Remembering My Brother Robert

I learned that yesterday was Siblings Day and that made me think of Robert. Robert was my younger brother, third child and second boy among four siblings. We grew up in suburban New Jersey, in the orbit of New York City, in the 1960s. When we were kids we played board games together, drank too much soda, and stayed up way too late in the Summer watching old movies on a black and white TV.

All four of us kids were smart in school, but Robert was scary intelligent. He was top of his class for four years in High School, then went on to Notre Dame University. Later he got a Masters in English from Columbia.

During and after college, he spent a lot of time in Europe, especially Germany. A High School friend of mine, who was in the military, ran into Robert in a Beer Garden in Bavaria. What at the odds? Years later, Robert visited me in Atlanta and gave me a fragment of painted concrete that he said “might have been” part of the Berlin Wall. I still have it.

Robert settled in New York City, and while attending Columbia got an internship at the Village Voice. He started writing theater reviews and before long the Voice was running them. Later, he founded a newsletter on the AIDS epidemic, and in 1989 was named the Voice’s editor in charge of AIDS coverage.

I knew Robert was HIV positive, and in the autumn of 1993, he called me long distance and told me he had contracted a related condition that proved terminal “in most cases.” I asked if there was anything I could do, and he asked me to be an executor of his will, to make sure his partner was able to keep their apartment. I flew up to New York to visit him and deal with the legal stuff.

The day I was to leave, we talked about his condition and the chances of survival. He said, “You know, I might get better. But think of how embarrassing it will be after causing all this excitement.”

On my way out the door I hugged him and said, “Get better. Risk the embarrassment.”

He laughed.

Five months later he died, at the age of 37.

I know he was only one of many, many wonderful people who died too early because of AIDs. He documented the epidemic in his writings and helped shape public awareness and policy. The saddest part for me is how his life was cut off, unfinished, and thinking about what other contributions he might have made.

St. Paddy’s Day Dialogue at the Bank

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

I was at the bank today, where I met a young man teller whose name seemed to indicate a Middle Eastern heritage.

Himself: I like your green shirt:  St. Paddy’s Day.

Me: Yup.

Himself: What is St. Paddy’s Day anyway?

Other teller: It’s the Saint’s day. St. Patrick.

Himself:  Oh…Why does everyone drink on a saint’s day?

Me: Well, he’s the patron saint of Ireland. And when the Irish immigrants came over to America — which many, many did in the late 1800s because they were starving  — they wanted to celebrate their saint’s day, and they did it with lots of drinking.

Himself: Oh. I see. Thank you for the history.

Me: I am here to educate the younger generation.

Himself: And we appreciate it.

Me: Well, some do, some don’t. But it’s all good.

******
Meantime, here is a picture of me posted by my Irish friend Kate. I don’t think it quite does me justice.

Fun and Games with Shakespeare

Or What You Will

My wife and I are Shakespeare enthusiasts in the extreme. So we were delighted to discover the St. Petersburg Shakespeare Festival. Last Friday evening, a couple of blocks from the waterfront, in a courtyard between two Victorian houses, under an enormous oak tree, we watched a wonderful performance of Twelfth Night, one of our favorite plays.

We’ve seen it a number of times before, and talked about some of the puns and hidden meanings. On the long drive home over the Sunshine Skyway, we had another of those conversations.

souce: https://www.emaze.com/@ATOIZTFR/The-Sunshine-Skyway-Bridge

One thing we find interesting is the similar names of several of the characters—Malvolio, Olivia, and Viola. All share the same letters.

According to the website BehindtheName.com, the name Malvolio was invented by Shakespeare and means “ill will” in Italian. From the same site, we learn that “Olivia” was also first used in Twelfth Night, and is probably derived from the name of the olive tree. “Viola” meanwhile, is Latin for violet.

Scene from ‘Twelfth Night’ (‘Malvolio and the Countess’) exhibited 1840 Daniel Maclise 1806-1870 Presented by Robert Vernon 1847 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00423

So if we think of all characters as being projections of the author, and recall that Shakespeare went by the name “Will,” we have Malvolio, or the bad Will. We also have Olivia, the Will who is like the olive, because she is bitter and melancholy. And Viola, the Will who is bright and clever.

Okay, those last two might be a bit of a stretch.

