Showing posts with label berkeley. Show all posts
Showing posts with label berkeley. Show all posts

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Muse of Freedom

Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me
And before I'd be a slave I'll be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free

—“Oh Freedom”

Mississippi Freedom Summer 1964

The freedom train is coming, can't you hear the whistle blowing
Its time get your ticket and get on board
Its time for all the people to take this freedom ride
Get it together and work for freedom side by side

—“Freedom Train”

Recently Dan and I watched Public Television’s searing documentary, “Mississippi Freedom Summer, 1964.” We were both flooded with memories of a powerful time in our lives, years before we met each other, when we were twenty-somethings, on opposite coasts, both married young with babies. We each remember our shock and horror at the vicious murders of the three civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. When I saw Andrew Goodman’s face in the documentary I gasped. He looked so much like Dan did in photos I’ve seen of him in his twenties—a smart, idealistic, dark haired Jewish boy from New York. He even went to Queens College, as did Dan.

Dan tells me that Freedom Summer was “the thing I missed.” He had wanted very much to go to Mississippi that summer, wanted to make a difference, to take initiative in registering voters despite what was a brutal and difficult environment. He knew about the atrocities and the disappearances, about Medgar Evers’ assassination, about the lynching of Emmet Till. He knew the meaning of the song “Strange Fruit.” He was already a civil rights activist; he had helped organize boycotts and picketing of Woolworth Stores in support of the first sit-ins, had participated in the 1963 March on Washington, had opened his home to strangers who came from afar to March for Jobs and Freedom. The March reinforced his feeling that he was part of something bigger than himself. He was working with the American Friends Service Committee on a project to end discrimination in housing in the Washington, DC suburbs, He saw Freedom Summer as an important next step in the Civil Rights movement. He supported the strategy of sending young black and white civil rights workers south to register African Americans to vote. He knew it would be dangerous and with a young wife and a new baby daughter he decided not to go.

Free Speech Movement, Berkeley 1964

I'm walking and talking with my mind
stayed on freedom
Hallelu, Hallelu, Hallelujah.
Ain't nothing wrong with my mind
Stayed on freedom

Many young Americans were initiated in the fire of that summer. Mario Savio, whose courage would touch my life, was one of them. He came to Berkeley after volunteering in Mississippi to raise money for SNCC, only to learn that the University was banning political speech and fundraising. I was an undergraduate at Berkeley at the time, with a husband commuting to medical school in San Francisco and a baby boy at home. I participated in the Free Speech Movement and was moved by Mario Savio’s passionate speech:
There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

But I did not join my fellow students to sit-in at Sproul Hall. I wasn’t really cut out to be an activist, though I didn’t know that at the time. I did know I was a writer and that I wanted to be part of my generation’s big experiences. Like Dan, I felt the powerful surge of historical change, but having taken on adult responsibilities young, I had to think of my child—I couldn’t risk jail.

Free to Be You and Me

Come with me, take my hand, and we'll run
To a land where the river runs free…
To a land where the children are free…
And you and me are free to be you and me

Who might Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner have become had they been blessed with fifty more precious years of life? Their terrible deaths have cast a long painful shadow over this country. They were denied their freedom to become themselves. Freedom is complicated, has consequences, requires forethought, ethics and integrity. Janis Joplin expressed Freedom’s shadow elegantly when she sang “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

We were in love with freedom in those years, sexual freedom, women’s freedom, African American freedom, students’ freedom to gather and protest. We were determined to express ourselves, become ourselves, love across ethnic and racial boundaries, expand our consciousness, follow our stars. Freedom is, after all, America’s muse—muse to the French and American Revolutions, muse to Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, muse to Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, muse to Dan’s father, a music loving seventeen year old who stole himself out of the anti-Semitic Polish army, muse to my family who stole themselves out of Hitler’s Europe to the “land of the free.” We on the left claimed freedom as our muse in the 60s. It’s interesting nowadays, to see freedom as the darling of the right who seem focused on the freedom to bear arms and the freedom of the wealthy to spend a fortune to support their politics.

The long view from maturity reminds us that freedom can be fickle and dangerous. As a student writing for the Queens College student newspaper, Dan recalls mocking a speech by the president of the College who said, “There is no freedom without restraint.” Yet, just a few years later he understood the need for restraint by not going to Mississippi for Freedom Summer, despite wanting very much to do so. In the long view it’s clear that he made the right decision. It was part of his nature, part of becoming himself. Dan has always been a family man, devoted to his children, as well as an activist, mixing a pragmatic and realistic streak with his idealism. Just a few years later he was able to go to Mississippi to make a difference as a trainer for the Child Development Group of Mississippi, a statewide Head Start Program. He learned how freeing and empowering it could be for poor African American parents to get engaged in their children’s schools. This inspired him to become an activist for parent involvement in his own children’s schools.

The long view has taught us that the freedom to become oneself is a meander, dependent on luck, fate and plodding perseverance. It is the inner capacity to follow one’s truth and passion free of the tyranny of collective attitudes but with respect for the truth and passions of others. I feel blessed to have lucked into a line of work—Jungian Analysis— that supports people in the process of freeing themselves to live full creative lives. The etymology of the word ‘free’ is telling. Roots in Old German and French associate freedom with love, friendship and safety. Dan and I are lucky to have found the freedom to be ourselves with each other.

