Burning Mercury and the story of Bathsheba

This was written a week ago. Enjoy…

We’re on an extended camping trip, simultaneously waiting for my broken foot to mend, waiting to find out when we can move our travel trailer into a long-term spot, and figuring out how we are going to manage this relationship over the long term — which involves a lot of waiting. So things are quiet and scenic, but, on the whole, not very comfortable.

I was sitting by the cold firepit, looking out across the sere grass and low hills, in a quiet reverie in a quiet hour. I sent my imagination off to find something utterly irrelevant.

What came back was the sign of Pluto, which approached in a portentous manner —
astrological glyph for Pluto
And, in the sideways manner of dreams, said it was Mercury, which normally looks like this:
astrological glyph for Mercury
Then it grew flames, starting from the ball.
pluto glyph with small flame on ball
The flames spread, and as they spread around the symbol and over it, the symbol came close to me.
Pluto glyph nearly engulfed in flames on top
Closer.

Closer still.

Then it hooked its barbs into my side. It was intrusive as dammit. It poked right into my flesh, as if it wanted to climb in.

Trying to pull away, I said, “What the heck are you doing? What do you want?”

It said, “We need your stories.

I thought of my science writing at my biowizardry blog, and it said No. I thought of my anecdotes here, and it said No.

It waved a few pages of books and stories I’ve half-written and said, “We need your STORIES.”

Oh. The imaginative stuff. Didn’t think that was the most unique thing I had to offer, but hey, I’m a writer … I usually do what the little voices tell me.

So here’s a story.

One day, there was a woodcutter and … no, wait, you’ve heard that one. How about this, and I’m writing it from sentence to sentence, no idea what comes next, so be kind…

The story of Bathsheba

Bathsheba was beautiful and did not know it, despite her luscious name. She wanted little, and got slightly less, but she had a gift for appreciation and made the most of it.

One day, while dumpster-diving (she did even that with grace), she came across half a salmon, nearly fresh, cooked with red wine and oranges. It was heavenly. She was only three bites in when a bully named Tom came by, heard her happy little sounds, and cursed and smacked her away so he could have the rest. He never learned that it’s wrong to hit people smaller than you, especially girls.

She scrambled out in a hurry, but he didn’t come after her, so she calmed down and wandered away to somewhere more peaceful. She was glad she had gotten the three bites, and sat on the curb in the sun, licking her lips and enjoying the aftertaste.

A car drove by, spitting fumes and loud music, and a half-empty can nearly beaned her. She leaned aside to dodge it, and went back to soaking up the sun. It was part of city life — she could tell that they hadn’t been aiming.

Another car pulled up, partly blocking the sun, large and with something sturdy on the roof. She pulled her feet in neatly. The occupants didn’t seem to notice; they were busy talking, sounding uncomfortable and distracted. The one on the street side got out and opened the back up, then returned to the front. The two occupants opened out an enormous sheet of paper between them. A map.

Bathsheba loved maps. It had been ages since she’d been able to just relax and look at a map. Curiosity flashed a fin.

Very quietly, she sidled closer to the car’s rear end.

No reaction from up front.

Very gently, very quietly, she leaned — oh so casually — against the rear bumper.

They were having technical issues: the space was too small to turn the map over in, but they were trying.

Bathsheba put one foot on the bumper, experimentally. The piles of clothing and sleeping gear obscured her view.

Up front, the map turning had not gone well, so there were some knocked mirrors and banged knuckles and bumped heads. The trivial dip of the bumper didn’t even show up in the chaos up front.

She shifted her weight, oh so carefully… just to see …

And, up front, the map tore.

One of the occupants burst into tears.

Bathsheba leaped towards the front of the car, then remembered herself — you don’t just go up to strangers, even if all you want to do is comfort them!

Instead, with wide eyes, she crouched behind the back seat, half-buried by piles of clothing and pillows, her back against the hard plastic side of a cooler, looking all her sympathy, yet terrified of the very questionable position she found herself in. She had absolutely no idea what to do.

The conversation up front shifted gear, from frustration and recrimination to apology and comforting. Eventually, and more or less in the middle of a word, the driver put the idling car into gear and pulled away from the curb.

Bathsheba clutched the clothing under her, eyes now very wide indeed. She definitely didn’t belong here, but the car was going too fast to jump out; all she could do was hold onto the clothing, which she was now half-buried in, and hope with all her might that it didn’t fall out the still-open back.

Some time later, she was startled awake by a thud. The driver had stopped the car and put the back lift-gate down. He apparently hadn’t noticed Bathsheba, curled up among the tumbled clothing. The car lurched forward and took off again at highway speed.

She peered over the cooler and gazed out at the darkening sky. There was a great big wall along the road and city smells blew in through the vent, but not the strong stenches she was used to.

She wondered if being homeless out here was any better than being homeless in the heart of the city. She couldn’t even begin to think of how she’d get back. It wasn’t a great life, sure, but at least she knew where the good dumpsters were, and who to avoid. Mind you, it smelled better out here.

She wanted to cry, and maybe she whimpered very quietly so nobody else could hear, but she didn’t dare to announce herself. She had no idea how she was going to get out of this, but maybe something would go right… later…

With nothing else to do and a short lifetime’s experience of stress under her belt already, she burrowed in and went back to sleep among the strangers’ clothes. They smelled kind of nice, like cotton and lemon and something crisp and soft which she couldn’t name, but felt so at home with.

She woke later to a voice, a nice gentle man’s voice tinged with wonder: “Kate, come look.” It was one of the occupants.