But then again, Shakespeare subtitled the play “What You Will”

Hmmm.

One line that’s always been a bit of a mystery is in Act 2, Scene 5. Malvolio is reading a letter left for him to find by the servant Mary and meant for him to mistake as coming from the Countess Olivia. The letter does not name him, but hints at his name by spelling out M O A I. Malvolio puzzles over whether this is meant to be him, and then reads:

“If this fall into thy hand, revolve…” and there follows the famous quote that “Some are born great, etc.”

But “revolve”? This is sometimes played on stage for comic effect by Malvolio twirling around. That’s good.

According to the Annotated Twelfth Night the word revolve means “think things over.” Also good.

But my brilliant wife discovered that if you revolve the page (turn it upside down) and look at the letters MOAI…

you get something that looks very much like “I VOW”…

…Which also fits the meaning of the text.

Hmmmm.

Sonnet for Aphrodite

In celebration of Valentine’s Day…

Aphrodite
Conceived in wind and foam and born in Spring,
O lovely, tempting Goddess of the wave,
What cunning pleasures, what sweet pains you bring,
How perfectly you crush the dreams you gave.
Since long ago you touched the shore in Cyprus,
Trailing salt and flame from the hissing sea,
Mortals have chased you, desperate for bliss,
Enslaved each other while longing to be free.
Leaving all, like broken shells in sand,
You pass mildly on, blithely out of reach;
Not passion but compassion you demand,
Our hearts divine and perfect Love to teach–
That Love that changes death to life again,
Makes atoms dance and galaxies to spin.

Detail from The Birth of Venus by Botticelli

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Sunken Gardens and Sand Paintings

This week, my wife and I visited the Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg.

According to the brochure, the gardens date back to 1903, when George Turner, “a plumber and avid gardener,” purchased and drained a shallow lake, which had filled an ancient sinkhole.  They’re called sunken, because the whole place is 10 to 15 feet below street-level. What a great use for a sinkhole, I must say.

Flamingos at the Sunken Gardens

The gardens are full of streams, ponds, and waterfalls. Along with the Flamingos you can see turtles, parrots, cockatoos and fish. But the real attractions are the trees and tropical plants from all over the world.

This limestone slab was found at the bottom when they drained the lake.

The plaque claims that anyone who sits on the stone is gifted with tranquility, inner harmony, and the talent to make things grow. All new employees of Sunken Garden sit on the stone as part of their orientation. Now that is out-of-the-box talent development, folks.

Naturally, my wife and I took the opportunity to sit on the stone. What happened later might just be a coincidence.

After touring the gardens, we had lunch in downtown St. Petersburg. Walking back to our car, we passed a craft gallery. Inside, four Tibetan Monks were creating a sand painting.

Tibetan Sand Painting (through the window).

We went inside to get a better look. The painting featured a white dove at the center.

The whole experience was one of deep tranquility and inner harmony.

But like I said, it might just be a coincidence.

Old Florida: The Grounds of the Ringling Museum

One of my favorite “Old Florida” spots is the Ringling Museum of Art complex in Sarasota. You can read about how this wonderful place came to be on their official website.

On a nice Saturday in January, I had the chance to tour the gardens…

This pond and statue are near the gate house.

 

A Rainbow Eucalyptus tree showing off its beautiful colored bark.

This is a Bo Tree, under which the Buddha gained enlightenment. Well, not this particular one:

This Banyan grove overlooks Sarasota Bay.

The Gardens are not without their dangers. The Banyan trees, for example, have been known to eat the statues.

…and the Bunya Bunya trees can drop 20 pound “pine cones” on your head.

There are even naked zombie statues lurking in the foliage.

But for the most part, the denizens of the garden are friendly.

…And Mabel Ringling’s Rose Garden is lovely beyond belief:

The Ringlings are buried at the edge of the property. Here, a butterfly is paying her respects.

This lion and sphinx apparently had an argument. I think they are stuck with each other, so hopefully they will make it up.

The courtyard of the art museum. The reproduction of Michelangelo’s David  is used on the logo of Sarasota County.

Herne at Yule

Now it is Yule Time. The Solstice is just past, the light starting to grow again, and Herne the Hunter is stirring in the depths of the forest.

