Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Travel Agent

In the world of travel agenting, every place has a code. AVL. CDG. FCO. All the romantic and troubled places in the world are summed up in three letters: BEY, JRS, NBO. My first travel agent job was at the top of the BB&T Building, Asheville's steel and glass skyscraper. The office of Wilcox World Travel and Tours occupied the entire floor with cubicles for individual travel and group travel. I worked in Groups. In our section of the office, the floor was covered with airline-blue carpet. In winter a walk from a desk to the photocopier would generated static electricity. I'd get shocked everytime I touched the machine. I anticipated it. It was a mild form of torture built into the every-day necessities of work.

Between trips to the copier, I organized people's adventures. I had three-ring binders for each tour I was organizing. One group was The Beverly Hill Baptist Church Choir's European Tour. The address was Rodeo Drive in the 90210 zip code. Its leader was Nick Stimple, who wrote the songs for Air Supply. When I'd call him to go over details, I fought the urge to talk about those songs. I'd hear them playing in my head: I'm all out of love. I'm so lost without you. When you're booking travel for thirty-plus people, you know not all of them will enjoy the journey. People wrote letters complaining once the trip was done. From the Beverly Hills group, I received letters griping that wine had been served on a train in Italy, that there was no air-conditioning in the castle in Poland.

Travel to the Holy Land comprised a large portion of the company's business. "Journeys with Paul" was a favorite. One passenger, one of the countless pastor's wives who gave their names as their husband's with a mere "Mrs."placed in front,  explained to me on the phone that she thought "Paul was the best-looking of all the apostles." I booked lunches at "St. Peter's Fish" and arranged boat-rides on the Sea of Galilee. One client requested an add-on tour of the "hopscotch court Jesus drew under the city of Jerusalem for the children." A woman called the day of one tour's departure asking to join because "Jesus told me in a dream I have to go to His hometown." (I pulled it off.)

For every tour I'd key in the passengers' names and place these people I did not know in hotel rooms together. I'd organize their meals from my desk, their transfers from the hotel. Every little detail: I organized it. But I knew every time a departure date appeared on my calendar, there was so much more that these people would experience that I could only have the smallest hand in. And nothing I could rescue them from, from my desk a few feet from the copying machine that zapped me.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Alchemical Christmas

The intertwining of the alchemical metaphor and Christianity are never quite so pronounced as they are at Christmas. Of course, since the metaphor isn't ever outwardly shared, its resonances with Christmas remain invisible.

On my drive out of and back into the city today (because I had to retrieve clean clothes for my daughter's school performance since she'd become a mud-swamp during recess), I listened to Christmas carols. Shepherds watching in fields. Holy infant. Christ is born in Bethlehem. Years ago, before I started researching alchemy, these songs told a story of the birth of Jesus. And they were beautiful. I remember hearing Julie Andrews singing them at the Royal Albert Hall in London when I was four years old. So beautiful. And they're still beautiful. With another level added.

In the alchemical metaphor, matter is worked through a series of alternatively soothing and mortifying steps. At the end, it is "killed," then it is left in a "tomb" to putrefy. Then it is brought back to life: resurrected. These "biblical" terms aren't mine. They are the terms that have been used for ages. Ages. And it sounds like I ought to be writing about Easter, since that is the rebirth. But there's something about the language of rebirth that drew my attention in a jaw-dropping way. When the matter is made gold, in the metaphor (for it is no more just about matter than it is about the matter of our selves), it is referred to as "the King," "the son of God" (as opposed to the son of man) and even "King of the Jews." "Our newborn king" in the carol is an alchemical reference to a successful alchemical process.
The shepherds watching in fields are the alchemists, watching and waiting. The star is the spark of life that the alchemist hopes she has stirred into the process through passion and love and hard work. Ages. It all goes back ages.

Most of the hymns in the hymnals used in churches were written (I observed this while I taught at an Episcopal boarding school for nearly a decade: I attended at least three chapel services a week, creating a lot of time to let my eyes trail down to the bottom of the page to see when the songs were written) during the 18th and 19th century, a time when alchemy was coming under fire of a cold rationality even Sir Isaac Newton would have shied away from. The teachings, I suppose, had to be conveyed somehow. People weren't reading fairy tales anymore or legends of the Round Table, former vessels for alchemical wisdom. So, hymns became the cups for hidden meaning. Christmas carols speak to the final step of the magnum opus, the moment when base matter has risen to a new state.

"The son" is the term given that matter when it is beginning the process. When that matter has turned to gold, it is called "the king." So, we ask, how is it the king is born in the manger (another term for crucible)? Because in alchemy the lowest is the highest and vice versa. The king has to be born in meager circumstance, because only in humility can we find greatness.

This is the message of Christmas.

Reading it this way doesn't at all detract from the meaning, the "reason for the season." Alchemy teaches that "both" truths hold in any situation: a personal and a universal. Since alchemy occurs in all of us, is all of us, Jesus is one who completely moved through all the stages and became the Son of God, was born the Son of God (I know theology can go on and on arguing about this: both is the answer). He is the great teacher for having done so, and I do my level best to walk in His footsteps, being kind, practicing compassion, learning to "read the world," as he advises (even raising his voice!) the disciples to do, though they don't "get it."