The long view has given me the freedom to see the consequences of my youthful passions, to see their shadow side. I expressed this in a recent poem “Demeter Beside Herself.” It is one of three new poems just published in the online journal Stickman Review. The poem is in the voice of the goddess, whose daughter “is off becoming /someone I’ve never been.” This daughter “wants power,” wants digital devices,” “wants electricity all night long.” All this has thrown her mother “out of orbit.” I am that mother. I am that daughter.

Retirement has freed Dan to do his good works in our community for free. Working less has freed me to write and publish more. I’ve been lucky in my long meander as a writer, to have wandered into the world of Psychological Perspectives, a wonderful journal published by the Los Angeles Jung Institute, which has so long supported my freedom to follow the weird wild places my Muse takes me, by publishing so many of my poetic essays. They’ve just done it again. The latest issue of Psychological Perspectives includes my essay “Abracadabra Tongue: On Poetry Magic” in which my poems and active imagination with dream figures lead me to fly on a magic carpet with the Muslim Solomon, and to an encounter with the Queen of Sheba, the beautiful dark Queen of Ethiopia, who reveals the lusty “old black magic” version of her rendezvous with King Solomon. I hope you’ll read all about it.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Muse of Feminism

I am a grateful defender of the faith in the study of the humanities and their place in our public and private lives. You and I are at one in having chosen to make the strong columns of our academic foundation from the study of English, its language and literature…Commencement is the Thanksgiving Day of academic life. And it is especially right as English majors that we are grateful for the literary treasure, which we read and the vitality of the language we inherit, and for all who have taught and encouraged us -- family, friends, professors and our fellow students.
Steven L. Isenberg, Commencement Speaker, writer, professor and former publisher
The Bigger Picture

Every now and then life gives one a glimpse of the bigger picture. I was granted such a vision recently, attending my niece Nora’s graduation from the English Department at UC Berkeley. Our family—among many other proud families from diverse ethnic backgrounds— spent hours in the sun at the Greek Theatre to honor our young peoples’ achievement.  Nora came to Berkeley as a transfer student, having spent years supporting herself and going to community college. She took a double major, English and Media Studies, and continued to work part time. I know she often felt exhausted, and wondered why she was doing all this. But she kept on her path in a time when being an English major is considered by many as at best impractical and at worst a waste of time and money. I was pleased and relieved to hear the commencement speaker, Steven Isenberg, a man of my generation and liberal views (also a graduate of Berkeley’s English Department) stand up for the humanities. I loved his quote from Mark Schorer: "Learning to read novels, we slowly learn to read ourselves." In Nora’s case I’d add, “learning to see movies, we learn to see ourselves.”

It turns out I was also at that ceremony to learn something about myself. I graduated from Berkeley in English in the mid 1960s but never walked across the stage to receive my diploma. I have felt estranged from my alma mater for years. Speaking to friends I’m surprised how many didn’t go to their graduations in the ‘60s. Perhaps we were all estranged from our elders. I remember huge classes in Wheeler auditorium, professors who felt far away from me. I remember a University administration that trampled on our civil liberties and rights to free expression, banning political activity and fund raising. The spirit of the times rose up in protest among us students and became the Free Speech Movement, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary this coming fall. I joined the protests, but was careful not to get arrested, since I had a baby to take care of at home.

A moving collection of memoirs, The Times They Were A–Changing: WomenRemember the ‘60s & ‘70s gives us glimpses of the bigger picture as experienced by women of my generation. Patricia Helmetag remembers a peace demonstration against the Vietnam War at the University of Michigan. The Chancellor summoned police “who battered the protesters with bully clubs…The resulting rift between students and the administration consumed the university, the national news and the den where my parents watched TV in the evenings…Horrified by the brutality I witnessed daily, I began to question my parents’ worldview.” Helmetag goes on to describe her transformation:
I changed with the leaves that year. I grew my hair long, put aside my pretty clothes, and dressed all in brown. I dropped my sorority…shared “grass” on seedy apartment floors with boys discussing their service options: the draft, ROTC, or Canada. We listened to Simon & Garfunkel, Joan Baez, Dylan, Phil Ochs, Donovan and the Stones. We read Ginsberg, and we talked about women’s liberation.

A Change of Essence

Something happened to me at Nora’s graduation, something I didn’t expect. My relationship to the English Department at Berkeley and to my own history changed its essential nature. There had been no women, no African Americans, no Asians or Native Americans on the faulty of the English Department when I was an undergraduate. Sitting in the Greek Theatre on a Saturday afternoon in May I delighted in seeing how the Civil Rights Movement and Woman’s Movement have changed the face of the English Department. (Just scroll through the English Department Faculty on their website and you’ll see what I mean.) I delighted in the brilliant women students who spoke, and in the department chair, Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe, who was profound and surprisingly Jungian in her remarks. In considering the etymological root of the word graduate, she noted that it comes from the world gradus, used in the late 15th century by alchemists to describe a change in essence—a tempering, a refining—as in from lead to gold. In recognizing Nora’s achievement I realized, suddenly, that I’d not recognized my own. I was married at eighteen, became a mother at nineteen, and managed to get myself to class and home in time to babysit the babies of the mothers who babysat for me. I don’t remember how I managed writing papers and washing diapers.