Herne is mentioned in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor as a local ghost who haunts Windsor Wood. But Margaret Murray, in her 1931 book God of the Witches, posits that Herne is a manifestation of a much older being, Cernunnos, the Celtic horned god. (For more on this, see here).

Source///http://www.houseofwinterspells.com/1675/attributes-of-the-horned-god-during-the-dark-night-of-the-soul/

Herne/Cernunnos is the God of Nature, Lord of the Forest and of wild creatures. Because it is Nature that feeds us, he is the provider of food and therefore of life. I think of him as the embodiment of Desire with a capital D—the fire in the belly that drives us all to live.

Herne
The spirit worlds are deep and high,
In firelight and smoky air,
In sparkling stream and cave and sky,
And Herne is there.

The forest seethes in emerald light,
In tusk of boar and snout of deer;
A shaman dances in the night,
And Herne is near.

And cities race on wheels and fumes,
Computer screens where data burns,
Workers scurry through the rooms:
So many Hernes.

The human world leafs from the Tree
Because we hunters chase and yearn;
Our hunger makes the world to be,
And so lives Herne.

Happy Yule to you all, and good hunting!

Discovered Gems – Three Fantasy Novels Deserving Your Attention

As one who commits fantasy fiction, I read a lot. Not only fantasy, but science fiction, mystery, classics, magical realism, thrillers, you name it. Not to mention lots of nonfiction for research.

When I’m working on a story, I prefer to stay away from that particular genre in my reading. So I haven’t read too much fantasy in the last couple of years.

That said, here are my reviews of three books I did read that I think are really great and deserve more attention.

The Healer’s Choice by Kathryn Hinds

The Healer's Choice by Kathryn Hinds

Epic fantasy: a first novel by an author with lots of expertise in history and medieval scholarship.

My review: The characters are varied and true-to-life, and every one is rooted in the imagined cultures in which they live. The world-building is complex and beautifully wrought, from the smallest details of daily living to the intricacies of war, medicine, philosophy, religion, and magic. The story is multi-faceted, with twists and surprises that are alternately exhilarating and heart-breaking.

The author manages multiple viewpoint characters and story lines with a deft touch, keeping the reader intrigued. She even throws in some lovely poetry that feels authentic to the people and times she writes about. Magical!

More, Ms. Hinds! More!

The Dragon Scale Lute by JC Kang

Note: this title has recently been rebranded as Songs of Insurrection: A Legends of Tivara Story (The Dragon Songs Saga Book 1)

My review: Excellent epic fantasy set in a world inspired by pre-industrial Asia.

Beautiful, detailed world-building, sympathetic and interesting characters, well-defined magic, and very skillful writing. To be honest, most indie-published fantasy novels I’ve read have not been up to what I’d consider professional standards. This one is certainly an exception.

First in a series.

School of the Ages: The Ghost in the Crystal
by Matt Posner

A YA urban fantasy and the first of a series.

My review: Like other reviewers, I read the blurb and thought, “Oh, like a New York City version of Harry Potter. I’ll bite.” In many ways the comparison is valid:

  • a secret magic school in the midst of the real world
  • intriguing, quirky, multi-ethnic, convincing teenage characters,
  • a varied set of adults, magical and non-magical, with interesting perspectives and sometimes murky motives.
  • a many-layered plot that keeps cooking with twists and surprises.

What I find unique here is the quality of the magic. Harry Potter magic is fun, a combination of pure invention and recycled pop culture tropes. School of Ages magic is serious—rooted in mystical traditions (primarily Hebrew) and concocted with plenty of mental horsepower. At times I wasn’t sure if I was reading YA fantasy or being taught occult metaphysics:

“They say time is a like a river, always flowing forward, ever changing. Not true. Time is a wind. It goes in all directions, this way and that, moves many things, leaves others in place.”

“The good of magic,” Dr. Archer said, “is not principally in doing, but in knowing what ought to be done.”

Yikes! If, like me, you favor serious magic in your fiction, it doesn’t get any better that this.

 

Prometheus, the Pain of Forethought, and the Peace of Wild Things

This poem by Wendell Berry showed up as a meme online and got me thinking…

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
And I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come in to the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Beautiful poem, but the line that struck me was about how wild things do not “tax their lives with forethought.” Only humans do that.

