Sunday, November 27, 2016

Stand Up Like a Mountain

I can’t believe it’s been two whole years since I last posted here in Cyber Land. During that time, a new grandchild burst into my life like a wild wind, toppling old routines and riveting my attention. I’ve become the archetypal grandma, yakking away to everyone I meet about the boy’s impish humor, his voluminous vocabulary, his undying passion for big trucks, helicopters, and Thomas the Tank Engine. At the drop of a hat, I’m liable to rattle on about how he’s a sucker for his older sister, finds rocks utterly fascinating, and loves nothing more than to kick, kick, kick his chubby ankles in the pool.

But baby boys get bigger, and sometimes even grandmas have additional incarnations itching to be born. As Mr. Adorable steps more confidently into the world, Fleur and I commence a new leg of our own journey. I’m over the moon to share with you that Thomas-Jacob Publishing will be releasing The Fleur Trilogy, beginning with the second edition of The History of My Body, to be followed by its sequel Tizita, and then the one that is not yet named but is on its feverish way to completion. I was introduced to my delightful new publisher Melinda Clayton by my sister novelist Smoky Zeidel, and I'm in heaven at having found such a warmly welcoming publishing home. We’ll soon be announcing Fleur’s reappearance in her shiny new cover.

To add some serious icing to the cake, Bonnie Bright has released a thought-provoking new book, Depth Psychology and the Digital Age, that includes my own contribution, A Jungian Alice in Social Media Land: Some Reflections on Solastalgia, Kinship Libido, and Tribes Formed on Facebook. On Saturday, December 3rd, I’ll be taking part in an online panel with several other contributors to discuss our musings about Cyber Land. I hope you can join us!

So much has changed these past two years. We’ve lost (gulp!) Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, Alan Rickman, Gwen Ifill, George Martin, Paul Kanter, B.B. King, Percy Sledge, Ben E. King, Jean Ritchie, Oliver Sacks - and the list, alas, goes on and on. In my own life, three feline friends, including the inspiration for Fleur’s beloved Jillily, have died, taking half my heart with them.

One of the defining slogans of the 1960’s was, “The personal is political.” In 2016 the converse is demanding our attention. No matter which side of the Great American Divide we've been on during this seemingly endless election season, most of us have been taking our politics very personally. On this day after Thanksgiving, as I was idly poking around the web in my post-turkey torpor, I found my way to a video of the water protectors of the Standing Rock Native American Reservation on the site where they were recently blasted by water cannons on freezing nights as they defended their water source, the Missouri river, and sacred tribal land from the depredations of the Dakota Access Pipeline (aka Big Oil). Many have come to join them, including celebrities such as Mark Ruffalo, Shailene Woodley, Samuel L. Jackson, Leonardo DiCaprio, environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and my own favorite environmental attorney and dear friend, the Science and Environmental Health Network's Carolyn Raffensperger. The thing is: the water protectors of Standing Rock have managed to capture the imagination of many good people despite a near-total mainstream news black out. They’ve had the strength to keep at it because they’ve been moved, not by some abstract idea, but by a very personal sense of kinship with the water, the ancestors, the land, and future generations.

I’ve had a particular interest in what’s been taking place in North Dakota. My mother, her maiden name Ethel Wodlinger, was born to the only Jewish family in the small town of Selfridge, North Dakota, just 36 miles away from Standing Rock. Her Russian-immigrant parents owned a small creamery and general store that was frequented by the nearby Sioux tribe, and her earliest memories were of men arriving on horseback to pick up food and supplies to share with the tribe. That ethos of sharing contains a wisdom that the rest of us could do well to learn from regarding our sacred kinship with one another and the earth that supports us. As a grandmother, it speaks to me personally. My nights are troubled by a profound sense of urgency to protect the integrity of the land and water that my little one – and yours - will need to survive.

Right now this heaving, hot mess of a country of ours – born from an urgent need for freedom and midwifed with a fine mix of ferocity and idealism - finds itself in a pickle, hostage to a political tornado that is at once naïve, impudent, and cruel. Our countrymen and women have managed to elect a president who fails to meet the rudimentary measure of an emotionally healthy kindergarten child: “plays well with others.” It’s something we'll all need to learn to do much, much better as we seek to ensure a viable future for the young Adorables of our world. 

