Circe and STEM

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“I guess you can cut the arts as much as you want, Gene. Sooner or later, these kids aren’t going to have anything to read or write about.”

Glenn Holland, in Mr. Holland’s Opus

Just when I thought the Greek Gods and perhaps mythology itself had run its course, a woman steps in to help me re-imagine the legend of Odysseus yet again. Madeline Miller quickly surprised me by sweeping me up into the story of a greek goddess who had been little more than a footnote in the epic mythological tale of Odysseus, the template for the hero’s journey. In this story Miller crafted a compelling allegory for the feminine hero’s journey in the Goddess Circe. Miller shows us the father/daughter struggle between protection and freedom, the mother/son struggle between holding on and letting go, the feminine struggle for power and safety.

Miller led me into a world of Greek mythology both real and mythological. She painted believable relationships between gods and mortals. She balanced the worlds of Gods and mortals in a way that invited me to be present there. I felt acutely the pain of Deadalus losing his son Icarus because he did not warn him against flying to close to the sun. I felt horror at the conception and birth of the Minotaur. I felt rage and defiance as the Gods played out their drama without regard for mortal consequences. I felt empowered as Circe cast her spells for protection. I felt sisterhood as I watched her grow in wisdom through the heartache of making impossible choices.

In short, I reawakened to the wisdom of Greek mythology. Circe’s experiences with family, with exile, with motherhood, helped me to reflect on my own experiences and choices. I found, in Circe, a woman to relate to, in all of her splendor and failure. As a goddess, she may have known the unthinkable gift of immortality, but she knew the curse of it as well.

And immediately closing the back cover of the book, I felt sad about the potential loss of these myths as part of our children’s academic training. I thought of the school system’s popular STEM (Science, technology, engineering and math) program and our culture’s near obsession with grooming young people toward careers in those fields. I thought of the first programs to be sacrificed under the chopping blocks of budget cuts, the arts, communication and humanities. When I ask my own children if they know who Odysseus was and the story of the Iliad, they have a vague recollection of the classic titles. Scant knowledge of the stories or their meaning.

And yet, our children will not be scared off from mythology. I grieve that they will not find it in their schools. But I have hope that they embrace stories of their own gods and godesses. They find them in popular culture. The cult following of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and more recently Game of Thrones, shows me how thirsty our children are for stories and archetypes to understand their world. Stories that invite them to see the true experience of humanity within themselves by watching it play out in characters in books and on the screen.

What they lose in this math/science/tech emphasis, unfortunately, is the wisdom of teachers who help them interpret the stories. Our educational system tells them that stories are not an important part of their life. That all they need to know to understand living can be found in the study of science, technology, engineering, math. How will our children learn to feel? And how will they learn to befriend their own experience as common among humanity? How will they learn to experience love, and loss, victory and failure, creation and destruction? Myth and story are the age old tools for that type of exploration toward wisdom. Communication and literacy are the avenues through which these truths are shared.

Our children will not allow us to rob them of their mythology. But neither will they have the wisdom good teachers could bring to the process of understanding themselves in the world.

If She Went On, It Would Have to Be By Herself

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I am beginning to open to the possibility that maybe this is how the second half of my life is meant to go. Time and space to think and process and ponder thoughts and ideas. And as I have been pondering this, I encountered this beautiful passage from Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass.

"If she went on, it would have to be by herself."  The protagonist, Lyra, has been on a hero's journey through a treacherous, frigid landscape, escorted in the final legs by a strong and comforting giant polar bear. But, finally, they encounter an ice bridge over a great dark chasm, cracked to the point of being able to hold very little weight.  Lyra's, perhaps, but certainly not that of the bear. 

I am there.  At that part of my journey where I realize if I am to go on, now, it will be by myself. It is not a bad place, but this realization does not come without it's terror and angst.

"I got to go across," Lyra says. "Thank you for all you done. I don't know what's going to happen when I get to him. We might all die, whether I get to him or not. But if I come back, I'll come and see you to thank you properly..."