And there is the other level.

Just as were I Jewish I would find the Kabbalistic meaning in all rites and rituals, and were I Muslim, I would seek the Sufi perspective, as an Episcopalian I find the mystical meaning in the same. And love it. And celebrate it with my whole heart. Because I know that I, too, am on my way to becoming "gold," to rising to new states of being, to being born surrounded by cows and goats and mice and oxen, hay and cold air. Alchemy makes Christmas at once personal and universal. Not just a story, a story that has been used to oppress and confuse and conquer. It is a timeless story of becoming new. I am at once the watching shepherd and the newborn baby and still the amazed four-year old hearing these songs about this moment in awe. And in me are the wise men guffawing when I screw up. And three kings bearing gifts for the mother who is also me, and I am the weary, worried father. And a bright star, leading me toward myself through the dark desert night. I am my own Bethlehem. In the liturgical calendar, I am about to begin.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Reflections on Steve Martin's An Object of Beauty

For a book about surface-appreciation and the nature of beauty, this book's jacket-designers knew the cover would be judged. First of all, using canvas as the book cover is a brilliant idea. The print of oilpaint-like quality is a delight. Moving into the novel, the aesthetic appeal continues. Martin's prose is clear both when he is speaking literally and figuratively. His similes and allusive turns of phrase give the novel striking textures in what could otherwise be a not-so-striking read. He weaves subtlety into the surface elements by stretching our imaginations like canvas across the frame.

To increase the license for such figurative speech, he makes his narrator an art writer, Daniel, who, as the Independent notices, functions much as Nick Carraway does in The Great Gatsby. Daniel is the witness who, like Carraway, steps over the line once or twice but for the most part provides a line, if only by doing so. Both men remind us there is a line.

When we think of the main characters of Great Gatsby we think of Gatsby and Daisy. Similarly, the focal point in The Object of Beauty appears to be Lacey Yeager. But in both works, the narrator is the one controlling the information. Seemingly innocuous and apparent instruments of narrative, the narrators in both works bring their own baggage with them to the story. In a novel about objectifying beauty, the Daniel undergoes a similar transformation as Lacey, learning the value of slow time in love, breaking below the surface distractions of desire, thereby embodying the narrator in the narrative and making him the embodiment of novel's theme.

Similarities between this book and Gatsby reach beyond narrative strategy and figuration. Martin indulges his own Fitzgeraldian bifocals to witness both the elegance and the grotesqueness of the New York scenes. In the sympathetic character of Patrice, we see the genuine lover of art. One of his many counterparts, Mr. Alberg, comments "Collector is too kind a word for me. I'm a shopper." Then the latter tells, and tells again, a tale about a Joseph Beuys' "felt suit," the reader feels much the same as when reading of cruel Tom Buchanan's mistress' blood dripping over a fashion magazine in the hot, second chapter hotel room. Martin's eye roams the aesthetic spectrum, counterpointing artworld stimulus (much of it beautiful) with artworld behavior (much of it not).

Lacey embodies Daisy and James Gatz both. As he showed us with Shopgirl, Martin studies psychology and personality. Lacey is a narcissist to the nth degree, as Daniel shows us. But of course could Daniel be missing a part of the story, leaving it for the reader to tell? This is where Martin's ability to create and captivate really comes into play. We all know girls like Lacey, have been destroyed by them. ("She's the kind of person who will always be okay," says a character undone.) We also make excuses for them, which is something that Daniel does not do. Daniel witnesses and wants but does not judge her, except in the way he subtly compares her to money, shimmering, fleeting.

She is compared to money much in the same way that Daisy is. Daniel doesn't comment on any of Lacey's inner life because, like money, she has none. But both Daisy and Lacey have stories shaping them from within. The absence of Lacey's story makes the reader as susceptible as the book's other characters to the too-quick evaluation of "an object of beauty."

The Great Gatsby would not have its thrust and balance without the fireworks-less pairing of Nick and Jordan. Martin builds a similar figure into Object of Beauty. "We could talk for months," says Daniel of his relationship (details witheld). He describes his love interest as being the only person with a normal upbringing, which renders her impervious to Lacey's "full courtship press" of the art world at the moment when it really matters. This slow-and-steady approach to love mirrors the low-key attention of the true collector, rather than the minute-makers who create fame out of novelty.

The "series of successful gestures" which Nick Carraway sees in Gatsby's life is also evident in Lacey's. And in both stories, there comes a point at which things fly out of our control, regardless of the perfection of our gestures. Had it not been for the hit-and-run in Gatsby or the sub-prime loan crisis on Wall Street, our narrators would have different stories to tell, stories of unhindered rises from reality into dreamworlds. The setting of Martin's book makes the reading strangely less intimate than that of Gatsby.
If Fitzgerald's novel was prophetic, Martin's is deeply reflective, exploring the great WTF all economies still feel the effects of, and even going so far as to stitch a narrative, however at once literary and economic, into a chaos. What redeems Gatsby is the truth: that it was never as beautiful as he thought it was. But in Object of Beauty, even in a world fallen to pieces in so many ways, beauty is indeed a redemptive constant, and while the word itself might get dropped from our vocabularies in service to some fashions, Martin asserts it does and always will exist. We just have to be broken from time to time in order to recognize it and allow it all the way in, if only in order to find again a line within ourselves we don't allow ourselves to cross, ever again.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Snow and Solitude

