Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Muse of Lost Homeland

A Letter to my Grandmother

Emma Hoffman as a young woman
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…
—(Lowinsky, “Many Houses Ago” in The Little House with Stilts Remembers)

Your Birthplace

Berlin, Germany
September, 2015

I write you—
You have come into the world again
with the haunting strength of letters
—Nelly Sachs, in “Glowing Enigmas”

Oma, I have come here for you. You were born here, in 1881, raised here, studied art here. You learned about family, animals, birds, trees, roads, sun, and moon here. You learned your alphabet of colors and the song of your soul here, in this Northern light, where it is fall. It’s getting cold. The young women wrap their necks with colorful shawls; the young men wear leather. You would not recognize this city. 

Most of the Berlin you knew was smashed to pieces by the allies in the last months of WWII. Many of the spare, square, renovated buildings preserve a piece of the bombed, bullet riddled past.

Oma, I don’t find Berlin beautiful. I find it exciting, interesting, respectful of its ghosts, full of life in its many forms, the kindness of strangers, ironic graffiti, and shadows from the Soviet and Nazi past. You wouldn’t be moved to paint much here, Oma. There are too few trees. The Old Synagogue is gone. Though you were never a religious Jew you liked to paint interesting buildings. Did you know the New Synagogue, built around the time of your birth? Parts of it survived the war. Other parts were renovated. That old Byzantine style cupola is so lovely. It would stand up well beside the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, where Dan and I just spent some time. The dome appears suddenly, blue and gold and gleaming, exotic in this rectangular city of blacks, browns, whites.

The New Synagogue

It is, however, painful to get near it. It bristles with metal fences and with security, because Jewish sites in Germany are at such risk of terrorist attacks. So much history here. A “Juden Frei” (Jew free) Berlin was never achieved, Oma, hard as they tried. A small band of survivors, hidden in attics and basements, preserved what they could of Yiddishkeit after the war. But now in this modern city, full of young people, wild night life, students, business people, young women with diamonds in their noses, young men with dreads, we hear that Jews are coming back to where their great grandparents made their lives. It is cheaper to live here than in Tel Aviv or San Francisco. There is an energetic feeling of new life and possibility.

What surprises and moves me deeply is the pull of German—my mother tongue and yours. I never speak it in America, though in recent years surprise myself from time to time by dreaming in German. But here, in Berlin, German pours out of my mouth so effortlessly, from some unconscious spring. And it feels good, “heimatlich—” at home.

We sit in a restaurant in our hotel, in “Die Mitte,”—the middle of Berlin, used to be East Berlin, and hear English, Hebrew, German, Danish, Italian, Turkish. We overhear business meetings, friends sharing confidences, travelers telling stories of the journey, young folk with laptops working on a project in a cozy corner full of books. It is an experience of “Gemeinshaft”—community, and “Gemütlichkeit”—comfort—that would stun you in the city where you saw Hitler staring at you in a café in 1930 and knew, in your intuitive way, that he wanted to kill you and your people.

I’m sure you knew, though I didn’t, that Jews have lived in Berlin—“the place at the end of the swamp”—since 1200 CE. Your maiden name, Osterman, means “from the East.” When did your ancestors come? Were they refugees? So many questions come to me here, in the city of your birth, almost a half century after your death.

Refugee Reality
We are refugees from that room
with its single bare light bulb
Will our visas ever be granted?
Will our dead know where we’ve gone?
—Lowinsky, “Refuge” first published as “Limbo” in Levure Litteraire
Everywhere people are talking about the refugees flooding Europe. Germany, of all countries, has offered haven for many. Can you believe that, you who fled for your life from Germany? America didn’t want to let you in, didn’t want a flood of Jews. Eventually, after what must have been frightening times crossing borders with false passports, you and your family were given safe haven. Now it’s America that wants to build a wall to keep people out. And here, in the city of the former wall dividing East and West, signs on buses and on walls declare “Alles is Möglich”—everything is possible. That used to be how things felt in America. No more.

The International Herald Tribune is full of the stories of the refugees. How they pass through Turkey, take a boat to Lesbos, just six miles into Greece, hoping to go further North, to Germany, if they’re lucky. How strange that Sappho’s little island has become the main point of entry for Europe. 2000 to 3500 migrants arrive there daily on inflatable rafts. Many don’t make it to safety.

