Sunday, November 10, 2013

Superheroes: Time to return to the feminine

Before I met my husband, I wasn't really into comics. Sure, growing up I had books (with casette tapes!) outlining the origin stories of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman and I went to see the latest superhero film every summer. But I certainly didn't know my classic comics.

My husband and I came together at around the same time as the recent resurgence and interest in comic film adaptations - at the tail end of the Spider Man and X-Men series and just before Marvel unveiled their plan for world movie domination.

Now, my dear husband does not share my interest in myth, fantasy and science fiction. In fact, those are generally his least favourite movie themes! We always joked, early in our relationship, that his favourite films were gritty street dramas - which is why he seemed to love all those dark 1970s films. And yet, when the news came that Captain America and Avengers were finally coming to the big screen, I watched as my very grown-up husband transformed into a very excited little boy, with all the innocent anticipation of a child waiting for Christmas morning.

See, my husband grew up, as so many children do, addicted to comic books. In fact, he would probably argue that Thor (the Marvel hero) had taught him everything he knew about myth (before he met me!).

Comics are interesting because they very often juxtapose seemingly simple action stories with far more subtle and mythic themes. Strip Thor of his Norse trappings or Wonder Woman of her Amazonian origins and you still have all the makings of a mythic story. My husband, as a child and as a man, had no idea that he was reading myth through a pop culture lens when he was enjoying these comic stories.

The popularity of comic stories and films through the years clearly demonstrates a powerful storytelling formula. Comics grapple with the themes of good and evil, dark and light - often within the heroes themselves. The best stories balance exciting action with psychological insight and personal reflection, and tackle social themes that really are mythic in nature. The Dark Knight Rises does this brilliantly, exploring the idea of class and social stratification that so preoccupies our North American society today. From what I saw in the new trailer, the upcoming Captain America film might attempt this as well - using the 1940s hero with his 1940s values to raise questions about the military, war and America's place in the global community.

The one place where I find fault with these stories is that, at the end of the day, they still rely heavily on the physical act of fighting to solve problems. I think it is time for a paradigm shift, a change in the way we frame these stories to reflect a somewhat higher level of thinking. I can see the start of it - many of today's superheroes do struggle with ethical dilemmas and their violent nature and, I would argue, the best villains are the ones who really explore this dark side of humanity. But we need it to be pushed further. Our society needs to see that there are other ways to be heroic.

In her book Riding Into Your Mythic Life, Patricia Broersma discusses the mythic games she plays with her riding students. Together, they write, set up and act out mythic stories in the riding arena and with their horses as partners and guides. The entire theme of the activity is to work together with the horse (or sometimes with other students) to accomplish a final, mythic goal. Broersma particularly discourages using any stories that rely on physical force to reach this goal, instead teaching students the value of creative problem solving and cooperation. This exemplifies the new kind of hero we need to see reflected in pop culture.

It's often said that, as a culture, we need to return to the feminine - not the feminine as a gender, but instead the Jungian idea of "genderless characteristics related to emotions, intuition, creativity, receptiveness and nurturance" (Ensoulment Film). I think our heroes need a return to the feminine as well. 

This was clearly illustrated to me in the following Wonder Woman short film created by Rainfall Films. It's beautiful, visually stunning actually, and certainly made me excited at the prospect of finally seeing a truly great Wonder Woman film adaptation. But somehow I felt that it missed the mark. It seemed like the filmmakers tried to take a very traditional, formulaic and physical heroism and apply it to a character who could instead be an embodiment of the feminine that's missing from these stories. Once again, everything revolves around physical strength and force.

I know that film is a visual art form, one that relies on visual action to tell an exciting story. As do comic books. But I think there are still ways that we could bring the quieter, more intuitive nature of the feminine to life on screen. I always thought the Hercules and Xena television series did a fairly good job balancing physical action with an exploration of more emotional themes and struggles. 

What do you think - do superheroes need a return to the feminine?

