A Fresh Take On The Middle East

Recently, I revisited the Striding Lion relief at the ROM. I have stood before it many times, and it still captures my imagination and stirs me deeply. Why?

I learn from the notes that the relief originally adorned the façade of the palace of King Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 BC) at Babylon. This king not only initiated the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews, but also oversaw the construction of the iconic ziggurat, the Tower Of Babel. You might ask, why would such a king want to feature lions prominently in his palace?

In Mesopotamian myths, the lion is king of the wild, representing the natural antithesis to the Babylonian ruler, who exemplified and personified the established order of things. The lion was not merely an animal, but a great power and in some respects his equal. It is not mere decoration, and evokes feelings of great power. (In an earlier post, I wrote about the Mithras relief in the Near East Gallery. In that piece, Mithras engaged with the bull and dominated it completely — a mastery of will.)

At home, I took out Linden Macintyre’s story about the piece, which incudes this passage:
The tawny lion, rampant, strides across his medium of glazed blue brick, jaws wide in a territorial roar, and we are linked by his reality to a civilization that flourished two and a half millennia ago…The striding lion and his assertion of immortality, and the boundless possibilities in human creativity, leave us silent, contemplative, perhaps inspired.

As an accomplished writer, Macintyre shows how it is possible to feel the power of this striding lion today. It’s not just a historical record but a living testament of greater forces that transcend our everyday dreamings.

I am a little closer to understanding why this relief stirs me (aside from being a great relief from the tedious flat images that bombard me today!) One important lesson is the cultivation of my own feelings. Next time I find myself in a difficult conversation, perhaps I will think of the lion and assert the boundless possibilities in human creativity.

Every Object Tells A Story, Royal Ontario Museum, 2014 (articles by Clemens Reichel and Linden Macintyre)
ROM Online Collection notes

Related post: Babylon Today

Doing Good In Bad Times

What happens next?

I see and hear things I do not understand. I am a skilled, resourceful…vegetable.

I have recently been enjoying the Jason Bourne books and movies. They are entertaining and well-produced, but that’s only part of the experience. They also challenge me to look at my own life in new — and difficult — ways.

Jason: I’m a hollow shell who doesn’t even own the memories he thinks he has. With demons rushing around kicking hell out of the walls.

Marie: Those aren’t demons — they’re parts of you — angry, furious, screaming to get out because they don’t belong in the shell you’ve given them.

I am not a trained assassin, and I don’t think my mind was reengineered in a government lab. Having said that, elements of Jason’s story seem very familiar. I have lived a comfortable life, but sub-surface violence periodically erupts in displays of anger and frustration. What is this shell I have given myself?

In a man-made labyrinth, he kept running, careening off the walls, the contact itself being a form of progress, if only blind. His personal labyrinth had no walls, no defined corridors through which to race. Only space, and swirling mists in the darkness that he saw clearly only when he opened his eyes at night and felt the sweat pouring down his own face.

Sometimes I feel that my own life path has been very much like Jason’s labyrinth. The good times are fleeting memories, and the failures are lasting scars. But Robert Ludlum is not so pessimistic.

Rays of his own personal sunlight burst into the dark corners of his mind. In the distance, doors were opening, but they were still too far away and only partially open. But there was light, where before there was only darkness.

I am not who I think I am. There are only those rare moments when I feel that my true self is present, or when I feel the authentic presence of another person. Like Jason Bourne, I must never give up the quest. All the obstacles and disappointments are integral parts of the journey.

Jason Bourne: Then break all the rules!
David Webb: I don’t know how. Help me!
JB: Use me!  Use what you learned from me. You’ve got the tools, you’ve had them for years.  You were the best in Medusa.  Above all, there was control.  You preached that, you lived that,.  And you stayed alive.  
Control.  Such a simple word.  Such an incredible demand.

Who is controlling my life? How can I bring my demons to the surface without being overwhelmed by them? In the case of David Webb/Jason Bourne, an unbreakable personal faith is the critical factor. (Matt Damon seems to know this, and his portrayal of the role(s) in the movies is very powerful.) However, it was the faith of others in him that enabled him to reclaim his identity.

Note: This is a revised version of an earlier post. Quotations in this post are from The Bourne Identity, by Robert Ludlum, Bantam 2016, and The Bourne Supremacy, Bantam 2012. I have recorded some more quotes here if you are interested.