I’ve learned from Fleur and other quantum physicists that small actions can change worlds. Some of us make a positive impact with political acts, some with creativity, some with kindness, some with listening, some with love. I hope you take heart and inspiration from the people my mother remembered with such fondness and from the artist Trevor Hall, who found an anthem within him. May you find your own way to share with our larger human tribe. And as your very own kind of rock, may you stand up like your own kind of mountain. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Our Unforgettable Fathers

Fathers of daughters can make or break their girls' sense of worth, competency, confidence, ambition, ethics, zest for life, feminine appeal. Traditionally, they've served as bridges for their daughters into the wider world. Unless they totally blow it, they are their daughters' first loves.

My own father has been gone for twenty-five years, and I'd give anything to bring him back again. Charlie Karson -- actually, Charles Kirschon until an Ellis Island immigration official decided to Americanize his name -- walked this green earth for seventy-seven years. His original family constellation was complex: youngest child in a Russian Jewish family whose father left for America before he was born; son of a religiously devout mother who couldn't find her way to care for him; darling of his oldest sister Rivagolda, who pretty much raised him before he was spirited off with the youngest of his six siblings to join their father in the New World. 

As The History of My Body's Fleur Robins would put it, he experienced many incarnations in his lifetime. Before leaving his native land, he would live through a terrifying Easter pogrom, perform Shakespeare plays with his family in Yiddish (actually, as the youngest kid, he was the prompter), and witness the Reds riding into his starving village on horseback bearing baskets of bread and fruit, prompting his oldest brother Jack to ride off with them. When he arrived in America he was suffering from rickets. He'd barely begun junior high in Minnesota before he had to quit school to help support his family as a plumber. Within no time, he became a YCL organizer, stood on soapboxes and ran from cops' billy clubs in a successful drive to organize steel workers, and had his heart broken by revelations of Stalin's monstrosity. He never lost his zeal for socialism, though, and retained his advocacy of the underdog until the end. Generosity was a given in my father's house, bed and board provided without question to the hungry, the lost, and the out of luck.

My dad suffered more loss than anyone should. He lost his native land, his parents at a young age, his young first wife and the baby girl she was carrying to pneumonia, two of his older siblings to Hitler, a brother and a sister-in-law to a drunk driver, a friend's nephew whom he was kindly putting up in his home to a heroin overdose.

A rakishly handsome man who in his younger days resembled Frank Sinatra, my dad was a working-class intellectual who read Engels and Ibsen, Tolstoy and Poe, Sholem Aleichem and Langston Hughes. He had an exquisite singing voice, revered science, took guitar lessons, played chess with Bobby Fischer and played the horses at Hollywood Park, passionately shouted his way through thousands of dinner table political "discussions," adored his grandchildren beyond measure, and left behind a body of secret poetry more spiritual and psychological than this daughter would have imagined. He imprinted my soul with a legacy of tenderness and fire, the profound valuing of family and friendship, and hearty laughter and love as the best medicines in the world. 

But just as my Jungian colleague Clarissa Pinkola Estés urges women to surround themselves with numerous "little mothers" to their development and creativity, so I've had more than one "father" to my spirit in this life. One was my precious zayda, Chaim Wodlinger, a determined bull of a man who lived with my family until his death in 1956 and served as the inspiration for Fleur's beloved grandfather in The History of My Body. Just months ago, I was fortunate enough to find his gravesite after many years of fruitless searching, and I tearfully "introduced" my kids to him there, delighted to discover that his grave is currently home to a beehive. Talk about images of death and rebirth: you can't get more auspicious than that!

Another of my "fathers" was Paul Robeson, which I write about in this issue of Jung Journal: Culture & Psyche in my essay, Tangled Up in Brown. In that piece, I describe how my olive skin prompted many of the tow-headed, pale-skinned Dust Bowl refugee kids in my hometown Hermosa Beach to call me "Nigger." Here's how I describe my special relationship with one of America's most extraordinary native sons: 

"The sobriquet "Nigger" was all the more confusing as my leftwing parents were in the habit of joking with their friends that my father was really Paul Robeson. They undoubtedly meant it as a compliment, but I was hardly sophisticated enough to appreciate their meaning. If anything, I felt I'd been given away to a stranger -- belonging, not to my Russian-born father, but to a man I'd never met. I knew how Robeson looked from an album cover. His skin was even darker than mine, the darkest of chocolates, and his bass-baritone voice unsettled me; it went so deep it could have been God himself singing, 'O Shenandoah, I took a notion to sail across the stormy ocean…'"

Though I was confused by it at the time, I could have done worse in the "little father" department. Paul Robeson exemplified what is most golden in the human spirit and much that is wonderful and terrible in our American story: class valedictorian and football All-American at Rutgers, he completed his law training at Columbia while playing in the NFL; he became a gifted singer and actor on the world stage, as well as a tireless advocate for social justice; his stellar international career was destroyed by McCarthyism, especially once the State Department revoked his passport. These days, I'm happy to claim Robeson's glorious giftedness and the reach of his engagement with the world as an inspiration for my own creative attempts, my advocacy of our Mother earth and her precious creatures, and as one of my bridges to the wider world. 

