This piece is featured in this month’s issue of the BeZine. For a link to the complete issue, click here.
The hero’s journey is a deeply challenging topic for an amateur writer and philosopher. What a great invitation to read and research, to tie strands together and squint to see a pattern! Typically, I submit essays to this forum, as I am much more comfortable in prose. This time, however, I decided that an essay on this topic would be way too ambitious. What I have is Swiss cheese and spiderwebs, full of holes and only loosely connected, so I thought a poem would be more appropriate. However, I will preface this one with a bibliography. I began with the final chapter of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, where I read this:
“Today all of these mysteries [“the great pantomime of the sacred moon-king, the sacred sun-king, the hieratic, planetary state, and the symbolic festivals of the world-regulating spheres”] have lost their force; their symbols no longer interest our psyche. The notion of a cosmic law, which all existence serves and to which man himself must bend, has long since passed through the preliminary mystical stages represented in the old astrology, and is now simply accepted in mechanical terms as a matter of course. The descent of the Occidental science from the the heavens to the earth (from 17th century astronomy to 19th century biology), and their concentration today, at last, on man himself (in 20th century anthropology and psychology), mark the path of a prodigious transfer of the focal point of human wonder. Not the animal world, not the plant world, not the miracle of the spheres, but man himself is now the crucial mystery. Man is that alien presence with whom the force of egoism must come to terms, through whom the ego is to be reformed. Man, understood however not as “I” but as “Thou”: for the ideals and temporal institutions of no tribe, race, continent, social class, or century, can be the measure of the inexhaustible and multifariously wonderful divine existence that is the life in all of us.” (emphasis mine)
That reading led me to recall lectures I heard from Dave Foreman at the Wilderness 50 conference. His essay on “The Anthropocene and Ozymandius” can be found in several online posts. From there, I considered Nietzsche’s Übermensch from Also Sprach Zarathustra. And always underlying my thoughts is my admiration for Buddhist practice and The Middle Way. So, with all that as the primordial soup, this emerged:
Homo sapiens sapiens
Oh most separate, separating
The Egoid egotist
Ozymandius, great Wizard of Man
Eyes on screen
Journey who will
That Über undertaking
Condescend to transcend
Dare to die in darkness,
Awake in wilderness
At one, atoned
In mystic Middle
Begs a humbler hero
© 2015 – poem, essay and photograph, copyright Priscilla Galasso. All rights reserved.
Do you remember when your baby teeth fell out? Do you have any memories of being without central incisors, lisping and whistling when you spoke, unable to bite into an apple or an ear of corn? How much do you remember of the physical changes associated with your passage through puberty?
Would you ever choose to re-live those changes? (I imagine in response a loud chorus of ‘Noooo!’ and laughter.)
Why do we find change so awkward and uncomfortable? Why do we imagine a state of perfection achieved and unchanged, and why is that stasis desired? Consider this: change is natural; metamorphoses are observed and documented in every species — birth, maturation, reproduction, aging, death, decay, absorption, and birth. All around us there is a process of movement, going from one thing to another, losing some properties and gaining others. This is Life. It is dynamic; it is not good or bad; it is. Often, however, we decide we like where we are. We want to stay put. It’s familiar. It’s comfortable. But we are, in fact, stuck, and it takes a great deal of energy to stay there, resisting the current of Life all around. We feel drained, exhausted, spent, sapped, worn out. We want to feel the flow of energy again, but in order to do that, we must make a change. Fear holds us back. This is a pivotal point of decision – we must choose Change to choose Life.
The Old Testament talks about having youth renewed like the eagles’, about mounting up with wings as eagles and being borne on the wings of an eagle. Golden eagles populated the Holy Land, and their lifespans were observable to the ancient poets. I have seen bald eagles in the wild on a few occasions now, but not before I was 45 years old. What do I know of an eagle’s life? I did a little research. Southwestern Bald Eagle Management told me “In their five year development to adulthood, bald eagles go through one of the most varied plumage changes of any North American bird. During its first four weeks of life, an eaglet’s fluffy white down changes to a gray wooly down. At about five weeks, brown and black feathers begin to grow. It becomes fully feathered at 10 weeks of age. In its first year, the mostly dark-colored juvenile can often be mistaken as a golden eagle. However, the bald eagle progressively changes until it reaches adult plumage at five years. Notice in the pictures how its dark eye lightens throughout its first four years of life until it becomes yellow. Also, see how its beak changes from gray-black to a vibrant yellow. It is believed that the darker, more mottled plumage of a young eagle serves as camouflage, while the white head and tail announce that it is of breeding age.”
Renewal is for the purpose of maturity. It is not about going back to a juvenile state. It is about soaring with the movement of Life toward the next place of energy. It is not about resuscitation; it is about resurrection. We shall all be changed.
My daughter recommended to me a book titled Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. The author is a medical doctor and a gerontologist. He tackles the real and practical implications of growing old and dying in this culture: nursing homes, DNR orders and advance directives, heroic life-saving surgeries, hospice and what it is to live with meaning and dignity. This book terrified me. I read it in small doses. It made me face denial and delusions head on. It was not a comfortable read, but I would recommend it to anyone. It puts Change in the forefront and invites you to get real. I would not have been able to read it 7 years ago, right after my husband died. I wasn’t ready. The book I read then that helped me to accept change was Pema Chodron’s book When Things Fall Apart (which I recently discovered is a phrase from Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”).