The car was still. The air was full of that crisp, soft smell. The sky was dark, with millions of points of light — stars, so rare in the city. There was a fire burning nearby under a grill loaded with wonderful things. The other occupant got up from her seat by the fire and came over.

The two people looked down at Bathsheba, utterly tangled in their clothing, utterly helpless, and curiously at home.

They didn’t snarl. They didn’t throw cans. They didn’t invade her privacy or try to grab at her.

They just smiled — two kind, sweet, wondering smiles. They looked like they were witnessing a minor miracle, and like Bathsheba was someone they already considered a friend.

Bathsheba couldn’t help herself. The clothes under her fingers curled. Her chest stretched. Her eyelids squished gently closed, then opened again. She purred.

“I think you’re going to like it a lot better out here, kitty,” said Kate.

Bathsheba wanted to correct her, and say her name was Bathsheba, not Kitty. But just then, Kate reached out with two hands and gently scooped her in. Bathsheba felt Kate’s slow, solid heartbeat — thubump, thubump, thubump — against her own soft little body, and melted into joy.

Don’t worry. There will be plenty more science, and plenty more stories too.

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The point of mythology — and there is one

I’m working on a series of 3 novellas, a triptych:

1. Kronos in season: The growing-up of a primal god.
2. Hell — the bright side: The original story of Persephone, the original career woman.
3. Pain, a comedy: the intimate family drama that came down to us as the story of Chiron, the wounded healer — and possibly the first recorded case of CRPS.
(Warning: slapstick and hangman’s humor, sometimes simultaneously.)

I’ve been bogged down on number 2 for the best part of a year. In other words, I’ve been stuck in Hell… heheh.

“That Heironymous Bosch. What a weirdo.” – Good Omens

When asked what I write, I usually talk about CRPS and turning medical science into plain English. When asked what my favorite thing to write about is, I have to say, it’s mythology.

“Wait — mythology? … Why??”

Because myths are about the greater parts in ourselves. Those of us in unbearable situations (like the Newtown teachers or Mother Theresa or, indeed, anyone with a terrible illness) have to be superhuman at times. Sometimes most of the time.

Myths remind us of our innate capacity to reach beyond our limits and own the moment, hideousness and all, so that we can lift ourselves beyond all reason and find a way to make things better.

We have modern myths, like James Bond, Star Trek, the X-Men and Harry Potter.  While they have their limits as myths, they still meet the inward need to see that part of ourselves that can bear the unbearable, survive the murderous, and emerge victorious from a no-win situation.

I should have died at least 5 times in the past 10 years. But here I am, very much against the odds, still thinking (sort of) and writing. Rediscovering mythology played a part in that.

And, more than ever, I find it incredibly easy to tell those enormous stories as if I were talking about real people in real time — because, in my own mind at least, I am. When I write about gods and demons, I’m writing of things I know, although under different names.

You should meet my friends with CRPS — and some of their parents. These people embody powers of creativity, diligence, determination, resourcefulness, strength and brilliance that make the great gods of prehistory look like punks, and leave modern adjectives beggared. Telling myths is easy-pie after talking to them!

If we should stick to writing what we know, then I’ve been to Hell and back so often they’ve installed a revolving door for me. I’ve wept on the knees of Hera. Sedna is my sister. I’ve heard Taliesin’s lament. Coyote has my home address, and comes over (too often) for tea… I have my suspicions about what he puts in his cup — and mine.

I won’t discuss the demons, except to say that they, too, can usually be healed. But it’s always by the thing you wouldn’t think of.

“O..kay.” Checks my head for tinfoil hat. “But what does mythology have to do with CRPS?”

It gives us back the unstoppable inner part of ourselves that can defeat it in the end.

And that’s good medicine.

 

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Remembering and re-membering

I’ve been doing intensive massage and craniosacral therapy for the past few weeks. I’m reminded, of course, that the neurological system extends throughout: bodies have memories. (There is some confusion about how those memories are stored. We’ll figure it out eventually.)

This, in turn, reminds me that the brain is malleable. CRPS changed it,

and if I’m thorough enough, persistent enough, and clever enough, I might be able to change it again.

Persuading the brain to remap itself is a remarkable process, because the brain uses the language of vision and metaphor and it responds most strongly to longing and fear. (This is one reason why mythology is so helpful, given the right story: myths tend to have powerful visual metaphors and visceral emotional force.)

The brain is also a monument to inertia: once it has started going down a certain path, it’s very hard indeed to persuade it to change course. I find I have to be firm, focused, and relentless, and since I also have CRPS-related ADD and periods of unbelievable vacuousness, that’s tricky… (I’m working on how to construct a webpage that has all my tricks and routines easily accessible, so I don’t have to remember what to do when my memory is at its worst. It’s a heck of a design problem.)

One good way to access the central nervous system (CNS) in a way that specifically rebalances some of the most critical areas of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is through bodywork, like therapeutic massage and craniosacral therapy (these link to my providers — both warmly recommended.) Here are a few of the reasons why.

  • Humans, and other mammals, are hardwired to respond deeply to touch. The “safe touch” of good bodywork is profoundly soothing to the ANS, and since the ANS drives the multi-system dysregulation of chronic CRPS, this is a powerful thing.
  • The rocking motions of massage stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which has a lasting calming effect.
  • It releases endorphins, which reduces pain and brightens mood.
  • The tissue stimulation improves and stabilizes blood pressure and circulation, major factors with CRPS and dysautonomia.
  • Swelling goes down, as circulation is mobilized.
  • Hyperesthesia (pain to light touch) and allodynia (blunted sense of touch) improve because of something that clinicians call “desensitization”, a hostile sounding word which really means, “developing appropriate sensation.”
  • Hormones stabilize, perhaps due to the improved circulation and more stable ANS.
  • More stable hormones improve mood, reduce pain, and stabilize immune and inflammatory responses.