Syrian Refugees Arriving in Lesbos

Hungary has closed its borders, built barbed wire fences, tear gassed, water cannoned, beaten, the war terrorized, hungry, exhausted refugees looking for haven. Here we are again, Oma, the dangerous border crossings our family knew in your time—how my father snuck across the border from Germany into Holland in the middle of the night, how my 18 year old mother and her older cousin took the train from Austria to Holland in 1938—when borders were closing—terrified that the cousin’s left wing connections would land them both in detention. In America there are people seeking refuge from dangerous gang riddled countries like Honduras. There are mothers and children, as well as unaccompanied children crossing borders, riding the tops of trains, risking everything to escape the impossible situations behind them, and to find their relatives in America. If they make it to the American border they are held in detention. There are politicians running for president on the promise to keep out the refugees, people like we were, fleeing for our lives. Round it goes, round and round. Where it will stop nobody knows.

There have always been refugees. Exodus and diaspora, go back to the beginnings of human history when our ancestors wandered out of Africa. Did they do so out of curiosity, the urge to explore? Were they driven by conflict or drought? When Dan and I were in Venice I read Jan Morris’ fine book, The World of Venice. She writes:
Venice was founded in misfortune, by refugees driven from their old ways and forced to learn new ones. Scattered colonies of city people, nurtured in all the ease of Rome, now struggled among the dank miasmas of the fenlands…They learnt to build and sail small boats, to master the treacherous tides and shallows of the lagoon, to live on fish and rain–water… 
If we are to believe the old chronicles, the foundation of Venice occurred on 25th March 421, at midday exactly.
Are we at the end of one era, entering another, like the ancient Venetians?

Forsaken City
O the habitations of death,
Invitingly appointed
For the host who used to be a guest—
—Nellie Sachs in “O the Chimneys”
In Berlin, Oma, it feels different. There are commemorations of the lost Jews all over “Die Mitte.” There are “Stolpersteine—”stumble stones—brass markers embedded in the ground so passersby will stumble over the names of those who lived here and were murdered in concentration camps. There are powerful sculptures, like one by Willie Lammert, called “Frauengruppe,” Group of Women—concentration camp figures emerging out of their nightmare, looking disoriented and gaunt.

Frauengruppe, by Willie Lammert

There is the Jewish Museum, which was an overwhelming experience for us. The old building, late 19th century, is connected to the new building by an underground passageway. One is forced down, down narrow steps into the dark gray walls and confusing maze of the building by the esteemed architect, Daniel Libeskind, who shaped his creation like a shattered Jewish Star.

Berlin Jewish Museum

One can follow the axis of the Holocaust, the axis of exile, the axis of continuity; there are voids to symbolize the lost fragments of European Jewry. One gets lost, disoriented, exhausted. The Holocaust Tower is a strange dark place, a very high triangle at the apex of which a crack of light is seen. When the heavy door closes behind one it is hard not to panic.

I was particularly taken by exhibits of Jewish family life in Germany before the Second World War, the time during which you were raising your big family, before all the deaths and the horrors. I was amazed to see a beautiful portrait by your teacher and mentor, Lovis Corinth, of his Jewish wife–to–be, Charlotte Berend. The portrait was made in 1902. You would have been twenty-one. I think you were studying with him then. Did you know Charlotte? She was just a year older than you, also a painter and a student of Corinth. I could see his influence on you in the warmth of feeling, the exquisite brushwork, and the feeling of interiority touched by light from without.

Portrait of his Charlotte by Lovis Corinth

There is a sculpture of a table, one standing chair and one chair knocked over, in bronze. It is called “Der Verlassene Raum—” The Forsaken Room—by Karl Biedermann. Around the edges of the work one can read inscribed lines by the great poet of the Shoah, Nelly Sachs— an essential muse to me. Did you know her work? She was born in Berlin, the same year as you were. I’d love to imagine you, Charlotte Berend and Nelly Sachs, lovely young women in a Berlin cafe, talking about your creative lives. What difficult futures lay ahead for you. A quote from Nelly’s poem is: “O ihr Schornsteine, /O ihr Finger, /Und Israels Leib im Rauch durch die Luft! “ O you chimneys/O you fingers? And Israel’s body as smoke through the air!