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Sunday, September 1, 2013

Husband and wife, Orca and Wolf

While in Alaska, my husband and I decided we really liked the idea of each of us having a piece of First Nations jewelry representing an animal that we felt spiritually close to. It wasn't hard for either of us to decide which animals those were - for me, it was Wolf and for my husband, it was Orca. We looked and looked but couldn't seem to find anything we really liked. I was hoping for a silver bracelet and my husband had his heart set on a carved ring. On one of our last stops of the trip we happened upon what we both were looking for in the same store - even though no other store we looked at had either a Wolf bracelet or an Orca ring!

Just last week, my husband came to me with another idea - we've been considering renewing our wedding vows and getting new rings for the occasion, what if we got matching carved gold bands, each with our animal of choice? I was thrilled with this idea. It sums up all parts of me and the best things about my relationship with my husband: a commitment to nature and wildlife, respect for animals, and a connection to our own spirits and the mythic tradition of the traditional people of Vancouver Island, where we live.

We're lucky enough to have a First Nations art gallery just down the street from our house, so we popped in there to see what kinds of rings they had available. While chatting with the sales clerk, she asked if I knew of the connection between Wolf and Orca. I acknowledged that I knew orcas to be called sea-wolves, but didn't know of any particular story that linked them. She mentioned that there is actually a transitional creature called Wasgo that incorporates both Wolf and Orca, and that the spirits of the two animals are closely aligned in myth.

Hearing that, I was delighted - how perfect that my husband and I should choose two sides of possibly the same spirit animal for our anniversary rings! And of course, being a myth junkie, I had to research Wasgo to find out more about this creature.

As with most mythic tales, there seem to be a variety of stories about the Wasgo, a being that was said to be half wolf and half killer whale.  One story suggests that the Wasgo lived in a lake and could transform between the two forms, while other stories call Wasgo also a Sea-Bear and tell of a hero who killed Wasgo in order to gain his magical hunting powers. Although often represented as half orca and half wolf, he is also sometimes shown as a reptilian monster with a wolf-like head.

I also found another beautiful origin story that suggests it was two wolves who were turned into the first orcas - and that sometimes, if the moon is full, they will return to shore to sing with their brothers. In the morning, if you find wolf tracks heading into the ocean, the story says, you'll know this happened. I admit I like this story the best, especially when thinking of our beautiful coastal wolves who routinely hunt and play on the seashore.

It's not surprising that the two creatures are intertwined so closely, when you consider that the behaviour of both orcas and wolves are so similar, from their strong family bonds to the haunting sound of their songs. For my husband and I, it's fitting that we were both drawn to spirit animals that, although decidedly different individuals, seem to share a similar sense of soul.

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Saturday, August 24, 2013

Blackfish: Ego and projection at work

Blackfish is a new documentary that explores the story of Tilikum, the killer whale who allegedly killed a Sea World trainer in 2010. It may seem strange to discuss a film that questions whether killer whales should be kept in captivity on a myth-related blog. But as I watched the film I was struck by certain Jungian aspects that came out in various interviews.

The film features a number of former animal trainers who had worked with killer whales in the past. It was enlightening to hear them speak of how they came to do this kind of work and what attracted them to it. And why they stayed even when they found themselves with deep misgivings about the work they were doing.

All felt an incredible pull to work with killer whales in particular. As one says, anyone who is a trainer at Sea World has a desire to get to the top and work with the killer whales. That's what they all are there for. All had a genuine and deep love of animals and a strong desire to form a relationship with another creature - one that is not only wild, but also immensely powerful and dangerous.

As I watched these trainers speaking, I couldn't help but feel the ego at work. If the ego has a need to create situations where it can feel strong and important, how better to do this than to routinely flaunt a relationship with a potentially dangerous being by training it, kissing its face, and swimming with it underwater? Especially in front of a cheering crowd? How can a person not feel special when engaging in these things day after day? 

There is a common desire in our culture to reconnect with nature and one of the ways this is expressed is with our desire to connect with wild creatures. This is not a new thing - stories of these encounters abound (both fiction and nonfiction) and there are entire industries built upon this need (think swimming with dolphins). But in the end, where does this wish come from? I would suggest it comes from the ego's need for elevation. Deep down, we all want to have that fairy tale experience where we are chosen by a wild creature - a creature that has no need to enter our world but does so just for us.