Therapeutic bodywork does all that. There is no pill or surgery in the world that can come close. Once I get my links sorted out, I’ll rewrite that for the medical blog. The value of good bodywork simply can’t be overstated.

A couple of weeks ago, during several treatments in a row, I had the curious sensation that my right arm and shoulder were being knitted back into my body. I hadn’t realized until then just how completely I had succeeded in shutting them out.

The still, quiet voice inside me indicated that dissociation should be intentional, purposeful, and temporary; if I wanted to be well, it could not be habitual. My inward guidance wasn’t telling me to stop dissociating (that is, mentally and emotionally separating myself from that part of my body), but to do so only when I needed to, to separate from too much pain.

Remaining dissociated is like disowning that part of my body, and I can’t persuade it to do anything when I’ve essentially cut it off. I need to persuade it to heal, and that’s a tall order.

During today’s craniosacral treatment (from the delightful and competent Sonja Sweeney), I remembered standing on the wall of my French-bed corner garden a few years ago, right before I fell off it and smashed my tailbone on the edge of a ramp. Pathetic lavender and dying weeds filled most of the bed, since I hadn’t gotten far with digging it up. Behind the glorious, fragrant, massive rosemary against the back edge, a 20-year-old growth of climbing roses spilled green and pink everywhere.

I had just completed a course of treatment that put my insides in the best shape they’d been in years. My stomach no longer bothered me, I was healthier and stronger, my stamina was better, and I was still inside the five-year mark with RSD.

What’s interesting is that, during this treatment, I was remembering the moment right before I got injured, not right after. My eyes were filled with roses and my nose with rosemary, and I was sketching out great plans for my bit of garden.

As I walked away after my treatment, that quiet inward voice said, “Remember pre-injury, not post injury. Remember that.”

It had to start with the rosy garden, because before the CRPS injury, I was working at Borland and was so involved with my work (which I loved) that I really had no idea how magnificently fit my body was, by the time I got injured. I simply didn’t notice it.

I enjoyed the activities of riding to work and running miles through the redwoods, but when I thought of my body, it was to criticize function, appearance, or both. (Except occasionally when I noticed those legs… :-))

In the rosy garden, I was aware of being better. And that was the point.

My brain needs something to reach for that has inward meaning and emotional oomph, so vague dissatisfaction is not a helpful point of reference. A sturdy inward “YES” is the goal: re-remembering this body, with all attached limbs fully integrated, blood coursing warmly throughout, everything moving and working, and that radiant feeling of blooming health and returning vigor.

I’m 46. I don’t expect feel the way I did when I was 34. But I know 60-year-olds who could kick the ass of me at 34. Being well is not an unreasonable idea, keeping in mind that I’m going forward, not back.

I’m inventing a frame of mind that doesn’t exist yet. Both remembering and re-membering give me important clues as to what it should be. I’m delighted to have figured that out.

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Quantum physics and the divine plan

Post on one of my CRPS groups: “Everything that happens to me is part of the plan for my good.”

The responses to this seemed to come through a blissed-out narcotic haze. I’m afraid I administered the verbal Narcan. Surprised? 🙂

I’ve counseled too many rape victims and abuse survivors, and treated far too many accident victims, to hold the belief that bad things happen to us as part of a greater plan — let alone that it’s for our own good.

Bad things happen, full stop. As living humans, we take our chances in the world; sometimes it works out for us, sometimes it doesn’t.

If we grow and learn and become stronger, then it’s because of how we chose to deal with it and what we could bring to bear — not because some faceless force thought it would be interesting and valuable to cause us so much agony, because — of all counter-logical reasons — it loves us.

I aim to find a way to become free of CRPS. Nevertheless, I perceive that the skills, the inward peace, the strength, the poise I’ve developed in coping with these unimaginable challenges over so many years, have certainly made me something I never would’ve reached without it.

I thoroughly honor the brilliance, creativity and strength that my comrades with CRPS bring to their lives. It’s breathtaking to belong to such a select group — although the cost of membership is a little high.

It’s a special disease: agonizing, rare, destructive, poorly researched, underfunded, extremely long-lasting, and — most special of all — widely believed to be hysterical in nature. The challenges it poses are distinctive and seemingly endless.

After eight years with it, I’m proud of myself and I even care about myself, even though I can accomplish so much less than before. 8 1/2 years ago, I felt that I had to earn my right to even breathe.

The credit for all that growth goes to innate qualities, my excellent friends (some of whom I’m related to), and a handful of gifted clinicians.

The causal lines are very clear: hard work, relentless study, determination, safe places to stay, loving words, wise ideas, needed gifts, perfect loans, valid diagnoses, key treatments — these are what gave me strength and let me grow and learn.

It’s been painstakingly pointed out to me that I have the friends I’ve earned. I’m not sure any mortal deserves such friends as mine, but I’m glad of them all the same.

Cold chronic CRPS and all that goes with it… Part of a plan? What plan? Whose bloody plan? I want the bastard’s address! And so does my army.

Plan is a four letter word.