But I can't refer to the (spiritually immense) "little fathers" of my life without expressing the depth of my gratitude to Carl Jung. Also in this issue of Jung Journal is an "enterview" of me by the wonderful Rob Henderson, titled When Everything Began to Change, in which I describe my first exposure to the man who would truly alter the direction of my life: 

"I was introduced to Jungian psychology in the seventies while I was assistant teaching at a Montessori school. Another teacher, a particularly vital and creative young woman, was in Jungian analysis at the time and spoke in reverent tones about a mysterious Miss Miller, who I instantly associated with a line in Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” that I misheard as 'Miss Miller!' (That particular mondegreen turned out to have been synchronistically prophetic, since the 'Miss Miller' I thought I heard Freddie Mercury and the band deliver in full operatic bravura was actually 'Bismillah,' a word used throughout the Qur-an to express the phrase, 'In the name of God!') So my own personal Miss Miller led me to approach my first book by Jung, Symbols of Transformation. Opening the pages of the worn used book I’d purchased, my eyes lit upon the words:

From the written records of all times and peoples we learn of significant and prophetic dreams, of warning dreams and of healing dreams sent by the gods. When an idea is so old and so generally believed, it must be true in some way, by which I mean that it is psychologically true. (CW 5, 1967, {4)

My life would never be the same. In two brief sentences, Jung linked all eras and all cultures with the spiritual and the scientific, establishing the reality of the psyche and its symbolism as co-equal to the concrete realities of everyday life."

Those realities are particularly complicated in these times of profound technological change, increased awareness of the interconnectedness of us all, dangerous political polarization, senseless violence, and environmental depredation and climate change threatening the very continuance of one of nature's most hopeful experiments: us. 

We need all the good fathers we can get. 

So it's with a particular sense of reverence that I bow my head to Charlie Karson, Chaim Wodlinger, Paul Robeson, Carl Gustav Jung, and, yes, even Freddie Mercury for offering us bridges into an ever deepening engagement with ourselves, one another, and the wider world, for showing us how it can be done and doing it in style.

Happy Father's Day, with love.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Riding the Rails with Psyche

Sometimes a work of art comes along that changes your life. As a native Los Angelena, I find film a particularly powerful medium to effect that change. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, you’ve got what my daughter “in the industry” rates as an Academy Award-worthy movie and what scads of people can’t wait to talk about in their psychotherapy sessions. Motion pictures are both literally and metaphorically “moving images.” At their best, they bring the light of greater consciousness to those dark recess of emptiness and longing, violence and rage, envy and greed, sorrow and stuckness, anxiety and depression, and innumerable compulsions and obsessions that bedevil us odd creatures, blessed and cursed with the knowledge that, despite our best efforts, this glorious life we've been given is replete with limit and loss and we ourselves will one day die.

For me, The Railway Man is one of those sorts of masterpieces. It’s what some might call a small film, made on a relatively low budget and released at exactly the wrong time of year to signal a potential Oscar campaign, but it’s big in ways that truly matter, big in the same way that indigenous peoples speak of a big dream. One that has meaning for the whole tribe and holds the potential to jiggle social and political perspectives, open heads and hearts, and - if we believe in tipping points or the collective unconscious - even alter the direction of our cultural evolution, if only just a bit.

The true story of traumatized World War II vet Eric Lomax, The Railway Man is a brilliantly directed (by Jonathan Teplitzky) adaptation (by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson) of Lomax’ book. The film is blessed with particularly moving performances by two extraordinary actors: Colin Firth, whose shoes most of my girlfriends would happily see tucked under their beds any night, and Hiroyuki Sanada, a less well known actor who could definitely leave his parked under mine.

The female lead is played by Nicole Kidman, of whom I have a touching memory, having met her on what I anticipated would be a rather bleak Mother’s Day, with my son out of the country and my daughter needing to work on Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge junket. My thoughtful girl had invited me to join her on her working holiday at the Four Seasons Hotel; she knew her mama would want to be with her particularly on that day, and besides, Moulin Rouge was a rare film musical that we both loved. I shook Nicole’s hand while she was getting made-up for a day’s work of grueling back-to-back interviews. She was luminously beautiful in the flesh, but that flesh was pretty fragile. The hand that shook mine felt as delicate as filo dough, and tears sprung to her sparkling blue eyes when I told her, quite sincerely, that I’d thoroughly enjoyed her performance in the film. “Really?” she asked, with a catch in her voice. “Really,” I assured her.