The Forsaken Room by Karl Biedermann

* * * * *

You can find more poems and stories about my grandmother, Emma Hoffman, in the Summer 2014 Issue of The Jung Journal, V. 8, # 3, in my book of poems, Adagio & Lamentation, and in The Motherline: Every Woman’sJourney to Find Her Female Roots.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Muse of Kinship Libido

First generation Americans—the children of immigrants—are haunted. Though they walk in the New World, their souls belong to an Old World they’ve never seen—an ancestral world that no longer exists. Ancestors wander into memory, dream and family story, telling tales of war and persecution, of hunger and deprivation, of lost parents and dead children, of ordeals and miracles that brought them to safety.
—Naomi Ruth Lowinsky
“Self Portrait with Ghost”
Italian Immigrants at Ellis Island

Two Worlds
Gratitude for language—the German my parents spoke
the Dutch they kept their secrets in, the Italian I forgot
the sorcery of Russian—those lullabies
my father sang, his mother sang to him.
Gratitude for English—my oak grove, my oracle, my mule—

 Naomi Ruth Lowinsky
“Give Thanks for Poets”
Venice Canal Scene

A Jungian Conference, Encounters, Traditions, Developments: Analysis at the Cultural Crossroads, has brought us to the Old World—Italy. The conference was in Trieste.  We are now in Venice. I sit in an apartment which was built as a convent in the 16th century. Boats slip past our windows on the green gray waters of a side canal. The haunted magnetism of Venice, its golds and umbers, its bridges and gondolas, its labyrinths of medieval streets and canals, its smells and sounds, tug at my senses. And yet, there is the story of Trieste, unfinished. As is so often my way, living in two worlds as I do, I am in one place, reflecting on another. 

Trieste train station

The Muse of Kinship Libido took possession of me at the Trieste conference. She sang to me in many experiences and many languages. This was the Third European Conference on Analytic Psychology, though it is the first one I’ve attended. The first two were in Eastern Europe—Vilnius, Lithuania and St. Petersburg, Russia. The focus in Trieste was on culture and trauma. There were 250 participants from 37 countries. Eastern Europe was well represented. We Americans were blessedly a small group, outnumbered by those who spoke the languages of our ancestors. There were also Asians, South Americans and a spirited group of Israelis. 

There was the joy of seeing people from far away who feel like kin. Israeli analyst Henry Abramovitch, for example. Henry contributed a fine chapter to the book I co-edited with Patricia Damery, Marked by Fire: Stories of the Jungian Way. He is a friend in the written word and I was glad to see him in the fleshly world. He gave a wonderful opening talk about working clinically with people from different cultures. In his joyous and engaging way he encouraged us to work not across culture but through culture.

I always feel the tug of kinship when I’m around Israelis. My immediate family fled Europe to settle in America, but many of my kinfolk went to Israel. Hearing Hebrew always stirs me with kinship libido.

Most people at the conference spoke English.  But a special grant supported translation for the Russians. There is now a large group of Jungians in Russia, thanks to a number of Jungians from Western Europe who have travelled there to do training and analysis. The Russians brought youth and enthusiasm to the gathering, and the mellifluous sound of their language.

I sat in a discussion group listening to Russian being spoken, and it suddenly hit me like a rush of waters—this language is engraved on my soul, though I don’t speak a word of it. My father spoke it, some. More often he sang the Russian lullabies his mother had sung to him. His parents, whom I never met, were refugees from Russia and later refugees from Germany. They didn’t survive the war. I told the group that the sound of Russian resonates deeply in me,  as well it should since my family name is Russian.

German sang to me all over the conference. I even spoke a little myself. It carries the numen of childhood and home. The song of the Italians carries me back to early childhood when my family lived in Italy, and their language was mine. Now it tugs at me but I can’t bring it back.

I love English, but I’ve gotten stranded in it. Why didn’t I keep up my German, my Italian? Why didn’t I learn Russian? My other mother tongues kept licking me all conference long, stimulating forgotten yearnings. And though I was among so many strangers from so many places, I felt among kin in some intimate primordial way.