The film also carried a key thread about projection and the projections the trainers placed on the whales they developed strong bonds with. Several admitted, with difficulty and emotion, that, in the end, everything they thought the whale was offering to that relationship may have actually been the trainer's own projections at work. It was quite stunning and sobering to see such a heartfelt admission on screen.

Let me make it clear that I do not believe that any of these trainers are "bad people". Instead, I think this story speaks to the power of the ego and of projection, and how both can shape the decisions we make in life. In fact, there can be terribly tragic consequences when we use them to rationalize our relationships with others and the effects of our decisions on the other beings (human and animal) who share our planet.

Watching this film was a big reminder to me of the care we must take to be self aware and questioning of our actions and feelings - even when we think we are acting out of love.

The final scenes of the film are of the trainers boarding a whale watching ship and experiencing wild killer whales living in their natural habitats. This time, the trainers were going to the whales with no expectations, no need for power and no projection. I couldn't help but think that it was a fitting and beautiful ending.

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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Asking an important question: Who am I?

Here we are at the end of August, with summer coming to a close and a new school year about to start. I don't know about you, but for me, September will always be my New Year's - a time for personal reflection, starting new projects and creating resolutions.

This feeling has been reinforced in recent years because, although I've been out of school for some time, the company I work for plans an annual 3-day get together for staff at the beginning of September. Since my co-workers telework from all across the country, it's a time for us to reconnect and get to know each other better. As part of that process, we are asked to give a little presentation about ourselves. Each year has a different topic, and this year's theme is "My alter ego". 

As I was mulling this over and thinking about what to present on, I found that I kept asking myself this one important question: Who am I? It's a question that we often don't explicitly ask ourselves. We take the answer for granted, but think about it honestly for a moment. How would you answer if asked this question?

Perhaps because of all the inspirational reading I've been doing lately, I immediately found myself with a desire to create something tangible that represented me. Some people might have drawn a picture, others made a collage, but I made this video.

It was an enlightening exercise for me, one that tapped into my own personal mythology and a little of my family's story. And I had underestimated the power of making strong, positive statements about myself and affirming the important aspects that make me, well, me. The stories we tell about ourselves are powerful things and they shape our reality.

We all hear our own calls to adventure and follow our own hero journeys, and often these change at different points in our lives. Checking in with ourselves frequently to make sure we are still on the right path and living an authentic life is incredibly important and not something to take for granted.

And so, I challenge you to answer this question: Who are you?

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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Finding Joe, Finding Ourselves

I've been wanting to see the documentary Finding Joe for a really long time. In fact, this movie has been on my radar for so long I've forgotten how I even first heard about it! Sadly, the film didn't make it to my small town home, so my hubby very dutifully picked up the DVD for me as a Christmas gift last year. I happily squealed after ripping the paper off, thrilled that I finally had a chance to see it. After the holiday rush had passed, our new DVDs were placed on the shelf under our TV, each awaiting their turn to be watched and filed in our larger collection (in addition to being a great gift giver, my husband is very organized), including my prized copy of Finding Joe.

And there it sat.

I'm not really sure why I put off watching it. Part of it was definitely to prolong the anticipation - I'd been waiting for this film for so long I just wanted to savour the whole experience. I was also afraid that it might be a disappointment. I had been so excited to watch Mythic Journeys a few years before and found it falling a little short of my expectations, although it is still a film well worth watching. Finally, there was also some unacknowledged sense that I needed to watch this film at the right time when I could fully absorb its message.

All this changed last night when my hubby took the bull by the horns and popped in the DVD as we were sitting down to our usual movie night. I was a little unsure at first - was I in the right frame of mind? Was I finally ready to give it a chance? Yes, came the whisper. Yes, it's time.

The film starts off with a beautiful story about a golden Buddha, who metaphorically represents each and every one of us. As the story is being told it is acted out by adorable young children, a technique that is used throughout the film to great effect. What first struck me in these opening scenes was the cinematography - something I wasn't expecting from a documentary. The images are lush and rich, full of warm and vibrant colours. The entire film is like this, even the interviews. Everything seems almost saturated with colour and it fits the mood of the film brilliantly.