I'm sipping morning coffee, seeing the snow that covers my garden and the neighboring field. The hush of snow, its thick insulation. It bursts my heart with memories of every other snow I weave through in my mind, back to my childhood in Toronto where an enormous blue spruce, though thirty feet high caught it all and became a part of the white. I have an enormous green spruce now, just as tall, outside my living-room window. It, too, catches and holds the weight of it all. I think of the year I lived alone in a cabin in Sequim, Washington, and the week I was snowed in with just my soup and coffee and the poems there were to write then. So many poems. So much solitude I had to hold in my mind, so much it felt I might break under its weight. But then once the week was over, I wanted it to begin again, so comfortable had I become with the world's silences.

Sometimes a heron walked the stony shore in front of my cabin, its gray a part of the sky's gray. Its slow steps on fragile legs were a reflection of my own internal steps around the details of my rocky life so far. I sat at a small table, the kind they had in diners in the fifties, with the stainless steel rim around a formica-like top and stared at the bay. Bald eagles sometimes stood in the trees, appearing tall as men. I stood inside my self, looking over my story, sometimes diving down to seize some memory and re-invent it on a page. I listened to Bach's Cello solos again and again. Yo-Yo Ma's stroke of the bow across the strings was the perfect soundtrack to the snow, and to my aloneness in the poems where I brought figures from my life back to me, tracing their outlines in words that slowly moved into metaphors that surprised me for what they revealed. I wrote virtually non-stop. I had nothing else to do, no one to talk to. The world of poems were a wonderland that opened wider every time I thought some life into the alphabet and followed it. I learned that love has so many sides to it that it was possible to write more than twenty or thirty poems about one person and with each one come to know them and what they meant to me better. I learned that when writing, I become a part of a things in ways I'd missed out on when they were surrounding me. I name them. I give them the attention they deserved. There, alone in my small cabin (barely the size of my bedroom now but still having everything I needed) I sat surrounded by the ghosts that live inside the snow, the memories of a life only yet partly lived, discovering it was enough to write about forever.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Searching for Sir Isaac

I'll be talking, out loud this time, about Sir Isaac Newton soon at the Creative Technology and Arts Center salon series on December 2 at 6 pm at the Odyssey School at 90 Zillicoa Street. If you dig back a bit on this blog (a while neglected, since summer!) you'll see I went through a time when all I wrote about was alchemy. It is still very much what I muse about when I'm musing, and much of what I muse about are the connections between contemporary scientific discovery and alchemy. Both maintain that at the most subtle levels, matter behaves quite differently from its molecular, concrete nature. At the smallest level, all things are rising, attracting, sympathizing, communing. I don't mean that spiritually, though it certainly sounds it. These are the times in which we live: when science and spirituality are the same.

This is what John Maynard Keynes, the father of economics, wrote of Newton. It is part of a speech he was going to give regarding the scientist to the Royal Society, but he died a few days prior and his brother delivered the talk. I'll use this document as well as a letter Newton wrote to the Royal Society in 1645 as the anchors of the talk. What lies between these two documents is rich, deep and offers a worldview that includes all faiths and finds in sacred text a symbolic language of science.

In the eighteenth century and since, Newton came to be thought of as the first and greatest of the modern age of scientists, a rationalist, one who taught us to think on the lines of cold and untinctured reason. I do not see him in this light. I do not think that any one who has pored over the contents of that box which he packed up when he finally left Cambridge in 1696 and which, though partly dispersed, have come down to us, can see him like that. Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago. Isaac Newton, a posthumous child born with no father on Christmas Day, 1642, was the last wonderchild to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

What Steve Orlen Taught Me

I was one of Steve's students at Warren Wilson MFA Program. It was my second semester, after my semester with Joan Aleshire, before my semester with Tony Hoagland. The genius of the program had something to do with that: I was "shaped" by a exactly who I needed at the time. When it was time to work with Steve, I was ready to fall apart, as Ellen Bryant Voigt had told a friend of mine when my friend was falling apart, I was doing right on time. During my semester with Steve, I went from working for an import/export company and being in a relationship to living alone in a very small cabin on the shores of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and teaching half-days at a basic education lab 30 minutes away in Port Angeles. (It was by the way, the most magnificent drive to work: past Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Forest, the Dungeness Spit, a herd of elk.) This was before I had email. The only person I called was my mother. And the only person I got letters from was Steve when he responded to the packets of poems and annotations I'd sent to him.

I wasn't doing any drugs, but I was very much experimenting with my mind. I felt that at the end of my 20s I ought to face what needs to be faced and write what needs to be written. Alone. In the Woods. My mind, I discovered, was a very tricky place. If I hadn't been teaching mostly people from the reservations and reading about their cultures and worldview, I might have just turned myself in at mental institution. Instead, I just stayed with it and, in order to maintain a sort of balance, I wrote Sonnets.

