The Perfection of the Morning:
An Apprenticeship in Nature
Bone: Dying into Life
The Father Quest
Creating a Life: Finding Your Individual Path
Volume XXII, Number 5
The Perfection of the Morning: An Apprenticeship in Nature
1994: Harper Collins, Toronto. 193 pages.
Canadian writer Sharon Butala has a number of books to her name, including two collections of short stories and five novels, but the book that has won her particular recognition and a wider reading public is autobiographical. The Perfection of the Morning has been described variously as “one of the most perceptive and moving meditations ... on that mysterious and often misunderstood place that we call nature,” and “a new spiritual geography in a place where truth and myth collide.”
What led to the birth of Sharon Butala as a writer and visionary was her marriage seventeen years ago, at the age of thirty-six, to her second husband, Peter Butala, a cattle rancher in the southwest corner of Saskatchewan in an area known as the Palliser Triangle. The Butala family ranch was a part of the North American Great Plains which extend from Edmonton in the North to Texas in the South. The only relief in this vast expanse from the burning sun of summer or winter blizzards was offered by coulees, or chasms carved by meltwater, where trees had sown themselves and animals both wild and domestic sought shelter.
The landscape was alien to what Sharon Butala had known before although she had lived in Saskatchewan for much of her life. But that was in Saskatoon, centred in the university where she taught, with her mother, three sisters and a wide circle of friends nearby. The long periods of isolation, punctuated by the occasional demands of being a rancher’s wife, and the customs which guided the social exchanges of rural agricultural people, were all foreign to her. “I came a stranger to this magnificent but in some ways terrible place to live, with its more tragic than triumphant history,” she writes in the preface, “and gradually, although never easily, I found both a way to feel at home in my own skin, and in this place.”
Through the struggle to fit ... I became not the painter I once was but a writer, and I discovered that the writer I’ve become is the Self I’ve been in search of for so many years. But at the same time it has been the act of writing that created and continues to create that Self I’ve at last found, and that acts as the instrument of integration between myself and my environment, chiefly my home in the landscape. The last seventeen years here have been a long, intensely personal spiritual journey, one that has been inextricably intertwined with my reacquaintance with the land and the effects of this renewed relationship with Nature on my own woman’s soul.
In her first act of real daring, Butala found herself alone from dawn to dusk, without job, friends, family, all the things that gave her identity, nor indeed did she have anything to do. So she began, deep in thought, to walk the land. It was on one of these walks that she was given a glimpse of what life in this new world might bring. On the far side of a hill she came upon Peter, face down upon the grass, fast asleep, with his saddle horse browsing beside him, while around him a cluster of his cows, accompanied by their calves, chewed their cud. At the edge of the cattle grazed two antelope. “All of them,” writes Butala, “were oblivious to my presence and paying no attention to each other, as if they were all members of the same contented tribe ...”.
In the second year of her new life, Butala began to keep a journal. Yet it would be another two years before her notes assumed any consistent pattern. At first she logged actual physical events, but gradually her psychic journey, still unacknowledged, took over. The daily walks continued, less aimless than before, as she would choose for her destination a rock, a coulee, or a favourite stretch of road. One particular field of native grassland, too stony to be farmed, she reserved “for the days when it felt right to go there.” From it she was to learn more than she had ever imagined.
"(W)hen out in Nature, not shooting, collecting, studying, naming or farming,” writes Butala, “we realize that an entity is present, or that Nature is alive, even that Nature has a memory.” It was these and other “numinous” experiences that gave her confirmation of Erich Neumann’s statement in his essay Mystical Man, that “Man is by nature a homo mysticus.”
A new kind of reading had begun for Butala with the experience of “strange, powerful, beautiful dreams,” and a growing sense of despair. When she was in the city she haunted book stores where certain books seemed to “jump off” the shelves at her, among them Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. Another day, she discovered three massive hardcover books, The Oxford Classical Dictionary, The Golden Bough and the Dictionary of All Scriptures and Myths in a sales bin. “I bought all three,” she comments, “and carried them home as if they were a king’s treasure.”