I will never forget the days and nights and years of desperate prayer, with nothing but silence coming back. The goodness, the help, the peace, these all came from other people and my own work. The natural results of many extraordinary efforts.

Inflicting this kind of agony and loss “for your own good” would be absolutely unthinkable for a conscious, caring being of any kind. Moreover, to have the power of withholding destruction and pain, and to fail to do so, is quintessentially evil.

I’m a theist, but I don’t see deity as a psychopathic abuser — as something that would clobber me for the fun of it, or be persuaded to stop the beating if I figured out the right things to say.

Moreover, I can really see why people would be atheists. Without quantum physics to make sense of things, deity is an indefensible concept. With quantum physics, I’m certain of three things:

We ARE a permanent part of something greater. It IS aware, omniscient, and ubiquitous.

Its job is not to screw things up, but to notice, communicate, and keep flowing. That’s it.

Nothing else agrees with the evidence.

It’s not intrusive, manipulative or evil. It can’t be, because it doesn’t possess the mechanisms.

Not to kill the buzz or anything 🙂

Whatever belief system works for you, use it!  Just remember, there’s more than one path to personal salvation — or whatever your metaphor is — but very few of them get discussed, because of the ancient hegemony that a few groups have held over religious and spiritual expression. Let’s open the world up a bit.

All too often, the power of human connection is mentioned only as an afterthought. In practice, I’ve found nothing more important when the chips are down.

I no longer pray for help. I ask.

Because beliefs vary, it’s important to give a voice to those who find the traditional idea of our helpless subjection to a greater will to be the opposite of comforting. We don’t get much airtime, but we still find peace, strength and grace.

Just not in that particular idea. Thank God.

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The arts are not trivial — why mythopoiesis matters

Almost 7 years ago, I was walking with a fellow writer, sharing our souls as good friends do. I was recently disabled with CRPS and, needing activity as I do, I was trying to think what to do with my life beyond struggling to stay alive and in manageable pain.  I complained about my internal blocks to any sort of publicity for my work.  (I had no blogs.  Nobody outside the Java software industry had ever heard of me.  Nearly all my output had been printed anonymously by the company I worked for.)  
She asked what I thought that was about.  I said I had been brought up with the very clear message that arts are fine for a hobby, but that making a living as a writer or actor was absolutely unthinkable.  It was irrational to take the arts seriously.
Her soft voice changed to ringing iron in the shape of a bell: “The arts are not trivial.”  
I stopped, right there on the sidewalk, shocked out of my self-pity. She turned and egged me on; we continued walking.  “What did you do after surgery?” she asked.
I mumbled, “Watched movies.”
“You watched movies. When you were a little better but couldn’t go back to work yet, what else did you do?”
“Read.”
“You read.  Writers and actors and producers and other artists got you through that time.  They got you through the last year, with the awful work and the layoff.  Survival is not trivial.  It’s significant.  The arts matter.”
Hard to argue with that.  I’d be dead, miserably dead, without the work of visionaries — especially the really  funny ones.
This came up again in the context of my own more recent absorption in the value of mythology as a ticket to survival in the face of horrible odds — a pressingly modern issue in these impossible times.  Then today, I learned that it was Professor Tolkien who created the word “Mythopoeia” — wrote a poem on it, in fact, to his increasingly rigid friend Reverend Lewis. 
While both men were theists, C. S. Lewis was much more interested in the structure and received wisdom of religion; J. R. R. Tolkien was a spiritual seeker more in the experiential, visionary, nature-loving, nearly shamanic mode of poets like Coleridge and Keats.  
 Here it is, with my annotations [in square brackets and italicized.]  Take your time and enjoy:

To one who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though ‘breathed through silver’.

Philomythus to Misomythus

[“Loves Myths” to “Opposes Myths”]

You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow’);

[I love this comment on the dry limits of literalism!]

you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star’s a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.

At bidding of a Will, to which we bend
(and must), but only dimly apprehend,
great processes march on, as Time unrolls
from dark beginnings to uncertain goals;

[he’s making the point that there’s more to all this than we can comprehend in our poorly-constructed, limited and ignorant theories of time, space, matter, and life.
He goes on to describe fiction, which at least doesn’t pretend to hold all facts:]

and as on page o’er-written without clue,
with script and limning packed of various hue,
an endless multitude of forms appear,
some grim, some frail, some beautiful, some queer,

[he used “queer” in the sense of “odd”, but as far as I’m concerned it’s all good]

each alien, except as kin from one
remote Origo, gnat, man, stone, and sun.
God made the petreous rocks, the arboreal trees,
tellurian earth, and stellar stars, and these
homuncular men, who walk upon the ground
with nerves that tingle touched by light and sound.

[by pairing these luscious words with the plain ones, he just destroyed the dry concept that “trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow'” — making the point that there’s more to language and life than the rules we know.]

The movements of the sea, the wind in boughs,
green grass, the large slow oddity of cows,
thunder and lightning, birds that wheel and cry,
slime crawling up from mud to live and die,
these each are duly registered and print
the brain’s contortions with a separate dint.

[he’s pointing out (with beautiful imagery) that our brains are so rich and complex, and that life and experience are so rich and complex, that each rich experience makes unique patterns in a complex brain…]

Yet trees are not ‘trees’, until so named and seen
and never were so named, till those had been
who speech’s involuted breath unfurled,

[…and that even to come up with dry little words to describe them, is a feat of imagination in the first place]

faint echo and dim picture of the world,
but neither record nor a photograph,
being divination, judgement, and a laugh
response of those that felt astir within
by deep monition movements that were kin
to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars:
free captives undermining shadowy bars,
digging the foreknown from experience
and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.