They were horrible sonnets. And Steven said so, except for one in which I placed Daphne in the modern-day world. The others were pure drama and rhapsody. Fortunately, my goal wasn't to write good poems during this time. I was learning rhythm, form and toying with that impossible paradox that constraint lends itself to freedom. This is the stuff Steve and I wrote about in our letters. The heavy heavy. But the way Steve wrote about the heavy heavy was so graceful, as though he were discussing a movie he liked. The mind was familiar territory to him, and he could follow me just about anywhere and enjoy the journey with a soft smile. The things that terrified me had already terrified him and he had come to terms with coming to terms with terror. He let me feel that the mind was something we can get used to. I remember one particularly searching letter in which he meditated on various "equalizers" in our lives, among them: death, and some of the letter were smeared. In the p.s. he explained he had "schnoodled" just as he was putting the letter together and apologized for the snot. Like this, the profound and the bodied co-dwelled in the six months we corresponded. I stopped with the sonnets after a bit and discovered I could write very long poems. I'd never explored that before, and I think it had everything to do with having Steve as a teacher and living with my solitude. I had space.

From the constraints of sonnet work I burst into the field of the long narrative poem, using the form to write my story, to find the poetry in the real things of my adolescence. I was deep-sea diving into my past and retrieving some stuff. It wasn't yet poetry, though. Strangely, when the faculty at the basic ed lab went to a conference at Western Washington University, I went for a walk and found an antique store which had a train set like the one my father had set up for us in the basement of our house in Canada. The smell of the smoke-making oil shot through me. I sat down next to it and wrote a poem. After, I wandered into a bookshop nextdoor and in the poetry section found a book by Steve, Permission to Speak. It was, it said on the back, his first book. In my next packet to Steve, I only sent the poem about the trainset and told him I'd found his book. He made some suggestions on the poem and wrote that he didn't think anyone had that book. He also spent more time writing about the poem I'd sent, drawing my attention to why it actually worked as a poem, why it was, in essence, the first successful thing I'd written, the thing that could stand alone in the world.

Steve knew, as I wish all teacher knew, that poetry is a process that take place only in a very small part on the page. He was my teacher at the very moment that I was becoming a poet, when I was letting go of so many parts of myself, the very way I had been shaped to think and perceive. Because he had already let go of these things and found a poet's path through the world, he was comfortable with my wild journey. I remember signing off a letter, "I'll go for a walk now to burn off some of this restlnessness. Maybe I'll get eaten by a panther." I thought it might have been too much. But he never judged, never restrained and, most importantly, he never, ever once pontificated or otherwise used my vulnerability to his advantage. He never crossed any of the invisible lines.

I consider myself among the luckiest of poets because I had the gift of working with Steve Orlen. I think of all his other students and know they also experienced his vastness, his ability to hold space for students without owning them, over-stepping or ever molding them in his likeness. He was an expansive man. And as much as one recalls Ben Jonson's words following Shakespeare's death, "a light has gone from the world," in seeing the words of Steve's colleagues and friends all over the Facebook world and how we, his students, are contacting each other, planning suppers in his memory, I don't think a light has gone from the world. I think it is just beginning to shine.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Home to Canada

I have returned to the "land of the silver birch" in Ontario, Canada, Georgian Bay. Here, the precambrian shield stretches like a thirsty animal into the water, swirls of time emblazoning its stony surface lined with quartz. The blue water of the Bay is 80 degrees, perfect for an afternoon swim. Like this, up here, I live between eternity and time for a nap in a hammock suspended between two pines in a grotto. I sailed with my daughter yesterday, and for the first time she held the tiller, and learned a little about wind. I'm rather struck by how much she knows already. Earlier today, I canoed with her and was similarly struck by how she knew how to make whirlpools with her paddle and also how to do a cross-bow cut, something I didn't learn until I was a good ten years older. But this is what she is: a fourth generation Georgian Bay girl. She's brave. She's got a knowledge of the water and wind beyond anything I've taught her. Tonight we'll build a fire and make s'mores on the high rock above the bay.
The other day, the day before we arrived, a moose, a male, was on the shore near us. He sipped water from the shallows before lowering his enormous, cumbersome body into the depths and then swam to the island facing us. I watch for him.
That's pretty much what I do up here. I chew juicy fruit gum with my daughter and watch for moose.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


(image from steed griffin, cryptotypographer:

Every now and then, a piece pops up in the news that helps me connect a few dots. Today's piece is the article about Gunnar Samuelsson, a quiet minister from Sweden who has spent the last several years trying to figure out where we got the idea that Jesus Christ was crucified. His conclusion: the word "stauros" that has been translated for more than 2000 years to mean "cross" denotes any variety of long wooden objects. This resonates with an exhibit I saw a few years ago of various artifacts from Biblical times. Among the remarkable objects was a part of a human foot with a metal spike driven through it attaching it to a piece of petrified wood. The tour guide pointed out that this is the only found evidence that human bodies were nailed to wood as a form of torture and execution. I remember wondering how that can be possible if crucifixion was the number one favorite form of execution at the time in question? Wouldn't feet like these be everywhere? I couldn't find any answers at the time.

I have seen such wonderful and inexplicable things that I know there is more than meets the eye at work in things. As a poet I've always been hesitant to just dismiss the Bible as something "written by a bunch of men." But at the same time, for a long time, I had such trouble accepting that a book filled with such wacky statements as "spare the rod, spoil the child" could have anything to do with what I was experiencing. But I couldn't dismiss it. I held to the belief that there must be another way of reading these things that would make it all resonate with what God is not just in one narrow group's view, but, for me, all the views would at some point come to reflect the One thing.