And I really loved her character in The Railway Man, with her intuitive capacity to see beneath the surface of her husband’s entrapment in trauma and her faithfulness to her deeper vision of all he was born to be. It’s a gift that good mothers – and good lovers – have, and should be a requirement of any therapist or analyst hanging out a shingle. Being a gift, it’s not something we can necessarily will for ourselves, but we can, as author Elizabeth Gilbert suggested in her marvelous 2009 TED Talk, open our arms nice and wide to receive the gift flying through the ether should the gods be willing to fling it in our general direction. Do I mean that? Yes. Really.

Colin Firth received his own gift in this instance with great dignity. The finesse with which he conveys the suffering of a man longing to have a feelingful life but held down by the shaming and torture he experienced at the hands of his Japanese army captors is excruciatingly right on. It’s the kind of performance that gets under the skin and yanks us into knowing what he’s feeling, whether we want to or not.

But I have to say that the actor who is already changing my life is the brilliant Sanada, who plays his part with the quiet truth of a sunrise. For it is he who must consider how or whether to contend with the evil that he’s done. That’s the one that yanked me in big time. It’s what Jung aptly called “the shadow,” what my courageous patients wrestle with in the work we do in my consulting room, what I had damned well better be grappling with myself if I’m to have the honor of working with them. It also comprises a good chunk of what my protagonist Fleur imagines in that awful void of hers in my novel The History of My Body and in the sequel I’m cursing and crawling to finish as soon as she’ll let me.

I was born a romantic. It’s been a curse and a blessing. I fall to my knees before the sun, the moon, a David Austin Ambridge rose, a dove’s call, a crow’s glide, Joan Baez’s voice, the 2nd movement of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, the innocence of the young. But there’s a grave danger in all that unfettered ecstasy. As my philosophy professor Hans Meyerhoff pointed out when I was a UCLA student about five million years ago: romanticism most commonly leads to cynicism, since life is so terribly far from ideal (and because, I might add as a Jungian analyst, we ourselves are so far from ideal).

My pal Rob Henderson recently reminded me of this quote from Jung in a 1945 letter to a friend: “Everyone goes through this mill, consciously or unconsciously, voluntarily or forcibly. We are crucified between the opposites and delivered up to the torture until the reconciling third takes place. Do not doubt the rightness of the two sides within you, and let whatever may happen, happen. The apparently unendurable conflict is proof of the rightness of your life. A life without contradiction is either only half a life or else a life in the Beyond, which is destined only for angels. But God loves human beings more than the angels." That one’s a doozy isn’t it? And if you don’t happen to believe in God, no worries. Just substitute Nature, higher power, or the reality of the human psyche. 

The contradictions within us high-flying romantics regularly fling us down upon the jagged rocks of life’s cruelties and contradictions. As well as our own. I’ve had several family members contending with serious illness this year, borne ongoing witness to the environmental depredations that are decimating species in droves and may well portend our own demise, and have continued to wrestle with my own wishes to wreak vengeance on anyone and anything that would wrong myself and my beloveds. I fight a constant cold war with my own futile desires for it all to be easier.

The good news is, I’m getting older. Old enough for my internist, the comedic and significantly younger Dr. Drew Schroeder to call me “spry.” (Actually, I told him I’d kill him if he ever called me that again.) Which means that years of practicing analysis, writing fiction, fielding disappointments and suffering awful loss, as well as finding joy so sparkling it's lit my soul on fire, seem to have grown a capacity in me to find nourishment and fertilization in the darkness even while cursing it. That inner-contradiction is, I believe, what keeps me in the transformational pot with my amazing patients, learning from my fictional protagonists, and in a vital partnership with sentient beings and the planet itself, all of us learning, falling apart, suffering, transforming, discovering, tripping on our own feet, getting up and plugging on, and celebrating this odd experiment of the cosmos in popping out creatures capable of at least some consciousness of themselves and their breathtaking universe.

So on this Sunday morning, I offer us all my own post-Railway Man prayer. May we find the kindness in ourselves to forgive our own brutality, our own failures of nerve, our own fragility. May we at least open the window just a crack to the possibility of forgiving those incarnated shards of the infinite in others, too.

(Melanesian hymn God Yu Tekkem Laef Blong Mi, scored by Hans Zimmer )