness and success.
Members of our species who were realistic or pessimistic about their future and the inevitability of danger, illness and death were not motivated to do things necessary for their survival. Optimistic counterparts, in contrast, were motivate to struggle for survival because they believed things would work out well for them.
~ Alan Carr Positive Psychology; The Science of Happiness and Human Strengths,
In The Pollyanna Principle: Selectivity in Language, Memory, and Thought, published in 1978, M.W Matlin, and D.J. Stang assert that we are cognitively wired to perceive the world, and to misremember our own lives, through a positive bias. It is actually cognitively more difficult for us to make sense of negative events and realities.
We typically process pleasant items more accurately and efficiently than unpleasant or neutral items, and we tend to make positive judgments about a wide variety of people, events, situations, and objects.
I’m not sure that I would agree that optimistic denial of hard reality is best way to survive or appreciate life, although it may be the easiest, quickest, most reflexive way for many. I (and I suggest that Jung and Frankl along with me) might advocate for a more laborious process that results in a distilled concoction of realism and meaning-making that empowers our survival, and makes real life, with all its sorrows, worth living.
Bias is a process that takes place in the unconscious – and it is interesting, that in the face of everyday miseries, that our psyche may work to compensate by shining a light on the more positive aspects in our memory. Jung might here refer to alchemical processes extracting the gold, the lapis the philospher’s stone from the blackness, the nigredo, burned away in the alchemical fires of the unconscious, our memories washed and baptized, and meaning extracted.
“Most generally it doesn’t take so long” sighed Pollyanna; “and lots of time now I just think of them without thinking, you know.”
The Pollyanna Principle is an established cognitive and unconscious bias that suggests that “the glad game” plays itself (for those who are not clinically depressed) in the back of our brains, outside of our awareness.
Viktor Frankl, neurologist, psychiatrist, founder of existential analysis (which he also calls logotherapy) and holocaust survivor, asserts in his book Will to Meaning that:
Life…remains meaningful, under any conditions. As logotherapy teaches, even the tragic and negative aspects of life, such as unavoidable suffering, can be turned into a human achievement by the attitude which a man adopts toward his predicament.
~ Viktor Frankl Will to Meaning
So perhaps Pollyanna was not only engaged in optimistic denial. Perhaps she is engaged in youthful attempts to extract meaning from tragic experience, fully in acceptance of the devastating and depressing vicissitudes of life and yet still, reaching for the “tension of the opposites” as Jung would call it.
Experience of the opposites has nothing whatever to do with intellectual insight or with empathy. It is more what we would call fate…Without the experience of the opposites there is no experience of wholeness…
~ C. G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy
Maybe Pollyanna wasn’t merely advocating that everyone “just be glad” for gladness sake – but that they search out and claim the wisdom that woundedness can bring with it, in a world that was defined by ubiquitous illness and compound loss, and early death.
Maybe Pollyanna is a logotherapist.
Or perhaps she is an alchemist.
Or maybe, they are the same thing.
Frankl acknowledges the optimistic bent of his theory and therapeutic practice – that it is inherently “optimistic” to imagine that meaning may be found even in the most horrific events. But he asserts that his is a stance based on realism and acceptance of what he calls the “tragic triad of human existence: pain, death and guilt.”
The world of Pollyanna is saturated with pain, death, guilt, suffering and loss.
Pollyanna’s mother estranged from her two sisters and her parents when she chose to marry her husband. Pollyanna, named after her mother’s two lost sisters, was the only child from the marriage to survive: “the other babies had all died.” Her mother dies “several” years after Pollyanna’s birth. Her father, who has buried all the other babies, as well as his wife, continues to minister to his community, and devises “the game” to help Pollyanna withstand their grief and penury. He then dies when Pollyanna is eleven. Aunt Polly, her guardian “was forty now, and quite alone in the world. Father, mother, and sisters were all dead.”
Every secondary character touched by Pollyanna’s game is in mourning from some traumatic loss or event: Mrs. Snow is both a widow and now a depressive bedridden “invalid.” Mr. Pendleton, the only surviving member of his family lives in near total isolation. Characters continue to present themselves: widows, widowers and bereaved parents, children orphaned and living in neglectful institutional care, families contending with poverty, infant mortality and domestic violence, and those who experience the vicarious traumatization and losses that ministers and doctors are regularly exposed to. Even tertiary characters – miscellaneous Ladies Aid members who we never meet except through reminiscence are widowed and bereaved.
“It would have been a good deal harder to be glad in all black”
“The game” is born from bereavement, illness and the visceral and collective experience of being in the continuous presence of suffering, grief and death. “The game” is an attempt to contend with the attendant existential, spiritual and psychological crises. What Frankl calls:
Noogenic neurosis which result from the frustration of will to meaning, from what I have called existential frustration, or the existential vacuum.” ~ Viktor Frankl, Will to Meaning
So perhaps Pollyanna’s shadow, the tediousness, the brainlessness actually emerged from the excesses and delusions of readers from a much later era with ready access to antibiotics. Perhaps the insufferable optimism belongs to the generations after Pollyanna’s that had forgotten what it was to be powerless in the face of common infectious disease and death. Maybe the real ostriches were those who imagined that they were forever free from becoming entrapped in the existential vacuum, and scoffed at the psychological mechanisms and processes required to survive traumatic and cumulative loss.
When surrounded by suffering, you do need find reasons to keep living. You do need to indentify reasons to “just be glad” momentarily, to find relief from anxiety and heartbreak and fear. You need to locate what you are grateful for, what gives your life purpose and keeps you here. You need to find reasons to stay attached to life itself. This is what Frankl calls meaning.
