Tag Archives: humanity

“Death” by Neil Gaiman

I actually finished reading this book a few weeks ago, but I’ve been in the process of moving so the book got packed and I have also been way too busy to sit down and write up a post. But, alas, I’m settled in, so here we go.

This book is an offshoot of Gaiman’s classic Sandman saga. Death is Dream’s sister, depicted as a somewhat hipster woman with a touch of goth. I’d seen this on the shelves, but hadn’t bothered to buy it since I (wrongly) assumed it was nothing more that vignettes from Sandman that featured Death. While there were a few of those, most of what is in the compilation is stuff I had not read before. Anyway, I had donated a nice filing cabinet to the local comic store prior to my move, and as a show of gratitude, the owner offered me a book, so I chose this one.

As always, Gaiman’s writing is brilliant and evocative. And the rich storytelling is augmented by the rich artwork, which makes this book something worthy of a re-read.

One of the areas where Gaiman’s knowledge excels is in mythology, so it’s not surprising that he does a little bit of myth exploration in this book.

Mythologies take longer to die than people believe. They linger on in a kind of dream country that affects all of you.

(p. 55)

This is true. The thing about myths is that they enter into the subconscious, as well as the collective. Once embedded there, they may “die” in the sense that they fade from our ordinary state of consciousness, but it still lies hidden beneath the surface, affecting our thoughts, beliefs, and actions in ways we are not usually aware of.

Possibly my favorite passage in the book is when Death explains life to a person. I found the whole thing symbolic, that it is only through an understanding of a thing’s opposite that you can fully understand the thing itself.

Well. I think some of it is probably contrasts. Light and shadow. If you never had the bad times, how would you know you had the good times? But some of it is just: if you’re going to be human, then there are a whole load of things that come with it. Eyes, a heart, days and life. It’s the moments that illuminate it, though. The times you don’t see when you’re having them… They make the rest of it matter.

(p. 217)

While it would certainly help to have read at least some of the Sandman saga before reading this, it is by no means necessary. I think anyone can pick up this book and get something out of it. Highly recommended, as is everything Gaiman wrote, in my humble opinion.

Cheers!

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Thoughts on “Into the Twilight” by William Butler Yeats

Image Source: Wikipedia

Out-worn heart, in a time out-worn,
Come clear of the nets of wrong and right;
Laugh heart again in the gray twilight,
Sigh, heart, again in the dew of the morn.

Your mother Eire is always young,
Dew ever shining and twilight gray;
Though hope fall from you and love decay,
Burning in fires of a slanderous tongue.

Come, heart, where hill is heaped upon hill:
For there the mystical brotherhood
Of sun and moon and hollow and wood
And river and stream work out their will;

And God stands winding His lonely horn,
And time and the world are ever in flight;
And love is less kind than the gray twilight,
And hope is less dear than the dew of the morn.

This is a deeply mystical poem, in which Yeats envisions the world as being at the threshold of a new age of magic and mysticism. As with Yeats’ great works, there are layers and layers of meaning woven in to this short poem. In this post, I will highlight the general meaning of each stanza, and allow you to explore the deeper symbolism on your own.

The first stanza sets the overall tone of the poem. Twilight can either be the transition from night to day, or from day to night. The last line of this stanza lets the reader know that Yeats is using twilight as a symbol for dawn. What Yeats is conveying here is that humanity is currently in a state of darkness, which means that we have lost our connection to the divine light. But we are on the brink of moving back into a period of enlightenment, where humanity will again embrace the mystic.

In the second stanza, Yeats asserts that Ireland will be the source of this spiritual reawakening. He sees himself as being right in the midst of this paradigm shift, a shift in the collective consciousness, where all humanity will become aware of the divine essence sleeping within.

In the third stanza, Yeats builds upon the symbol of Ireland as the birthplace for the new spiritual renaissance by evoking images of the ancient Druids (the “mystical brotherhood”). The first line describes the Druid burial mounds in Ireland (see image). Yeats uses this to symbolize that the power and knowledge of the Druids is still buried within Ireland, waiting to be reborn. The last two lines describe Druid mystical ceremonies, practiced outside and calling upon the elements to help manifest their will. The importance of the will in magic and the occult is something Yeats would have been very familiar with.