My memories of Berkeley have changed from lead to gold. I find myself remembering, with gratitude, three encouraging and devoted professors who cultivated my love of language and poetry: Thomas Flanagin, Thom Gunn, Thomas Parkinson. What can it mean, that they are all versions of Thomases? The name Thomas, my dictionary says, comes from the Aramaic and means “twin.” Perhaps each of these men was a twin to some essential aspect of me. Two of them—Gunn and Parkinson— were poets associated with the San Francisco Renaissance—with poets like Ginsberg and Duncan—who would later become my major influences. Flanagin taught Joyce. I remember how he paced in the front of the classroom, chain smoking, spouting long lyrical passages from Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake in his grand Irish lilt. The love of Joyce was burned into my soul. Flanagin became a novelist in his fifties, years after I knew him. I returned to writing poetry seriously in my fifties. I don’t remember how I persuaded Flanagin that a German story was appropriate for an English Department thesis, but he let me follow my muse. I translated the story from the German myself. He praised my paper, said I should get it published. Decades later portions of that thesis became a part of The Sister from Below. I wrote:
Broch, though not Jewish, was a political activist who was jailed by the Nazis in 1935. While in jail, the image of a dying Vergil came to Broch. The image that burnt itself into my consciousness then is…of the angel coming to Virgil, and quoting to him from his own poetry, prophesying the coming of the new god, Christ…What was burned into the back of my mind was the image of the poet as an instrument being played by an unknown god.
As an undergraduate I had caught a glimpse of the essence of what would become my truth in poetry—that it has a prophetic function and that we live in a time of changing myths. I remember thinking at the time that the new baby god would be a girl.

A Change of Story

This change in essence is a change in my story. It’s no longer a story about taking most of a lifetime to find my true life. It’s a story of being given flashes, visions, glimpses of what was nascent within me. It’s a story of being saved by the Muse of Feminism, by my friend Susan who insisted I join her Women’s Consciousness Raising circle when I was just back from India in 1969, and had no idea what Women’s liberation meant. I had not yet admitted to myself how suffocated I felt, how trapped. Sara Etgen-Baker, whose prize winning memoir appears in The Times They Are A–Changing, puts the suffering of women caught in the snares of the patriarchy into the voice of the wind: “I understand broken dreams and silent screams. Share your unspoken secrets and heartache with me.”

Etgen-Baker’s young woman heart was broken when she was accepted to the college of her choice and her mother refused to send her there, saying “only boys need to go to college.” I have a similar story. The college of my young heart’s desire was Reed. I wanted to go away to a small school, renowned for its poets. I applied to Reed and was accepted. My father wouldn’t support my going there. Like Etgen-Baker, I went to a large public university. In her story, the conflict she and her cohort of women students have with the University Administration about its patriarchal double standards—curfews for women students but not for men—becomes the vehicle of her liberation. She writes: “Like the leaves floating on the September winds, I learned to leap past the fear of the changing season within me and to trust the vibrations of a deeper, more authentic self.”

In this new version of my story, I got much of what I needed at Berkeley, which includes the tenacity to keep on keeping on in difficult situations. Years later I tell my story in The Faust Woman Poems, which just received a wonderful review on Goodreads and on Red Room by Lucille Lang Day. Day understands that the muse of feminism is the creative spirit of our generation. It has presented us with the Faustian bargain I describe in my title poem:

Faust Woman

You didn’t know the taste
of your own honey     didn’t know
willow thighs     delta song

until that cast out She
materialized in your kitchen     A dazzle of dust
ridden light     a voice     a hand
offering you the world

Do you want power among city towers, purses of gold, flashy transport?
Would you prefer a country lane, green glow of vineyards, summer breasts?
What about lovers? A stormy character playing the flute?
A silent guy with dreads? Maybe a talkative lover who’ll promise
to publish you     if only you’ll break out
of your kitchen cage     take a hammer
to the dishes     an axe to the door!

This is not your elegant traveling scholar      Grandfather Goethe

             But She’s from your own realm
             you’ve handed her down to us

this home wrecker      this bearer of light
daughter of Mothers who’ve been treading
                                      the untrod untreadable

                                      empty of voice      empty of prayer
                                                                         since Troy fell…
(first published in Spoon River)

Women’s stories have changed radically because we have been freed to write our own stories. As I wrote in The Sister from Below:
I remember the days when a woman could not belong to herself and be in a relationship, or so it seemed to many of us. But soon, everything changed. Women were writing poetry. The goddess was in the air. I was in the grip of this change that played me like an instrument, insisted on its own music, filled me with the voices of a poetic lineage I was just beginning to realize I was heir to: Enhueduanna, Sappho, Mirabai, Goethe, Rilke, Dickinson, H.D. Duncan, di Prima.
My gifted niece enters a world with no fewer problem or terrors. She leaves a University that many believe has been turned into a corporation—lost its soul. Mario Savio’s eloquent words comparing the University to a machine still ring true, though, thanks to him and the Free Speech Movement the political life on Sproul Plaza is alive and well. Nora and my English Department is a sanctuary from high–powered bottom line gear clanking—full of soul and creative self expression. As Nora put it, “it has a kind of purity,” I asked Nora if she felt her time at Berkeley changed her essence. “Absolutely” she said. “How?” I wondered. “I’m not quite sure I know yet,” she said. “But I feel much more self confident.”

Nora and her Aunt Naomi

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Piano Teacher Muse

I saw “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” recently at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. This one woman performance piece is a variation on the Jewish refugee story I have told so often about my own family in poetry and prose (The Motherline, The Sister from Below, Adagio & Lamentation). Mona Golabek tells her mother’s story of escape from the Nazis as a child via the Kindertransport—a British program organized by Quakers and Jews to save Jewish children and bring them to England. Golabek is a pianist from a potent Motherline of pianists. She tells her mother’s story in music as well as in words.