And “just be glad” doesn’t in anyway mean “easily or simply” be glad. It means to be glad momentarily, to appreciate a baseline of minimum normality so that you can feel alive again. “To merely be glad again” is an act that only appears simple, that was once taken for granted but can be taken for granted no longer.
“Yes – that father’s gone to heaven to be with mother and the rest of us, you know. He said I must be glad. But it’s been pretty hard to – to do it, even wearing red gingham, because I – I wanted him so; and I couldn’t help feeling I ought to have him, ‘specially as mother and the rest have God and all the angels, while I didn’t have anybody but the Ladies’ Aid. But now I’m sure it will be easier because I’ve got you Aunt Polly!”
Apathy, indifference, passive or active suicidality, despair, boredom, hyper-vigilance, anxiety, fear are expectable responses to existential despair. Struggling with such symptoms and “wrestling with the question of whether there is a meaning to life, is not in itself a pathological phenomenon” according to Frankl. He goes further and states that in such circumstances:
The difference between existential despair and emotional disease disappears. Once cannot distinguish between spiritual distress and mental disease. ~ Viktor Frankl, Will to Meaning
Frankl suggests we live by and for meaning: Creative values allow us to take pleasure in creative acts in any form that feel meaningful to us. Experiential values emerge from relationships that connect us to something larger – love, friendship, relationships to nature, beauty, pleasure and for some, religious experience. “Just being glad” is an example of what Frankl calls an “attitudinal value” which emerges when we have lost access to other values and must facing unavoidable suffering.
…A stand he takes to his predicament in case he must face a fate which he cannot change. This is why life never ceases hold a meaning, for even a person who is deprived of creative and experiential values is still challenge by a meaning to fulfill, that is by the meaning inherent in an upright way of suffering
~ Viktor Frankl, Will to Meaning
When we can control nothing else, we may choose to “just be glad” or grateful or brave, or to protect others from our despair, or to seek to define our priorities as precisely as possible. Or we may try to draw something from the experience of powerlessness which might make us better, more appreciative, kinder, or wiser within whatever meager time and energies remain available.
“You see when you are hunting for the glad things, you sort of forget the other kind…”
Actualizing our values, living up to whatever attitudinal goal we may have set for ourselves, offers a small moment of relief and reassurance that whatever else has been stripped from us we can at least achieve that.
It was much later that I really understood the meaning of suffering. It can have meaning if it changes you for the better. ~ Viktor Frankl, Will to Meaning
But the next question is how? Where does meaning-making occur? Presumably, Pollyanna (and the rest of us) can’t merely summon any trivial “glad” thing that may emerge from a painful loss or trauma. I imagine that a “glad thought” such as: “Now I never have to iron and starch father’s shirt collars ever again!” would do little to make her shattering loss feel meaningful. The “glad thought” must be the right one – the singular, personal thought that transforms a loss into something useful or meaning-filled, or points toward some positive transformation that makes one prouder of themselves or more connected to others, or the world, or to the Divine, in someway. So how do we “discover” the positive opposite, the meaningful good that may sometimes grow from our losses and injuries? From where does this answer appear from when we are bereft? What does the unconscious labor of the Pollyanna Principle look like? What are the rules and methods of the “game” that happens in the back of our brain and helps us to recontexualize our sufferings into something bearable, or maybe, even as Frankl states, “triumphant”?
It is the science that draws its master away from the suffering of this world and leads to the knowledge of future good. ~ C. G. Jung quoting Morienus, Psychology and Alchemy
Jung sees ancient alchemical texts and recipes, as an externalizing projection, a model, a template that can help us understand the stages and processes of meaning-making that take place in the unconscious. For Jung, ultimate meaning is found in “individuation” – which is the continuous pursuit of “wholeness” and the clarifying sense of purpose and place in the universe that attends it.
Ars totum requirit hominem!” exclaims an old alchemist. It is just this homo totus whom we seek. The labours of the doctor as well as the quest of the patient are directed towards that hidden and as yet unmanifest “whole” man, who is at once the greater and the future man.
~ C. G. Jung, Development of Personality
And wholeness is only able to brought into awareness by considering that our unconscious is filled with content which is both the opposite and the compensation for our conscious awareness. Wholeness is brought into being by withstanding and integrating “the tension of the opposites.” Light is only a partial truth. Darkness is another. An integrated chiaroscuro of light and dark is the only way to depict a whole image. Alchemical recipes and the pursuit of the purified “lapis” or “philospher’s stone” are interpreted by Jung as a metaphor for the unconscious processes and the pursuit of wholeness:
Jung describes how the alchemical texts begin with “the horrible darknesses of our mind” – corresponding to the first alchemical ingredient:
The nigredo, or blackness is the initial state, either present from the beginning as a quality of the prima materia, the chaos, or massa confusa…
~ C. G. Jung Psychology and Alchemy,
Or the “blackness” may also come out of states of separation, division, obligation, death, decay:
…or else produced by the separation (solutio, separatio, divisio, putrefactio) of the elements. If the separated condition is assumed at the start, as sometimes happens, then a union of opposites is performed.
~ C. G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy
The “union of opposites” – the fusion of paradoxical, contradictory, or split off states, is sometimes referred to as the “alchemical wedding” and takes place in the refining fires of the alchemist’s furnace.
All things are integrated in this element by the imagination of the fire
~ C. G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy
This is the process that Pollyanna’s game initiates: To make contact with joy in the midst of sorrow – to reach for the union of the opposites – to wed opposing states together into some inseparable, relieving wholenesss. But Jung reminds us that this is a long and laborious process – that requires many repetitious cycles of painful , purifying burning in the fiery crucible, followed by washing, cooling, rinsing, and whitening in the mercurial waters of the alchemical bath. These repetitive processes seem to mirror of the cyclic waves of hot searing pain, followed by cooling detachment that cycle through us after loss, or exposure to traumatic events.