[remove the line-breaks and read that again: “but neither record nor a photograph, being divination, judgement, and a laugh response of those that felt astir within by deep monition movements that were kin to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars: free captives undermining shadowy bars, digging the foreknown from experience and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.” 
In short, taking pictures and otherwise recording things is often a nervous tick, used by those who aren’t enough in touch with their feelings and experiences to find some richer way to convey them meaningfully — but convey them we do, however we can, in an effort to rescue our deeper selves…]

Great powers they slowly brought out of themselves
and looking backward they beheld the elves
that wrought on cunning forges in the mind,
and light and dark on secret looms entwined.

[…and from that effort we grow, and brilliant works come in time.]

He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-pattemed; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.

[in short, to see something, we must first be able to imagine it.  This idea of his has since been borne out by modern science: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080703145849.htm]

The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him.

[Tolkien’s religious background was Roman Catholic, which believes in God as the ultimate source of wisdom …]

               Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.

[…and teaches the story of the Garden of Eden as the fall of man and expulsion from paradise.]

Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

[Our minds may be separated from God’s (his belief, not mine) but they are still derived from it, and all our rich variety of unique perceptions create endless possibilities.]

Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.

[A triumphant assertion of the right to exercise creative will.  Go Tolkien!]

Yes! ‘wish-fulfilment dreams’ we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!
Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,
or some things fair and others ugly deem?

[yeah, so we make stuff up — and it makes us stronger. It’s holy.]

All wishes are not idle, nor in vain
fulfilment we devise — for pain is pain,
not for itself to be desired, but ill;
or else to strive or to subdue the will
alike were graceless; and of Evil this
alone is deadly certain: Evil is.

[now that’s pretty clear!]

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bate, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.

[you don’t have to be a soldier to strive against evil. To make stories, or art of any kind, as a refuge and defense against evil, is to make room for a better future…]

Blessed are the men of Noah’s race that build
their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,
a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.

[… and the future itself starts out as something imaginary, a “rumor.. guessed by faith.”]

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).

[it’s been said that this sounds a bit like our own times]

Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have tuned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.

[artists and writers and musicians keep us going, reminding us of brighter times and a future worth having, even in the face of defeat]

I would that I might with the minstrels sing
and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.

[“I would” means “I wish” — it’s an older form, so an antiquarian like the Prof can use it with a straight face]

I would be with the mariners of the deep
that cut their slender planks on mountains steep
and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
for some have passed beyond the fabled West.
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.

[he doesn’t care how silly or crazy or poor he seems, he will keep his courage and share his vision whatever anyone says.  Man after my own heart]

I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient.

[in his day, “progressive” meant “making more machines, funding more science without conscience,” “making bad things happen faster”; what was called “progress” in his day, we would call “unsustainable development,” “pollution,” “health crises,” “rising poverty,” “environmental destruction,” and all those associated events. This word’s meaning has swivelled about 180 degrees]

                Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends
if by God’s mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name.
I will not tread your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.

[another line that makes me rise and wave my fist in triumph. He will keep his little sovereignty over his own poor life and trivial work, rather than give himself up to the unfeeling machine of so-called “success” that’s based on anaesthetic values like logic without art, money without value, creation without creativity.]

In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.
Then looking on the Blessed Land ’twill see
that all is as it is, and yet made free:
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.

[when we are true to our best selves, we are heavenly and whole.  Simple as that]

Evil it will not see, for evil lies not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in malicious choice,
and not in sound but in the tuneless voice.

[evil is due to distorted perspective, vile actions and unfeeling motives — it’s not available to those who are sincere]

In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.

[creativity is not a lie]

Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.

[when we’re dead, those of us with the nerve and integrity to create will be valued, have endless possibilities to choose from — and work directly with God!]

Sources:

It occurs to me I should check the copyright status of this poem. Obviously, I think of Professor Tolkien’s work as being for all people and for all time, but his executors’ views may differ from my implementation.  

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Himalayan dreams

Had a dream of a remarkable wolf. It said it was from an extinct ancestral species. There were great mountains around us. I got curious and looked a few things up.

Timing couldn’t have been much better. In 2004, scientists examined mitochondrial DNA and cleared up a lot of questions about speciation and ancestry:

Here’s the Smithsonian’s article with that graphic: http://nationalzoo.si.edu/SCBI/SpotlightOnScience/fleischer2003108.cfm

Until this study, all canids except maned wolves (truly ancient) and coyotes were thought to be basically a type of grey wolf; Tibetan and Himalayan wolves were different flavors of the same breed. (The web being what it is, the old ideas of the much-loved grey wolf being the grand-daddy of them all still show up everywhere.)

Turns out the beautiful and sweet-faced Himalayan wolf is the ancestral canid from which Tibetan wolves, grey wolves, Mexican wolves, red wolves and modern dogs (from molossers to dachsunds) are all descended.

The adorable mutt I grew up with. The huge, terrifying sheepdogs of Turkey, where I was born. The overdressed show poodle that walks my marina. The chihuahua who helped fix my boat. All from the Himalayan wolf.

There are only 350 of this extraordinary species left, as of 2004.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/3804817.stm

The main problem? Human ignorance, voraciousness and violence.

Because 12 billion of us just isn’t enough, humans are expanding cultivable and buildable land every day to feed still more. I’m not sure why this is still seen as a better option than parental education and birth control, which are tragically underfunded worldwide.