I keep remembering—I think it’s a Sufi belief—the saying that when the pupil is ready, the teacher will come. My teacher was to be books.
It was seven years after her ranch life began that Butala experienced a strange dream in which the word “anomie” appeared across a pale dream sky. In the weeks that followed, as its meaning became clearer, she became aware of a profound sense of desolation. She didn’t turn to Peter, whose own life was so uncomplicated he would have difficulty understanding it. Instead, knowing it was her own struggle, she was determined to live it through. Although constantly in pain, she continued to write novels and short stories, “all of them informed by my personal struggle and conversely informing me as I worked to give shape to my experiences so I could write them down.”
Since much of Butala’s fiction was located in the area where she had moved, she was forced to educate herself about its history and plant and animal life. Her own observations and reading helped, Peter continued to be a fund of knowledge and there were the stories of the old settlers. With this new information, she began to make it her own and to begin healing.
Yet the healing was also to have another source. A life lived in nature, Butala was to discover, drew her closer to her own nature. Her significant dreaming began when she moved to the Great Plains. One dream in particular which occurred at the end of her fifth year, she came to recognize as a life dream, initiating her whole study of comparative religion, myth, dreams, and eventually herself. She describes it as follows:
(I)t was night but so clear and bright it was almost as light out as during the day. I was standing inside the door of the back porch of the old ranch house. In the dream the door was divided in the centre into an upper and a lower part which opened separately. I was looking out the open top half at the sky watching in awe and wonder a gigantic eagle as it soared over the ranch. It was so big that with its wings outspread it covered the entire year(sic), which is about twenty fenced acres. It had a slender, stylized body and wings and it was a smooth, delicate pale gray. Its beauty was entrancing. Even now, remembering it, something in my viscera opens into an infinitude that frightens me.
Butala has continued to find new meaning in the dream. In The Perfection of the Morning, she offers this interpretation:
At an archetypal level, it is a dream about masculine power, symbolized by the soaring eagle, and feminine power, symbolized by the owl standing near me on the ground. In beauty and power they are exactly equal, but I, a woman had spent my life to this point following the eagle—that is, accepting masculine interpretations of life in general and, of my own life, accepting masculine goals and taking masculine desires for my own—instead of cleaving to the owl, searching out and coming to terms with my own feminine soul.
“Searching out and coming to terms with (her) own feminine soul” led Butala to choose the traditional lives and concerns of contemporary ranching and farming women as the subject of her novel Luna which followed The Gates of the Sun. Inspired by Robert Graves’s book The White Goddess and disappointed by Freud’s and Jung’s view of women, she sought books about women by women. Among them were Marion Woodman, Adrienne Rich and feminist archeologist Marija Gimbutas. When she was not driven by the needs of her book to find a grounding in the feminine, it was her dreams that drove her on.
The Perfection of the Morning is the story of a woman who virtually took a leap into the unknown when she embarked, against the advice of family and friends, on marriage to a man whose life-style and values, however admirable, were alien to any she had known. Despite the pain of inner conflict, she never retreated but held the opposites. It is also the story of the teaching and healing power of the unconscious and natural world when we open ourselves to their wisdom.
Volume XXV, Number 1
Bone: Dying into Life
New York: Viking Penguin, 2000. 246 pp.
In Bone, Marion Woodman writes movingly about her struggle with cancer, which began in the early 1990s. Written in a more accessible style than some of her books, this work shows how she was able to draw upon many resources in her struggle with the disease, and was able to maintain a gruelling schedule for much of the period.
The book is written in journal style, so it is easy to follow. Those familiar with Woodman’s works may find it a pleasant change from some of her heavier works, although the subject matter is far from light. It begins in 1993, when she first discovered she had cancer and would need major surgery, and goes on for about a year and a half, until at least the first stage of the battle appeared to be over. In it we learn a lot about Woodman’s private life, her former career as a teacher, her relationships with husband, family, many friends and colleagues. We learn how she was able to apply insights from her long experience as a Jungian analyst to the fight of her life.