If we can think of these waves and tides of human feeling as part of a larger process of purification, cleansing, and then as a kind of “baking” of disparate aspects of the self into a new, and more consolidated state of wholeness, perhaps they are easier to bear.
Perhaps then our suffering may then be experienced as purposeful, meaningful.
This labor is not for the impatient or faint of heart. Simple optimistic repression of painful reality may bring more immediate – if temporary – relief from distress, but a simplistic denial and adoption of a merely “positive” perspective works against the richer, “alchemical” processes of moving toward wholeness. Jung, and his alchemical sources caution that the Philosopher’s Stone will only be discovered “when the search lies heavy on the searcher.”
Or in Pollyanna’s words:
And the harder ‘tis the more fun ‘tis to get ‘em out: only – only sometimes it’s almost too hard –
But sometimes, when we have worked hard, and long, and with integrity (“with the true and not the fantastic imagination” as Jung’s alchemical sources point out) we see that we have successfully distilled the purest lapis, and are able to touch, for a moment, clear meaning, brief and relieving contact with our whole self, a larger view which grants us, like the hand of grace, a glimpse of our place and purpose in the world.
Forthwith a flame of fire will come out of the crucible and spread itself over the whole chamber (fear no harm), and will light up the whole chamber more brightly than sun and moon, and over your heads you shall behold the whole firmament as it is in the starry heavens above, and the planets shall hold to their appointed courses as in the sky. Let it cease of itself, in a quarter of an hour everything will be in its own place.
~ C.G. Jung Psychology and Alchemy
PROJECTION and LOGOS
- Theology – The Word of God, or principle of divine reason and creative order, identified in the Gospel of John with the second person of the Trinity incarnate in Jesus Christ.
- (in Jungian psychology) – the principle of reason and judgment, associated with the animus.
Origin: Greek, ‘word, reason’.
Both Frankl and Jung see experiences of meaning as subjective projections onto a objectively neutral world, originating from an internal, individual and subjective space:
Projection is never made; it happens, it is simply there. In the darkness of anything external to me I find, without recognizing it as such, and interior and psychic life that is my own.
~ C.G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy
Thus to all appearances, meaning is just something we are projecting into these things around ourselves, things which in themselves are neutral. And in the light of this neutrality, reality may well seem to be just a screen upon which we are projecting our own wishful thinking…
~Viktor Frankl, Will to Meaning
Although both men remain open to the notion that the discovery of meaning (it must always be found and never given) may be connected to divine sources – both strongly caution against the ego-inflating lure of any certainty or attempt to reign or universalize “meaning” for oneself or others:
One never knows whether or not it is the true meaning to which he is committed. And he will not know it even on his deathbed.
~Viktor Frankl, Will to Meaning
“Mrs. Snow had lived forty years, and for fifteen of those years she had been too busy wishing things were different to find much time to enjoy things as they were…”
Jump-starting the experience of meaning-making using “paradoxical intervention” in Frankl’s terms, or initiating the client into the “union of opposites” in Jungian terms, is the primary task of the psychotherapist working with clients who have found themselves floundering in the vacuum of meaninglessness.
And Mrs. Snow is an example of a client that doesn’t merely flounder – she commits to it.
A new task then arises to lift this still undeveloped mind step by step closer to a higher level and to increase the number of persons who have at least some inkling of the scope of paradoxical truth
~ C. G. Jung Psychology and Alchemy
“’Now I want you to see what I’ve brought you!’
The woman stirred restlessly.
‘Why, I don’t want anything as I know of…’
‘Guess! If you did want something, what would it be?’
The woman hesitated. She did not realize it herself, but she had so long been accustomed to wanting what she did not have, that to state offhand what she did want seemed impossible…
Paradoxical intervention is one of Frankl’s primary logotherapeutic methods:
What then is going on when paradoxical intention is applied? Encouraging the patient to do, or wish to happen, the very things he fears engenders an inversion of intention. The pathogenic fear is replaced by a paradoxical wish. By the same token, however, the wind is taken out of the sails of anticipatory anxiety ~ Viktor Frankl, Will to Meaning
Pollyanna, in her function as logotherapist extraordinaire, demonstrates.
‘Well, of course there is lambs broth.’
‘I’ve got it!’ crowed Pollyanna.
‘But that is what I didn’t want,’ sighed the sick woman, sure now of what her stomach craved. ‘It was chicken that I wanted.’
‘Oh, I’ve got that too,’ chuckled Pollyanna… ‘and calf’s food jelly’ triumphed Pollyanna. ‘I was just bound you should have what you wanted for once.’
Pollyanna creates a paradoxical dialogue where Mrs. Snow’s resistance (her fear of daring to want anything ever again after surviving with a presumably traumatic loss and an unnamed debilitating illness) is no longer able to keep her out of contact with her repressed desires. Her “not wanting anything” is no longer a problematic opposition to “the game” but the pleasurable and playful focus of the game itself – kickstarting the psyche’s search for meaning.
“There was no reply. The sick woman seemed to be trying mentally to find something she had lost.”
Jung attempts to kindle a curative alchemical “union of opposites” by prescribing a more contemplative, internal method. Jung’s prescription is for those who prefer to play “the game” quietly by themselves:
The point of view described above is supported by the alchemist’s remarkable use of the terms meditatio and imaginatio . Ruland’s Lexicon alchemiae defines meditatio as follows: “The word meditatio is used when a man has an inner dialogue with someone unseen. It may be with God, when He is invoked, or with himself, or with his good angel.” … The psychologist is familiar with this “inner dialogue”; it is an essential part of the technique for coming to terms with the unconscious. When the alchemists speak of meditari they do not mean mere cogitation, but explicitly an inner dialogue and hence a living relationship to the answering voice of the “other” in ourselves, i.e., of the unconscious.