Refugee Reality
But always I am also
in that other life—refugee reality—
the Nazis have confiscated home

—Naomi Ruth Lowinsky, “Many Houses Ago”
in The Little House On Stilts Remembers 
I came to Trieste because I wanted to tell the story of my grandmother, the painter Emma Hoffman, here, in the Old Country. Hers is a refugee story, and I carry the intergenerational trauma which my friend and colleague Sam Kimbles has called a “phantom narrative”—a ghost story shaped by collective trauma, which turns life experiences into the form of our dread. In Trieste I was surrounded by many variations on the refugee theme. Strangers became kin. We understood each other’s life stories. My Oma’s story resonated with so many similar stories. Tamar Kron, an Israeli analyst who gave a powerful talk on The Dreams of Palestinians and Israelis in a Time of War, in the same session as my talk, Self Portrait with Ghost, told me the quick version of her ghost story. Her people fled Austria. I heard similar stories from many Israelis.

Jan Wiener, one of the conference organizers, told me that her Austrian Jewish family fled to London in 1938. Her father liked to joke that the GB sticker—for Great Britain— on the back of their car stood for “Geworden British”— became British.

Among the refugee ghost stories were the stories of refugees now seeking safety all over Europe, from genocidal horrors in Africa and in the Middle East. In my discussion group a Russian woman spoke of the enormous ocean liner that had docked right in front of the hotel we were in. She imagined climbing aboard, a refugee from the cold of her native Siberia. A German said she had a different response to the ship, which was called Costa Mediterranea. It made her think of all the refugees flooding Southern Europe. She wondered whether the Italians were doing as the Greeks were—housing refugees on an ocean liner. There was a frisson of deep feeling in the group, whose members are haunted by the unbearable suffering of hundreds of thousands of people, and the difficult politics that has aroused.

Costa Mediterranea

Literary Kin
Birth and death are the ultimate bookends, and between them a muddled narrative unfolds…There crop up moments, experiences or places which in retrospect we recognize as markers…
Jan Morris, in Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere
Joyce in Trieste

For me, many of those markers on my life path are writers who influenced me early on—James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Rainer Maria Rilke. If I ever knew I’ve long forgotten that all of them lived and wrote in Trieste, or in Rilke’s case, just a few miles up the Adriatic Coast, until I read Jan Morris’ poetic prose about Trieste. Joyce wrote parts of Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses in Trieste. Morris, writing of the large, prosperous Jewish community in Trieste, comments: “Joyce had many Jewish friends in the city, and when he came to write Ulysses, which was inspired by Trieste almost as profoundly as it was by Dublin, he called it an ‘epic of two races.’” Joyce was in one place, remembering another. So was Mann, who wrote portions of Buddenbrooks in Trieste, in which he portrayed his German hometown, Lübeck. Those great works were among my earliest literary muses. And Rilke, who has been my companion and muse since the beginning, heard the voice of his terrible angel at Duino Castle. He was in the grips, I learn from Morris, of that terrible North Wind of winter the Triestians call the Bora, which causes all manner of physical and emotional malaise.

These writers were in Trieste in the last years of the 19th century (Mann) and the early years of the 20th century (Joyce and Rilke). During that time, I’m not exactly sure which years, my young grandmother was sent away from her home town, Berlin, because her family disapproved of her suitor. She was sent to Italy, to Florence, to study painting. She sat for hours in the Accademia copying paintings by Titian and Giorgione. I remember particularly her copies of portraits and self-portraits. Here’s one by Gorgione very like one we had in our home, of which my little brother commented:  “He looks like a she.”

Giorgione, portrait of a young man

Oma would go on to paint many portraits and self-portraits, reflecting on the passages of her life. Both Titian and Giorgione painted profound self-portraits. So did Oma. My talk, “Self Portrait with Ghost” is about some of those, and my poems in response to them.

Library of Savoia Hotel, Trieste

So it was here in the city of my literary influences—Trieste, with all the resonances of tristesse and melancholy evoked by its name— in a lovely 19th century style hotel my Oma would have appreciated, not far from Venice whose painters so influenced her, that I called up her spirit to sing her a song of her life and mine, my poems to her paintings, my soul to her soul. Her spirit filled me, and I could see her story resounding in the faces of the audience, her difficult life journey, her individuation, the gifts she gave her family and her world. When I was finished a young German woman arose and said: “Your Oma is not dead. You have brought her to life for us all, here.”

And now it’s time for me to return to Venice.