Learning From The Gods

In my previous post, I wrote about Kafka’s frozen sea, and referred to this Roman Mithraic Relief at the ROM. I returned to the Museum yesterday, and renewed my acquaintance with this remarkable artwork. Here are some more reflections.

With the curator’s help, I begin to grasp all the details and historical contexts of the Mithras figure. Here is the curator’s text:

In Persian Zoroastrianism, Mithras was a god of light, truth, and the promised word. In this Roman relief, he wears the Persian costume of folded cap, tunic, and trousers. Mithraism was adapted by the Romans as a mystery cult, much favoured by the Roman army. The cult was exclusively for men. The slaying of the mystic bull implies the triumph of good over evil, the giving of immortality and happiness beyond the grave.

These basic facts stimulate many thoughts and new perspectives. Then the dynamics of the work emerge. I am reminded of Keats’ Ode On A Grecian Urn. The urn gives a picture of a frozen moment in time, but the poem brings it to life. And so I ask, what comes to life in me when I gaze at Mithras. What is the process that leads to the static image before me? Two main elements strike me: the pounding hoofs and writhing torso of the bull, and the guided strength and skill of the man.

Now I notice that the man is not really separate from the bull, but flows into it. Together, they form a single gesture. The bull is actually part of the man, now brought into its proper relation. Only by conquering evil in himself is he prepared to meet it in the world.

Finally, I see the steady gaze, looking straight out at me. (Unlike other works in this genre, the eyes are not looking down.) With a start, I realize what this means to me. I will never master my demons until I am able to look past them.

What About MY Frozen Sea?

Literature is the axe for the frozen sea within us

When I chose this quote from Franz Kafka as the tag line for the blog, I was thinking about how it applied to the study of literature. In recent weeks, I have been looking at the frozen sea within me. What have I been learning about my own journey? Am I making progress, or am I still skating on the surface of the ice?

In the current issue of Lapham’s Quarterly (14 iii), there is an excerpt from the book The Journey Of Ibn Fattouma, by Naguib Nahfouz. In the notes, we are told that the title is an allusion to the travelogue of Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta, who visited Mesopotamia, India, China, and the Iberian Peninsula in the fourteenth century. The protagonist is a seeker after truth, and he expresses his longing to a wise guide. The response he receives hit me right between the eyes:

You left your land for knowledge, and yet you have turned aside from the target many times, and have wasted valuable time in darkness….You are a deserter. You made your journey a pretext for fleeing from your duty.

Stinging words. In my literature studies, am I enjoying the struggles of others, while ignoring my own perilous state? Skating on thin ice?

Mithraic relief, ROM Near East Gallery

I realize that this admonition can also apply to my enjoyment of temples like the Royal Ontario Museum. When I contemplate the Mithraic relief in Near East Gallery, for instance, am I just thinking symbolically, or do I begin to sense this riveting drama in my own soul, and find empathy for those around me who are in a similar situation?

We can perhaps understand — with our modern minds — what these archetypal stories meant to the Ancient Persians and Romans, as the curatorial notes suggest. But what do they mean to us?

Being With Rocks

Fishtail Gypsum

Over the past week, I have been reflecting on my many visits to the Teck Gallery at the Royal Ontario Museum. How can I shift from just looking at these (stunning! beautiful!) specimens to a more visceral experience? In this post, I share some preliminary observations.

Note: This post was inspired by an article by Craig Holdrege of the Nature Institute in Ghent N.Y.: Being With The World: A Path To Qualitative Insight.

When I first look at this specimen, I am struck by its complexity and dynamic structure. I contemplate it from many angles, and observe — seemingly countless! — details. I read the curator’s comments, and feel a sense of wonder…The forces of Nature are simply amazing.

I touch my body, and consider the qualities of my own skeleton. I have never seen it, of course, but somehow, I can feel it. And now I feel a kind of resonance with the object in the case in front of me. I have the sense that my bones share many of the rock’s qualities.

There is an obvious, important difference: this rock has been forming over many thousands of years, while my own bone cycle is already on the home stretch at the age of 70. However, I do have some understanding of how my skeleton has taken shape over my lifetime, and perhaps this can help me feel the nature of the forces that have shaped this rock. No longer just a static object, it gives me a momentary glimpse — a frame of reference — for its underlying dynamic processes.

Based on my limited knowledge of geology, I believe that these processes are mainly horizontal in nature, as far as the Earth’s crust is concerned. However, the gesture of my skeleton is vertical. But I would not be able to stand without the ground to stand on — another resonant experience!