~ C.G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy
Both methods call our “other,” unknown, “opposite” aspects into our conscious awareness – resulting in a greater sense of wholeness, and perhaps, eventually, purpose. “To cause things hidden in the shadow to appear and to take away the shadow from them” is the pursuit of alchemy.
Do you see?
Pollyanna is an alchemist.
I know what you mean, something plagues you. My father used to feel like that… but most always he said too that he wouldn’t stay a minister a minute if t’wasn’t for the rejoicing texts… Its all those that begin “Be glad in the Lord” or “Rejoice greatly” or “Shout for joy,” and all that you know – such a lot of them. Once when father felt especially bad he counted ‘em. There were eight hundred of ‘em… He said if God took the trouble to tell us eight hundred times to be glad and rejoice, He must want us to do it – some…
And it became clear to me that this book had not only offered comfort to me through a chaotic childhood, but that it had laid some trail of pebbles in my psyche. That it offered me a template to begin to negotiate this “tension of opposites” that not only became the basis of how I would cope with the great and small sufferings – existential voids – in my own life –but how I would come to think of my profession.
I do seek out the gifts that grow out of suffering. And I wonder about the vulnerabilities that lurk inside my strengths. When I am filled with self-righteous anger I contemplate how it is likely connected to a shame I hold within myself. And surfacing the opposites that reside in my unconscious serves to ground me, soothe me, and connect me more deeply to the human family.
You will regard yourself a member of an invisible community, the community of suffering humans, suffering from that abysmal experience of a basic meaninglessness of human existence, and at the same time struggling for a solution to the age-old problems of mankind. The same suffering and the same struggling unites you, in fact, with the best exemplars of humanity.
~ Viktor Frankl, Will to Meaning
And the paradox that I experienced was this: At the very moment that I began to apprehend my own death I simultaneously found myself on the receiving end of an extraordinary outpouring of love, of support, of well wishes, of frozen lasagnas, of financial assistance, of commiseration, of camaraderie, of gratitude, and appreciation, the greatest influx of collective kindness and generosity that I could ever imagine. Piles of notes and cards, gifts, poems, lucky charms, books, hospital-visits, letters, encouragements, care packages, fuzzy socks, prayers, and the extraordinary loving-kindness of my children.
The unfathomable terror was accompanied every moment by its opposite – extraordinary gratitude.
There is in our chemistry a certain noble substance, in the beginning whereof is wretchedness with vinegar, but in its ending joy with gladness. Therefore I have supposed that the same will happen to me, namely that I shall suffer difficulty, grief, and weariness at first, and in the end shall come to glimpse pleasanter and easier things.
~ C. G. Jung quoting Michael Maier, Psychology and Alchemy
It wasn’t an attitude.
It was an unconscious process.
It was alchemy.
It was the momentary and transformative discovery of life’s true meaning.
Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines: the labor of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.
May this be the lesson to learn from my book
~ Viktor Frankl, Will to Meaning
I’ve been re-reading a strange and haunting book by a non-dualist Christian theologian Martin Bell, called Distant Fire published in 1986 – and came upon this extraordinary passage – and felt the need to record it and share it somewhere.
So, here – not my words, but his – yet they are words that are clanging in my brain as if they were my own- seemingly written about the path I am negotiating and the global dilemma all of us are facing in this new and dark era.
“And being a teller of the story carries neither reward or recognition. More will be demanded than we had planned to give; we will shrink from death. But the faith community will not stop. The people will tell the story in spite of brutality and dogs and electronic surveillance, in spite of bombing and assassinations and every kind of oppression. We are part of a great cloud of witnesses who have faced the same evil…
At one time or another each of us believes it is possible to keep life contained. That somehow we can emerge unscarred. Surely we can navigate from this shore to the next without expending life’s blood upon the sand. But wholeness (holiness) does not consist in being perfect or untouched by the ravages of the world. And life is not fair. The guilty go free; the innocent suffer. And the ways of God are not fair: the door to salvation is open to all. Mystery abounds. Sooner or later each of us will be torn apart by the world. The only question is: In what cause, on whose behalf, will life’s blood be expended?”
~ Martin Bell, Distant Fire
This isn’t going to be all pretty and processed. This isn’t going to be all edited and shiny and polished. It’s going to have TMI, and it’s going to talk about shit, and piss, and genitals and fear and death. And psychotherapy.
And you really don’t have to read this.
It is long, and it is dark.
I just need to write it and release it.
And maybe there are other psychotherapists who may find themselves in a similar position, or who are in this position now. And clients who have been in this position with their therapists who didn’t get a chance to speak about it or to ask questions.
This is where I am setting down my load. It’s a kind of unbelievable set of ludicrous circumstances – and I’m warning you it’s going to evoke some existential anxiety. It’s going to remind you that life is not a safe proposition
So the first thing that happened is that my vagina blew up. Because I’m actually going to refuse to be ashamed about any of this I am naming exactly how this started. My uro-gentital area became inflamed and extremely, unfathomably painful. In a way that makes no sense. I’m an old married lady. Nothing “unusual” had taken place down there in long time.
The gynecologist was stumped. No infection of any kind, viral bacterial or fungal. Nothing she tried or prescribed helped. The pain got worse and worse. And then one Friday night,– I stopped being able to pee. And the pain. So I went to the ER the next day because that was something I had never experienced before in my life – my capacity to eliminate paralyzed – where they told me that I didn’t have a UTI and discharged me with antibiotics because when they tried to discharge me and do nothing at all, I started to cry. I didn’t want antibiotics – but they had to placate me somehow.