When I started reading The Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery, I started to see. Later, I read Jung's symbologies and from there it all really started to make sense. What remained was the historical notion of Jesus' death. . . if the other alchemical books were accurate, then the crucifixion is a metaphor for part of the alchemical process, the bad part. The really, really bad part. "Crucifixio" it is called, or "mortificatio." At this stage, whatever matter is in the crucible is completely obliterated. If the matter is ourselves in the crucible of our lives, we are obliterated. And then we go through a period of "putrefactio" (ew) and from that state we emerge anew. This emergence is called "resurrectio" and "fermentatio." Water into wine.

Jesus in all of this is a man who goes through the alchemical process:

born: "calcinatio"
baptized: "dissolutio"
separated from community: "separatio"
unified with community: "coniunctio"
killed: "crucifixio" or "mortificatio"
placed in a tomb: "fermentatio"
brought back to life: "resurrectio" or "fermentatio."

It is what we all do. All the time.
I do believe there was a Jesus and that he was an alchemist, an adept, and that the genre of alchemical writing gains a wonderful new shot in the arm in the telling of stories about this figure (much in the same way that Plato tells stories about his adept teacher, Socrates). The stories are about alchemy, about the spirit within matter, a concept we know today as Gaia Principle, and ways to work with this spirit. It's all very beautiful to me.

Samuelsson's work points out that the use of the cross doesn't appear in Christology until the 2nd century. This would correspond with the flourishing work in Alexandria, work that would get squashed one century later. I believe it was when this new way of writing alchemy emerged, not just as history of one man's life but as a beautiful vehicle for upholding that man's life as a vessel for alchemical teachings. And what better way to get a story to convey alchemical teachings than to embed the very structure of alchemical opus in the narrative?

The full article about Samuelsson's work can be found at:|main|dl1|link3|

Saturday, June 26, 2010


This is my beach. Siesta Beach. On Siesta Key, on the Gulf Coast.
This is my beach. It has white sand I walked on every day when I was a teenager.
This is the beach that saved my life, kept me off drugs, the beach that was my boyfriend
for all those years I didn't have one.
This is the beach my grandmother and I walked along in winter, imagining the white sand into snow. It's the beach I kicked soccer balls on while walking its miles with my best friend.
It's the beach where I lost the key to my father's Audi while my parents went to England on vacation, before I had a license to drive.
It's the beach that mysteriously coughed up the key so I could drive home, astonished.

For how many years have we been using the phrase "of mythical proportions?" The oil in the Gulf of Mexico has reached "mythical proportions." They are now saying that since the underwater robot (what planet are we on?) bumped into the cap (the one we actually watched that 24 hour spew cam to see if it would work), the problem is worse than before. Now, the hole in the earth is actually broken. We have broken the earth's crust.

Mythical proportions are too much to think about. I can't comprehend what this means. I see the dead baby dolphin being carried out of the tide. I see the oil-drenched pelicans. These are the things I understand.

I am so afraid and sad. My 7 year old daughter cries about this.

I grew up on Siesta Key, Florida. Our house was actually on a very small island off the island of Siesta Key. Mangrove Island, it was called. It was named this because the entire island was formed out of sand caught in the sharp roots of black mangroves. Standing at the edge of it, I could bounce and feel the island move. We speak of fragile environments. I grew up on something caught between branches.

From the age of 12 to 20, I inhaled Gulf of Mexico salt air. Pungent and sharp, heavy in the lungs, it was a coarse place to live. Yet unpaved, Mangrove Island was a crushed oyster shell and sand escape hatch from the progress going on elsewhere on the island. And sharp and stunning things grew there--yuccas whose black tip still rests deep inside the skin of my hand from a day I reached under one to retrieve a tennis ball I was throwing to my dog. Hard black dock spiders clicked their pincers against the salt-worn wood and barnacles of our dock at low tide as I brought my canoe to shore. My feet were often bloody from the razor edge of the oyster shoals. But there were softnesses, too, like in the way the pelicans would roost on the mangrove branches then burst into evening flight as I paddled past. There was the slap of a mullet, its brief flight above the bayou's surface done. And there was sunset after sunset after sunset, spent walking on the silk sands of the beach.

In all that is happening in the gulf, all that is mythical and incomprehensible has no choice but to take me back deep and down into my own mythology. The mythology of place, of the home that was rendered unreachable years ago when our house was sold then torn down and replaced, the island paved. But now it is even less touchable. I think of the brown pelicans, of the young heron that I rescued once from traffic on the quiet island, how its long spindly blue legs struggled against my hands.

I can't reconcile any of it.
I am at a loss.

I am beyond angry and frightened. I am wistful and gazing at how on earth this problem can possibly be solved, and, on a more personal scale, how it can be grieved.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

What To Do Now That the Masonic Lodge Is Open For Arts Events

It's a bit too much of a dream come true. I've had dreams about this place. I mean, really. However it is possible to geo-locate where dreams take place, I have woken knowing I dreamed about the darned Masonic Lodge at the corner of Woodfin and Broadway. Of course, in my dreams it has all these secret rooms and magical walls that disappear when you say certain words, and walls within walls, thin spaces revealing entire secret universes. So, when the mountain xpress published photographs of the interior hall--now available for rent for public events--naturally I was a little dismayed. Granted, the room with columns painted with scenes of King Solomon's activities is mighty cool, but in my dreams, well, they would have been holograms.