She laid a hand on his head. He let it lie there and nodded gently.

"Goodbye, Lyra Silvertongue," he said."

And as I read this the tears started to flow and I saw Roy standing clearly nodding to me that it is fine and good for me to move forward on my path.

"Her heart thumping painfully with love, she turned away and set her foot on the bridge. The snow creaked under her...step after step she took and wondered with every step whether it would be better to run swiftly and leap for the other side or go slowly as she was doing and tread as lightly as possible. Halfway across there came another loud creak from the snow, a piece fell off and tumbled into the abyss and the bridge settled down another few inches against the crack. She stood perfectly still."

Coming out of grief feels like that. Inching onto an uncertain bridge suspended over an abyss of the unknown with no guarantee for the next step. But the next sentence grabbed me with its truth:

"The bridge held." 

THE BRIDGE HELD!!!! Yes yes yes! I have taken many of those tentative steps in this last year, not knowing if and/or how the bridge would hold. It has creaked beneath my weary feet. But the bridge has held.

"She took another step, then another, and then she felt something settling down below her feet and leaped for the far side with all her strength. She landed belly-down in the snow as the entire length of the bridge fell into the crevasse with a soft whoosh behind her...

"After a minute she opened her eyes and crawled up away from the edge. There was no way back.

"She stood and raised her hand to the watching bear. Iorek Byrnison stood on his hind legs to acknowledge her and then turned and made off down the mountain in a swift run to help his subjects in battle...

"Lyra was alone."

I see you there, Roy, raising your hand to me, encouraging me that the bridge has held and I have made it across. And I can go forward on my own. I see you making off down the mountain in a swift run of joy toward the eternal and infinite experience of love.

"Lyra looked up at the blazing sky. She was aware of how small they were...in comparison with the  majesty and vastness of the universe and of how little they knew in comparison with the profound mysteries above them."

"She turned away. Behind them lay pain and death and fear; ahead of them lay doubt and danger and fathomless mysteries. But they weren't alone [after all]."

This is why I love story. Because of the way others' stories inform my own experience. I know this feeling. I know the feeling of the bridge holding, and the feeling of something settling down below my feet so that I can not just step, but leap forward. I know the feeling of landing on something sure and solid, even though it be a belly-flop. I know the stinging truth that there is no way back. And I know the feeling of being alone and being OK. And then of trusting in the fathomless mysteries among which I am not alone at all.

The Cruelest Month

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"Where does what go?" Gabri asked after a minute's silence.

Myrna whispered, 'Our sorrow. It has to go somewhere.'"

And with that statement Louise Penny invited me into the archetype of "home."

"Gamache knew people were like homes. Some were cheerful and bright, some gloomy. Some could look good on the outside but feel wretched on the interior.  And some of the least attractive homes, from the outside, were kindly and warm inside.

"He also knew the first few rooms were for public consumption. It was only in going deeper that he'd find the reality. And finally, inevitably, there was the last room, the one we keep locked and bolted and barred, even from ourselves. Especially from ourselves." 

In The Cruelest Month, the archetype was The Old Hadley House, that abandoned house, up on the hill, just outside of Three Pines, an allegory for the place I fear; that place in my spirit or my psyche where I store away what I don't want to see. That place that grows, over time, into something abandoned, unknown and terrifying. However, she says gently,  "Everything has it wonders, even darkness and silence."

One character described it simply, as the principle of balance.  'Nature is balance. Action and reaction. Life and death. Everything's in balance. It makes sense that the old Hadley house is close to Three Pines. They balance each other."  

Well, ok, that makes it a little less scary, right? Balance is a good thing, right? But let's just keep that old house up on the hill where we don't have to see it, and far enough away that we have no reason to go there.

That's fear talking. Everyone in Three Pines avoids the Old Hadley House, and fear is the reason. But there is a price to keeping the darkness at bay. Penny describes it beautifully when she says that fear is "an alchemist and could turn daylight into night, joy into despair.  Fear, once taken root, blocked the sun."