And of course my gynecologist was away on jury duty, but I at least reached a nurse who told me that I could soak in warm water, or pour warm water on myself, or maybe just immerse my hand in warm water, and told me what other women who had “vulvodynia” did – women with unexplained, untreatable severe chronic vulva pain, about 15% of all women – and some of the tips she offered helped a little.
So I dangled in vulvodynia-land for about two weeks. In constant, excruciating nerve pain. Like shingles sort of. Nothing relieved it, but some things made it worse and I could at least avoid them while I researched out some solutions and got to an acupuncturist.
But then something stranger happened. Over the course of a day or two the pain and paralysis began moving, spreading on to other areas, my anus, my lower back, and retreating from its initial territory – but whatever the pain left behind was numbed, weakened. And then it began spreading down my right leg, and to my foot. Just before my vagina blew up I had been to the podiatrist for excruciating foot pain. I thought I might need new orthotics.
But now my foot, leg, lower back, and what doctors call my “saddle” – all parts that would make contact with a saddle if I were riding a horse – were numbed, weak. My bladder and bowels were not operating easily or properly. Going to the bathroom became an intentional, complicated and conscious task. Walking was similarly complicated: I couldn’t feel the ground much – it was as if my foot was deeply asleep and hadn’t started to wake up yet. Rubbery. I watched the ground and moved my foot with intention on the way to catch the train for work: Pick it up. Put it down. Pick it up. Put it down.
Getting to the office was a challenge and a relief. I could sit in my shrink chair and not have to think too much about my body, only about other peoples’ lives what was happening to those I loved and cared for.
I got to my primary care doctor. Lyme’s disease? Something structural? My father had many back operations, stenosis, arthritis? Something compressing, herniating in my spine? Back surgery?
He ran some blood and sent me to my neurologist, who I see for migraines.
The neurologist is a nice young man. Handsome. Silly. Sweet. His mother is a social worker/psychotherapist and I can imagine my son growing into a man like him. Available. A little anxious. But kind and full of empathy.
He wasn’t too concerned about my numbness. I couldn’t curl my toes on my right foot but I could feel the safety pin as it tapped my along the thick skin at the bottom of my foot.
But he did send me for an MRI and I cancelled my clients for the day.
And after the first MRI he called back much earlier than I expected. That didn’t seem a good sign. I was on the train to work. I was standing. It was crowded. My back pack was heavy from the big thermos – the office had no warm water and I had to bring my own. There were small white spots in my lumbar region on my spinal cord, he said. We didn’t know enough about them to make any diagnostic determinations – or if it was local. It could be demylenation (Multiple Sclerosis) granularization, (Sarcoidois) or “something else.”
He didn’t say what “something else” was – but I knew.
I dismissed the “something else” as practically impossible – because I’d had such good blood work with my Gyn and my GP. Perfect. Excellent white blood cell count. No sign of “something else.” He was re-running the blood work, and I was pretty sure that he hadn’t seen my first tests. That was probably why.
We needed another MRI. We were going to need many more tests most likely. This was now moving fast, and starting to get disruptive.
I sent a Bcc email to all the clients on my caseload: I described the symptoms I had been experiencing – pain followed by numbness “below my waist and through my leg and foot” I told them that a long diagnostic process involving many more tests was going to become disruptive to my schedule – and that I would have to send out group blasts in order to keep people up to date on the days I would be in and out of the office.
I also tried to sound grown up and reassuring and realistic:
The neurologist has encouraged me not to worry about end outcomes when we are at the early/middle of what is likely to be a long diagnostic process. It could be many things and many of them manageable. I think this is excellent advice and I am trying to adhere to it.
I’m sorry this is so disruptive. Please expect to meet for our regularly scheduled appointments unless you hear otherwise from me.
It is likely that I will be reducing my schedule by compressing it somewhat in the next few weeks, but that should only involve rearranging a few appointment times.
I won’t be taking on any new clients for the time being.
I will send out group updates as I have new information – and hope you will feel free to share with me any concerns this activates.
I am comfortable and in good spirits – glad that whatever this turns out to be we seem to have caught it very early.
Somewhere around here Trump was elected.
My work sessions were now filled with fear. Fear about the world, fear for their lives, the ongoing legality of their marriages, fear for friends and chosen family who are Muslim, who are immigrants – documented and undocumented. Fear in response to hate crimes. Fear about whether I could remain a consistent support in their lives.
Fear for me.
Fear about me.
Fear of me.
I reached for the words that people were scared to speak. Words like death, and die, and disability and abandonment. I tried to make room for everyone’s experience about what was happening to me, to us, to our work.
I chose to be transparent, and answer questions honestly and factually. We talked almost in the exact same way about our fears about the state of the world and what the future held for everyone.
There are many therapists that would say this was all wrong. That this is “self-revealing” and poor boundaries, proof that I am insufficiently analyzed.
I decided that this was Life.
And that illness and dark times are a natural part of life – and I decided that like it or not – this meant that I had to teach the people who came to see me something about how to face illness and darkness and accept it as natural and expectable. To demonstrate that one can remain psychologically and emotionally intact – empathic – even in the face of illness.
I set one limit, with all clients who were in treatment and legitimately contending with rage and anger issues: Angers that I might be able to accept and withstand under normal circumstances, that I could usually be caring and curious about, that might activate my own fight or flight responses that I had learned to sit and wait and sort through to discover the empathic thread – I was now too challenged personally to withstand. That while I had my force field intact I could encounter and work with rage head on. But now that so much energy was being redirected into managing my own fear, and a real threat to my health and functioning, and maybe my survival – that I had no room left for extra adrenaline.