Finding Joe starts off with a very short introduction to who Joseph Campbell was and why his work was important. From there it jumps right into the Hero's Journey, staying with this concept for the rest of the film. The director organizes the film nicely to fit within the Hero's Journey cycle and uses a relevant quote from Joseph Campbell to open each segment. It's a nicely balanced, well organized documentary with a logical flow.

The interview subjects make up a wide range of familiar and not-so-familiar faces, and each makes their own contribution to the viewer's understanding of the Hero's Journey. Some of the interviewees speak of their own harrowing journeys, others explore mythological, spiritual and philosophical concepts. The common visual thread that ties everything together is the children who are acting out the various stages of the Hero's Journey in a playful and artistic fashion.

I found that I was drawn to the images of the children almost more than the actual interviews. There was something compelling about seeing these kids, still with an air of innocence, playfully engaging with this deeply profound and mythic cycle. We all have that untarnished child inside us still just waiting for a chance to emerge and to shine. We all were that untarnished child once - before the world got to us.

The only drawback I would suggest is that, for me anyway, the film just didn't go far enough. The myth geek in me would love to see a more academic mythological film that really explores the ins and outs of Campbell's work. But that's a very minor complaint - especially considering Finding Joe is not meant for the academic world. It works because it connects our mythological stories (including many references to current movies and pop culture) to the lives we are living today in attempt to raise consciousness among the "metaphorically impaired".

Judging by the current state of the world, movies like Finding Joe are sorely needed. Whether you're looking for a solid introduction to Campbell's work or just wanting to be re-inspired about your life's purpose, Finding Joe won't disappoint. Just don't take as long as I did to see it!

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Cave of Forgotten Dreams: A glimpse into our Paleolithic past

I always thought that in another life I might have easily become an archaeologist. After watching Cave of Forgotten Dreams last night, I'm not so sure...

The documentary by Werner Herzog takes viewers deep inside the the Chauvet cave in southern France where some of the earliest known Paleolithic cave paintings were discovered in 1994. Unlike the Lascaux Cave, Chauvet has never been open to the public so as to protect the delicate climate inside the cave and better preserve the paintings. In fact, Herzog had to obtain special permission to film inside the cave and was only allowed a 4-person film crew, including himself.

The resulting film is utterly stunning and allows the paintings and the beauty of the cave itself to really shine. Whole minutes of the film pass by with no narration as the camera rests on these incredible images from our distant past. It is estimated that some of the paintings were completed approximately 30,000 years ago.

In fact, a key theme through the film is this sense of the passage of time. Carbon dating has shown that some of the paintings, while located close together, were actually drawn 5,000 years apart. In one section of the cave, a child's footprints are seen side-by-side with wolf tracks. Because these tracks are located in an especially fragile and inaccessible area, scientists will likely never know if the child and wolf walked there together in life or whether the tracks were actually made millenia apart.

Chauvet is not just unique because of its isolation - it also is home to representations of animals that have never been found before in European cave art. In addition to the standard horses, aurochs and mammoths, there are paintings of lions, cave bears, hyenas and even a leopard - the only one of its kind known to exist. The cave also has a fascinating depiction of a female venus figure combined with the head of a bull and possibly a human arm. It seems the strong link between the bull and the feminine that is found in so many world mythologies has roots even back to this era.

It's clear that caves and cave art have a deeply archetypal meaning for us as humans, even today. One scientist who has studied Chauvet tells Herzog that after descending into the cave for five days in a row, he had such powerful dreams of lions (both real and painted) that he had to stop going into the cave for a time. He wasn't frightened in his dreams, he says, but they were so filled with Power that he needed time to process the experience.

Herzog's love for the paintings is palpable and he goes to great lengths to prove to viewers that these are equally important on an art history level. Scientists who have spent years studying the paintings point to various techniques that seem to indicate movement, such as the animals that are portrayed with extra sets of legs, seemingly in motion (I wonder what these particular images would look like when illuminated with flickering firelight?). The horses have arched necks and open mouths, making them appear to be whinnying and prancing, while two wooly rhinoceroses clash horns in a scene just below. The shading of the animals is also important - in some places, the artists actually scraped sections of the cave's walls to reveal the white limestone underneath, then placed their dark, shaded images on top.