In the fourth and final stanza, we are presented with an image of an old god, blowing a horn to call forth the mystical beings that have slipped into the mists of time. One gets the sense of Druids, faeries, and such, rising and gathering in the presence of the old god, reborn, to help return humanity to its original state of divine power.

Again, I am just scratching the surface of this beautiful and powerful poem. I encourage you to read and re-read this many times, since you will discover more each time you do.

Blessings!

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Thoughts on “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer

My daughter gave me this book as a gift, and I have to say, I loved it. She obviously knows me well.

Kimmerer is Native American and a Professor of Environmental Biology. So this book is essentially a weaving of environmental science writing and spiritually based storytelling. Science and spirituality used to inhabit opposite ends of the spectrum, but not anymore. The people who are at the forefront of each discipline are exploring the relationships between the two, and Kimmerer’s skill as a wordsmith makes this book a joy to read, even when she addresses painful issues, which are unavoidable when writing about environmental topics.

I have Bruce King’s portrait of Skywoman, Moment in Flight, hanging in my lab. Floating to earth with her handful of seeds and flowers, she looks down on my microscopes and data loggers. It might seem an odd juxtaposition, but to me she belongs there. As a writer, a scientist, and a carrier of Skywoman’s story, I sit at the feet of my elder teachers listening for their songs.

(pp. 5 – 6)

We live in a society that is detached from the sources of that which we consume. As a result, we do not have to think about where everything comes from, and the true cost to our world in the mass production of commodities that are destined for landfills. But as Kimmerer points out, almost everything that we use, every item that finds its way into our homes, is made at the expense of another living entity.

Just about everything we use is the result of another’s life, but that simple reality is rarely acknowledged in our society. The ash curls we make are almost paper thin. They say that the “waste stream” in this country is dominated by paper. Just as much as an ash splint, a sheet of paper is a tree’s life, along with the water and energy and toxic byproducts that went into making it. And yet we use it as if it were nothing. The short path from the mailbox to the waste bin tells the story. But what would happen, I wonder, to the mountain of junk mail if we could see it in the trees it once had been?

(p. 148)

There is a long section later in the book that is worth quoting. Kimmerer uses the myth of the Windigo as a metaphor for our current state of mindless consumption.

No matter what they call it, Johnston and many other scholars point to the current epidemic of self-destructive practices—addiction to alcohol, gambling, technology, and more—as a sign that Windigo is alive and well. In Ojibwe ethics, Pitt says, “any overindulgent habit is self-destructive, and self-destruction is Windigo.” And just as Windigo’s bite is infectious, we all know too well that self-destruction drags along many more victims—in our human families as well as in the more-than-human world.

The native habitat of the Windigo is the north woods, but the range has expanded in the last few centuries. As Johnston suggests, multinational corporations have spawned a new breed of Windigo that insatiably devours the earth’s resources “not for need but for greed.” The footprints are all around us, once you know what to look for.

(p. 306)

We all have important decisions to make, and every choice, regardless of how insignificant it may seem, will have lasting consequences. We are indeed at a crossroads, and we no longer have the luxury of complacency. Every one of us has a responsibility, to begin the healing process and start undoing the damage that we have done as a collective species.

We do indeed stand at the crossroads. Scientific evidence tells us we are close to the tipping point of climate change, the end of fossil fuels, the beginning of resource depletion. Ecologists estimate we would need seven planets to sustain the lifeways we have created. And yet those lifeways, lacking balance, justice, and peace, have not brought us contentment. They have brought us the loss of our relatives in a great wave of extinction. Whether or not we want to admit it, we have a choice ahead, a crossroads.

(p. 368)

I strongly encourage you to read this book. It will inspire, outrage, and motivate you. Remember, everything that you do matters. Act accordingly.