Fear of encountering certain aspects of my ego, my created self, gets in the way of my relationship with all that is Divine. I may not have to look at or enter that old house, but, buy gosh it is blocking my view. Those parts of me that need to be loved, explored, brought to the light of consciousness, and forgiven. Those parts of me that don't make me a bad person, they just cloud the sun. They make it hard for me to experience a connection to my creator and to all creation.

When Roy died I lost all of my defenses around those parts of me. My created self just couldn't bear the weight. I learned how great suffering can do that; strip us of the defenses that we have so carefully crafted in order to survive. I entered that terrifying house, against my will, and tumbled down into the basement, as she describes in this scene.

"He'd opened this same door in the middle of a fierce storm, in the dark...and he'd stepped into a void. It was like every nightmare coming true. He'd crossed a threshold into nothingness. No light, no stairs.

And he'd fallen. As had the others with him. Into a wounded and bloody heap on the floor below.

The old Hadley house protected itself. It seemed to tolerate, with ill grace, minor intrusions. But it grew more and more malevolent the deeper you went. Instinctively his hand went into his pants pocket, then came out again, empty.

But he remembered the BIble in his jacket and felt a little better. Though he didn't himself go to church, he knew the power of belief. And symbols."

My defenses do fiercely protect themselves. Layers of anger, fear, despair, outrage rear their ugly heads to protect from seeing what is in that basement.  

It was like that for me.  Like falling into an abyss. That place where my sorrow went. That place where all of the emotions that I didn't want to see live and breathe and yes, control my life.  So, it was a salvation of sorts.  Because once those places were encountered, they began to lose control. It doesn't happen overnight, of course.  It's a process.  Like Inspector Gamache's take on loss:

"You didn't just lose a loved one. You lost your heart, your memories, your laughter, your brain and it even took your bones.  Eventually it all came back, but different, rearranged."

And I am finding that it's true, what I've been told. What's underneath all of that garbage that I have stored away in the house on the hill is love. That's all that's left, once it has all been brought to light. For me, it's not a one and done kind of thing. I expect I'll spend the rest of my life with perhaps daily episodes of heading down to the basement to shed light on something, to bring love and compassion to some anger or sorrow or fear.  But that seems to me a better way to be in the world. Safer, somehow, more authentic.

And I am seeing that the fear, ultimately, is a fear of love.  Because love makes me vulnerable.  I can neither predict or control the path of love and it's consequent joys and sorrows. But I can begin to trust it. Begin.

 

Still Life

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The last book I read in the mystery genre was The Happy Hollisters.  Or maybe it was The Bobbsey Twins.  If you recognize those titles, you know what I mean.  I was 8, or 9 or maybe 10.  I discovered a wonderful new concept when my parents purchased a book subscription for me and each month in the mail I received a new one!  It was like Christmas every month.

So when Still Life, by Louise Penny, was recommended at my book group one evening, I listened politely and said to myself, well just because it's a book group choice doesn't mean I have to read it.  That's the thing about my book group.  You don't have to read the book.

Then one day, my mind short-circuited by grief, I decided to give "Still Life" a try.  Something light and entertaining, not too gruesome.  And then for awhile, Louise Penny was all that I could read.

Now I'm sure that an author's highest compliment is NOT that she got a grieving widow through her first year of anguish and turmoil.  But that is my testimony to Louise.  With much thanks.

There is so much to love about her mysteries.  One day as my mind became more able to focus I reflected on Three Pines, the small village in Quebec that is the setting for all of her Inspector Gamache mysteries.  Ahhh, I thought.  Such a great archetype for the safe place that I would love to call home.  A tiny remote village (mysterious in it's absence on the map); a small community of like-minded but quirky friends who all "get" and accept each others' faults and defaults, gifts and contributions.  A lovely B&B with a bistro that serves up the likes of "a mug of hot soup with a warm roll stuffed with ham, melting brie and a few leaves of arugula," while a fire crackles in the fireplace banked by cozy arm chairs.  Yes please.