She drew on sources of feminine wisdom to deal with a disease that targeted her female organs. She used the resources of modern medicine, but also those of the older feminine tradition of healing by means of energy, herbs and nutrients.
Woodman writes of the death of her brother from cancer, years before. She also details changes she made in her life to accommodate the illness—closing her analytic practice, cutting back on travel, settling into a new home. She writes with great feeling of her experiences as she awaited and recovered from both surgery and radiation therapy and battled certain patriarchal aspects of the medical establishment.
Woodman discusses openly her confrontation with aging and mortality. She notes that during her illness and treatment she experienced many losses.
The deepest loss of all was loss of my connection to the sacred union within—matter no longer permeated by spirit. I was no longer galvanized by the inner marriage that kept me alive, in life, consciously trying to articulate and write. With that loss of creativity went my power to heal myself. I could not connect with the life force. No energy could get past the darkness in my pelvis to go down into my legs. No connection to the earth. By the time I began to realize what was happening, even the sexual urge was not strong enough to pull me into life.
Still, Woodman appears to have a lot of energy at her disposal. Despite the illness and treatment, she keeps her journal, travels, entertains, speaks and keeps in touch with a large number of people. She notes that the cancer diagnosis destroyed the previous sense she had of knowing her own body, but clearly it did not destroy her determination to live her own way. She also writes of the many projections cancer patients are subjected to, those subtle ways in which they often get blamed for having caused their own disease.
By agreeing to be treated with radiation, Woodman worried that she was betraying the Great Mother, but she did it anyway. She generally experienced lack of comprehension of her soul concerns from medical personnel, but she also recounts incidents of great kindness from doctors, nurses and technicians. In one case, she ended a relationship with a doctor because she found him too pessimistic.
Toward the end of the book Woodman notes that
… simplifying became my total focus ... I believe that failure to simplify would lead me back into cancer because I could lose touch with my life vibration—my tone that sustains my life force … I must stay in touch with whatever keeps me focused on the still point—the place of exact harmony in body and psyche. Simplify life to that point where the dance can happen—the dance between consciousness and the unconscious.
For anyone who has had an encounter with serious illness, this should be an inspiring story. I was drawn to it because I had experienced a cancer scare that fortunately turned out to be a false alarm at about the same time as she was undergoing her trial by fire. Like Woodman, I found that the experience helped me to develop new approaches to life.
Woodman shows how cancer can be not just an ending, but also an initiation into a new and more authentic life. Faced with the probability of a fatal disease, she was able to re-orient her priorities and sort out her relationships in order to live more fully. In writing so openly about her disease and her own inner life, she has given a gift to all of us as we struggle to face our own mortality bravely.
Volume XXII, Number 4
The Father Quest
1995: Alexander Books
If you enjoyed Guy Corneau’s Absent Fathers, Lost Sons, you will be fascinated with Bud Harris’s The Father Quest. He begins with a summary of The Odyssey, with Odysseus and Telemachus questing for maturity and wholeness. Their turbulent journeys are through the troubled waters of our own psychological development.
Harris then moves into what he calls “Cornerstones”: the fragmented image of the Father in our culture and the consequences of a fragmented society. He cites Parker Palmer’s view of the “collapse of community and accountability between the knowing self and the known world.” The institutional structures of education, government, religion and entertainment come under attack. Developed to improve our society, these institutions are now out of balance and lack humanity. (Government depersonalizes the very people it is intended to help and churches have little sense of the individual needs for the human soul.)
Harris refers to the initiations of primitive cultures which allowed tribe members to be separated from childhood dependency by maturing psychologically as they matured physically. Having transformed consciousness individually, they could go out into the world and face its mysteries and dangers. From the ordeal of initiation came a courage and self-confidence that no one could take away from an individual. Harris maintains that our society pushes fathers in a drive for pragmatism, material success, security and conformity, and that this society shrinks from developing self-responsible adults.
In our culture, he says, images are not internalized. A spiritual crisis often emerges in mid-life, when individuals feel a sense of failure and loss.