Mona Golabek

Her mother, Lisa Jura, was a brilliant pianist—a prodigy. When we meet her she is a child of fourteen, played eloquently by her daughter. We’re in Vienna, 1938. She is dressing up to go to her piano lesson. She is excited. She loves her piano teacher and has been practicing a difficult piece in preparation for her concert debut—Greig’s Piano Sonata in A Minor, op. 16. Her teacher turns her away. The Nazis have annexed Austria and it is forbidden to do business with Jews. Her mother, Mona’s grandmother, offers to teach her herself. That is until it becomes clear that the Jews are in terrible danger. It is difficult to get a child on the Kindertransport but Lisa’s parents manage to find a place for her—the oldest of their three daughters—hoping that her musical talent will protect her. In miraculous ways, it does.


Mona Golabek is a marvelous pianist, accomplished in the lush late Romantics—Debussy, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Grieg. The family story she tells is in many ways my own. It is the story of how music can hold people in unbearable times, how music was a religion for high culture German and Austrian Jews—a way to access divine ecstasy without uncomfortable questions about religion or ethnicity. That is until that terrible moment dramatized by Golabek—Lisa’s rejection by her piano teacher. For my mother, it happened when she was 12, in the German woods with other school children, lighting a Christmas tree and singing carols. Hitler was invoked, and everyone looked at her. Suddenly she knew she was an outcast— a Jew. Being Jewish had never before been an issue.

In Golabek’s story and mine, classical music is a vessel that carries refugee Jews back to the familiar, the beloved—their lost worlds. Music lessons were essential, initiatory—a way of transferring cultural memory and values to the next generation. Ambition, creativity and drive found their outlet practicing difficult passages over and over until the passion flowed out of one’s fingers and one crossed one’s left hand over the right and back again in a crescendo of emotion, tossing one’s head and striking the final chords with bravura. This was Lisa Jura, Golobek and also my father, who was well on his way to becoming a concert pianist as a young man, until he injured his hand. He played the piano all through my childhood, played like Mona Golabek plays, though he was more likely to play Bach’s Well Tempered Klavier than Grieg or Rachmaninoff.

adagio and lamentation

when my father’s fierce fingers made Bach flow
our dead came in and sat with us     a ghostly visitation
and my grandmother sang lieder     of long ago

this is how prayer was said in my childhood     solo
piano     arguing with god     adagio and lamentation
when my father’s fierce fingers made Bach flow

music accompanied us into the valley of the shadow   and lo
Bach was torah    Mozart was our rod     Schubert led us into contemplation
my grandmother sang lieder     remembering long-ago

my child’s soul was full of glimmerings     the glamour of the gone   the glow
of candles borne by children into the dark German woods     the illumination
of the evergreen   all this I saw and more     when my father’s fierce fingers made Bach flow

my mother’s dead sister    my grandfather in a cattle car    woe
permeated shadow      stirred the curtains     took up habitation
in my grandmother’s body     filled every song she sang     with how she longed for long ago

long gone now     my grandmother      my father      although
sometimes I call them back     by villanelle     by incantation
come    my fierce father     play for me    water my soul in Bach’s flow
sing      my sad grandmother     your song is my covenant with long ago

In other ways my story is different from that of Golabek or her mother. I never looked forward to a piano lesson, as Lisa did. I never got dressed up to see my teacher. In an author’s note Golabek writes:
My mother…was my best friend. She taught my sister, Renee, and me to play the piano. We loved our piano lessons with her. hey were more than piano lessons—they were lessons in life…Sitting at the piano as a child, I would close my eyes and listen to her lilting voice and imagine her world. 
The child in me can’t imagine feeling safe with my piano playing parent. My father tried to give me lessons. He yelled at me. I didn’t practice. I didn’t take this seriously. Why couldn’t I remember what he had told me about the fingering and the phrasing? I don’t remember whether it was my tears or his frustration that ended that chapter. My mother began taking me on the subway from our home in Queens to Manhattan for piano lessons with the formidable Frau O who yelled the same accusations at me and slapped my wrists.

They were both right. I didn’t practice enough. I didn’t take it seriously. I didn’t want to remember the phrasing and the fingering. Looking back I realize my father was sending me to great piano teachers, master teachers who would have been appropriate for a Lisa Jura or a Mona Golebek. No wonder they were so infuriated. No wonder I was so traumatized. Nobody was interested in what I wanted.

Luckily for me Frau O had a lovely daughter who was my dear friend. Sometimes I got to spend the night, and we cuddled together under her big red comforter. This daughter became a renowned concert pianist. I always wondered how lessons went for her. Was she as scared of her mother as I was? How did she manage to practice and practice until she became a master of her art? Many years later, when our paths crossed as adults, I asked her. She loved music, she said. But she had to carve out her own niche which separated her from her mother. She became a proponent and performer of new music.

Watching Golabek’s performance it was clear to me that her love of her mother and her love of music were the same thing. Now, I love music. I feel lucky to have been raised in a family that taught me that love. I loved hearing my father play in the next room while I drifted off to sleep. But it is a revelation to me that a girl could feel loved and held by her mother who was also her piano teacher. The child in me has had a belief that Hitler came to live in the breasts of refugee Jews, that loss and agony got locked away in internal concentration camps, only to rise up screaming in the privacy of family life.

Golabek’s piano playing evoked the warm glow, the gold and red velvet elegance of her mother’s lost Vienna. Frau O also came from Vienna. It occurs to me now that it was not so much Hitler in her, but her longing to keep the tradition alive, that made her so angry with this stupid American born girl who refused her beloved vehicle of transport. As for me, did I refuse to practice, refuse to take music lessons seriously because I got yelled at? Or is it that my creative libido took another form?