Venice Canal

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Muse of Getting Published

The little house on stilts remembers
Grandmother Fire and Flow
Grandmother Wet Lands

                   —N.R. Lowinsky
                   “Wetlands” in The Little House on Stilts

The Sister from Below

is delighted to announce the publication of

by Naomi Ruth Lowinsky

by Lucille Lang Day

Co–winners of the Blue Light Poetry Award.

When the Muse Goes Public

So he published you showed up at your door
with a dervish swirl flung those litmags down
your first time words in print
did a tango ‘round the living room

                 —N.R. Lowinsky
                  “Fling” in The Faust Woman Poems

There’s nothing like getting published to get my muse singing. Understand, this is not the primal fragment of song that stirs a poem’s beginnings; it is not the private song of the poem seeking its tone, rhythm, words, vision. It is a sunlight song of completion, of being seen as a fellow creator by other creators, of being part of something greater than oneself, a journal, a press, an artistic identity—a song of belonging to the world.

Poems about Home find a Home

All the houses she’s loved and sold
remember her
call her by name

             —N.R. Lowinsky
              “Her Next Life” in The Little House on Stilts

My chapbook, The Little House On Stilts Remembers, began over a decade ago, in a time when my husband Dan and I downsized: sold our beloved but high maintenance home on a ridge, spent many months in an apartment before we found the right townhouse for our new lives. Poems about losing homes, finding new homes, grieving homes, worrying about our common home, the earth, gathered into a collection that wandered around poetry land looking for a publisher for a number of years, under different titles, changing shape, adding and deleting poems. The title poem began at our dear friends’ Lynn and Nate’s country home overlooking wetlands. That little house on stilts stirred my muse, filled me with images. The final iteration of the collection came into focus when it caught the attention of Diane Frank, the chief editor of Blue Light Press. She said she was interested in it but wanted me to go over it with a fine tooth comb and resubmit, which I did.

When The Little House On Stilts won the Blue Light Poetry Award I knew my chapbook had found a perfect home. I’ve admired Blue Light Press, and been drawn to its self–description as a press that publishes “poems that are visionary, imagistic, and push the edge,” a kind of poetry to which I aspire. As a home reflects the people who live in it—their taste, values, world–view—a press reflects the poets it publishes. To win the prize with Lucy Day, who was the first publisher to give my poetry books a home in her press—Scarlet Tanager Books—is still an amazement. I told this story in an earlier blog, The Muse of Synchronicity: Part I

A Transformation Mystery

She with her paintbrush
of shadow and light
You with your language of stones
             —N.R. Lowinsky
              “Many Houses Ago” in The Little House On Stilts
A book “comes out” of the inner dark, the impulse that began it—a phrase, a rhythm, a yearning, an image. Like a seed it needs time in the dark to take form. It may take months, even years to emerge out of musings and meanders, out of the handwritten and the typewritten, into the hands, hearts, eyes and souls of others who will engage with your creation—something new will be created. The long night’s journey into words becomes a thing, a touchable, visible, readable object. It will go off into the world and have a life of its own. Who knows who will read it? Who knows where it will fall into some unknown other’s inner life. Lucy and I were both delighted by the work of Blue Light’s book designer, Melanie Gendron, on our covers. She seemed to see what we envisioned, with more clarity and intensity than we had imagined possible. She and Diane Frank were the high priestesses of a transformation mystery.

Home is a complicated subject for refugees and exiles. The long central poem in The Little House On Stilts, which I see as the backbone of the collection, “Many Houses Ago” contemplates:

                   Those fabled houses from before I was born
                   home of my grandparents in the hills above Kassel
                   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

Nellie Sachs was a visionary poet of the Shoah who fled the Nazis, as did my family. She and Paul Celan, another such poet, met through the transformation mystery of publication. He found her work in a French journal and they began a correspondence. Their story weaves through the poem which is both about the homes I’ve made with my husband Dan, and about my “other life,” in which some part of me is always a refugee.

I don’t know if my grandmother, the painter Emma Hoffman, knew of Nellie Sachs, who was born ten years after she was, in Berlin. For me they merged in Nellie’s phrase, “lioness of pain,” which describes an aspect of my grandmother that I knew well. In writing the poem these two powerful creative women merged to support what I think of as my own “refugee reality.”