I did something that I never wanted ever have to do: I bound my clients. I made some subjects off-limits.
Rage directed at the universe I would could stay and listen to.
But I could no longer be the space where ancient angers emerged and were survived and withstood and healed. I could no longer dance the corrective ritual steps of healing primal rage inducing injury.
I used to be a reliable container. I was now, suddenly, a cracked one, limited in what I could hold.
This felt like its own kind of loss.
And what was happening in the world around me, in our political environment felt like what was happening inside me.
Time for priorities to be reorganized and expectations to be surrendered. For core values to summoned and to rest upon them and try not to be budged from that spot: To be brave. To be good. To protect others and ourselves. To allow fear and sorrow to rise up and fall away like waves. To stay focused on what is most meaningful and essential about life and living and nothing else.
After the second MRI of my neck and brain, the neurologist called instantly, which indicated to me that he was not only caring but alarmed. I was still wonky on the Valium had taken so as not to have a panic attack while my head was locked in a vice and stuck inside a big loud can. These same spots, the lesions were present in my cervical spine – which meant through out my entire spinal cord. And I imagine in my brain too – although he didn’t say. I could already tell it was hard for him to consider and deliver bad news. I pressured him to tell me the range of possibilities:
“You’ve asked a scary question and so you deserve the scary answer,” he said:
“Demylenation, granularzation, and cancer – all of them are about equal possibilities. There is no hierarchy of probability among them.”
I would need a spinal tap.
I reviewed my dreams over the past three months starting well before symptoms emerged:
I am storing up gold bars and large bills. I am preparing to be killed. The money and gold are to take care of David and the kids after I am gone. I am running against Donald Trump and I am not afraid of him in the slightest. I see him for what he is and can name it out loud. He leaves me taunting phone messages which seem stupid and childish to me. I plan to annihilate him with the truth. I am not scared because I will not be around for long.
A man visits and talks about his skin cancers. He points out one on my forehead and over my left eye –and then tells me that it’s okay to be upset, the upset is the path.
I dream I am naked in the shower and my son called me because someone is knocking at the door. I grab a robe and see through a small window in the door a short woman with dark hair. I open the door and she has a gun aimed straight at me.
I dream my house is on fire but the fireman tells me that it is only the curtains in every room which have been destroyed but they were dust collectors anyway.
I have cancer in this dream: I am going to die but I do what I like. I spend time with my kids. This is all I really want.
I am teaching an old client, that I have just been reunited with on an airplane or a subway. I teach her how to surrender. That surrendering is saying yes to something you do not want. But saying YES anyway.
Dream that I have a plot of earth and have been given Ellie’s deceased body, wrapped in straw, from head to toe like a shroud. I decide to make it into something beautiful – I plant flowers and dig a sculpture into and out of the earth. I lay Ellie’s body along the top edge of the plot and bury her. Packing in the cool, sandy earth all around her. And I make sure that the packed earth retains her shape. And plant purple flowers with feathery leaves where her hair would be. I finish and it is beautiful. A garden with a visiting spot and space for her that is her and of her and earth and straw and filled with seeds which will bloom in the spring into beautiful flowers. And I’m proud of it but I say: I am never going to do that again. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
I dream that my office and everything is destroyed in an earthquake. Reduced to rubble. Not just my office but also all our support services. A friend comes and we venture out past the epicenter of the earthquake, beyond my old neighborhood, and I begin to find resources to start a new life.
The night before the spinal tap:
A dream that my fingers twitch uncontrollably and I know it is a sign of a serious disease in my central nervous system.
I write my psychotherapist who I have known now for thirty years because I can’t get into the city easily and because I am scared. And he writes back that he is in complete denial and will break something, truly, if it turns out that I am ill.
And I don’t know why but this makes me laugh and laugh until tears stream down my face and also feel loved. And I know once he has metabolized this that he will be there for me. And I just hope he doesn’t break anything too expensive.
The night before my husband and I go to the doctor’s office to hear the result of the spinal tap:
I dream that I have brain cancer.
And I distill the results that we receive from the neurologist into a few emails: One for friends and family, one for colleagues, and this one for clients:
This past Tuesday I had a spinal tap which revealed a strong likelihood of a rare form of chronic, low grade leukemia – called CLL – which is presenting in an unusual manner – along my nervous system rather than my blood.
This is a rare and confusing occurrence- in its normal form: CLL is a “watch and wait” cancer – something like prostate cancer can be – and is usually treated/kept at bay with long term steroids –
But since this is a leukemia that has not presented in my blood work at all – (my blood work is perfect- which is obviously unusual for blood cancer) – its a bit like prostate cancer showing up in the brain and no where else – its jumped its track – and isn’t in its own lane –
Most people with regular CLL present in their blood live with it as a chronic condition.
Because I have a strange form they don’t really know much about its course or what to expect. It’s not showing up in “normal” ways so a clear prognosis is impossible.
We are proceeding to an oncologist who specializes in rare versions of CLL and who will be more able to confirm this peculiar diagnosis – and who is “excited” to see me.
I am unfortunately: an “interesting case” and no one can say yet much for sure other than that there are many treatments for CLL in its normal forms – and several newer successful treatments chemotherapies coupled with newer personalized biological agents, for rare presentations like mine.
It seems, at this point, to be considered treatable – although probably not at all in the way that “normal” CLL is.
I am quite comfortable. I have no pain. My symptoms have been actually improving which is also confusing for the doctors – I am grocery shopping, walking the dog, exercising gently, folding laundry etc.
I will be in the office whenever my doctor’s appointments and energies permit
I want to say one important thing: You are not required to go through this with me. You also have needs: for security, for consistency that I may not be able to provide through this uncertain time. It may not make sense to you to be paying for psychotherapy that has in and of itself become a source of stress. Please know that if you feel you need a referral to another therapist – I will understand and support you and connect you to a clinician I trust and who will understand the effect this may be having on you.
