Category Archives: Mysterium Tremendum

The Wisdom of Spiders

Commenting on my blog post, Ghost Dogs, Trina said:

I am trying to find some kind of significance with a particular recurring dream/ hallucination..(it’s hard to distinguish). Usually when I am on the brink of sleep I will see the unmistakable figure of a dog in my room. It never makes any sound, only stands and watches me. Sometimes it will scare me awake, but other times it seems more dreamlike. The dog doesn’t have any distinguishable features like eyes or fur it is just a figure. I haven’t come across anything as close to what I’ve been experiencing as this.

It might help following my own crooked path to understanding a recent experience. I don’t mean to imply I have any special understanding of these things. I’m not a professional, not even trained in the interpretation of dreams. Whatever knowledge I’ve gleaned is simply that of a dreamer.

Spider_web I woke from sleep staring at an immense spider scurrying across our bedroom ceiling. It was a big as a tarantula. My wife is terrified of spiders, a fear bordering on technical phobia. My first thought was to ensure she didn’t see it.

I walked around the end of the bed. The spider dropped silently to the floor and disappeared. My wife asked me what I was doing. I answered that I must have been dreaming but I was awake when I answered. We both went back to sleep. (She’s less afraid of my dreams than unreasonably large arachnids.)

I doubt a broom and dust pan would have been adequate weapons against a spider the size of a Frisbee.

Again I woke to find I was staring at the enormous spider on the ceiling. It was more shadow than substance, more shape and movement than a specific species, but it was undoubtedly a spider and undoubtedly in my house. Again the spider fell silently to the floor. We don’t have spiders the size of tarantulas in Seattle. Rationally I knew it must be a waking dream or hallucination. I suppose they’re the same. But I couldn’t distinguish between the dream and reality. For me they were the same.

It happened three times. The third time I went downstairs to get a flashlight and a broom to hunt down the spider hiding beneath the dresser. I was acting as if it were real because it was real. Our reality is determined by our perceptions. It’s all in our heads. The terrifying hallucinations of a schizophrenics are real to them, as real as the bus stop or McDonalds. I’m not schizophrenic but the difference in experience is only one of degree.

Spider

Obviously I never found the spider. I doubt a broom and dust pan would have been adequate weapons against a spider the size of a Frisbee. But I’ve thought about its significance since. It’s disconcerting not knowing the difference between waking reality and a dream.

I believe the experience had meaning, that it wasn’t merely the random misfiring of synapses in my brain. It wasn’t Scrooge’s bit of undigested beef. Whatever meaning would be peculiar to me—the particular bias I’ve built from all the bits and pieces of my experience—but nested within the larger experience of all humanity, our common cultural heritage.

The repetition of three is itself significant. The cock crowed three times in the garden of Gethsemane. The number defines the trinity, a union of duality. It’s repeated in myths worldwide. The repetition of a dream three times adds weight to its meaning and takes it out of the ordinary. (Not that chasing dream spiders across my bedroom is ordinary.)

They are messages, mostly messages to our selves, but so dense that they require unraveling…

I don’t have any particular fear of spiders even if I didn’t collect them as a child. I admire the complexity and beauty of their webs. Years ago when I bought my first Nikon SLR I took dozens of macro photos of spider webs strung across the morning light capturing droplets of fog on Point Reyes. It’s that image I remember first when I think of spiders.

Size often represents importance. Something larger must represent more of a kind—more wisdom, more ferocity, more power, more authority. What are the characteristics of spiders that might be exaggerated by size?

I searched the web for references to dream imagery and spiders. There are a lot of references to spiders in myth, especially native American myths. Among the Southwest tribes Old Spiderwoman is the mother of wisdom. There are myths where the stars themselves are dew captured in a spider’s web woven across the sky. Some of the dream books associate spiders with creativity, especially writing. I’m not sure of the segue between webs and words but I am working well into a novel, not my first attempt but my most promising and most determined. Could the repeated waking dream represent an encouragement to continue the work, to complete it? Could it be reinforcing the importance of the work, at least for me? It seems a strange way to go about it.