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Thoughts on “Sandman: The Dream Hunters” by Neil Gaiman

This book feels like an adaptation of a Japanese fairy tale, but as artist P. Craig Russell points out in the Afterward, it was all a creation of Gaiman’s imagination, so well executed that even Russell believed it was a traditional Japanese tale when working on the illustrations.

The story is about a fox who falls in love with a monk, and while it is not possible for them to consummate their love, their feelings for each other cause each of them to make sacrifices for the other. It is a wonderful and moving story, and one can read it without knowing the background mythology of the Sandman. So without spoiling the story for those who want to read it, I figured I’d share a few passages that stood out for me.

The monk unfolded his token to show it to them, and it was then that he knew for certain he was dreaming, for he could read the characters on the paper he carried. They were simple characters and they described one who transmuted things from formlessness and shapelessness into that-which-was-not-real, but without which the real world would have no meaning.

(p. 72)

This is the way in which art is created, particularly stories and poetry. The mind taps into the vast sea of the subconscious and draws from the wellspring of inspiration. As the story takes shape and becomes an expression of the collective consciousness, it evolves into something that is not “real,” but expresses what is real about the human experience. In other words, stories provide life with meaning. A world without stories would be meaningless.

I serve the king of dreams … and I do his bidding. But you are correct … once I was a poet … and like all poets … I spent too long in the kingdom of dreams.

(p. 79)

I totally relate to this passage. As someone who has written poetry, I know that, for me, poetic inspiration comes from going deep into my subconscious, to draw on the symbols and metaphors that express that which is impossible to convey through plain language. But, there is a risk of spending too long in the realm of inspiration. One can become ungrounded, and that can lead to its own set of personal difficulties.

But dreams are strange things. And none of us but the king of all night’s dreaming can say if they are true or not, nor of what they are able to tell any of us about the times that are still to come.

(p. 125)

Dreams are strange things, but what would life be without them? Our dreams and stories and creative expressions are what define us.

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Thoughts on “Troilus and Cressida” by William Shakespeare

This is a very strange play, and I can understand why it is categorized as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” I found it difficult to connect with any one character, and it was not clear who the tragic hero was. Hector dies, but he was not nearly as prideful as Achilles. Only thing close to a tragic flaw that Hector has is he refused to listen to the women who prophesized that something bad would happen to him if he went to fight. Troilus is betrayed by Cressida who gives herself to Diomedes, but they all live. Patroclus dies, but it is almost like a sidenote. Anyway, in spite of all the structural issues, there are some interesting themes that are worth considering.

There is some debate in the play about the contrast between fortune and free will. Early in the play, Nestor embraces the concept of free will over fortune.

In the reproof of chance
Lies the true proof of men: the sea being smooth,
How many shallow bauble boats dare sail
Upon her patient breast, making their way
With those of nobler bulk!
But let the ruffian Boreas once enrage
The gentle Thetis, and anon behold
The strong-ribb’d bark through liquid mountains cut,
Bounding between the two moist elements,
Like Perseus’ horse: where’s then the saucy boat
Whose weak untimber’d sides but even now
Co-rivall’d greatness? Either to harbour fled,
Or made a toast for Neptune. Even so
Doth valour’s show and valour’s worth divide
In storms of fortune; for in her ray and brightness
The herd hath more annoyance by the breeze
Than by the tiger; but when the splitting wind
Makes flexible the knees of knotted oaks,
And flies fled under shade, why, then the thing of courage
As roused with rage with rage doth sympathize,
And with an accent tuned in selfsame key
Retorts to chiding fortune.

(Act I: scene iii)

In contrast, Ulysses asserts that fortune plays an important role in human events.

The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure! O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick!

(Act I: scene iii)

Pride seems to be another of the key themes in this play, and Achilles is the embodiment of pride. At one point, Ajax and Agamemnon discuss the pride of Achilles, and how it feeds upon itself.

Ajax: Why should a man be proud? How doth pride grow? I know not what pride is.