Detail from my grandmother's self portrait

Refugee Realities in the Publishing World

Give me twig feather leaf bird
Give me word
that bursts
into flower
            —N.R. Lowinsky “A Life in Trees”
             in The Faust Woman Poems, p. 41

For many years I felt like a refugee in the publishing world. I had been lucky enough to get my first book, The Motherline: Every Woman’s Journey to Find Her Female Roots, published by a mainstream house, Tarcher, and then reissued as a paperback by Putnam. Naively I thought I’d have no trouble publishing my second prose book The Sister from Below: When the Muse Gets Her Way. Not so. The publishing world had changed in the decade since; it was dominated by a few huge houses, and focused on potential best sellers. I also had changed, had become more of my rather weird, poetic, non–mainstream self, and had written a “visionary, imagistic” book that “pushed the edge” between inner and outer experience. It is essentially a book of “acts of imagination” —the Jungian practice of speaking to inner figures. The Sister and I trudged around the publishing world for seven lean years. I received many of the “good” kind of rejection letters, in which an editor or agent admired my writing, wished they could publish it, but was sure it wouldn’t sell well enough for the all powerful bottom line. 

During those years I was blessed to be part of the publication board of Psychological Perspectives, a journal published by the Los Angeles Jung Institute. I was and am poetry editor, and I frequently contribute poetic essays. In that circle of kindred souls I have felt appreciated, valued, and had the pleasure and reassurance of getting published. Robin Robertson, the General Editor of the journal, who has published many books, took it upon himself to tell me regularly that my publisher would come. I didn’t always believe him, until it happened. Through the good offices of my friend, Israeli analyst Erel Shalit, my book was recommended to a new Jungian press, Fisher King Press. They published The Sister, got me started on this blog named after her, and my writing life began flowering. The Motherline, which had been out of print for years, was reissued, and they were even open to my poetry, doing beautiful editions of two of my collections, adagio and lamentation, and The Faust Woman Poems.

I came to understand that the changes in the publishing landscape offer new opportunities for us non-mainstream, niche writers—small presses have sprung up and are nurturing a diversity of voices and visions in the writing and reading world.

During the bad years of desert wandering I often dreamt of getting published. The dream would show me the black and white of a published page with my work on it. When Fisher King became my Jungian home those dreams stopped. Creations are creatures, have lives and destinies. Mine long for the satisfaction of being held in published form. Now I take much pleasure in the hand span of my own books on my bookshelf, a full shelf of journals with my essays in them, not to mention several shelves of poetry journals that have published me.

Image from the back cover of current
Psychological Perspectives

And, speaking of getting published, The Sister from Below is pleased to announce a special issue of Psychological Perspectives, “The Environment: Inner and Outer.” I am proud to have an essay, “Earth Angel and the Tohu Bohu,” in this wonderful issue (V. 58, Issue 2/2015). I am one of a number of visionary writers trying to find a path through the Tohu Bohu—the chaos—of climate change, rising seas, species extinction; seeking to find a way that is at once new and ancient to be in better harmony with our only home, the earth. My friend and colleague Patricia Damery, wonders, in her beautiful paper: “Can we still experience the divinity in the natural world?” My friend and fellow board member, Gilda Franz, who introduces this issue, writes: “The unconscious is part of nature and can guide us to protect it.” I hope you’ll read this essential publication, available from Taylor & Francis.

The Little House on Stilts Remembers back cover - author photo by Nora Lowinsky

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The River Muse

High in the night sky your bright boat
hung like a smile. I saw your reflection
shimmer in the river…

from “The Needle and the Thread” in Dark Healing (p. 94)

On the Big Rivers

In the spring of 1962 Richard Messer was living in Boulder Colorado. He was in Graduate School studying English Literature, and engaged to be married to Gloria. His Wyoming buddy, Jerry Deacon Sanders, proposed a river trip, down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, paddling a canoe. For Richard, better known as Rich, this was a “no–brainer,” even though the trip was 3,800 miles, even though no one had done it before in a canoe, even though Gloria wondered if she’d be “demurely waiting” when he returned.

More than fifty years later, Rich, with the help of his buddy Jerry, better known as Deacon, wrote a book about that journey: On the Big Rivers: From Three Forks, Montana to New Orleans, Louisiana. Dan and I have both read it. It’s a page–turner, a soul stirrer, an American Odyssey haunted by Huck Finn and Jim, by the painful histories of Indian tribes and slavery, a buddy story, an initiation saga. Dan loves history. I love psyche. We both felt nourished by this wise and compelling story.