And there lies the mystery of dreams. They are messages, mostly messages to our selves, but so dense that they require unraveling, sometimes over years, before they’re understood. They’re like a ball of thread compacted by the gravity of a black hole. The threads each have to be followed before the heart of the mystery is revealed but each thread carries its own meaning. Each thread leads us toward the heart.

Dreams are shaped to capture our attention like a spider’s web. They are webs shaped by a part of ourselves to snare the attention of another part, the waking part which arrogantly thinks itself the only part. The strands of the web are made of images, not words. They require thinking about in a way that precedes words.

So, what’s the meaning of my dream? What’s the meaning of Trina’s? It may take me some time to understand my own but I regard it as important, something worth remembering, something worth reconsidering. It is a message to myself and maybe a message with a larger context. It’s a little scary, surrendering control, acknowledging that my conscious self can be usurped, that dreams can cross over into reality, but also an affirmation that what lies beyond consciousness has tremendous power and potential.

Ghost Dogs

Last night, New Year’s eve, the transition between one year and the next, I lay in bed with a fever and heard Moppet’s bark, a single bark from a dead dog. I recognized it immediately. I had no doubt. I had heard her bark a thousand times. It didn’t seem a dream. I couldn’t distinguish is from waking reality. It was equally real but impossible. I lay in bed thinking it one of those experiences on the edge of dreams, between sleep and wakefulness, and then I heard Mizzen’s bark. A single, unmistakable bark.

Both Mizzen and Moppet died last year. I had been beside them at their death. Hearing them bark could only be a hallucination, probably the result of the fever.

I had been reading Marie-Louise von Franz’s  book On Divination and Synchronicity, The Psychology of Meaningful Chance. She writes about the activation of archetypes and access to the collective unconscious. I thought perhaps my unconscious mind was aware of a danger and using a hallucination as a warning. What more appropriate image of warning than a dog’s bark?

I checked the entire house armed with a .38 caliber revolver. Nothing. The sound of a frame house cracking its joints in the cold, the whirring and humming of motors, my own heartbeat. Otherwise, nothing. No smell of smoke or burning insulation. No footsteps. No shadows fleering in the corners.

Entire worlds might fit in
that space between what is
acknowledged and what
ignored.

Logic assured my conscious mind that no one was in the house but my wife and myself. The perimeter was guarded by alarms. Nothing was likely to get in. There was no immediate risk. I slept uneasily the rest of the night, more awake than asleep. Nothing happened.

But the experience of my dogs barking was so realistic, indistinguishable from reality, that it had significance for me. Of course I could ignore it as an anomaly, symptomatic, random synapses firing in my fevered brain, but that’s what most of us do when confronted by something inconsistent with our definition of normality. In doing so we narrowly constrict what is real. We exclude what doesn’t fit. Entire worlds might fit in that space between what is acknowledged and what ignored.

Today, the first day of the new year, I read in von Franz’s book about animal helpers in fairy tales. Wherever there is a helpful animal in a fairy tale, there is an assurance of success.

Native Americans believed in totem animals, spirit helpers. It’s no longer a common belief in Western cultures enamored with science but perhaps it remains valid in the unconscious where archetypes are less affected by fashion. Although it sounds absurd perhaps my hallucination was a helpful sign, a reassuring sign, rather than symptomatic. It’s a small thing but I’ll take it.

God, Chess and Einstein’s Dilemma

Tristan Jones once sailed to the Arctic Ocean in a converted lifeboat and the company of a three legged, one-eyed dog. Frankly, I think the dog was the only one he could convince.

Tristan_Jones Inevitably the ice fields closed around him and the boat was trapped in the lee of an enormous berg. The counterbalancing mass beneath the surface eroded and the berg shifted, positioning thousands of tons of blue ice directly above the lifeboat held fast by the pack ice. Throughout the arctic winter the odds were even whether the pack would free the boat first or the berg would turn turtle and crush it like a rotten melon.

Jones mostly ate burgoo, a loathsome layering of porridge, bacon, and whatever else was at hand, flavored with whiskey and frozen in a barrel on deck. Meals consisted of chipping off bits of burgoo with a hammer and heating it in a paraffin stove. The dog ate the same but probably enjoyed it more.