Wolves are hunted for sport, because some people just have to prove they’re better than anything that doesn’t have ballistics and steel.

Wolves are hunted out of fear, because they are the bugaboos of Himalayan legend — since wolves have been made metaphors for the vilest traits of humanity in Europe and Asia alike. They aren’t like that, we just wish they were, so we wouldn’t realize we are looking in the mirror when we think of unrelenting evil.

They are hunted for killing livestock, which they do in the winter … But the ranchers who keep a couple donkeys with their herds, never lose animals to wolves. Donkeys have no fear of wolves and will kick the living snot out of anything that attacks their herd. Many ranchers don’t know this! Livestock predation is a stupid problem with an easy fix.

Rumor has it there’s a captive breeding program in India, but I haven’t been able to track it down online. I’d be happy to make a website for them with a big, persuasive “Donate” button.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep looking.

Addendum 1

Turns out that donations aren’t possible: http://wildlifesaviour.blogspot.com/2011/05/himalayan-wolf.html. HOW is that POSSIBLE? Further research needed, apparently.

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How we REALLY were made! :)

Saturn, my favorite mythological curmudgeon, lost his throne and gave way to as nasty a pack of rapists, pederasts, thugs and thieves as Capt. Jack Sparrow could find in a century of shore leaves. Their litany of crimes is tedious, at best, but I’m aware of the limits of history; what gets preserved is often chosen by the loudest predators. 

There’s an old Greek story about the creation of humankind which sidesteps most of that. It goes something like this. 

*********
Young Kore (Persephone’s childhood name) was wandering by a river one day. As she forded her way across it, she was pleased by the clayey texture between her toes. She stopped on the opposite bank and scooped up some of that lovely mud.

She modeled it into a familiar bifurcated form, but it wouldn’t keep its shape. She worked some humus into the clay, to give it more body, and that helped. Bits of humus showed here and there, and the slightly fluffy look of it inspired her to give the dolly a nice topping of shreddy mould for hair.

Her father strolled up and asked what she was up to. She showed him her handiwork, as charmingly pleased with herself as only a kid can be.

Zeus admired it and said it was very nice, and what was she going to do with it?

She said she wasn’t sure. “But would you make it come alive, Papa? Please-please-pleeeeease?”

Zeus looked down at her wide, bright eyes and rosy cheeks, her face alight, and fidgeting in a pleased sort of way. Only one thing to do. 

He turned on his endless vision and looked up to see who was near the Olympian Fire. One of his nephews was standing there, staring at it. Zeus turned on his bullhorn voice and bellowed up to Olympos, “Hey, Prometheus! Oy, Prometheus, I need you!”

Prometheus looked away from the Fire and said, “What’s up, Big Guy?”

Zeus hated it when people called him Big Guy (it lacked class), but he swallowed his irritation. “Toss me down some of that Fire, smartass, okay?”

Prometheus grinned good-naturedly, scooped up a handful of the divine flame, and lobbed it in an underhand toss.

Zeus caught it in midair, massaged it into shape, then carefully pressed it against the clay creature in his daughter’s hands. It baked the clay and filled it with life.

The little clay dolly twitched, gasped, and sat up. It rubbed its face and opened new eyes. It rubbed its head, now sporting a fluffy head of soft hair. It spoke: “Holy crap.” Pause. “Well, that was weird.”

Kore bounced up and down, causing the creature to splay its legs and hang on for dear life.

“I want lots of them! And I want to call them Kores, like me! Look how cute they are,” she declared ungrammatically, staring at the singular creature.

“They should be called Zeus-lets, kiddo. You’re hardly old enough to be naming dollies, let alone species! I gave it life and I’m the grownup. I’ll decide what happens to it. Understand?”

Gaia, who had had quite enough of her rotten grandson lately, made her presence known with a rumble. “Do you ever tire of being the biggest brat in the room, Zeus? I gave my flesh for the creature, so it should be named after me! Lots of little Gaia-citas running around. Should brighten things up considerably around here.”

Zeus found himself in a serious disagreement, where he had expected a minor battle of wills with a child.

It didn’t help that Prometheus and the rest of the Olympians had turned to watch, and were encouraging all sides indiscriminately: “Go, you kid!” “Give it to the Big Guy!” “Hey, Grandma rocks, she should have it!” Zeus personally saw Apollo, alone, change his vote three times. And he wasn’t the most changeable, either. 

It was a floor show.

He caught Gaia’s eye. “Arbitrate?”

She lifted her chin. “If you can find an impartial arbiter.”

Zeus looked around and saw nearly every face animated with opinions. Even Hades had something to say. Naturally, he was rooting for the kid, just to spite Zeus.

Nearly every face. One face alone was still, and it was still behind bars. Zeus’s father, and former opponent, was just quietly watching.

He turned to Gaia. “How about Kronus?” (That’s the original name of Saturn, to you Latinites.)

Gaia was surprised. Also mighty pleased — she considered all her sons mentally weak, but Kronus was the best of the bunch and had taken her side when no one else would. If he was acceptable to his arch-enemy Zeus, he was certainly acceptable to her. “Kronus it is,” she said, and everyone turned with her to look at him.

Kronus’s eyes lifted. The ages of imprisonment had left his eyes deep and dark with shadows. It took some time for him to bring himself fully into the light again. His brother Iapetus gave him a surreptitious hand.

As he stepped into the center of the watching gods and took up the mantle of judgement, bright white light filled the space they were in. It chased away every shadow, prying into every nook. Nothing remained hidden. 