Otherwise: I will be functioning as a therapist as I can, to the best of my ability through this – whenever I can – because this work is important to me, and because I believe in it, and it is healthy for me to invest in what I believe in.
(I include some information about scheduling oncology and testing appointments, scheduling and rescheduling)
I am okay. I have been through this with many loved ones and with many clients. I have had many amazing role models at how to face cancer. I’ve lived here vicariously and now I am here myself. I am not lost. I’m oriented. I have accompanied many people through this process and that gives me a great gift of knowing exactly where I am, it gives me solid ground to stand upon.
There are things I leave out: that the kind neurologist’s eyes welled up telling me. That he had made a plan for the oncologist to see me the same day in case I was deteriorating rapidly – which I suppose – means that I could. That although he focused a fair amount about how CLL is chronic and managed in its regular form, he said it is “not good” that it is in my central nervous system – and he said nothing at all, positive or negative about the images of my brain and whether or not these lesions were present there.
And also I contact my closer colleagues and clinical collaborators – to see who has openings, who can take low fee clients, who might be willing to take on helping me reassign my clients in case I need to engage quickly in treatments that are incapacitating, and to see who could offer support to clients who need more consistency at this time than I can provide, or who will need support because of their concern and reliance upon me. And they rally and tell me they will be glad to support my caseload, or get them to support and they all use the word “temporarily” pointedly
And sweet notes from clients: who send love and encouragement and any kind of care they can offer. And many clients reassure me that they want to stay and that they can and will or feel they must wait, and will meet with me whenever I am available. And I encourage many of them to at least find supplemental support in some form over the next several weeks until we understand what is coming next.
When you take up this profession: you must remain always cognizant of the position that you hold in your self created community. This is an ethical requirement. This is one of those values and priorities that get you through dark times: Do the right thing
When I face out into the world I feel prepared and intact.
When I face my children, who watched their every-day grandmother die in front of them, who watched Ellie, their beloved auntie die away – who lost half of their primary caretaking team over six ferocious months – I am brave for them – but inside I panic and tremble. The thought of compounding their losses is intolerable. I am now a source of terror and trauma. They don’t know anything about cancer except that two rare cancers have killed two of the most important people in their universe.
And now I have a rare one too. But it is treatable we tell them as the doctor said to us. But we heard that same word about Ellie’s lymphoma and my mother’s breast cancer too and placed all our hopes on that one word. We now know that the word treatable does not mean survivable. We cannot trust that word even if other’s need to. We’ve ridden the cancer rollercoaster. We have been on it continuously now for three years – first caring for my mother, then Ellie, and just a few months to breathe through our grief before we are back on the ride. And I am in the front car this time.
We told them calmly and frankly – as they are both too old and too perceptive to be lied to. And that is the most intense conversation I have ever had as a mother, so far. This is radical parenting: trying to decide what is the most loving thing to offer them, and the most empowering thing – when my first impulse is to run somewhere and hide from them entirely until it is all over and I come home one way or another. But I can’t abandon them or insulate them from trauma or even cumulative trauma. I can only model for them how to commit to love and courage in the face of fear.
And I cannot separate this diagnosis from our bereavement any better than my children can. Last November, on this date, Ellie was sitting here on my end of our couch, reading a graphic novel, with my daughter sitting on the other side, their feet tangled together just as our feet and slippers are entwined under the blanket we are sharing right now.
The leaves were turning and we all wore sweatshirts and we napped when Ellie napped and took short walks together to the dog run and rested on a bench before heading back – just as we have been doing together this weekend. And she was gone by New Years Day.
And the chair my husband is sitting in right now we purchased on the day my mother died in hospice last summer, when moments after her death I was possessed by an irrational need to go to IKEA.
It is significant psychological labor to identify with the dead, to miss them, to feel them close, to mourn them, to need them desperately, and now to be in the position they were in – without assuming that my fate will be the same as theirs.
More information about treatment and prognosis in the weeks ahead. But I’m sticking with these prescriptions for now:
Surrender means saying YES even to things you do not like.
And remembering that the upset is the path.
And not to hide behind the curtains but let them burn away.
And to be with my children.
And to annihilate fear and evil with the truth.
And to search for resources beyond the rubble.
And terrible losses can be transformed, with great labor, into beautiful flowering gardens.
“I will say to God ‘Don’t just condemn me – tell me why you are doing it.”
The Book of Job, 10:2
Everyone writes about the Book of Job at some point – and maybe, every one who ever writes is really just writing about the Book of Job.
A lot of people really hate this story.
Not me. I find it relieving. It tells the truth straight up, no bullshit.
The world is not fair or just. God is not merely moral. Life is feral. Fate is fickle.
If we are concerned about being “good” it better be for our own sakes, so that we can feel clean and proud of ourselves with few regrets when the shit hits the fan – because the shit will hit the fan someday, and often more than once, sometimes so repetitively that you cannot bear it. Because Life won’t be good to us just because we are so very busy trying to be good.
Being “good” protects you from nothing. Evil can win. And karma isn’t always the bitch you hope it will be.
So if you haven’t read it (just in case there is anyone who hasn’t read it) here is what happens: God bets Satan that his most faithful follower, Job, will remain faithful no matter how he is tortured. Satan takes that bet: destroys his crops and herds, kills all of his servants and children. Seven sons and three daughters in one fell swoop.
Job is traumatized beyond all imagining, but retains his faith in a just and powerful monotheistic God. So Satan asks to up the stakes: Illness? Physical suffering will surely break his faith: Sure, God says, just don’t kill him: Job is covered in boils from head to foot.