And from that safe place Penny weaves, not only an engaging mystery, but also a story filled with so many things that I love:  literary references, psychological perspective, inspirational adages, spiritual perspective, humor, grace, humility, forgiveness.  Each story woven through with a special insight that I can take away and chew on.  She makes me see myself with humor and compassion.

Still Life, it seems to me, is an invitation to that safe place inside of us where we can begin to integrate aspects of our self, to take our own journeys of self-discovery. Perhaps that's because I am in that stage of life right now.  Her main character, Inspector Gamache, introduces his philosophy as a crime detective to his new recruits with the scripture from Matthew 10:36 "And a man's foes shall be they of his own household."

In one scene a new recruit happens upon a mirror with the a note attached that says "you're looking at the problem."  

At another point Gamache reflects on an "analogy someone told him years ago.  Living our lives was like living in a long house.  We entered as babies at one end, and we exited when your time came.  And in between we moved through this one, great, long room.  Everyone we ever met, and every thought and action lived in that room with us.  Until we made peace with the less agreeable parts of our past they'd continue to heckle us from way down the long house.  And sometimes the really loud, obnoxious ones told us what to do, directing our actions even years later."  That is Louise Penny's gift.  This invitation to make peace.

No sooner had I closed the back cover of Still Life and opened the introduction to Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel did I read an introduction by William Gay, author of The Long Home.  Coincidence?

The literary references, poetry, art, philosophy, spirituality, are all like little gems that delight me as I am reading.  The mystery carries me along.  The characters are lovely archetypes of aspects of self.  I don't want to ruin it for you.  If you read it you'll want to discover your own little treasures, as that is the delight of reading her books.  But here's a few archetypes I enjoyed.

Three Pines as a wonderful place of safety and security where a person could be themselves in a beloved community.  "Beyond that, there was no crime.  No break-ins, no vandalism, no assaults.  There weren't even any police in Three Pines.  Every now and then Robert Lemieux with the local Surete would drive around the Commons, just to show the colors, but there was no need...Three Pines wasn't on any tourist map, being too far off any main or even secondary road.  Like Narnia, it was generally found unexpectedly and with a degree of surprise that such an elderly village should have been hiding in this valley all along.  Anyone fortunate enough to find it once, usually found their way back."  And yet, the safety is breached by a murder that must be solved.  If we are going to do the work, we are going to find something frightening.

Inspector Gamache as the compassionate detective, leading the charge of discovery about that which makes us horrified.  About life, about our world, about others, and worst of all, about ourselves.  As Penney describes him, though, "His little secret was that in his mid-fifties, at the height of a long and now apparently stalled career, violent death still surprised him."  Keeping a tender heart is to not let the shock of truth make us jaded or cynical.  Such an important aspect of healing.  

Inspector Gamache, who also believes that "We choose our thoughts.  We choose our perceptions.  We choose our attitudes.  We may not think so.  We may not believe it, but we do.  I absolutely know we do.  I've seen enough evidence, time after time, tragedy after tragedy.  Triumph after triumph.  It's about choice."

Inspector Gamache who also quotes John Donne "When thou hast done, thou has not done, for I have more." And Abby Hoffman, "We should all eat what we kill.  That would put an end to war."

Clara, the sensitive artist,  "found it easy to forgive most things in most people.  Too easy, her husband Peter often warned.  But Clara had her own little secret.  She didn't really let go of everything.  Most things, yes.  But some she secretly held and hugged and would visit in moments when she needed to be comforted by the unkindness of others."  What we hide from other's needn't be hidden from ourselves.  

Clara, who acts from her tender compassionate place when her friends suffered. "Clara rose with exaggerated calm.  She took Jane in her arms and felt the old body creak back into place.  Then she said a little prayer of thanks to the gods that give grace.  The grace to cry and the grace to watch."