Years ago I remember a colleague telling me about her ecstatic experiences singing classical music in a chorus. “You really have to do this” she said. I was surprised at the hot flare of anger that rose in me, and heard the sharp edge in my voice when I responded: “I don’t want to sing other people’s music.” That flare of anger became the beginning of a poem, which became the beginning of my first book of poems, “red clay is talking."

Anger, I’ve discovered, is a great opening to creativity. It is how the piano teacher became my muse.


       life after life
       I stand by the road
       and look for a home


she had been raised to sing
other people’s songs
but in the third morning of the new time
with the wisteria blooming outside her
kitchen window
and the shadow of the earth
about to fall upon the moon
she looked at the sky
the comet had inhabited
saw four geese fly east
toward devil mountain

heard the telephone ringing
the man in her house running
up circular stairs
calling her name

and suddenly remembered
the lips of the one who had sworn her
to silence
in dark waters
                                              wait for me
                                              one morning when the children are gone
                                              I’ll call
                                              put on your brown sandals
                                              wrap yourself up
                                              in your tree of life shawl
                                              come walk with me
                                                                 to devil mountain
                                                                         singing the song
                                                                         we were singing
                                                                                   before          you
                                                                                   were born

An Invitation from the Earth Muse

The San Francisco Institute is beginning an exciting series of eco-psychology programs. The first on is Saturday, February 22, 2014, 9:30 AM – 1:30 PM at the affordable ticket price of $35.00.

Indwelling: Our Human Participation in the Dream if the Earth
A workshop emphasizing the role of transformation in consciousness as an essential factor in addressing the environmental crisis. (With Barbara Holifield, MFT & Carol MCrae, PhD)
What Jung intuited nearly a century ago has never been more relevant: Western culture would become lost if we were not able to sustain a connection to nature and learn from the wisdom of the indigenous people, whose stories are deeply woven with the land. We have developed a split between ourselves and the earth.

Just what do we do as concerned citizens? What are our individual stories and what might be a more conscious collective guiding myth?

We will allow what emerges to build on Thomas Berry’s idea that hope for our future lies in our human participation in the dream of the earth. Check out Patricia Damery's blog for more on environmental issues.

Bragging Rights

The Sister from Below is proud to announce the publication of 2013’s Featured Poet: Frances Hatfield in Psychological Perspectives. Hatfield is a sister Jungian analyst and a sister poet from the mystery realms. Read six amazing poems by Hatfield and an introductory essay by Naomi Ruth Lowinsky in Psychological Perspectives (v. 56 Issue 4.)

Also, please consider subscribing to Psychological Perspectives. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Muse of Elders

I wish you could stop being dead
so I could talk to you about the light… and you

could tell me   again      how the light of late
afternoon is so different from the light
of morning

from “Oma”
Naomi Ruth Lowinsky
Ancient Ways -by Diana Bryer

To be blessed by an elder, especially an admired one, one whose wisdom and accomplishment one wants to emulate, is a gift. My Oma, a painter, gave me the gift of her blessing, opening me to my own creative path when I was a girl. Her spirit has illuminated the long spiral path of becoming myself—what Jungians call individuation—often a lonely business.

On the way to being an elder myself, hopefully a giver of blessings, I am amused to notice that receiving the blessing of elders continues to matter—a lot. I find myself musing about my Jungian tribe and the elders who have illuminated my way. The Jungian way follows the archetype of initiation, in which elders bring the young into the tribe in many ways: analysis, consultation, the reviewing and certifying committees of the Institute. I was lucky in my mentors on the way to becoming a Jungian analyst— I felt understood, supported and appreciated.

But I’ve been musing about the unofficial forms of initiation, which by their unplanned and spontaneous nature may have more to do with the peculiarities of one’s path. Though my memory is nothing to brag about these days, I have a stepping stone path of memories of elders who have blessed me.

The story I want to tell is about Elizabeth Osterman, she of the intense and piercing eyes, the fierce no nonsense way of leaping from unconscious to conscious and back. I had no official relationship with her, but she was a powerful presence for me. Osterman happens to be my Oma’s maiden name, so I considered Elizabeth a grandmother, though I never told her this.

I also never told her that she had changed my life, years before I knew her, years before I thought of becoming an analyst. I was lost in my life. A friend invited me to a conference called The Forgotten Feminine. I had no idea what that meant but it tugged at me. Elizabeth Osterman was one of the wise older women who spoke at the conference about women’s psychological development, about the importance of supporting a woman’s creativity. She made a deep imprint on my soul, gave me an image of what a Jungian analysis could do. I found myself an analyst.

Fifteen years later, when I was a new candidate at the San Francisco Institute, Elizabeth placed herself at the bottom of the steps as I descended, glared at me and said in a voice of great authority: “You are a poet. You must honor that path.” I’m not sure where she got her certainty. Perhaps she had seen some of my writing. But her voice rang loudly in my head for years during which I ignored the call of my Muse. I remember feeling much more guilty toward Elizabeth than I did toward my Muse.

When I gave the paper that became the beginning of The Sister from Below: When the Muse Gets Her Way, in which the Muse asserts herself in me, a paper that included my poetry, Elizabeth sat herself down in the front row, her cane erect between her feet, her short white hair bristling. When I was done she rose, gave me that intense glare, and said: “Now you’re doing it. It’s about time!”