Where are you in the flow of Life? Where are you stuck? What are you afraid of when you face Change? How have you embraced Maturity? How have you run from it? What images of Peace in harmony with Change are meaningful to you? These may be your symbols of Renewal. Here are a few of mine:
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My mother revealed to me a nickname that she had secretly assigned me when I was a young teen. She thought of me as “The Waterstrider”. Ever seen those long-legged bugs in a still puddle who are able to stroll the surface without ever breaking the tension that keeps them above water? Here are a few:
My “Waterstrider” tendencies changed, my mother noted, after my sister and I were in a car accident and she was killed. I turned 17 only three days later, and began to ask the Really Big, Serious Questions about life. I began to search for Depth and Meaning, but mostly from only one perspective – Christianity. When I was 45, my husband died in bed beside me early one Saturday morning. My journey toward Depth was not over. I decided to look from a different angle. I needed a bigger perspective.
I discovered that there is so much more than I had ever noticed before. Depth goes in different directions: up and down, inward and outward…indefinitely. Maybe it was less overwhelming to be a Waterstrider, but it was also less genuine. In the depths of the sea, there is reflected the vastness of the heavens. In the solitude of a silent moment, there is the ageless Now. In the recognition of something we “know”, there is the awareness of Mystery that we will never comprehend. This might be what some people call “Wisdom” or “Maturity”. I tend to think of it as simple Truth. If you’re not afraid to go below the surface, you may discover the wonders of Depth. It feels different. It surrounds you, puts pressure on places that may not be used to bearing it. But you may discover a strength and resiliency you didn’t know you had…at least I did. Then that depth makes you feel buoyant and free…as if you were flying!
(Thanks, Word Press, for a great theme!)
Toes. Eyes. Live humans twinkle. Is that from light cast upon them or from light within?
Carl Sagan says that “we are made of star stuff”. My mother-in-law used to say that Jim was “shiny and pink” as a baby. He glowed with the vibrancy of good circulation and white-blond hair, I guess. I remember almost putting his eye out once when that twinkle made me just so curious that I wanted to touch it.
That spark of life. The cosmic, irreproducible result that drives scientists mad. “It’s ALIIIIIVE!” No wonder we want to add that vibrant energy to our winter days, when we’re thrown into the farthest arc and missing the summer sun.
How do you remind yourself of the shimmer that is our existence on this beautiful sphere in this living Universe? Do you surround yourself with round, sparkly things?
The lights are already hung. The magic is all around us, even now. Go outside and take a look!
in response to WordPress’ weekly photo challenge.
I can think of no better icon of mystery than the sky. The heavens in “Big Sky Country”, the American West, give plenty of fodder for pondering mysteries of all magnitudes, from “Do you think it’s going to rain?” to “Are there other life forms on those twinkly planets?” I wish that I had the proper equipment to photograph the night sky in New Mexico. The number of stars visible to the naked eye is astounding. We had a new moon night with a view of the Milky Way that was indeed mystical. It put my own life into a different perspective. Here’s a gallery of some mysterious skies:
Have Some Divinity
The premise is this: for each day in December, instead of counting down on an Advent calendar, I’m counting the free gifts we all get every day. Today’s gift is divinity, but I don’t mean the candy. I mean The Divine, The Sacred, The Holy and experiences of them. Don’t we all have the opportunity to receive that every day? If you look for it, will you find it? I think so.
So, what is sacred? How do you recognize the divine and holy? In art, there’s always a halo or a sunbeam to give you a clue. What about here on earth?
‘Namaste’ is the Sanskrit greeting recognizing the existence of another person and the divine spark in that person, with the hands pressed together in front of the heart chakra. I think the divine spark exists in every living thing as the breath of life. Every encounter with a living thing is an experience of the divine. We hardly ever act like that is true, however. But we could. Native Americans and many African tribes have hunting rituals that celebrate the sacred exchange of life. The hunted animal is divine, sacrificing itself for the life of the hunter, and the hunter shows a holy appreciation. Often, when I look at macro photography of living things, flower stamens, insects, mosses, I am compelled to worship the divine in the detail. Life is sacred and beautiful. Looking closely and deeply is a way to practice recognizing that.
Seeing macro, but lacking the lens
In a dualistic world view, the mundane and the divine are polar opposites. One is worldly, one is sacred. If this world were imbued with holiness, if God became incarnate and entered flesh in this world, those opposites would run together like watercolors. Many cultures believe this is the truth about life. The waters under the firmament and the waters above the firmament are separated in one telling of the creation story, but the Spirit of God was moving over all of the waters from the very beginning, even in that story. The understanding that divinity is everywhere has inspired people all over the globe for centuries. This place we inhabit is special; it’s valuable. It’s all holy. This is the beginning of respect for the Universe and everything in it. Somewhere in Western history, that idea lost its power. Earth and everything in it became base and fallen. Good turned to bad and life turned to death. I’m not sure if that new idea has been very helpful. I rather think it hasn’t. And I don’t think it has to be that way. It’s an idea, after all. So if it’s not a helpful idea, why support it? How would you rather live? In a fallen world or in a world where the sacred and divine can be found everywhere? Just wondering out loud. I’m not saying that one idea is right and the other wrong. The glass is neither half full nor half empty. It’s a glass, and there’s water in it. The rest is conceptual. Why argue? Choose how to live with the glass and the water. As for me and my house, “I choose happy.” (One of Jim’s conclusive statements.)