Rich, now in his seventies, is a poet whose work I love. He and I are poetry buddies by e-mail; we show each other drafts of our work. Rich has a strong background in Jungian psychology and his writing shows it. This trope of the river is of course both literal and symbolic. Reflecting on one’s young self in the context of a river journey is a way of coming to terms with one’s life journey, and in the case of this book, with our country’s journey.

Missouri River

To Stumble After Vanishings 
Isn’t the soul always back there, fumbling
with old photographs, going down worn paths
that lead to weedy vacant lots? It doesn’t do any good
to stumble after these vanishings—yet I do…
never mind my bruised knees and the cobwebs across my face.
I have to know: have I spent my life trying to wake up?
Or go to sleep?

“Trying to Get Home” in Dark Healing (pp. 65-6)
Part of the task of aging is to “fumble through old photographs,” trying to make sense of what our life has been about. On the Big Rivers is, among many other things, an initiation saga about two soulful, adventurous and/or foolhardy young men, as seen from the mountain peak of late life. They were initiated by the powers of the river gods, by wind, by dams that weren’t supposed to be there, by sudden storms that almost did them in. They were humbled and made wiser by the unknown and the unexpected, by “sheer drudgery and dismal hardship” (p. 63) and by the fortuitous kindness of strangers.

Carrying the Queen

Here are some glimpses of their ordeal from a section Rich calls “Initiation:”
The wind…turned vicious, ripping at us full blast…There was no sky, only massive low clouds and horizontal rain and whipping wind. The waves, driven from the distant shore…mounted quickly to four and five feet high…The piney shore looked as if it were receding into the small end of a telescope. 
Jerry yelled a string of obscenities and we both pitched into our paddling in deadly earnest… 
My lungs were on fire and my heart was pounding harder than it ever had. To quit paddling was not an option…
We were just beginning to understand why the Missouri is called, Ol’ Misery. (pp. 13-15)
Initiation, from the Jungian point of view, serves the function of transformation of the individual so that he or she may function at a higher level of consciousness. The water initiation, as distinguished from the fiery initiation, is, according to my reference book, Archetypal Symbolism, about renewal within the earthly context. It is about the necessary loss of innocence that prepares one for reality. Deacon and Rich lost many kinds of innocence on this journey—their innocence about nature and the river, their innocence about their own nature and that of others, their innocence about fate, their innocence about the nature of America.

Rich’s optimism gets sorely tested:
Ever optimistic, I had reckoned that most of the water in the heavens had already been dumped on us. It couldn’t get any worse. But it did. (pp. 73-4)
His endurance gets sorely tested:
…enduring mid–point blues, also known as “halfway–there–let–down”…We had been on the river for fifty days and nights and we were worn down…threadbare of spirit. (p. 90)
Weather is a dominatrix:
On the water in a canoe you are at the mercy of the weather; it plays with you, dominates you. The wind…is always poised to spring some new attack on you…It seems like a trickster spirit…allows you a day, or even tow, of fair passage. Then sneers and pummels you with six kinds of misery… (p. 68)

Fate is a trickster. They learn, the hard way, that “luck is nothing if not fickle.” (p. 112) Their canoe, the Afrigin Queen, with its droll nod to Bogart and Hepburn, disappears one Sunday in June. Deacon has a theory:
See how red and muddy the water is—and all these god damn sticks and crap along the bank?… When we pulled in none of this shit was here. A cloud burst must have hit back in the hills during the night…Christ, the water level is up by at least two feet—so the canoe just decided to float right up and take off downstream. Son of a bitch.” (p. 51)
They learn about Fate’s beneficent side, “otherwise known as the kindness of strangers.” (p. 91) A kind stranger helped them find their canoe, kind strangers helped them throughout their ordeal.

