“There are times when words are the last things on my mind. These times are rare (and rarefied), as immersed as I have been, since the age of three, in language. But, on occasion, things come to me clothed in dream or vision and, I must say, these visitations of image never fail to stop me in my verbal tracks. Recently, I had a vision—of three rowboats—which, to my mind, explained my place on earth (and yours), as well as the past, and the future of all living beings on Planet Earth. In a reverie as brief and fleeting as a momentary breeze against my cheek, I had a small-case revelation. Eventually, here (just wait a bit), I will try to recreate it for you, though it may lose some or all in translation: it was a vision; not a message.”—Elizabeth Boleman-Herring
By Way of Being
By Elizabeth Boleman-Herring
“I have noticed that dreams are as simple or as complicated as the dreamer is himself, only they are always a little bit ahead of the dreamer’s consciousness.”―Carl Jung
“I believe that the fundamental alternative for man is the choice between ‘life’ and ‘death’; between creativity and destructive violence; between reality and illusions; between objectivity and intolerance; between brotherhood-independence and dominance-submission.”―Erich Fromm
“We’re in a freefall into future. We don’t know where we’re going. Things are changing so fast, and always when you’re going through a long tunnel, anxiety comes along. And all you have to do to transform your hell into a paradise is to turn your fall into a voluntary act. It’s a very interesting shift of perspective and that’s all it is . . . joyful participation in the sorrows and everything changes.” ―Joseph Campbell
PETIT TRIANON Florida—(Weekly Hubris)—March 2017—There are times when words are the last things on my mind. These times are rare (and rarefied), as immersed as I have been, since the age of three, in language. But, on occasion, things come to me clothed in dream or vision and, I must say, these visitations of image never fail to stop me in my verbal tracks. Recently, I had a vision—of three rowboats—which, to my mind, explained my place on earth (and yours), as well as the past, and the future of all living beings on Planet Earth. In a reverie as brief and fleeting as a momentary breeze against my cheek, I had a small-case revelation. Eventually, here (just wait a bit), I will try to recreate it for you, though it may lose some or all in translation: it was a vision; not a message.
When I was seven, I met with a child psychiatrist whose job, that afternoon, was to evaluate me for advancement from the second to the fourth grade.
What a momentous leap lay just ahead of me! What hubris there was in such a leap! The third grade was, for me, about to be disappeared, at the stroke of one professional’s pen!
I wonder now at such events—seven-year-olds being interviewed, at length, by specialists, in order to skip a grade in school—but, in the privileged, white, academy-annointed sub-culture in which I first drew breath, there occurred in abundance such minute rites of passage.
The lives of those around me were drenched and dredged in perceived privilege and a giddy post-war optimism which evaporated (both) only slowly in the late 1960s.
For me, the mythology of Pasadena was short-lived, however. I did skip the third grade but, by the sixth, I was living in not-privileged-at-all post-war Greece, where reality came right up to tear the scales from my eyes. (I have written elsewhere that I began life as walled-in as the child who became the Buddha: Greece, and the Middle East of the early 1960s, vouchsafed me my own awakening.)
Fifty-eight years on, I remember my afternoon with the child-psychiatrist very clearly, and I remember as well what I, and my father learned from that doctor. At seven, said the shaman (for that is the role he filled for me), I was unique among children he had seen in that I possessed both an adult sense of humor and a penchant for metaphor. (He did not use the term “penchant,” but I did learn the word “metaphor” from him, and I would hear it again, eight years later, from yet another psychiatrist, who “cleared me for university” at age 15.)
I was, as a small child, already one remove (at least) from reality, for I saw in one thing . . . another.
At seven, advanced to the fourth grade, at nine, off to Greece for three years, at 15, away to the university, I was groomed to be a miniature, verbal person most comfortable around adults; no longer a child but apart from my peers. Out of step.
The path—my idiosyncratic little path—perhaps from that afternoon and ever onward, required qualities of bravery with which I did not come into the world naturally, and with which neither my father nor my shamans could equip me. I was a highly conscious child, and brave (of sheer necessity) beyond my years as well as verbal . . . but not heroic.
Looking back, I could speak with and understand, at seven, almost anyone, from any walk of life, anywhere in the world (and I was told, early on, that I could do these things), but I did not have the toolkit heroes have. Clearly, and obviously, I did not have Theseus’s sword; Ariadne’s thread.
Against monsters, for instance, I was at a loss. I could (and can) almost always identify and name them, and converse with them if required to, but I am as helpless as any child before them, and unable to rescue others from them.
Faced with monsters or dropped off in labyrinths, unless the weaponry of language suffices, I was and am still a simple child.