I hope this gives you something to ponder for today. If you like, you can add a scene of Edmund Pevensie in Narnia being asked by the White Witch what he craves. “It is dull, Son of Adam, to drink without eating. What would you like best to eat?” “Turkish Delight, please your Majesty!” he responds. What if he had said, “Divinity”? Same story, nuanced. I would like to taste the sacred in this world, and I believe it’s here.
Buddhism teaches me much about the interconnectedness of all things, about perspective in consciousness, about the dangers of dogma and claiming to know the capital T “Truth” about anything. What is this thing in front of you? You can give it a name, describe it with words and symbols, but that is not the reality of that thing. Those words and symbols are useful but limited. The experience of that thing is more, more than you can describe or symbolize, more than you can communicate. Yesterday, I went to Lapham Peak State Park and climbed a tower. Here are three different views of the tower. How do I convey the experience, the wind, the dizzying aspect of ascent, the vast horizon, the humor of humans who visit and the irony of our inability to depict our emotions and our consciousness of grand things? Perhaps these shots will give you a partial idea.
What do you “beleve”?
Today is a good day to ponder the sacred, to feel that aching quiet deep below the surface, to stay with it long enough to taste its bitter and its sweet. Whatever form that takes. I have spent years wrapped in one particular expression of that endeavor, but today, I tried a new one. The NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) prompt for the day was a challenge to write a poem about an animal. I knew immediately what animal that had to be for me: an animal that I’ve admired in different stages of my development, from my earliest memories to the present day. One of my earliest posts was devoted to this animal, entitled “Nature’s great masterpeece…the only harmlesse great thing – John Donne”. As I closed my eyes, opened my heart, and began to brainstorm various words and phrases, I realized that I was indeed pondering the sacred. In order to invite you into that relationship, without influencing you too much, I will end my narrative here and simply share the photo and poem that arose and offer them as icons to stimulate your own thoughts.
Her skin was visible from outer space
criss-crossed trails in the dry expanse
seismic sections of caked mud
pulsing with the rhythm of the magma core.
She walked as continental plates on tip-toe
shuffling through the sanctuary of time
in ponderous planetary procession
chanting sighs that shook the stars.
She raised her tender tip
a stroking, soothing, searching spirit
a whisper enfleshed, intuitive, inquisitive
and opened her sky portals, fringed with boughs
so heaven could gaze freely down.
Her wisdom reigned in sacred skull,
the holy archways gleaming
until her desecration reduced
to catacombs of dripping blood
that mammoth cathedral.
The matriarchs lie raped in heaps
across the countryside.
No longer shall we place our heads
on gentle, heaving breasts to feel
the wide embrace of a universe.
Yesterday, I blogged several quotes from Thich Nhat Hahn. Last night, I came across a passage in Living Buddha, Living Christ that illuminated my journey through widowhood, change, and doubt.
“One day when you are plunged into the dark night of doubt, the images and notions that were helpful in the beginning no longer help. They only cover up the anguish and suffering that have begun to surface. Thomas Merton wrote, ‘The most crucial aspect of this experience is precisely the temptation to doubt God Himself.’ This is a genuine risk. If you stick to an idea or an image of God and if you do not touch the reality of God, one day you will be plunged into doubt. According to Merton, ‘Here we are advancing beyond the stage where God made Himself accessible to our mind in simple and primitive images.’ Simple and primitive images may have been the object of our faith in God in the beginning, but as we advance, He becomes present without any image, beyond any satisfactory mental representation. We come to a point where any notion we had can no longer represent God.”
“The reality of God”…beyond any notion or representation, there is a reality, an experience. Returning regularly to this experience is what Thich Nhat Hahn refers to as “deep practice”. It requires awareness, mindfulness, being awake and paying attention. What is the experience of being in this living world?
I went for a walk yesterday in a strong wind and looked up to the trees. They were all swaying in their own way, in different directions, at different levels, different speeds. They have no notion that is “wind”. They have an experience.
The river touches the stones and mud in the river bed, it touches the banks, it touches the wind with its surface and reflects the trees that rise high above it. It inhabits its course without a concept or an image of anything.
I enjoy images. I become attached to them. Their primitive simplicity appeals to my limited brain and feels comfortable. I wonder now if that’s why I often become “stuck”. It’s as if I become unable to see the forest because I look so constantly at the trees. The experience of ‘forest’ is so much more.
When I was a cantor at my church, I’d sing a refrain during Vespers, framing the prayers that people offered up in the pews: “Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.”
Shepherd me, O God, beyond my doubts, wants, fears, images, and notions…from death into Life.