But, here it is. The post-Masonic age. All the inside secrets have been let out in one way or another. Some books are weirder than others and some references stranger than others--from writings about Oumros, the strange black powder sought after for centuries to Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (with hints of the final scenes of Requiem for Dream just beneath the surface (shudder) and Dan Brown's Lost Symbol which did go into some interesting places architecturally, though didn't quite finish its sentence regarding "the Word" and how it relates to Masonry.

I've been afraid that the Lodge would just fall away, given that it seems to have fallen into disuse, and its location is a bit odd. . . it could easily have become prey to developers. But, thankfully, no.

The Masonic Lodge is going to renovate and restore this beautiful building, and groups are invited to hold events as a way of helping to pay for the project. A wonderful way for the arts to help architecture. I'm in. (I think they're also hosting dinners on the first Thursdays of each month but not sure.)

The Masonic Lodge Scottish Rite Temple was built in 1913. That's 13 years before the Jackson Building went up. It was sort of a harbinger of what Asheville would become in the next decade. In 1912, "three initiates" had published The Kybalion, a releasing of Hermetic Alchemical principles. This was in time with the whole Theosophical Society rise in the states following World War I and subscribed to by such lovelies as Harry Houdini (who performed at the Kennilworth Inn. . .) and, later, Elvis. Also, at around the same time, Sharp Smith built the Masonic Temple on Market Street, which housed the nation's largest African American Masonic Lodge. So, anyone thinking the Masons have always been just the powerful white guys can dig a little deeper into history.

It is wild to think of Richard Sharp Smith pulling out all the stops, as he did, for this building. He's got a full-blown Beaux-Art vocabulary--columns, arches, balustrades, bas-relief, ornamental stonework. . . not to mention tilework, including the square and compass mosaic on the ground as you walk in. Richard Sharp Smith was an all-over-the-place architect, true to his time, a moment in architecture (1900-1919, as Witold Rybszynski writes in Looking Around) when really all everyone was doing was toying with old forms with new materials. Sharp Smith is the wild man of his age--his work in Asheville ranges from:

--the tudor style/pebbledash signature buildings of Biltmore Village and Estate and YMI
--the Arts and Crafts style of the Annie Wright House in Montford (He is credited with bringing the Arts and Crafts to Asheville)
--All Souls Cathedral (big Gothic)
--the Chicago Style of the Loughran Building (Mobilia on the first floor), which was, by some accounts, his final work in Asheville.
--Hopkins Chapel AME Zion (little Gothic)
--the Spanish Romanesque with Guastavino of the Basilica

It's not easily possible to point to a building by the Asheville architects, with the exception of Ellington, and say "that's such a ________ building." This is because the architects, like architecture itself, were more interested in exploring than in defining anything. Even in Ellington's work, his style is defined by exploration. He had merely found a language for exploring, while his contemporaries were using the language of their forebears--a little Gothic, a little Romanesque, a little Neoclassical. Richard Sharp Smith's architectural fingerprints are all over Asheville, fingerpainting the city with all the styles available to him.

I think it's great that the Masonic Lodge is getting restored and that artists can help.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Writing About Architecture

It's Tuesday afternoon. The two labradors, Chloe (black and small) and Sir Isaac Newton (white and enormous) are napping next to the rabbit's cage (Brownie) while a storm brews outside. Wordfest is over as of 2 weeks ago and last night I read my writings about architecture for the first time in public, while Mike Oppenheim's amazing photographs of Asheville's architecture shone on the screen behind me. I shouldn't have read, I realized. I know it well enough to talk extemporaneously and there's some other kind of energy that comes from me when I do. It's because I've fallen in love with architecture. Hearing someone talk about what/whom they love is always better than hearing some read something from a page.

I started writing about the architecture of Asheville in February. At first I was all clumsy, not knowing how to talk about buildings. There's something mysterious about learning the language of things, particularly the language of buildings. This is such ancient stuff, and learning the language of it seems to tap me into the ancient stuff architecture is a part of. What that is, I guess I'm free to say it here, is all that original, primal stuff I first started this blog to explore. Alchemy and architecture are basically inseparable. On my great-grand-father Masonic certificate, awarded him in Belfast more than a century ago, the Latin translation on the right hand side of the page translates "freemason" to "free architect." That says it all right there.

So, I think about it all the time. Shelter. The limited number of shapes and structures available to humans and animals--domes and blocks, doors and windows. And all the variations which can evolve from those. . . innumerable.

Somehow, poetry and architecture have come together. And I can see how they're the same thing. With one, the words symbolize the world. In the other, you actually use the world. But it's all about building, about structure, about delineating a space where something can happen.

I'm aware of the wind surrounding my house.
And how peaceful and still it is inside here, just the sleeping dogs, the watchful rabbit. . . .

Saturday, May 01, 2010

ELEVATE, a poem and what I think is the process behind it


Elevate me, O God, into what is highest within me.