That was many years ago. Elizabeth is long gone. But her blessing feels vibrant and alive in my soul. Here is part of a Dirge I wrote at the time, some fifteen years ago, when many beloved Jungian elders of our Jungian tribe died, including Elizabeth:

There are those whose words
change the course of the river
before we ever meet
their eyes

On the day you died
I was writing a poem
about the great green frog
that jumped into my reverie—
the frog that wonders in
and out of women’s wombs
tells the story
of the old she god
you were the first
to bring me news of—

You stood
on a university platform
in Wheeler Auditorium
where I had heard
many famous professors
but no one had ever told me—

that a woman
writing down her dreams
can spiral inward
to her dark center

and come back out
with flaming colors
and her own wild tongue!

(published in red clay is talking p. 97-8)

Marked by Fire

When Patricia Damery and I began working on our collection Marked by Fire: Stories of the Jungian Way, we knew we were working in the tradition of a lineage of elders. We dedicated our book to the late Don Sandner, who had been a significant elder for both Patricia and me. But when Suzanne and George Wagner agreed to review the book, neither one of us was prepared for how much their response would mean to us.

Matter of the Heart, a film created
by Suzanne and George Wagner

Suzanne and George are our forebears in the endeavor to give voice to the Jungian worldview. They brought the inner life as we Jungians understand it into films such as Matter of Heart —a portrait of Jung, The World Within, which provided glimpses into Jung’s Red Book decades before it was published and the Remembering Jung Series in which the Wagners were blessed by elders who shared memories of their experiences with Jung.

Patricia and I had been moved and delighted to find colleagues who could express their experience of living in relationship to their own inner lives—dreams, synchronicities, active imagination. I was moved and delighted all over again to read George and Suzanne’s words in their two separate reviews just published in The Jung Journal (Spring 2013 Vol. 7, #2).

George wrote:
Readers will be moved, saddened, and challenged by the notion that to strive for individuation is truly difficult, heavy, hard work. But it appears to be worth it—not only for yourself, your colleague, and your family, but also for the planet…. 
In these true-life adventures in the search for soul, these “lucky 13” individuals provide living examples to assist us in conquering our own fears. The fire that ignites in the soul can be formidable. These stories give us courage and guidance….

Thank you, George. Gathering stories that would support others in their search for soul was exactly what we hoped to achieve. Suzanne wrote:
Reading such rich, self-disclosing material…we are left with no doubt that a truly transformative power that is both dangerous and beneficial resides in the unconscious psyche…. 
Clearly the path of individuation is a demanding adventure that involves suffering.…Jung often appears to these writers in dreams and active imagination as a guide who both challenges and supports the process. It seems he has become an active ancestral presence in the soul of the next generations!
Thank you Suzanne. It is hard to express how moved and delighted I am by your words: It seems [Jung] has become an active ancestral presence in the soul of the next generations! You and George have worked hard to make Jung’s ancestral presence and influence available to future generations through film. I am so grateful to you for that. I don’t think I got it until I read your words— Patricia and I, in our way, have been carrying on your work. We have gathered a tribal record of Jung as ancestor. To have you recognize that is a profound blessing.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Muse of Exile

they say home
is a place
in the mind

—Adam David Miller

The Muse of Exile has been singing to me since I was a girl. She sings a wanderer’s song, longing for lost landscapes, lost homes. She gives me many poems.

Emma Hoffman

Many Houses Ago

I wish I could see
those fabled houses from before I was born
the home of my grandparents in the hills above Kassel
the home of the poet Nelly Sachs on Lessingstrasse in Berlin

the crystal, the silver fish knives, the music room, the library
the well-tempered Bach, the Hölderin, the Goethe
Buber’s “Legend
of the Baal Shem Tov” who, it is said,
                                                to the radiance…

We wander around America
transporting what’s left
of the crystal, the fish knives
from haunted house to haunted house

the house with the pond and the scary catfish
the house with the frieze of dancing maenads
the house on the ridge where we watched the sun circle
from summer to winter and back

But always I am also
in that other life—refugee reality
the Nazis have confiscated home
Nelly Sachs has made it to sanctuary
sits in a white room in Stockholm
talking to stones

O the chimneys
....cleverly devised houses of death
when Israel’s body dissolves
into smoke.
        (first published in The Pinch)

View From a Lost Home, oil by Emma Hoffman

Where is home? Is it in the Europe my family fled because of the Nazis? Is it in North Carolina, where my father had his first job at Black Mountain College and I was a baby in that Eden? Or Italy, where I was 4 and 5 and spoke that language fluently, I’m told. Hearing Italian makes me feel strangely at home, but my tongue has lost its music. Is home in Queens, Princeton, Berkeley, India, Oakland, Orinda, Pleasant Hill? Is it in Barton, Vermont, where we spent summers by Crystal Lake, or is in Chicago where I visited my mother for so many years, before dementia exiled her from the great lake in which she swam well into her eighties?

The Muse of Exile was singing up a storm on the trip Dan and I took recently to the mid-west. I gave a talk in Cleveland about my grandmother, the painter Emma Hoffman. The Muse of Exile was her inspiration as she painted self portraits, portraits of family, landscapes, interior scenes of the houses in which she lived: these paintings reflect her losses, her wandering, her search for a new life. I have been tracking her exodus for years in my writing, first in The Motherline, then in many poems. In Cleveland I could see the theme of exile resonate on people’s faces. We are all exiles of one sort or another.