He cleared his throat softly. “I can’t pretend I didn’t see and hear every bit of that. I’m a little surprised you asked me, so before I go further, I need one word from each if you.”

He paused and made sure he had their attention. Even the restless child was riveted by the lines and hollows on his great face, the aeons of thought marking his brow. “Swear before all Olympos that you’ll be bound by my decision. All of you. Because greater good or greater ill may come of this than any of you can now see.”

Surprised, but trusting him, Gaia nodded. “Of course.”

Enthralled, Kore whispered, “Yes.”

Boxed in and suddenly wishing he’d named anyone else, even Hades, Zeus grumbled, “Oh, Hell.” Beat. “All right.”

Kronus nodded, and shifted position. “Then this is how I rule.

“Zeus, you did a thorough job of giving this creature life, and therefore gave it a future and everything that goes with it: thoughts, wishes, actions, an ability to affect the world. That is a heavy burden to lay on something that didn’t ask for it. It will need a strong ally, a knowing guide, a wise governor. You will be all that and more, because, having given this thing life, you should help to make that life worth having.”

Zeus blinked and stepped back, as if punched in the gut. Not what he’d been thinking at all. 

Kronus turned to Kore, who blanched and tried to shrink. He smiled at her as gently as he was able. “Kore, you made something beautiful, and it was intelligently and cleverly made. Well done.”

She tried to smile. She was certainly proud at his praise, but overwhelmed. Never had she been in the center of so much light; it hurt and frightened her, but she didn’t want to show it.

Kronus went on, “You asked that there be lots of them, and so there shall be. You will get your wish.”

Kore nodded with a big, shy motion of her head.

Kronus added, “You made it out of clay and in your hands it was lifeless. Do you remember?”

Kore nodded again.

Kronus said, “Then, in the fulness of time, you will be responsible for them in that state again. When they live out their spans and return to being lifeless, they will return to your hands.”

Kore’s eyes widened. So did Hades’, because a new shadow — distinctly like the shades of his realm — descended on Kore’s form and began to soften the light that nearly blinded her. Her mother Demeter, riveted by the shadow, was so tense you could string her in a bow, but there was nothing she could do. 

Kore breathed her relief at being shielded from the painful glare. 

Kronus turned last to Gaia. “You gave your flesh to make this flesh, so its flesh is your responsibility. Provide this species with food aplenty, and ensure its fertility so that it will perpetuate itself time out of mind.”

Gaia, hiding her relief, nodded. She didn’t know what she had been expecting, but hadn’t expected to get off so lightly for stooping to Zeus’s level in the first place.

Then Kronus stopped briefly and gave her a Look, and she felt she had just been privately chewed out for that very thing. She dropped her gaze and gave a little nod, accepting the silent rebuke.

Kronus looked upwards and scratched his chin. It made a scrunchy sound, since he hadn’t shaved. “As for what to call it,” he mused aloud, “I see no point in choosing one of your names over the others. It’s now a shared task and no one of you should have more credit — or more responsibility — than you already do.”

He looked at the little thing, sitting peacefully cross-legged and wondering what all the fuss was about.

Its mud was now good flesh, and the crisp, short fibers of humus peeking through were transformed into crisp, short hair. It saw Kronus peering at it, with his huge wise face alight with interest. It smiled brightly up at him and gave a big enthusiastic wave with both arms, exposing more crisp patches underneath.  

Kronus smiled as inspiration dawned. He remarked, “It does look like it was made with humus. We’ll call it homo.”

And so it was.
*********
The much shorter translation from Pseudo-Hyginus’s “220 Fables” is here:

http://www.theoi.com/Khthonios/Persephone.html

My prior work on the Saturn mythology is posted as a guest-blog series at Oxford Astrologer. …Why under astrology? 
Because, since the death of Joseph Campbell, modern astrology is the best repository of psychologically-oriented myth. Ignore what doesn’t work for you — but enjoy and mull over the stories, because they’re utterly human:
– Saturn’s tricky childhood: 

http://oxford-astrologer.blogspot.com/2011/08/how-i-made-friends-with-saturn.html?m=0


– The (kind of creepy, but fascinating) birth of Venus: 

http://oxford-astrologer.blogspot.com/2011/08/kind-of-creepy-birth-of-venus.html?m=0


– When Saturn goes off the rails: 
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The Raven quoth … Something untranslatable

The ravens almost never come this far out on the water, but this morning two, then three of them, didn’t want to leave my ‘hood.

One perched on my mast; I shook it off with a nasty remark (their poop stains), and it flew around and around and around, too restless to settle elsewhere, too fixated to leave my bit of the sky.

(My unrepaired jib and the neighbor’s “corporate America” flags point to the rook’s erstwhile perch)

The restless raven rasped brusquely, then all three absconded at once.

As mythological moments go, that was a showstopper.

If I were writing a story, that would only happen right before all Hell broke loose. The thing is, Hell has a habit of breaking loose around here — in my life, in Oakland, on Earth generally these days. Why ravens now?

I’ll keep an eye on the sky (I always do, for the weather) and my nose to the grindstone. I’ll keep my hand on the plow and not sheathe the sword. And, of course, both feet planted firmly on the ground while grabbing the tiller.

What’s left of me will post updates.

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Releasing the gods within

Modern mythology (á la comic-book heroes & Harry Potter) make extraordinary powers something odd, often imposed on those who never asked for it or are forced into concealing it in order to survive.