Life is a touchstone for the truth of the spirit, and Harris says it is our challenge to find a way to teach our sons and daughters of the transformative powers of the spirit, giving purpose to life. With spiritual self-reliance, we can strive to wholeness and learn to take our place in the community. He talks to the value of struggle and the creative energy that flows from encounters. Building the case for revitalizing ourselves, the author moves to the second part of his book and what he calls “Touchstones”.
Harris identifies the difficulties inherent in (1) single parent situations, with the absence of one kind of love; and (2) traditional families, with the presence of a father who lives a persona while the son vainly looks to him as the model of how to be authentic. The son’s search for identity may often result in incomplete relatedness, with the risk of becoming unconsciously trapped in the shadow and the danger of being seduced by satanic cults and heavy metal music. Adolescents are bonded to the outer world, because there is no recognition of the inner world. They want validity in life.
Finally, Fatherhood in love is addressed in the context of Jesus Christ, Carl Jung, Solzhenitsyn, Eric Fromm, King Arthur, the movie Dead Poet’s Society, and Adler to bring us to the transforming courage that makes the difference. The father can help, with a spirit of adventure, the development of love of life as a principle, and the search for truth and wholeness.
Harris addresses the transformation of the transcendent father in terms of Beowolf, the Cherokee Indians of North Carolina, Christ the teacher, and Abraham. The Transcendent father embraces paradox, lives with contradictions, and is aware of dualities in life. Plunging into paradox requires courage and allows him to find transcendence, the Self, individuation and rebirth.
He closes with a reference to the grandfather, “The Wise Old Man”; and with his views on the human condition of suffering and of the difficulty of and the need for grief. The “longing for home” rests in the heart of all of us. We feel an urgency of the heart for wholeness and it sends us on our odyssey—the individuation process. Our journey brings us to higher consciousness, to listen to our inner voices and to be aware of values greater than ourselves. By holding the tension between our practical and spiritual identities, we will eventually know wisdom. Through reading Bud Harris’s The Father Quest, you will gain an understanding of how the father quest can empower Fathers and those around them.
Volume XXIV, Number 6
Creating a Life: Finding Your Individual Path
Toronto: Inner City Books, 2001. 159 pages
James Hollis’ latest book, Creating a Life: Finding Your Individual Path, gives the reader the wonderful experience of sitting with an intelligent, articulate person, and listening to their reflections on the meaning and value of life. This is Hollis’ sixth publication for Inner City Books. Once more, he helps the reader grapple with his or her own meditation on life, as well as initiate new areas of thought.
In the first section of Creating a Life, Hollis refers to the increasing number of contradictions we face as we get older, and the confusion caused by our inability to resolve them. Hollis uses Greek drama to describe experiences that seem to be common to many people. He says that our lives are circumscribed first of all by “Fate, or moira, [which] embodies the world of givens, the world of limitations, the world of cause and effect. Our genetics, our family of origin, our Zeitgeist, the interplay of intergenerational influences—each is part of our fate.” He says we also complicate and make worse our lives with hubris, “which means arrogance at times, a character flaw at others, or sometimes simply the limitation of possible knowledge.” A third aspect of the human condition is hamartia or “the tragic flaw,” what Hollis calls “the wounded vision.” He writes, “Each protagonist believed that he or she understood enough to make proper choices, yet their vision was distorted by personal, familial and cultural history, dynamically at work in what we later called the unconscious.”
Psychology has added to and changed the names of the terms we use to describe the human condition, but human experience, in essence, is the same now as in classical Greece and before. Today we speak of psychological complexes that “lie at the core of who we think we are.” Hollis writes that the reader “will have to deal with this core issue the rest of your life, and at best you will manage to win a few skirmishes in your long uncivil war with yourself.” Indeed, it seems to be fate that the tragic vision of the Greeks is reenacted by each of us in our equally tragic and wounded lives.
Hollis refers to Jung’s suggestion that “the greatest burden the child must bear is the unlived life of the parents.” The child is left responsible for doing the emotional and psychological work the parents didn’t do. This becomes a part of the core complex through which our perceptions of the world are filtered. In some ways, this parental burden forms the basis of our shadow work, and, while this complex is painful when left unconscious, it can lead to an exhilarating awareness for the participant in a more examined life.