Ticket to Exile
The Muse of Exile sang to me in a different key as we wandered around Ohio and into Indiana where I have family. I was reading Adam David Miller’s memoir, A Ticket to Exile. Miller is a fine poet who has written a gripping book about the pre-Civil Rights movement South. The intense drama of his book is described on the back cover:
At age nineteen, A.D. Miller sat in a jail cell. His crime? He passed a white girl a note that read, “I would like to get to know you better.” For this he was accused of attempted rape.
Miller says he has an eidetic memory, which enables him to bring up scenes from his youth with great clarity. His memoir transports one into the 1920s and 30s Jim Crow South. Its structure is riveting. It opens in the middle of the drama:
I had typed that note, I would like to know you better, after work the evening before, on my thirty-dollar used Underwood, a machine I had bought on five-dollar installments with money I earned as a carhop…and…as a cobbler’s apprentice at a black-owned shoe repair shop in town.
The passing of the note is observed and Miller’s life is forever changed. The chief of police, with whom he is friendly, from whom he was about to buy a used suit, comes to the shoe repair shop to arrest him. He sits in jail, terrified, not eating. End of Part I. The reader keeps seeing him in jail, wondering how he’s doing, while he takes us back to his early childhood on his grandma’s farm, to his later childhood with his stalwart mother in Orangeville, South Carolina. He gives us rich, sensuous portraits of what life was like in his family. He describes the farm:
…good bottomland cleared from the swamp, [it] had been owned by the family since what many called the “farce” of Reconstruction. It had supported twelve mouths, twenty-four hands, working year-round.… 
They grew cotton for cash, corn as food for humans and animals. Tobacco was later to replace cotton as a cash crop. Vegetables: beans, tomatoes, okra, and the root crops, beets potatoes and rutabagas filled the garden. There were apples, pears, peaches, pecans and black walnuts in season. Berries and nuts were gathered from the woods…
The women knew what herbs to gather in the woods if someone were hurt or sick. He lived in a rural world of Black people; saw his first white people on the road to Orangeville when he was four and his mother came for him.

Miller was a bright, industrious boy who did all sorts of odd jobs to help support his family. He tells the story of all the houses his family moved to because of money or landlord problems, seven in three years. None of them had electricity or inside toilets. He tells stories that give us the texture and feel of that time, full of the pleasures and the humiliations of being Black. His was a restless, curious mind and he refused to imprison it in Jim Crow norms. That got him into deep trouble and in the way that deep trouble often does, opened his way into a larger world in which he could develop his many gifts. But he leaves us hanging onto the image of him stuck in that jail for most of the book. We are not released from that tension until the very end, when we learn how fate steps in to get him his ticket to exile.

He writes: “I was hit by trauma so severe that my memory was frozen. I could not visit that event for many years.” It is clear from his poignant descriptions of life in the 20s and 30s South, how much his exile cost him. He brings that lost home to life for his readers and I imagine for himself.

Adam David Miller

Crossing Cultures

Dan and I took a few days to explore Ohio. We wandered around the Vermillion River Reservation, heard the song of the bull frog and the hammering of a woodpecker. We visited the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge and saw two bald eagles in a tree. We stayed at Maumee Bay resort, on the shores of Lake Erie.

It is also a bird sanctuary and we were treated to the sight of a baby owl sticking its head out of a nesting box. These creatures have been in exile too. We drove to Toledo to meet my e-mail friend and poetry buddy Richard and his lady Carol. We sat for hours in a Lebanese restaurant with brass lamps and beaded curtains (undoubtedly owned by exiles), eating hummus and kebabs and telling our stories of exile and wandering.

Carol, a docent at the Toledo Museum, had told us that it was imperative that we see the exhibit, Crossing Cultures, on Aboriginal Australian Art. She was right. It was a moving and mind altering experience and continued our odyssey of exile.

Aboriginal Art, Toledo Museum

These paintings are not abstract. They are the way these people, who have been exiled from their lands, pass down their knowledge of the landscape, how they mark the waterholes and cliffs and hills. It is how they were able to reclaim lands, proving by their artwork their intimate knowledge of the landscape.

The Muse of Exile was singing to me as we traveled to visit my mother in Indianapolis. She is living with my brother and sister-in-law, their teenage daughter and son, three dogs and four cats. They have given her a wonderful home. But seeing her there is another kind of exile. When my children were growing up she was “Chicago Grandma.” For me, she has always been the essence of home—a comforting, loving, funny mother, my informant on all the family stories, hub of the family wheel. Now she tells me she doesn’t know who she is or where she is. She is in exile from herself. She has lost that home in the mind of which Miller writes. My homing instinct still points to Chicago. Where is the center now?

My mother and Miller are of the same generation, though he is vibrant and clear-minded at ninety-one. A few years after Miller got his ticket to exile my mother helped my father integrate Black Mountain College in North Carolina. It became the first white college in the South to accept Black students. Exiles from their home because of who they were, my parents identified deeply with Black people in America. I grew up singing spirituals and believing that Black people were my kin.

Like the aboriginal people of Australia, my art is how I find my way home. My poems bring me back to center. Poetry connects me to the hub of the wheel of life. I have always felt at home in African American poetry, and especially loved the poems of Al Young, [link to his website] because of their musicality. Years ago I wrote a poem dedicated to Al. It is an important poem for me, and one I have often posted on this blog. I wanted to get the poem to Al but never could figure out how.

Al Young

My friend Leah Shelleda and I decided to do a poetry reading for friends and family, to celebrate turning seventy and forty-four years of being poetry buddies. Al is an old friend of Leah’s. They grew up together in Detroit. He came to our party. I realized that this was my moment. I read the poem to him and our gathered kin. I handed it to him. And when he blessed me for it, visibly moved, this exile felt, for that moment, at home.