God lit the fuse that ignited the Big Bang, the dice were rolled, and the game begun.

Jones played chess with himself. A game with proper suspense required he forget his opponents’ strategy, a sort of self-induced schizophrenia. At first he had to wait several weeks between moves until he had forgotten the old strategy of what was now his new opponent. It was awkward.

Over time he perfected his ability to play without cheating. Not only could he bounce between players in the game, occupying the memories and strategy of one while forgetting the other, but a third personality developed, a meta personality that impartially observed both players, cognizant of either strategy, forming judgments and opinions but giving away no clues to the opponents. The lifeboat became rather crowded.

I wonder if God plays chess.

Before the first creation, before the spark that ignited the universe, God was pure potential, the sum of all possibilities but the realization of none. What’s the point of potential if it’s never actualized? I suspect God was like a kid with a new 12-gauge shotgun and nothing to shoot.

Of course it’s absurd to ascribe human emotions to something utterly beyond human experience. Whatever the impetus, God lit the fuse that ignited the Big Bang, the dice were rolled, and the game begun.

There’s a problem. A game is hardly interesting if you already know the outcome. God was faced with Tristan Jones’ dilemma: How do you play a game alone? I suspect God’s solution was the same—forget that all the players are yourself.

It’s an elegant solution if simplistic. Everything comes from God initially; everything returns. In the interim, everything forgets itself in order to play the game convincingly.

Einstein, confronted by the inherent uncertainty of Quantum Mechanics, asserted that God didn’t play dice with the universe. Perhaps he was wrong.

Of course, it’s not my original idea. It’s been kicking about for thousands of years, probably first recorded in cuneiform on clay tablets. God is insatiably curious. Curiosity is the spark that ignited creation. Of course God, being omniscient, already knew what would happen. But we didn’t. We’re continually surprised, delighted, appalled, enraptured, disgusted, intrigued, excited, depressed, disappointed, amazed. In short, we’re immersed and enthralled by the game.

And that may explain those people with near death experiences who don’t remain dead, their entire lives flashing before their eyes in exacting detail complete with emotional soundtrack played in a bubble of timelessness. It sounds rather like a data dump, the incredibly dense data of a person’s entire life.

Albert_EinsteinI find that thought oddly comforting. Nothing is lost, nothing forgotten. Every false start, every failed ambition is remembered. As well, every kindness, every selfless act, and every bit of wonder.

Einstein, confronted by the inherent uncertainty of Quantum Mechanics, asserted that God didn’t play dice with the universe. Perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps God does play dice. Or chess.

A Mythical Bridge

image  Hood Canal Bridge. Photo attribution: timtim 011 on Flickr.com.

The Hood Canal is a narrow body of water extending about 50 miles from its entrance at Foulweather Bluff, past a hard turn to the northeast at The Great Bend, and another 15 miles to the shallow tideland at Lynch Cove. It has an average width of 1.5 miles, a mean depth of 177 feet, 212 miles of shoreline, a surface area of 148 square miles, and it’s spanned by a mythical bridge.

Certainly the Hood Canal Bridge has a concrete reality, not to mention construction. It’s supported by cement pontoons that float, mostly, above a depth of water between 80 and 340 feet, water subject to a tidal range as much as 18 feet. It spans the 7,869 feet between the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas. Together the two spans weigh almost 5,000 tons. You can find all that on Wikipedia. But the bridge floats upon a fjord, has foundered and been refloated, and even its current reconstruction has resurrected the dead.

A Historical Misnomer

image 
Hood Canal Bridge from a distance. Photo attribution: keistersmom on flicker.com.

But first, a bit of background. The Hood Canal was named by Captain George Vancouver, one of the first cartographers to Puget Sound and therefore entitled to name things indiscriminately. Of course, those same things had been named by the people who already lived here but, frankly, they weren’t English. Vancouver named it after Samuel Hood, Lord of the Admiralty and one of Britain’s few competent commanders during the American Revolution. Actually, he named it twice—Hood Canal and Hood Channel. Both were wrong.

Outside of Puget Sound,
bridges rarely float.