This is not a book for the faint of heart, for those who desire an intellectual quick-fix for what ails them, or for the individual who believes that a guru, a romantic partner, or anyone else will come along and save them. Hollis discounts the cure-all approach of both New-Age adherents and fundamentalists of all religious persuasions.
The thesis of Creating a Life is that to create a life one must examine one’s life. From this examination comes an awareness of the true nature of one’s soul. Our psychological foundation is made up of many things, including core complexes we wish we could eliminate altogether, but that cannot be easily dealt with. Indeed therapy can’t eliminate them either. According to Hollis, what therapy can do is help you observe the core complex. This, in turn, will help the individual become a more conscious person with a more mature vision of life. Hollis writes, “Therapy will not heal you, make your problems go away or make your life work out. It will, quite simply, make your life more interesting.” Thus, the examined life is the more interesting life, and the corollary that follows from this is that “Consciousness is the gift and that is the best it gets.”
If the result of our choices or unreflected actions are akin to Greek tragedy or drama, then we might also ask ourselves what is the myth that best represents our life journey? What is the myth that best explains our existence to us? Hollis writes that myth “as it is used here, refers to those affectively charged images (imagos) which serve to activate the psyche and to channel libido in service to some value.” Are we living second-hand lives, the unresolved cast-offs of our parents’ experience? Are we living reflectively or are we living reactively?
This text is not about ambition, career, or even traditional domesticity. It isn’t Hollis’ project to tell the reader what kind of life to create—his purpose is simply to define the foundation of understanding necessary to create an authentic life. An examined life best expresses the soul’s purpose. Hollis addresses those who have entered the second half of life, who have survived what Hollis calls the “gigantic, unavoidable mistake” of the first half of life. For Hollis, “The larger life is the soul’s agenda, not that of our parents or our culture, or even of our conscious will.”
This book is a meditation on the life journey of individuation. Jung’s concept of individuation “has to do with becoming, as nearly as one can manage, the being that was set in motion by the gods.” This, then, at a practical level is a process of psychological and spiritual maturity. A test for this maturity lies in one’s capacity to deal with anxiety, ambiguity, and ambivalence. Hollis writes, “The more mature psyche is able to sustain the tension of opposites and contain conflict longer, thereby allowing the developmental and revelatory potential of the issue to emerge.”
Part Two of Creating a Life is comprised of twenty short chapters dealing with “attitudes and practices for the second half of life.” These include, for examples, amor fati, the necessity to accept and love one’s fate. Some readers may feel overwhelmed by Hollis’ listing and brief explication of these necessary “attitudes and practices.” However, he is reassuring and directs the reader to observe his or her own unconscious as the primary authority in one’s life. Individuation lies, in part, in the process of reflecting upon the processes of the unconscious mind.
Part Three brings to a conclusion James Hollis’ meditation. Certainly, above all else we need to be grateful for being alive at this most liberal and tolerant of times and places in the history of humanity. Hollis refers to the myth of Oedipus that is suggestive of our own human condition.
How did Oedipus live out the second half of his life? While we may each have our own personal myth to discover, Oedipus is an archetype representing Everyman in his flight from the darkness of his core complex to his discovery of soul and meaning. Hollis writes,
After Thebes, after the stunning humiliation of midlife, Oedipus spends his final years in humble wandering, wondering what it is that the gods wish him to know. He learns, he absorbs, he winds his weary exile to Colonus, where he is blessed by the gods for the sincerity of his journey. It was not so much that he created his life, as that he allowed at last that life might create him, as the gods had intended. The price of this gift, both precious and perilous, was exile and suffering; the price of not finding his calling was ignorance, pettiness and annihilation of the soul.
James Hollis reminds the reader of what a profound and exciting journey we have been invited to undertake. It is the journey of individuation, sometimes frightening, never exempt from the many experiences and emotions that are part of the human condition, and always demanding we extend ourselves beyond what we thought possible. We continue to create our lives because, simply put, it is all we can do, if we have the gift of consciousness and are sensitive to the soul’s command that we look inward.