I’m going to be just like you, Ma
& sing from the bottom of hell
up to the tops of high heaven
                         —Al Young

for Al Young

My people are the people of the pianoforte and the violin
Mozart people    Bach people    Hallelujah people
My people are the Requiem people    Winterreise people    Messiah people
who crossed the red sea   Pharaoh’s dogs at our heels

Your people are the drum beat people   the field holler people    the conjure people
Blues people    Jubilee people    people who talk straight to God
Your people are the Old Man River people    the Drinking Gourd people
singing the Lord’s songs in a strange land

My family had a Sabbath ritual
We lit the candles      sang Go Down Moses     sang Swing Low Sweet Chariot
sang slave music freedom music secret signals in the night music
my father said you never know
when Pharaoh will be back

I was young
I was American   I thought
my people were the Beatles     the Lovin’ Spoonful    the Jefferson Airplane
singing Alice and her White Rabbit through all
those changes my parents did not understand

That didn’t last
That was leaving home music      magic mushroom music
Puff the Dragon music floating off to Never Never land
now heard in elevators in the pyramids of finance

But Old Man River still rolls through my fields
Bessie Smith still sweetens my bowl
Ma Rainey appears in the inner sanctum
of the CG Jung Institute      flaunting her deep black bottom

My father’s long gone over Jordan
and I’d hate for him to see
how right he was about Pharaoh

but I want you to know    Al

every Christmas
in black churches all over Chicago
the Messiah shows up
accompanied by my mother’s
Hallelujah violin
         (first published in New Millennium Writings)

Gretel (Hoffman) Lowinsky, age 9


Naomi Lowinsky, Leah Shelleda, Frances Hatfield and Patricia Damery

Harms Farm, June 22, 2013

4:30 pm

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Press Release: Adagio and Lamentation

Advance Press Release for July 1, 2010

With great pleasure, Fisher King Press presents a new il piccolo edition:

Adagio and Lamentation
Poems by
By Naomi Ruth Lowinsky
ISBN 9781926715056, 112 pages, July 2010

Naomi’s words and images meander through shadows and light, between demons and angels, yet the poetry is always accessible.  In this moving collection, she often goes back in time, to the days when her family lived in (and escaped from) Hitler’s Europe.  The journey helps inform who she is today, including the indelible scar worn by anyone whose family has borne witness to genocide.
—Stewart Florsheim, author of The Short Fall from Grace.

“(W)e are all/each other’s/raw/material” writes Naomi Ruth Lowinsky in her wise and moving book Adagio & Lamentation, the “we” born not only of others but histories and places, all of this inspiring our very human connection over time to vitality and imagination.  Lowinsky’s music is poignant and haunting, moving the listeners and readers of her poems with the miracle of arrival that is all new life and the celebration of thriving.
—Forrest Hammer, author of Call and Response, Middle Ear, and Rift.

Naomi Lowinsky’s poetry is both fierce and tender, political yet intimate; and, for her, the political is personal.  Lowinsky’s poems “voices from the ashes” and “great lake of my mother” are particularly moving. Her work is deeply lyrical and transformative.  It makes you think and feel.  It makes you wish you’d written these poems.  Adagio & Lamentation is a stunning and memorable book.
—Susan Terris, author of Contrariwise, Natural Defenses, and Fire is Favorable to the Dreamer.

Naomi Ruth Lowinsky was the first child born in the New World to a family of German Jewish refugees from the Shoah. Many in her family were lost in the death camps. It has been the subject and the gift of her poetry and prose—to write herself out of the terror, into life.

Naomi had a special tie with her only surviving grandparent, the painter Emma Hoffman, whom she called “Oma.” Oma showed her that making art can be a way to transmute grief, a way to bear the unbearable. The cover of Adagio and Lamentation is a watercolor by Emma Hoffman—an interior view of the Berkeley home where Naomi visited her often as a teenager. Oma tried her best to make a painter of her, but Naomi was no good at it. Poetry was to be her vehicle.

Adagio and Lamentation is Naomi’s offering to her ancestors, a handing back in gratitude and love. It is also her way of bringing them news of their legacy—the cycle of life has survived all they suffered—Naomi has been blessed by many grandchildren.

Naomi Ruth Lowinsky is the author of The Sister from Below: When the Muse Gets Her Way and The Motherline: Every Woman’s Journey to Find Her Female Roots and numerous prose essays, many of which have been published in Psychological Perspectives and The Jung Journal. Her two poetry collections, red clay is talking (2000) and crimes of the dreamer (2005) were published by Scarlet Tanager Books. She has had poetry published in many literary magazines and anthologies, among them After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery, Weber Studies, Rattle, Atlanta Review, Tiferet and Asheville Poetry Review.

Naomi has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize three times and is the recipient of the 2009 Obama Millennium Poetry award for "Madelyn Dunham, Passing On.” Naomi is a Jungian analyst in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area, poetry and fiction editor of Psychological Perspectives, and a grandmother many times over.

Place your order for Adagio and Lamentation here.
Phone orders welcomed, Credit Cards accepted. 1-800-228-9316 toll free in the US and Canada, International +1-831-238-7799.


Fisher King Press / PO Box 222321 / Carmel, CA 93922

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Poetry reading at Nefeli Café in Berkeley

Oct. 9th, 2009, 7 PM

Naomi Ruth Lowinsky will be reading at Nefeli Café in Berkeley
Neighborhood: UC Campus Area
1854 Euclid Ave
(between Hearst Ave & Ridge Rd)
Berkeley, CA 94709
(510) 841-6374