Bring me to the sky where loose clouds loosen more

and show me what I cannot touch with my skin.

Loosen me so I break open like the sky above a thirsty earth.

Elevate me. O God, loosely, like clouds in their skin.

Touch what I cannot thirst after on this earth. Loosen me

until I cannot break and show me what is highest in me,

bringing within what is more, what breaks ceaselessly open.

Elevate me, O God, to the loosened earth where sky is a show

of what I cannot touch and clouds break open against my skin.

Break me open with thirst. Like the sky above the earth,

bring me what is highest, loose and within.

Elevate me, O God, within, where loose clouds show me

how I break open like a thirsty earth. Into what is highest

in me, bring your touch. Loosen me more, your cloud, this

skin. What is highest, open within this earth.


This is the poem that will appear in the paper tomorrow as the first of the Asheville Citizen-Times series on poetry/civic journalism. I've been writing about architecture for the past few months and this poem, and the ones that will appear on the paper's website, is a result of many of the ideas I've been exploring.

I think it's cool that from my drafts in approaching this image, I started to write one of these permutation poems--shifting words around within stanzas without adding new key words. It created something of a dome in words. The creative process always amazes me.

On Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday the paper will present other poet/photojournalist collaborations in honor and preparation for Wordfest. I'm so happy to be seeing poetry in the newspaper! Poetry used to be in the newspaper. . . and when we lost that we lost something more than column inches I believe.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Diary of a Fascination

I get fascinated with things. Constantly. Lately, I've been fascinated by a story, an Asheville story. It involves a woman who lived nearly a century ago. Her name is Mary Tillinghast. She was a stained glass artist who was hired by architect Bertram Goodhue to create windows for Asheville's Trinity Episcopal Church in 1912. I stumbled upon her name while writing an essay about the church for my current writing project (read: obsession) on Asheville's architecture.

When I took on the project I had no idea how deeply it would affect me. After all, they are buildings. I thought I would learn the vocabulary and take it from there. But no. Something happens when we learn the vocabulary. Its whole history sort of grafts itself onto the psyche through the words. It is as though the buildings want to speak and now that I've engaged them in conversation they virtually throw stuff at me to write about. In the case of the Trinity Church, what got thrown was the name of Mary Tillinghast.

What's a woman doing making stained glass windows in 1912, I'm afraid, was my question. And then the next: "Who are you, Mary Tillinghast."

I think we often believe it's the answers that change our lives. But Rilke teaches us it is the questions. My question to Mary continues its own asking as I am persistently opening doors into this woman's life, and she is opening mine.

This is one of her windows, Urania, located at the Allegheny Observatory in Pennsylvania. This woman was an artist, a contemporary of Tiffany and John LeFarge, both of whom she worked with or for. She even became business partners with LaFarge, then she sued the company and started her own. Unmarried, deeply talented, whipsmart and born into money, Tillinghast had a way with glass that I think neither LaFarge nor Tiffany (and his countless workers whose names have melted away under his own) come close to touching. Certainly each of the three, the veritable triumvirate of 20th century glass making, has his and her own aesthetic. I went to the Morse Museum in Winter Park, Florida last week to see the Tiffany glass and to see if the curator knew anything of Mary Tillinghast (she didn't). What I saw was a sort of beauty that doesn't quite escape the object. In Tillinghast's work the beauty does escape the object and enters me, illuminating me.

Tillinghast's windows at Trinity have been taken down. I learned tonight that they were in such horrid condition that they fell apart or were broken apart and six-inch pieces were either sold or given to parishioners. I've read her letters, detailing her experience of making them. And I want to see them whole again. I know this isn't possible.

But I am beginning a quest to find the six-inch pieces of the windows. I want to touch them.

Monday, March 08, 2010

The Eloquence Within

I might spend the rest of my life trying to articulate something. . .

and this is what I suppose most writers do--something happens and we spend the rest of our lives trying to put words to it. Emerson, Eliot, Jung all had mystical experiences in early adulthood (James Joyce in adolescence) and spent the rest of their lives trying to put words to it, and in some cases waiting for it to happen again.

I think about my mystical experiences and I am delightfully amazed, even though at the time I was rather frightened.

But no mystical experience has been quite so transformative as losing my hearing.

It is one thing to see "letters" in the clouds then find them in poem I wrote days before then learn they have a meaning in Hebrew and Arabic, and then there is getting a diagnosis of hearing loss and living it through to its conclusion in deafness.

There is an immediacy to the mystical experience. The "refragrancing" as it is called in Buddhism takes moments or months, but then it gets integrated. These change us permanently in our awareness of what the world is made of. But they don't necessarily protect us from going back to what we were before they happened. T.S. Eliot did not remain "transformed." He lived out his days searching for explanations. Whitman on the other hand was permanently transformed. Being diagnosed with something that will change you physiologically is another kind of mystical experience.

No bright flashes. No chariots riding down from the sky.

It is an apocalypse, meaning a revelation. Slow, difficult, demanding. But real. It is the mystical experience you can hold in your hand.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Coagula et Solve

First of all: thank you Adam McLean for use of Barchusen's above version of The Crowning of Nature (

Coagula et Solve. One of the basic tenets of alchemy and of life. But geezh we don't hear about it. It basically means that human life is constantly moving between two states--one of being firm and structured and another of being all hell broke loose. Once we max out on the former, circumstance moves us back toward the latter. We coagulate--come together. We dissolve--solve.