Then I remembered the myth of Prometheus, and that his name means “forethought.”  In the myth, of course, the Titan Prometheus steals fire from the gods and gives it to humans. As punishment, Prometheus is chained forever to a rock and each day an eagle comes and eats out his liver.

Prometheus depicted in a sculpture by Nicolas-Sébastien Adam, 1762 (Louvre) - Source, Wikipedia
Prometheus depicted in a sculpture by Nicolas-Sébastien Adam, 1762 (Louvre) – Source, Wikipedia

But the fact that his name means Forethought made me wonder. What if the “fire” that Prometheus really stole from the gods and gave to us is exactly what his name says? Forethought—the capacity to think ahead and imagine what may be next. That’s what sets us apart from the wild creatures and makes us like the gods. And it’s what causes us to wake up in fear of ‘what our lives and our children’s lives may be.’ Or, you might say, causes that eagle to keep coming back and eating out our livers (or our hearts).

These days many of us are living in fear of the future: political insanity, climate change, disasters around every corner. Many are eating their hearts out.

That’s forethought, I’m afraid. Part of what makes us human.

Blame Prometheus.

And maybe, like Berry’s narrator, seek out the presence of the still waters. And remember that, though you can’t see them at the moment, the stars are waiting with their light.

 

The Goddess Who Shapes All Things

In Ghosts of Bliss Bayou, Abigail Renshaw is a young woman studying magic—a kind of magic formulated by her ancestor and his contemporaries, who founded the town of Harmony Springs in Florida.

Midway through the story, Abby’s grandmother gives her a ring that has been passed down through the family.

She places the ring in my hand, and I feel its energy, like a tiny electric current. The gold is formed into leaves and vines framing a cameo: the white-on-black image of a woman with wild hair, holding a torch.

I’m stunned. “Who is she?”

“Part of the magical lore of the Circle. She’s the Great Goddess Who Shapes All Things.”

Hekate Image
Goddess Image, possibly Hekate, from antique tile.

The idea for the fictional Circle of Harmony came from the so-called “occult revival” of the late 19th Century, a period when spiritualism and magic became fashionable in Europe and America. During this time, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn flourished. The Golden Dawn espoused a system of magic that drew on many occult sources, including Kabbalah, Tarot, and Rosicrucianism.

Another source of the Golden Dawn system was Neoplatonism, a philosophical tradition of late antiquity. A key document of Neoplatonism is the Chaldean Oracles which survive today only in fragments.

The cosmology of Neoplatonism envisions a divine creative fire, which is the source of the manifest universe. Seated at the portal between this uncreated fire and the world we know is a Goddess Figure. In the Chaldean Oracles, she is named Hekate, after the goddess of the ancient Greeks. A good scholarly summary of this topic can be found in this paper by John D. Turner of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

This idea of a Great Goddess who sits at the threshold between the creative source and the manifest world, is also pictured in the Tarot.

Tarot High Priestess
from the Waite-Rider tarot deck created by Pamela Colman Smith.

Early in Ghosts of Bliss Bayou, Abby comes across this card in a reading.

But my eyes are drawn to the crown position—the High Priestess. I’ve read that she’s actually a goddess, seated on her throne at the place of balance between the positive and negative polarities of the Universe. I stare at her serene face and her robes. In the picture, the robes turn into a waterfall and then a blue stream that flows away. It flows down through all the other cards that have pictures of water—the Stream of Life that gives birth to everything.

Late in the novel, when Abby is in deep trouble, she encounters the Goddess again, in a vision. Like all magical guides, the Goddess does not solve her problem, but gives her knowledge that might help her solve it herself…

She stares at me, calm and gentle. “What would you ask of me?”

I didn’t expect that. “Umm. There is an evil spirit who wants to kill me—and other people who are dear to me. I must learn how to banish him or…defend us from him.”

She considers before answering. “Behind me are the hidden sources of creation. The river of the Universe flows at my feet. I sit at the gateway between two pillars—light and darkness, love and strife. The contention of these forces causes all things to be. To wield the highest magic, you must station yourself at this gateway, the point of perfect balance. Then your will can shape what flows into manifestation. So all things are possible.”

Hecate as triple goddess. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=604834
Hekate as triple goddess. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=604834