Clara, who wanted to keep her loved one's safe, who we all want inside ourselves and in our lives.  "Most mornings Clara would wake up and watch while he slept, and want to crawl inside his skin and wrap herself around his heart and keep him safe.......Clara was his centre and all that was good and healthy and happy about him.  When he looked at her he didn't see the wild, untamable hair, the billowing frocks, the Dollar-rama store horn-rimmed spectacles.  No. He saw his safe harbor."

Ruth Zardo, the voice that we all want to use, but instead filter.  Ruth the crazy aging poet, unable to mask the stinging truth.

You were a moth

brushing against my cheek 

in the dark.

I killed you,

not knowing

you were only a moth,

with no sting.

Myrna, the retired psychologist, showing us the limits of analysis, and the power of comfort. Myrna, who quotes Oscar Wilde with " there's no sin except stupidity."

Myrna who weaves her observations into wisdom.  "His theory is that life is loss.  Loss of parents, loss of loves, loss of jobs.  So we have to find a higher meaning in our lives than these things and people.  Otherwise we'll lose ourselves."

"I lost sympathy with many of my patients.  After twenty-five years of listening to their complaints I finally snapped.  I woke up one morning bent out of shape about this client who was forty-three but acting sixteen.  Every week he'd come with the same complaints, "Someone hurt me.  Life is unfair.  It's not my fault."  For three years I'd been making suggestions and for three years he'd done nothing.  Then, listening to him this one day, I suddenly understood.  He wasn't changing because he didn't want to.  He had no intention of changing.  For the next twenty years we would go through this charade.  And I realized in that same instant that most of my clients were exactly like him." 

Myrna, with whom I would take issue.  If only it were simply that people didn't change because they didn't want to.  I believe there are many people who desperately want to change and who struggle with a host of limits and road blocks.  Sometimes the only change possible is acceptance of what is.

And there's much more.  She packs an awful lot into these little gems.  I even feel a bit smug that maybe I know her references to books she invents for the story.  Loss, by Brother Albert Mailloux at LaPorte sounds a lot like Henri Nouwen and L'Arche.

If you've read this far, thanks.  I believe Louise Penny just finished the sixteenth book in the Inspector Gamache series, so I'll be exploring more of them.  Should you decide to embark on the adventure of self-discovery with her, I'd love to hear about the little gems that you find.

 

 

 

Maleficent's Feminist Rewrite

 
The Young Maleficent

Thank you, Linda Woolverton for this beautifully crafted extension of the traditional Sleeping Beauty fairy tale.  You have given us a new mythology with new archetypes woven with the riches of feminine energy.  Here's a bit of the symbolism I experienced while watching the movie and what the symbols brought up for me.

Archetype:  Stolen wings.  Ah, the nasty temptation to say that any man or male has actually stolen my power in order to enhance his own.  It is great and strong, yet I resist.  Yes, I had a very strong and overbearing father.  Yes, I have had struggles with my husband, male bosses and coworkers that have sent me into frustrating tears or rages.  But I am trying to separate, a bit, the experience in my personal relationships from the universal impact of patriarchy.  Yes, I have participated in relationships for a variety of personal reasons, healthy and unhealthy.  Yes, I feel that my power has been stolen or usurped by men.  But I see that as a dynamic playing out in a larger consciousness.  The archetype of stolen wings, stolen freedoms is much larger and more universal.  The same could be said about women stealing power from men, or from me.  But that's not what this story is about, so I don't want to digress.  To me, it is about patriarchy and all of it's negative and oppressive practices engaged by both men and women, not least of all myself, that has stolen women's power and my own power.

For that loss I, like Maleficent, grieve.  For the loss of trust in that system.  The grief when the realization strikes that the trust I had placed in a childhood belief system has robbed me of what is most freeing and empowering in my life; my own strength, power and ability.

Did you mean to say that to us all, Linda? Perhaps not, but that is what I saw.