Deacon and Rich lose their innocence about America as they travel down the Mississippi in the South, stopping to eat at the Riverside Café in Vicksburg:
It was a little Greek place, a diner….Approaching it, I noticed there were two doors to the place, but made nothing of it. We stepped through the right hand door, and I came to a sudden halt…Before me at the counter sat only black diners who turned and stated. I stared back. Then one of the black men motioned us across to the other door. We had entered the “Colored” section of the café… 
On that September day in 1962, Jim Crow was alive and well. 
…[We] were shocked and left feeling threatened. The dehumanizing and pernicious nature of what we had just witnessed couldn’t have been made any clearer… 
I was a tourist in the land of racism. (pp. 154-5)

They paddle through reservation country, the Sioux and Assiniboine peoples, “the ninth largest reservation in the United States.” When Rich walks into town for supplies, an Indian in a pickup gives him a ride. The men in the back share their beers with him, tell him he looks like “Nature Man.” He knows his appearance is unkempt and wild, and takes their remark as a compliment. (pp. 69-70)

“Sitting in the bow of the Queen, paddling for hours on end,” (p. 89) Rich ruminates about Lewis and Clark, about Sakakawea, the mythic Indian woman who guided them though she was sick and pregnant during the journey.

As they paddle into the lower Missouri and the Mississippi they begin to be disturbed by the environmental degradation they see. Rich quotes the Earth Day website to describe what they saw:
At the time, Americans were slurping leaded gas through massive V8 sedans. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of legal consequences or bad pres. Air pollution was commonly accepted as the smell of prosperity. (p. 98)
Rich writes of his “simmering resentment for the ‘Dump it in the river and forget it’ attitude.”

But despite all the difficulties, despite swarms of mosquitoes, which Deacon dubs wickerbills, despite quicksand, a lost canoe, sudden storms, environmental degradation, the intimidation of the tiny Queen by great seafaring vessels on the river, despite losing the hat Gloria had sent him, worrying about how she was doing and if he really wanted to tie the knot, Rich and Deacon came through their ordeal, changed men, matured, deepened, sadder and wiser. Rich writes: “I was not the man Gloria had waved goodbye to.” (p. 169) Dear reader, you will be happy to know that Deacon was the best man at Rich and Gloria’s wedding.

In Memoriam Jerry Deacon Sanders
Who was the first Neanderthal to scatter
flower petals on a grave? Memorialized
in that moment, love entered the world.

“Excavations” in Dark Healing, (p. 9)
Deacon died on this past June 5th. Dan and I both felt his passing as a personal loss. We feel we know him, because Rich relied on quotations from the Deacon’s journals to fill in context and feeling in his book. They make vivid that long ago river journey. Deacon was a great spirit and Rich has given us the gift of knowing him. Deacon took the lead in the original journey. Rich took the lead in gathering their river stories much of a lifetime later. Among many other things On the Big Rivers is a buddy saga. Deacon is the planner, the one with the maps. Rich is the feeler, the worrier. Rich writes: “He didn’t have to tell me his plan. We had been together twenty–four hours a day for weeks and I knew what he was thinking…” (p. 51) And yet their roles were fluid. “We kept getting confused,” writes Rich, “about who was Huck and who was Jim.” (p. 114) For this city girl their adventures were astounding, wild, often foolhardy. And yet they seem exactly right in the light of this late life retelling. Toward the end of his story Rich writes:
Surely, the voyage wouldn’t have meant as much if we didn’t do it the old–fashioned, Huck Finn way. More than once I repeated that to myself. (p. 151)
The Huck Finn way. That about says it. It names the integrity of a ritual that stems from the depths of the American cultural unconscious, a powerful ritual informed by Mark Twain, American Indian tribes, Lewis and Clark, segregation, the wilds of the natural world and of fate, providing two young men with the lived experience of becoming themselves in an initiation by river and by storm.

Rest in peace, Jerry. You get the last word, from your journal of July 10th, 1962:
It must have been about noon. Rich and I were in no hurry. We drifted through some deep green cold water…Slow current, there were many white sandbars there. The river banks were covered with heavy undergrowth, the draws filled with choke cherry trees, junipers, lots of berries to eat, bramble patches; the bottoms along the river were weedy, with tall cottonwoods and sandy shallows… 
I am beginning to solidly enjoy this type of life—except for the wickerbills. We went into the little village of Washburn, S. D. Giggling waitresses. Black label beer, people on street eyeing us, suspicious of two bearded, shabby, river rats, wearing cardboard nose shields.
Then we floated two and a half hours. Drank & sang. Rich jumped overboard and right back in boat. Water still cold. Saw badger coming down for a drink—couldn’t get a picture. (pp. 77-78)

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