Heroes, I posit, may be, like Moses, stutterers, and need an Aaron or two along to translate, someone with a penchant for metaphor, but heroes, from an early age, show themselves to be champions. To quote one of the poet Gerald Manley Hopkins’ similes, the hero’s qualities “flame out, like shining from shook foil.”
If I, myself, identify with a character in mythology, it is none of the heroes and heroines but, rather, Cassandra. And my dreams, and visions, like my snarky asides and clever metaphors, steal a march on my consciousness.
Sometimes, this is a gift; mostly, it feels like a burden.
Knowing Trump would “win” the election, knowing Malignant Aggression was, once more, rampantly ascendant on the planet? That knowledge has felt like a curse.
For my work—and my sanity—this winter, I have been re-reading a work by one of my father’s heroes, Erich Fromm, and a book by one of my own, Joseph Campbell: Fromm’s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, and Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
I felt as compelled to seek out two of my abiding, evergreen, immortalized-on-paper shamans . . . as any child seeking out, beneath the confused covers of her bed, her transitional object.
How to confront a monster and his enabling monsters; Trump, and Trump’s? How to see writing on a wall, and read it, without losing one’s wits?
How to live out one’s days in a world, on a planet, where there are, patently, no sufficient heroes (and none coming)?
Fromm and Campbell’s answers are one and the same, written (in 1973 and 1949, respectively) as codas to these two seminal works.
Here is Fromm, in his book’s “Epilogue: On the Ambiguity of Hope”: “The situation of mankind today is too serious to permit us to listen to the demagogues—least of all demagogues who are attracted to destruction—or even to the leaders who use only their brains and whose hearts have hardened. Critical and radical thought will only bear fruit when it is blended with the most precious quality man is endowed with—the love of life.”
Oh Best Belovéd, I urge you, I exhort you, to read the entire book. Please. For Fromm’s meta-message is a primer for our times.
And here is Campbell, in his own epilogue: “The modern hero, the modern individual who dares to heed the call and seek the mansion of that presence with whom it is our whole destiny to be atoned, cannot, indeed must not, wait for his community to cast off its slough of pride, fear, rationalized avarice, and sanctified misunderstanding. ‘Live,’ Nietzsche says, ‘as though the day were here.’ It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal—carries the cross of the redeemer—not in the bright moments of his tribe’s great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair.”
My vision, then, writes Cassandra, as she enters Agamemnon’s palace, is a very homely one:
I see three rowboats, and they are basic, primitive affairs. Just rowboats, made of wood: sturdy, but propelled by hard human labor, and out in all weathers.
In the smallest of the boats, I sit at the oars with my beloved husband, and we row. And row. And row. We are alone in our small, unpainted wooden dinghy, and we are without warm coats or hats. But—and this is crucial—we are together, and we are each responsible for pulling against the waves; for moving our boat forward.
This comforts me greatly until the moment when I look over the gunwales and see . . . that our little boat, Dean’s and my tiny boat, actually floats within the body of yet another, much larger rowboat, this one rowed by many, many others.
I have never, in real life or in dream before, “seen” one boat rowed within another, but this is what my vision involves.
I understand, in a flash, that the larger boat is my husband’s and my birth country. The larger boat, which its crew is rowing in exactly the same direction as our “marital boat,” is America. My penchant for metaphor aside, the larger rowboat is the thing itself, and all of us—my husband and I, and all the people at their millions of oars—are (in both boats) moving in the same direction, the boat within a boat’s un-reality notwithstanding.
As I take this in, I cannot express how uncanny it is: no matter my, or Dean’s, small, insignificant sense of agency, we are all, as Americans, rowing our inexorable way towards I know not yet what.
But, as I raise my eyes to the horizon, beyond the confines of the larger, second boat, only then do I see the immense, third boat in which the two smaller ones float; the boat that contains not only a human crew but, indeed, all sentient beings on Planet Earth.
Within the third boat are transported all of us, every last one, from single-celled organisms to blue whales and giant Armillaria ostoyae.
But the third boat, in my vision, is not being crewed by all its occupants. Only Homo sapiens row the third boat. And, as I look up, and ahead, I see that Homo sapiens has rowed, is rowing, all of us, all sentient beings, over the fatal edge.
Willy nilly, from the very beginning, as I see it, as I envision it, Homo sapiens has been a rower; has built boats; has felt compelled to row. And, for a very, very long time—perhaps from the beginning—there was been only one possible outcome.
Knowing this, as I take on board the message of the three boats, I wrap my arms around my husband, and hold him tight. I lean into him, and tell him that I love him, over and over. We laugh, and look up at the stars. I, we, have so little agency now, so little range of motion, so little time, but we do have . . . one another. And that is all I know; all I can see.
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