Now I ask myself, what is my skeleton for? I reflect on how the structure of my bones is somehow purpose-driven. They make it possible for me to do so many different things. Could it be that rocks are also in some way purpose-driven? Why is it that even the most barren rocky scarps stir me deeply? Could it be that the forces shaping the rocks are the same as those shaping my bones? And so I begin to feel that I am no longer looking at the rock, but being with it.

Rock Music

But this rather awesome, infinite land we were now viewing
was capable of evoking hylopathic sentiments, managing in some way to impart
a sense of life even to the most somber scarps.  
– R. D. Lawrence, in The North Runner, Ch. 9

Hylopathic — a new word for me! — literally means the ability of spirit to penetrate and affect matter.  Ironically, it is when we encounter a “barren” mineral landscape that we have such deep experiences of awe and wonder. Hylopathic is also a good word to describe the experience when entering the Teck Gallery at the Royal Ontario Museum. The vast array of mineral “specimens” seems to be quivering with life. Even though everything is locked up in glass cases, our impressions come alive inside us — somatic resonance!

Delicate shapes, shimmering colours — where else could you find such a stunning display? And that’s just the beginning. Close your eyes, let your impressions flow freely. Before you know it, you have — rock music! Instead of a static record, you can enjoy a live performance.

In this way, you can experience how rocks come to life in you. To find out how complex life forms appeared outside, you need to cross over to the Dawn Of Life Gallery, and learn about stromatolites. Very early in the Earth’s history, tiny organisms were covered by sand and mud, and they poked through again to reach sunlight.  This process was repeated countless times, and the result was a rock-like formation — a stromatolite. One important outcome was the generation of oxygen, which became the critical factor in the evolution of more complex life forms on Earth….and that’s a whole new chapter!

Note: This is a revised version of an earlier post. MM

Opening Doors At The Museum

This pair of ‘soul jars’ with birds on the tops is made tall to symbolically reach heaven.

Hey bro, catch this — soul jars with funny birds on top.  My soul needs a good jar now and then…heh-heh.

Listen class.  At that time, people believed that they had souls, and that these jars would help them get to heaven when they died.  We now know, of course, that all this is just symbolism.

Relax,  Listen.  Breathe.  Now study these jars.  Notice all the details, and let them resonate throughout your body.  No need to think at all — just let your thoughts go away when they arise…

Yes, children, your revered father has left our shores and started his journey to the great Islands.  We asked our temple warden to create these simple jars to prepare us for our journey — yes, my lovely children, I too will soon be joining him.  Please take care of these jars in the years to come as our journey will be long and arduous.  And yes, little one, those birdies are just like our dear cuckaroos, and all of their friends will help to speed us along.

Mommy, look at those funny birds!  Mommy!  Where are you mommy???

O dear, where am I?… Birch poles, scent of burning cedars… A great bird staring at me…or is it a bird?

O, so you see me at last!  I have passed many vigils at your bedside, waiting, wanting to help you find the hidden doors and open them.  How funny it is that this tusk — in the white man’s museum of all places — finally got your attention.  And it’s not even ours — it was made by a distant descendant!  But now I can tell you the stories you have been longing to hear, about the times you are just beginning to remember.  Come through the grass curtain and you will…

Excuse me Ma’am.  Is this your daughter?  Please be more careful — you never know what might happen around here!

Thank you sir!  O sweetie, I’m so sorry…Here, let’s see what this one says:

Images carved into the tusk show both physical and spiritual worlds.

Mommy, let’s just look at this one for a while.  I think it likes you!


Don’t worry, little blossom.  Your mommy is taking a nap.  Come with me, and I’ll take you into the quiet garden.  

O yeah!  This must be where all of mommy’s stories come from!  But here they’re real — just like I always hoped.  Mommy always tells me these stories, and then says they’re not real. But where is the Peacock?  She’s the real story teller.  O look — here she is.  I want to…

Well dear, look at this beautiful picture.  Let me read what it says:

The popular peacock!  In different cultures it symbolizes
resurrection, Paradise and holds mystical lore.

But mommy!  The Peaco…

Now dear…Maybe we’ve seen enough for today.

Well, I’m so glad the patrons are enjoying the exhibits, each in their own way. I’m very happy that my extensive curatorial training has made it possible to provide a context for them to…

Wait a minute.  What’s happening here?  It’s foggy, and very still.  O, and those bells!  I hate the wind chimes on my neighbour’s house, but this is different.  Listen… they’re calling me!