Agamemnon: Your mind is the clearer, Ajax, and your virtues the fairer. He that is proud eats up himself: pride is his own glass, his own trumpet, his own chronicle; and whatever praises itself but in the deed, devours the deed in the praise.

Ajax: I do hate a proud man, as I hate the engendering of toads.

(Act II: scene iii)

In Act V, we see a very bleak assessment of humanity. Thersites comes to the conclusion that men are motivated by two things: war and sex. It is almost a premonition of Freud’s concept of eros and thanatos, that sex and death are the primary drives in human nature.

Lechery, lechery! Still wars and lechery! Nothing else holds fashion. A burning devil take them.

(Act V: scene ii)

This is not my favorite Shakespeare play, but it is not the worst either, in my opinion. While there are some obvious problems with the play, there is enough thought-provoking material there to warrant a read. I am curious, though, whether it would come across better when performed on stage. I will have to keep an eye out for a stage production, and then see for myself.

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Thoughts on “American Gods: My Ainsel” by Neil Gaiman: Issue 01

This series has been on a long hiatus, but is finally back. While the artwork is not the best, the writing and the storyline are both excellent. But then again, I have not read anything by Neil Gaiman that I did not like.

There are a couple passages in this issue that are worth mentioning.

The really dangerous people believe that they are doing whatever they are doing solely and only because it is without question the right thing to do.

I agree 100%. The pages of history are filled with stories of self-righteous fanatics who committed heinous acts because they were somehow convinced that they were doing the right thing. And this continues to this day. Any social or political issue that is contentious will have people convinced that they are on the right side of the argument, and will use that belief to justify their behaviors and actions.

There’s our bookstore. What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul.

I am grateful that I live in a city that boasts several very good bookstores, and I try to support them as much as my finances allow. But just knowing they are there, being able to go in, peruse the aisles, get a coffee, is important to me. There is just something about a bookstore that fosters a connection, for me anyway. I feel that when I am in a bookstore, I am surrounded by kindred spirits.

Anyway, not much more to share about this. Hope you have an inspiring day, and get thee to your local bookstore soon.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 39” by Lao Tzu

From of old there are not lacking things that have attained Oneness.
The sky attained Oneness and became clear;
The earth attained Oneness and became calm;
The spirits attained Oneness and became charged with mystical powers;
The fountains attained Oneness and became full;
The ten thousand creatures attained Oneness and became reproductive;
Barons and princes attained Oneness and became sovereign rulers of the world.
All of them are what they are by virtue of Oneness.

If the sky were not clear, it would be likely to fall to pieces;
If the earth were not calm, it would be likely to burst into bits;
If the spirits were not charged with mystical powers, they would be likely to cease from being;
If the fountains were not full, they would be likely to dry up;
If the ten thousand creatures were not reproductive, they would be likely to come to extinction;
If the barons and princes were not the sovereign rulers, they would be likely to stumble and fall.

Truly, humility is the root from which greatness springs,
And the high must be built upon the foundation of the low.

That is why barons and princes style themselves “The Helpless One,” “The Little One,” and “The Worthless One.”
Perhaps they too realize their dependence on the lowly.

Truly, too much honour means no honour.
It is not wise to shine like jade and resound like stone-chimes.

I found this passage to be challenging, but after reading it a couple times, I think I finally understand the essence.

Nothing can attain its fullness or true nature unless it is aligned with the One, or the divine source of all being. Essentially, this means everything must exist in balance with itself and the world around it. To be in balance is to accept your dependence upon other people and upon nature in general. Regardless of how great or powerful a person or thing may appear, it is always dependent upon other things to support it. A mountain could not reach the skies without a firm foundation on the earth. Likewise, elevated individuals could not reach their heights without the support of the people around them.

In Western culture, especially here in the United States, importance is placed on the individual, and the rights of the individual. This, in my opinion, has contributed to the social issues that we are grappling with. Eventually, we must learn to live in balance and think of ourselves as one with the people around us, or we will dry up like the fountain that is not full.

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