The artists also demonstrate an intimate knowledge of their animal brethren. In one scene, a male and female lion walk together, the male, larger, walks behind the female who is smaller and more dainty. How do we know the lion is a male? Let's just say he's anatomically correct! Six feet in length, and deceptively simple in design, the drawing elicits a sense of tenderness as the female lion's flank seems to gently rest against the male. Scientists have actually relied on this particular illustration to verify that the ancient cave lion male did not sport a mane like his modern day cousin - something they had previously only been able to guess at.

Watching this film is a deeply moving experience, and as close as most of us will ever get to actually descending into one of these ancient cathedrals. Herzog does his best to light the paintings in a way that evokes the sense of drama and wonder that must have been present when the original artists entered the cave by torchlight.

And how exactly does all of this fit in with my dreams of being an archaeologist? My husband asked me during the film if I'd head down into one of these caves, if given the chance, to see the paintings first hand. After a few minutes mulling it over, I had to admit the answer was "no". I'll leave that up to other adventurers and be thankful that filmmakers like Herzog are there to bring it to the rest of us.

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Into the Wild: A Cautionary Hero's Journey

"There is a wonderful image in King Arthur where the knights of the Round Table are about to enter the search for the Grail in the Dark Forest and the narrator says, 'They thought it would be a disgrace to go forth in a group. So each entered the forest at a separate point of their choice.'" ~ Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth

Into the Wild, a 2007 film directed by Sean Penn and based on the book by Jon Krakauer, tells the true story of Christopher McCandless, a young university graduate who embarks on just such a pathless journey. McCandless leaves behind a safe law career and a mystified (but abusive) family to strike out on the road with no money, no companions and no destination. He hitches rides throughout the US, experiencing remarkable and awe-inspiring natural wonders, challenging his greatest fears and living off the land and the hospitality of those he meets. For Christopher, a student of Thoreau, London and Tolstoy, this is the only way he can live an authentic life true to himself.

You'd be right to think this is a beautiful story about the rewards of leaving society's conventions behind to find your own true happiness. But the story comes with a tragic and difficult ending, one that provides a cautionary note. After embarking on his great Alaskan Adventure, an attempt to live off the land in the Alaskan wilderness, Christopher dies of starvation, weak, cold and alone. He is only 24 years old.

Christopher's story, which clearly embodies a "follow your bliss" philosophy, loosely fits with our Cambellian idea of a Hero's Journey. I don't want to claim knowledge of Christopher's motivations, feelings and experiences, but if we consider the film's presentation of his story, it becomes clear that a real life hero's journey can be fraught with danger and can leave us with very conflicted emotions at its outcome.

When Christopher embarks on his adventures, it would be natural to assume that he was following a call to adventure, a yearning to be on the road. But as the story develops and we discover that he lived in an abusive household with some pretty big skeletons, it becomes clear that Christopher is actually attempting to escape from his perceived reality. He rebels against the values his parents represents, to be sure, but he also shows a desire to become invisible. He arranges his disappearance so that his family is never able to find him and he makes no real attempt to stay in touch with his loving sister, even though he appears to have had a close relationship with her. He also leaves behind his name, introducing himself as "Alex" to those he meets. "Alex" is short for "Alexander Supertramp", a new identity he creates for himself.

Alex meets several people along his journey who offer him sage advice. Jan and Rainey are a hippie couple travelling the road in their painted motor home and we can see them as parent figures for Alex, especially when we learn that Jan has an estranged son Alex's age. When they ask Alex why he burned the last of his money, he claims that having money makes him feel "too cautious." Even though she and Rainey live a life on the fringes of conventional society, Jan still has her feet on the ground. She suggests to Alex that "a little caution is a good thing."