At first it seems like he is holding it together:
“Shall we receive only pleasant things from the hand of God and never anything unpleasant?”
But when Job finally speaks to his three closest friends – we learn that he is traumatized to the point of suicidal despair. He has lost everything that was ever comforting or meaningful to him. And he is grieving the destruction of a cherished fantasy that there is order and justice in the universe. It is dawning on him that whatever he thought God was, he is not an omnipotent parental God who rewards goodness and punishes evil.
And over the course of the next few chapters he will also learn how much his friends suck.
They all, one after another insist that God is both omnipotent and just. And therefore, Job is responsible for his own agony, a sinner who must repent.
None of them will stay with Job for a moment as he ponders these excruciating questions: What if God isn’t just? What if I didn’t do anything wrong, or certainly do anything wrong enough to warrant THIS – then what? What if God isn’t what or who I thought? What if I projected my own sense of morality onto an entity that is something else entirely? Does my blameless suffering, and the blameless suffering of others prove that I am more moral than a God who would torture me on a whim? How do I stay attached to Life, to a sense of meaning or purpose or beauty or awe if I live in a Universe that would allow dark forces to destroy everything I have ever held dear? If Evil is permitted to dwell in comfort and decent men are permitted to suffer – If I chose to continue to believe, what can I believe in?
And the God of Life comes to Job as a Whirlwind. And speaks of wild animals and the Big Bang, and the wind, and rain – of the firmament and lightening. And of instinct and intuition. The Sacred Whirlwind speaks of lions, of ravens, of mountain goats and wild donkeys and oxen. The Divine Hurricane roars about ostriches: who abandon their eggs without a thought, completely devoid of maternal impulse but who can run faster than the fastest horse. The Holy Tornado of Life goes on and on, about hippopotami and crocodiles (the crocodile actually gets eight full paragraphs of Jehovah’s speechifying). The most primal, powerful, lizard – a being designed purely to devour and survive – a creature that we would never dream of considering on moral terms, except in our most anthropomorphizing moments: “Oh that poor baby zebra! That terrible monster just ate him right up!”
A crocodile, a hippo, an ostrich or a hurricane are neither right or wrong, moral or immoral. They are. They just are. Beauty and horror swirl and twist together in the Awesome Cyclone.
Job and his shitty friends have it all wrong.
Once I asked my martial arts master about the role of aggression in all of the animals forms we studied: The Monkey, The Tiger, The Dragon, The Sparrow, The Snake.
“They will all kill, you ” he said “but it is not their intention to kill.”
These are the forces that the God of Job identifies with.
Life is feral. God is not in the business of justice. The Sacred is a wilder and more primal, more ancient force than Job or his cronies knew.
It is not our fault. It is not the Whirlwind’s intention.
The Whirlwind may strip us of all the things we have ever believed or loved. It may tear our lives apart. And it will be completely natural for it to do so.
The Cosmos is neither wicked, nor just. It is not fair or unfair. Life is not reasonable or unreasonable.
To ask “Why?” is simply a wrong question, and mistakenly assumes a reasonable, moral explanation.
And there is a worse question, one that will lead us to wish we were never born and to yearn for the grave. A question that compounds trauma and impotence with rage and shame:
The most destructive question we can ask, with our fists raised to the heavens:
A question as senseless as asking Why matter? Why anti-matter? Why ostrich-eggs? Why crocodiles? Why hurricanes?
When we expect that the Holy Tempest is supposed to operate within the parameters of human morality, when we imagine that we deserve justice from the Hands of Fate – we have set ourselves above nature. We imagine that we should be able to command The Storm of Life to unfurl itself neatly even though there is nothing tidy about a storm. It assumes that the balance of Nature is morally ordered.
To ask “Why me?” in a wild amoral universe – is a dead end proposition: The only possible answers – explored all through out Job – lead to the depths of despair: 1) Trauma and clusters of cumulative trauma are the fault of the individual due to sin, foolishness, or error. Or 2) The Universe, God, Fate, the Powers-That-Be are intentionally, purposively sadistic or criminally neglectful.
Fairbairn says that in this circumstance most of us will turn trauma in on ourselves – that we would prefer to eat the sin and take the blame than to live to in a universe steered by the Devil’s whims.
The only psychologically tolerable answer to “Why me?” is this:
There is no answer. The laws of probability mean that some people will experience cumulative traumas and losses and some will not. In terms of moral explanation it is an inherently unanswerable question and any answer you attempt to extract can lead you toward suicidal despair.
The Book of Job suggests that you need to ask different questions entirely:
Questions like these:
Can you look squarely at the cruelty and beauty of life – at the awesome power of a Wild God, of a Universe which is not centered in anyway around you or your comfort or your goodness and still choose Life? Can you summon the energy to find meaning in living when everything is taken from you? Can you still love a God that might strip you of your very identity? Can you feel awe for a primal force, for a Sow who will bear and suckle her piglets but who might also eat them? Can you withstand the horrors of living and stay committed to the miraculous precarious balance of the world? Can you cherish your own brokenness and suffering and the brokenness of others? Can you lose people you love, or many people you love, can you be profoundly harmed, can you suffer and still continue to love?
Can you withstand the fact that living is in no way a secure proposition and be filled with awe at its power and fragility, even as it destroys you? Can you embrace this feral universe – with all its destructiveness and creativity – as surely as the God of Job loves the potent, dangerous, glorious, primal crocodile?
We may be sacrificed like Job’s children, as the gods gamble with our fate. We may shatter like ostrich-eggs. We may also acknowledge that the fragility and destructiveness of all of nature lives in our own wild hearts. That, within us, lives the terrible crocodile and the frightened zebra that feeds him.