I don’t have a lot of time for the victim mentality, however charmingly restated. (I love Harry Potter and X-Men but still take them in small doses.) And the idea that it’s abnormal to be super-anything is not congruent with my experience. I don’t know anyone who isn’t super-something.

Embracing the deep weirdness of reality and going from there seems much more effective — and realistic. Notions of normalcy are hopelessly entwined in history and place, sealed with the invisible glue of social fear.

In other words, normalcy is unstable and profoundly irrational, even as we’re desperate to hang onto and justify it.

Not very helpful for dealing with bodily meltdown, lasting pain, deep disruptions and the massive issues of powerlessness, poverty and loss that are shaking so many. It’s too easy to feel like a victim and a freak.

I’ve been delving into the mythology of the Titans, creator gods (like Gaia, Rhea, Ouranos, Kronus) who gave rise to the later — and nastier — Olympians (like Jupiter, Mars, Hera, and all that crowd.) They deal with devastating changes, massive loss, pain, betrayal, mutilation, everything we face — but not for one minute do they imagine that they are ordinary, held to small standards, ineffective or meaningless.

They move and think and act and feel as if it mattered, because it does; they are born to their extraordinariness and they own it, warts and all.

I want to reframe the stories we tell ourselves so that we start out being extraordinary — not by accident or as oddities, but by right. Then the overwhelming tasks we face become merely heinously difficult, not completely beyond us.

We need not waste energy trying to conceal how much we can really bring to bear. We have better things to do.

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Chiron the Centaur: Earliest recorded case of CRPS?

I’ve been mulling Greek mythology as it has come down through my European ancestors and been rendered into my English tongue. Mostly, it seems that people haven’t changed much, even when they’re mythical. One of the most intriguing mythical figures I know of is Chiron, the centaur.

Chiron was the first of the centaurs, and of them, the only immortal. That devouring titan Kronos was into a nymph named Philyra, but Kronos’ wife (and sister) Rhea wandered by when he was in flagrante delicto. Not wishing to upset his wife or stop what he was doing, he changed into a horse in midstream (as it were) the better to hide in plain sight. Legend is silent on what Rhea did, possibly just figuring those nymphs were a funny lot, but Philyra bore a child with a novel equine aftereffect, and was so repulsed at the sight that she disowned him on the spot and begged her other uncle, Zeus, to make her into a linden tree (…why?). Since she subsequently had other children with Kronos, I assume the transformation was temporary.

Kronos and Philyre’s ongoing affair resulted in at least two other children: the twins Bythos and Aphros, who were like tritons, men to the waist and fish below, only they had horse’s hooves in place of men’s hands. Obviously, something was trying to tell their progenitors to stop horsing around.

Rejected by his mother, abandoned by his father, Chiron could have fallen into misery and loss, as many do, but with a huge dash of luck, he made it through. I can’t find anything in the mythology about how he survived his infancy, let alone how he grew up. When another nymph spawned a herd of half-human, half-horse beings (…why??), Chiron and his wife and daughters took them in, adopted them, and raised them as their own, so it’s probable he was fostered by someone conscientious and kind. His family likewise fostered and reared any number of heroes, including Jason (of the Argonauts), Achilles (of the Trojan War) and Aesclepios (who gave his name to the physician’s staff of office.)

This second generation of centaurs were quite different from their divine foster-father: where Chiron combined human understanding with animal knowing, they combined human desires with animal spirits — and let brains go hang.

Chiron, a loving, generous, brilliant individual, was what biologists call sui generis — he invented himself. He grew up to become a musician, a brilliant and knowledgeable healer, a hunter, a gymnast (among people who valued physical skill), a prophet, and a martial artist so gifted and so clear that gods and heroes came to him for training.

He was accidentally wounded by a poisoned arrow belonging to a friend, amidst a silly brawl his rambunctious semi-equine foster-children started, over wine. I find those details very telling: the youngsters got out of hand, someone got careless, people died — and in this mess of love and greed and chaos, his whole life changed completely, his old way of being pulled apart in one ridiculous moment.

The pain of the wound never left him; some say it killed him by sepsis in a matter of days, others that it lingered on for years. It tortured him beyond bearing, but by and large he learned to bear it, becoming more and more of a recluse as the pain crept into his mind and disrupted his ability to manage himself. Once a teacher and musician who thrived on company, he withdrew from the world in obstinate self-involvement — or, speaking from the other side, in obstinate refusal to inflict the results of his condition on others. As an immortal, he had no choice but to survive; he didn’t have to like it.

When the chance came to give his own immortality to his friend (some say it was to save Prometheus, some say Prometheus persuaded the gods to give the immortality to Hercules), he didn’t hesitate: he surrendered his life and escaped the pain and the silent, hidden destruction at last. Zeus placed him in the heavens as Sagittarius, whence he could visit Earth in spirit — unlike going to Hades, which is strictly a one-way trip.

The kicker: his name, “chiron” or “kheiron”, means “hand”, signifying “handy”, and also serving as the root of the Greek word for “surgeon.”

He is recognized in the constellation Sagittarius, and more recently in the minor planet Chiron. Aphros, his piscine brother, became king of Carthage in modern Libya and gave his name to a whole continent. Aphros (“sea-foam”) and his twin Bythos (“sea-deeps”) are honored together as Pisces, heavenly gratitude for their aid in Ashtarte/Aphrodite’s safe birth. They got along with their titan half-brother, Poseidon, but I don’t know how their once-fertile father Kronos felt about them. It’s not like he was good parent material.

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