Solve is a state of destabilization--a change is moving through life so we have to loose our preconceptions of what must be. That is, if we are going to survive it.

Some people live in a seemingly constant state of solve. Too fluid, too changeable, not enough structure and form. Some people in a seemingly constant state of coagula. Too rigid. Disdainful of change. Resistant to the effects and lessons of life.

Any paradigm shift is a movement from coagula (a fixed set of ideas) through a solve and back to a coagula.

Today, I have been in solve. Sometimes solve just happpens. It doesn't always take a massive surface change in life. On the contrary, change begins always deep below the perceptible surface, but we can feel it coming. And we respond by, whether we like it or not, loosening our hold on things.

It's hard to be in a state of solve. When I'm in it, I want to change things, nail things down, name the thing that's happening. But I never know what's changing, only that change is coming. At such times, I know, it's best to avoid major purchases or drastic alterations to my appearance. Today I found myself looking at office space on the fourth floor of an office building. The view was incredibly--way high over the mountains to the North. But you know? All life is a metaphor. I don't know if I'll get it or not, and that's not the point. The point is I was moving to higher ground. Something is afoot, so I felt instinctively the need to grow wings.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Opus Contra Natura

The Work Against Nature is a phrase powerful enough to drive anyone away from something. But in alchemy the work against nature--Opus Contra Natura-- is merely a turning inward, a searching within which yields development and awakening.

It is a "work against Nature" because "nature" means physical nature. The opus contra natura draws our attention toward spiritual nature, the deeper truth of things.

In working with individuals who are just starting to write "again" the opus contra natura is a riot in the heart. The words just start flowing and, in some, they bring with them deep sorrow and joy which must be moved through.

I have been, of late, made aware (through being dumped by one such person and realizing my life is full of them) of personality disorders and their onset at either age 7 or in the adult years. Such disorders--borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder and the like--occur because a child is not given the safety and expression children require. So, that child ceases developing past a certain point psychologically while the body continues its journey into maturation. The result: an incredible number of very tall 5 year olds, men and women, walking around and often running various shows.

I think of the opus contra natura and how it can be used to retrieve those inner 5 year olds, tend them, move them back into the forefront and listening to them. Doing the hard work necessary to become whole.

Is it possible that the sacred texts and their writers were writing about people who have left themselves entirely behind? And the fluidity of Life comes when we have gone back and dislodged those parts of us once frozen in time. . .

(picture courtesy of Adam McLean's website : Geber's Works woodcuts, c. 1678.)

Friday, January 29, 2010

Alchemy and The Red Book

When Jung was having his initiation, which occurs in the writing and art of The Red Book, it was his introduction into the rights of alchemy, this wild formula for converting the matter of one's life into spirit.

I contacted Adam McLean about Jung's work in Alchemy. McLean is the founder of Hermetic Journal and a leading voice in the study of alchemical texts. McLean labors intensely to reproduce and publish the arcane and little known alchemical works on which Jung--and, since, countless others--based his work. McLean states on his stunning website ( that he was once enamoured of Jung's work. I emailed him asking him, basically "what happened" and he replied (within hours) that he simply prefers working in the originals. I respect that, and i also see it as in deep keeping with the nature of alchemy itself--a return to, and journey through, origin into the highest self.

McLean's work allows us to see the sources Jung turned to--the dark and peculiar, often grotesque drawings of the medieval texts such as Mutus Liber. It was on these books that Jung based his own Red Book. To explore them visit McLean's website:

For me, the images of the old stuff deeply spoke almost as soon as I'd opened Lyndy Abrahams' Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery. Granted I was going through absolute hell at the time and had reached out into alchemy since I'd heard it was the source of the deep healing (called politely "depth psychology" professionally, but I call it something quite different). I started to see the symbols dance with each other, and they became increasily illuminated--even playful. There is a joy in working with alchemy and its artwork. Its elements and writings look dark and frightening--as does the Book of Revelations, but inwardly, elucidated by the dictionary and the work of McLean (who is acknowledged in the dictionary), all of it is about reaching a deeper place in ourselves, a place so dark it glows.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

I picked up a copy of Jung's Alchemical Studies and, while getting my hair done by the amazing Guadalupe Chavarria, an alchemist in his own right for what he can do with a pair of scissors and that "diuturnity of intense imagination" he examined me with when I walked into his shop all shaggy and unshorn in the throes of last minute Christmas browsing, opened this unassuming little white book. Following the experience denoted in the Red Book, Jung devoted the rest of his life to trying to comprehend it. He calls all the other stuff, aside from the Red Book, his attempts at integration. This volume is his exploration of a number of alchemical writings--The Secret of the Golden Flower, the writings of Zosimus and Paracelsus and exploring the alchemical concepts of mercurius and the philosophical tree.

Jungian psychoanalysis draws heavily on alchemy and theosophy. This is just an example of the master psychic archeologist's explorations, a warm-up to the later works through which he furthers his argument that the psyche has been left unexplored for centuries as a result of the shunning of alchemy.