Later Alex is employed by Wayne, a happy-go-lucky wheat farmer who treats him much like a younger brother. Here we see Alex spending his days working hard and his nights drinking at the local bar with Wayne and his  buddies. In one scene, Alex, after having a little too much to drink, explains why it is so important to escape from society - to get away from the hypocrites, the parents. Wayne tells him that to fall too deeply into that way of thinking is a mistake, that he can't be "juggling blood and fire all the time." What he is really suggesting is that in order to move forward, Alex needs to find a balance in his life and an ability to let go of the past.

Finally, Alex is taken in by Ron, an elderly man who lives a quiet and lonely life. Ron's scenes with Alex are some of the most moving in the film. He reveals that fifty years before his wife and son had been killed by a drunk driver and later explains the nature of forgiveness to Alex, suggesting that to forgive is to love, and when you love on that level you invite "God's light" to shine on you. In their final scene together Ron asks Alex if he'd be willing to take Ron's name, if he'd allow Ron to adopt him as a grandson. Alex blithely suggests they should talk about it when he gets back from Alaska and Ron graciously hides his tears and lets Alex go.

All of these people could be considered guides on Christopher's hero journey and like guide figures, they come into Christopher's life at opportune moments. But ultimately, Christopher is unable to hear their wisdom and integrate it into his life. At this point, he is so disconnected from and distrusting of people that he cannot hear the truth in what they are saying. In fact, every time Christopher leaves people behind, we get the sense that he meant a lot more to them than they did to him. Although he seems to genuinely like and appreciate the people he meets, there is a wall inside him that keeps him from forming too close an attachment.

At one point in the film, Christopher rejects his possible union with the earthly feminine. While living at Slab City with Jan and Rainey, he is introduced to Tracy, a young songwriter who develops a clear interest in  him. Although he spends a lot of time with her and seems to, at least in small part, feel the attraction that is between them, he is unwilling to make love to her when she offers herself to him. In denying this communion, Christopher further isolates himself from the living world around him and loses the opportunity to become grounded in the earthly processes that define our lives.

Ultimately, Christopher leaves all of these guides behind to start his Alaskan Adventure. At first, he is happy and successful, foraging for food and lodging in an abandoned bus used by local hunters as a makeshift shelter. But very quickly we realize that Christopher is far out of his depth on this adventure, and slowly we see this realization dawn on him as well. He loses a vast amount of weight as his supply of rice diminishes and  finding food becomes more and more difficult. He is able to kill a moose, but with only second hand knowledge of how to properly smoke and preserve the meat, it all spoils and he is forced to watch as the wolves and eagles finish the carcass. Finally, he decides to make the trek out  but the frozen river he had traversed in the early spring is now a rushing torrent of water that is impassable. Christopher finds himself locked in the wilderness with no return available to his former world.

Things go downhill quickly at this point, and ultimately Christopher ingests a toxic substance (the book and film differ on how this happens) that prevents the digestion of food. In a sequence that is terrifying and tragic to watch, we see him grow even skinnier and even weaker, until his final act of zipping himself into his parka and stretching out on a mattress becomes heroic in and of itself.

Why do I consider this story a cautionary hero's journey, rather than a failed and foolish one? Christopher's courage in stepping outside of the safe confines of society is something we can all strive for. In the two years he spent following his dream, he arguably packed in more experiences than many people do in a lifetime. And in his final days, his short journal entries and margin notes in his books show that he finally did come to the wisdom that had eluded him for so long: that life must be shared with others to be truly meaningful. His final understanding that "happiness is only real when shared with others" is profound for someone who, for so long, was attempting to cut himself off from all human attachment.

But the tragic fact remains: Christopher didn't have to die. If only, we say to ourselves, if only he'd listened to those guides that life gave him. If only he'd been truly moving toward something rather than running away. If only he'd been able to open himself up to attachment. If only that hard-earned wisdom hadn't come too late. We're left wondering what incredible wisdom of his own Christopher could have brought to the world if he'd been able to successfully make his return journey.

Ultimately, Into the Wild offers important and complex insight into what it means to integrate a hero journey into a personal life. To be sure, it strikes a note of caution but, even more importantly, it advocates living a courageous and inspired life. In a world that encourages conformity, that is a message we could all do with hearing a little more often than we do.

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