Yes, we are calling you to forget all your so-called knowledge and listen — listen to the bells.  Are you now remembering?

The scented air, the calm procession, and  these fine robes — yes, I feel them on my skin.  I left my home and family and found myself here.  Soon the lady with the scissors, creams and razor will appear.  My pate will be smooth, and radiant with the moon’s light.  And then I will enter the…

O, I see.  Here I am back in the Gallery:

This wall mural depicts Maitreya, and symbolizes the hope for enlightenment.

But it’s not a symbol — it’s the real deal!  Who wrote this stuff?  Uh-Oh…that would be me.  They’ll make me pay for this…Yikes.  I think I know where they’re taking me:

Yanluo is the King of all the hells who commands an army of demons.

O please sir.  I do have glimpses of the true spirit but I have been trained not to speak of this.  If you spare me the punishments, I will make amends!  

Well, I guess this is where they want me to start:

On this stele, flying immortals hold the horse’s hooves
so the galloping won’t disturb the palace guards.

Hmmm. Now  I just need to figure out how to tell real stories — and keep my salary!

Note: This post was inspired by the (wonderful!) Eternal Life Hike at the Royal Ontario Museum. (Link to Trail Guide – If this link doesn’t work for you, you can download the Guide from the ROM website: www.rom.on.ca)

Type legend:
Normal: Spoken in the present at the ROM.
Italic: Spoken in a spiritual realm.
Text Box: Quotes from the ROM Trail Guide.

I Need A Refill

Just raindrops…
refilling the earth

Just raindrops…
little ones
splish splosh
random streaks
on the window

Just raindrops…
looking at me
stuck, wondering
Why is he still dry?

can you somehow
refill ME?

Marley’s Ghost On Zoom

As a young boy, I remember my grandfather standing for a long time in front of a TV set, staring at the flickering images. I knew all about TVs, of course, and wondered why he had this puzzled, pained expression.

In the course of my career, I have spent thousands of hours helping highly educated people figure out what was happening on screens. For instance, in the 1990s I was closely involved with the first province-wide Intranet system, and struggled to maintain some authentic human interaction in this new virtual environment. Today, along with everyone else, I have been thrown into the Zoom soup, and feel more like my grandfather every day. Aaaargh!

Well, once again, I turn to literature. At the end of Stave One of Dickens’ The Christmas Carol, Marley’s ghost has just disappeared, leaving Scrooge gazing out the window:

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went…The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever.

This passage echoes many of the feelings I have when participating in today’s Zoom conversations. There is always an undercurrent of anxiety behind the surface of the neatly organized screen: Yes, but what are we going to DO?

The subsequent Staves of the book give us some clues. Our past memories and current images of life are not reliable. If we take a genuine interest in people – rather than just projecting our preformed opinions – good stuff will happen. Of course, media tools can help with this, but we have to do the basic inner work ourselves. Dickens writes at the beginning of the last Stave:

The time before him was his own, to make amends in!

See also: Why Scrooge Listened.


The Birds Are Tweeting Us

Poem of the Week: “The Season of Phantasmal Peace,” by Derek Walcott – The  RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU

In recent years, human minds have become increasingly preoccupied with activities on the Internet. For many, “virtual reality” is no longer an oxymoron but a redundant term: our experiences in cyberspace have become “real” and are no longer merely virtual. As I have discussed elsewhere on the blog, this conflation of impressions from digital media with physical sense experiences can have harmful consequences.

It is difficult to argue this point intellectually. Instead, we need to shift our minds a bit, and open our souls to experiences that transcend the limitations of digital experience. For instance, imagine if the birds singing outside your window are not just mindless bits of organic life, but friends and allies of human beings at this difficult time:

Then all the nations of birds lifted together
the huge net of the shadows of this earth
in multitudinous dialects, twittering tongues,
stitching and crossing it…

And men could not see, looking up, what the wild geese drew,
what the ospreys trailed behind them in silvery ropes
that flashed in the icy sunlight; they could not hear
battalions of starlings waging peaceful cries,
bearing the net higher, covering this world
like the vines of an orchard, or a mother drawing
the trembling gauze over the trembling eyes
of a child fluttering to sleep

Imagine what might happen if more people listened like Walcott! Here is the full text of his poem:

The Season Of Phantasmal Peace by Derek Walcott