A canal is an artificial waterway used either for navigation or transporting fresh water. A channel is typically a navigable passage between larger bodies of water. The Hood Canal was shaped by glaciation utterly without the help of humans. It doesn’t connect one body of water with another. It’s an inlet or, more exactly, a fjord. And a fjord, to restate the obvious, is a valley carved by ice and drowned by the sea. The fact that it’s called Hood Canal has led to some puzzlement in other parts of the world. In Puget Sound, we’ve gotten over it.

Bridges usually soar above an obstruction. Outside of Puget Sound, they rarely float. There is a floating bridge that across Dubai Creek (who knew they had creeks in Dubai?) but it’s temporary. And until 1992, a floating bridge spanned the Golden Horn in Istanbul. But the only other part of the world to make common use of floating bridges is Norway where they have even more fjords than Puget Sound.

Foundering

image The Hood Canal Bridge in a breeze. Photo attribution: Chimacum Joy on flickr.com

The Hood Canal Bridge hasn’t always floated. Eighteen years after it had been launched, it sank in a storm. Sustained winds of 85 mph scoured the Hood Canal. Gusts of 120 mph buffeted the bridge. Pontoons lost their anchorhold and drifted free. Hatches were blown open, pontoons filled with water and sank. The western half of the bridge to the drawspan foundered. It was three years before the damage was repaired. And it’s not the only time a local bridge has sank.

The lifespan of a bridge floating in salt water is longer than that of a Portuguese water dog but less than a Galapagos tortoise. Fewer than thirty years after its resurrection, the bridge builders began building its replacement. In those intervening years the population of Puget Sound has blossomed like pond scum and the industrial waterfront succumbed to gentrification. There was no place near Seattle to build the massive pontoons. Instead, Port Angeles was chosen.

Port Angeles was much further from the Hood Canal than Seattle but had the advantage of poverty. Since the timber industry and commercial fishing had shriveled, there was plenty of waterfront property available in Port Angeles and a desperate desire to utilize it. The people of Port Angeles saw the construction as their bridge to prosperity. But when the construction equipment began clearing away the industrial remnants of the timber industry from the shore of Ediz Hook, they began unearthing bones. Human bones. A lot of them.

Village of the Dead

It was Tse-whit-zen, the ancestral village of the Klallam people occupying the Lower Elwha River. The Klallam had lived on Ediz Hook for generations prior to first contact with Spanish explorers in the 1770s. Then they began to die from smallpox, influenza and measles. They had no immunity, no protection. Entire villages of First Peoples were decimated throughout the Pacific Northwest. In some places there was no one left alive to bury the dead. There may have been 3,200 Klallam before 1770; by 1880 there were 485.

image 
The ruins of Tse-whit-zen. Photo attribution: nwpainter on flickr.com

At Tse-whit-zen, the dead were stacked like cordwood. They embraced one another, husband and wife, mother and child. Among the dead was a mother with an unborn child in her womb. There was no ceremony in their burial. They were hurried into the ground by the few who remained alive but those few may have taken revenge upon the shaman and medicine men who failed them. Skeletons were found beheaded, buried face down, their hands covering their face.

The Washington State Department of Transportation finally abandoned the site have disinterring 335 intact skeletons. The construction equipment fell silent, the workers left, and the dead reclaimed their land. The bridge was built in Tacoma.

A Mythical Bridge

The bridge spans more than the Hood fjord. It’s footed in time as well as space. It guards the western approach to a land that is itself mythical, a land form by the c
ollision of the sea and the shore where mountains rise like stone waves, forests are entangled in cloud, and people hunt whales with clam shells.

The Sight of God

Henry Miller wrote of the Big Sur coast south of San Francisco:

If the soul were to choose an arena in which to stage its agonies, this would be the place for it. One feels exposed—not only to the elements, but to the sight of God. Naked, vulnerable, set against an overwhelming backdrop of might and majesty, one’s problems become magnified because of the proscenium on which the conflict is staged.

The Sur coast is a landscape of immensity. The western horizon encompasses a vast expanse of empty ocean where humanity leaves no track, no sign of our passage, no imprint upon nature’s harsh indifference. The eastern horizon is bound by steep waves of stone—the coast range hills—mountains cleft by ravines where the sound of rock slides rumble and cliffs fall sheer to the sea. It is a landscape naked and exposed to the sight of God.