Archetype:  Return to the inner child.  Maleficent takes it on herself to care for the infant princess, but really what choice does she have?  She sees the fairies assigned to her care for what they are; well meaning, but incompetent.  It seems to be with a heavy sigh of resignation that Maleficent finds herself returning to the infant, secretly overseeing her care and protection.  And I, too, reluctantly and with a heaving sigh at times have returned to my inner child.  Frustrated that there is no external source to care for her.  Convinced that the external source I have entrusted to care for her is SO incompetent.

It must be me.  There is really no other choice.  I must be the one to return to that inner child and watch over and protect her, love her innocence and vulnerability, gently coax her into the truth of the world upon which she will eventually be forced to embark.

Archetype:  Debunking the prince charming myth. Unfortunately, I have to admit that I was probably in my 30's revisiting the story of Cinderella with my young children when I had the aha moment, "oh, this is what they mean by fairy tale.  There is no prince charming."  Embarrassed now to admit I was that old before I got it, I have to see it for what it is.  Maybe it's a nice thing that I was able to believe as long as I did.

Thank you, again, Linda, for debunking that myth.  It is not, in fact, prince charming who is going to wake me from whatever sleep I have chosen instead of stepping into the realities of adult-hood.

Archetype:  The awakening of the feminine.  Ah, no, not the true love of a prince charming, but the true love of the feminine, in all of its confusing and mysterious manifestations, provides the princess what she needs in order to awake and move into her maturity as a woman in the world. Interesting to me that Linda did not provide for us the "mother love" interpretation. Maleficent wasn't the princess' mother.  Oh wait.  Did I miss something?  No, I don't think so.  Interesting that the mother figure is in the background.  it's so easy to get this confused with "mother love" but I believe that is an entirely different thing.  Because it is, to me, just simply feminine love.  Period.  You get to define the mode in which you best receive it.

Don't get me wrong.  Masculine love has it's place in the world as well.  Most of us understand now how masculine love is an entirely different thing than patriarchy. There is a lot to be given and received through masculine love.  And I could take this even further to collapse the dichotomy altogether and just call it love.  But I am not ready to do that.  I need the dichotomy to help me better understand my feminine nature, to give it voice in this still patriarchal world.  

Perhaps the reason this resonated with me so strongly, is that my own experience of growing empowerment and place in the world, in the universe, is not being ushered in through masculine love.  I need the feminine to help me awaken to my power, place and purpose.

King of California: Loved the Allegory

Here's the description:

A fresh-out-of-the-mental institution father and his emancipated teenage daughter venture together on a quest for an ancient Spanish treasure buried beneath their local Costco in this take on the modern family and the American dream.

I picked this up at the library, having not heard of it before and interested only because I love Michael Douglas.  And I have to say this is my favorite performance from him, and matched by costar Rachel Wood.  The story is heart wrenching and hilarious all at the same time.  Here's what I saw:

The allegory for me is about life journey.  How when we are set apart and life seems too crazy to handle we are often forced to embark on a journey that appears crazy to everyone around us.  Sometimes it IS crazy.  We always have to watch for that balance, don't we?  When people tell us we're crazy to do this or that do we take heed? Sometimes we do, sometimes we can't.  It's beautiful how Michael Douglas' character pulls his daughter into believing in his journey.  Sometimes, just having one person that believes in our journey keeps us going, keeps it alive for us.

I thought it particularly poignant, humorous, and gut-wrenching that when they got to a key place on their hunt for buried treasure they had to literally dig beneath a Cosco store to continue.  It doesn't take a Jungian to see the message here.  So much of our psychic journey is buried under rock hard cement and over strewn with the distraction of the material.  And in this case, the overproduction and overconsumption that creates the illusion of well being.

Thus we are required to literally jack hammer our way through that wall of illusion to get to....yes, he found an underground river!  Oh, the mythology, the allegory...I just loved it!  The journey toward treasure....

Well, I won't ruin the ending for you.