Sur_coast  Big Sur coast at sunset. Photo attribution: Rick Pawl, flickr.com.

Where the nature of the Sur coast is immensity, the northern coast of Washington is one of intimacy. Clouds descend to the earth, fog rises to the sky, dampness drips from leaves like rain, and the horizon encloses you like a polished shell. It is an equally dramatic coast but a different drama. To paraphrase Henry Miller, “If the soul were to choose an arena in which to dream, this would be the place.

We have no mythology of place,
no stories to explain our experience on the land.

The thing is, we have no mythology to explain either landscape. Unlike the aboriginal peoples who lived here first, we have no mythology of place, no stories to interpret our experience of the land. We have no technology of the psyche other than psychology which, like the rest of our technology, seems external, manipulative, coercive and utterly inadequate to explain our place in the world.

I think we have been driven mad by our lack of a compelling mythology. How else explain our unchecked rampage toward extinction? We have turned on the earth as if it were an enemy and made war against our gods.

Perhaps the medieval alchemists were right: As above, so below. Perhaps the vast reaches of the landscape reflect the vast space within ourselves, as if galaxies spin like Catherine wheels in the space between our cells.

We’ve lost our place in the world. We’ve come adrift and feel ourselves forsaken.

Maybe there’s a modern myth that appeals more to the vocabulary of our time—the holographic universe. Any piece of a hologram contains a complete image of the whole. Each shard of a shattered hologram contains all of the information of the original, a complete replica. We mirror the universe in ourselves.  As above, so below.

Washington_coast_fog  Washington coast in fog. Photo attribution: Jody Miller, flickr.com

But we’ve lost our place in the world. We’ve come adrift and feel ourselves forsaken. In our anger we thought to slay the gods, the high gods and the local gods of place. Instead we  turned sharp blades upon ourselves.

Tragedy looms for our species
…if we can’t regain our balance,
…if we can’t find again that sense of mystery that makes the world holy, 
…if we can’t believe that the universe resides within ourselves,
…if we can’t acknowledge the sanctity of earth and sky, sea and shore.

If we are not here, the sun will still set on that nameless southern coast and polish the ocean like brass and the clouds will still entangle the coastal forests of the north like a landscape of dream. Over time, the earth will regain its balance. Nature will spin off new complexities like sparks from a Catherine wheel. But what we might have become will be lost and also lost what we might have contributed to the whole if our sense of responsibility had kept pace with our power and we had not descended into madness.

The Rabbit Hole

Another chain letter is weaving a Conga line among Facebook subscribers, this time drawing significance from an MP3 player set to randomly shuffle songs. The arbitrary songs are matched to a sequence of life events like a soundtrack of your life proceeding from opening credits to funeral song. The curious thing is the seeming significance in the random paring. In my case, the significance becomes more pronounced as I approach the end of my movie. For example, the birth of a child was haphazardly paired with Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy.” And others…

Final battle: “Spirits in the Material World,” by The Police.
Death Scene: “Crawlin’ King Snake,” by John Lee Hooker.
Funeral song: “Is there Anybody Out There,” by Pink Floyd.

 

Jung called it synchronicity. Giving it a name and describing it as “acausal but meaningful significance” may be reassuring doesn’t really explain the absurdity. For that you need to travel down the rabbit hole into the holographic universe. The defining characteristic of a hologram is that every piece contains all the information of the whole. If the whole were a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, then any part broken off would also contain the complete portrait of Abraham Lincoln. It’s hard to get your head around but that’s quantum mechanics for you.

If the universe is really holographic then every part contains the whole and every moment mirrors infinity. In such a world meaning can bridge the universe, time is like a snow globe, and coincidence is just a slightly different angle of view. In that world steaming entrails can once again auger the future and the crows can become portents.

…This I mean my mind to serve
‘Til service is but magic, moving through the world
And mind itself is magic, coursing through the flesh
And flesh itself is magic, dancing on a clock,
And Time itself, the magic length of God!
God is Alive, Magic Is Afoot
Leonard Cohen

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