You might know him by the emerald jewel of Manhattan, New York’s Central Park, but Frederick Law Olmsted was a landscape architect with far-reaching vision that extended throughout the United States and to my little hometown in Riverside, Illinois. Ahead of his time, Olmsted understood the consoling qualities of nature and worked tirelessly to bring the transforming power of green parks and expansive gardens–once a luxury reserved for the estates of the wealthy–to everyone.
My essay about Olmsted and the magic of growing up in Riverside is in the new Comfort and Joy issue of Parabola magazine right here:
Owen Barfield–the Last Oxford Inkling–and the History of Consciousness
Back in February, I visited the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College to do some research on Owen Barfield, the fourth Oxford Inkling and friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Along with a huge repository of archival material on the Narnia and Lord of the Rings authors, the Wade Center Museum houses the C.S. Lewis ancestral wardrobe (the very one that leads to Narnia!).
Owen Barfield was lesser known among the legendary group of writers, and yet his ideas concerning the imagination and its power to perceive and create truth influenced both Lewis and Tolkien. A prolific author and innovative thinker, Barfield wrote extensively on the evolution of consciousness, among other topics. My new essay published in the summer issue of Parabola magazine explores Barfield’s theory. Here is a link to the article: https://parabola.org/2023/05/01/a-turning-point-in-the-cosmos/
Posted inUncategorized|Comments Off on From the Summer Issue of Parabola Magazine
The ancient fairytale–beloved by many, dismissed as antifeminist by a few–was never really about the prince. A Jungian perspective sheds light on the deepest meaning of the story, illuminating archetypes and alchemical symbolism that express fundamental patterns of the human psyche. Start reading my essay below to discover the hidden meaning of Cinderella’s transformative journey.
Looking for Gold: The Alchemy of Grimms’ Tales
Once upon a time, “The wife of a rich man fell ill, and when she felt that she was nearing her end she called her only daughter to her bedside and said, ‘Dear child, continue devout and good. Then God will always help you, and I will look down upon you from heaven and watch over you.’”[i] So begins Cinderella, the tale of an unfortunate daughter who dreams of attending the King’s ball and receives assistance through a series of enchantments. In Grimms’ version, we find her grieving at her mother’s snow-covered grave, toiling in her dusty chimney corner, waltzing at the palace. The story is otherworldly from the start, and the closer one reads the more ethereal looms the landscape, the more incorporeal the prince.
The maiden’s odyssey plays out not on terra firma, not in the creative narrative of the imagination, but deep in the haze of the unconscious mind. Here interred lies the crucible of unresolved conflicts and inner demons—an alchemist’s cauldron of base metals melted and mixed with minerals and acids, salts and spirits. When the recipe is just right, the humble ingredients turn to gold. Cinderella will shed many tears and suffer through numerous trials before the desired transmutation comes to pass. But in the end, common lead turns to pure, precious metal; an imperfect soul transformed.
In the beginning, she was downcast, her noble lineage all but forgotten. Cruelly mocked by her wicked stepsisters, she was made to sleep by the hearth among the cinders and wear a plain gray frock, to cook and clean morning till night. But when the King proclaimed a festival, she rallied to make a wish, inviting in the magic of angels. Two white doves threw down a gorgeous gown of gold and silver and a pair of dainty slippers.
[i] Grimm, Wilhelm, et al. Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Grosset & Dunlap, 1963, p. 148
To continue reading the article, follow the link below or visit Parabola.org.
Posted inUncategorized|Comments Off on From the spring 2023 issue of Parabola: The alchemy of Cinderella
Here in the spring issue of Parabola magazine, you’ll find essays by beloved Pulitzer Prize winner Mary Oliver, Zen Master Peter Coyote, and Wisdom teacher Cynthia Bourgeault, along with my piece about the Irish miracle worker, Valentine Greatrakes (1628-1683).
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” wrote Albert Einstein. “He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead.” I hope the following excerpt from my essay will remind you that Earth is a magical home, powered by love, filled with surprises.
If you enjoy reading about Greatrakes, you will eventually be able to catch up with him in The Last of the Magicians, my third historical, in progress.
The Inscrutable Cures of Valentine Greatrakes
At the dawning of the Age of Reason, before Isaac Newton’s mathematical proofs poured light on a shadowy universe, Valentine Greatrakes (1628-1683) healed suffering bodies with his hands. The Irish Stroker, as he was known, cured young and old of tumors and wens, paralysis, arthritis, assorted pains, eczema, deafness, blindness, and possession by demons. Hailed by some as an apostle, condemned by others as a fraud, he was a sensation that roused the interest of natural philosophers, churchmen, physicians, and even the king.
Crossing stormy seas to arrive on the coast of Somersetshire in January of 1666, Greatrakes would challenge the cessationist doctrine that miracles had ceased after biblical times. No one argued that God lacked the power to intervene, but Jesus Christ and the Apostles had already proven the truth of the Gospel, rendering miracles superfluous. In early modern England, faith may have rested properly upon the Word alone, but the time period was imbued with supernatural phenomena and signs of God’s providence. Female prophets went without food for more than a year. Baptists and Quakers restored the sick and raised the dead. Charles II, by virtue of Divine Right, applied his thaumaturgic touch to cure victims of scrofula—a tuberculosis infection of the glands in the neck.
Among an eclectic cast of healers, religious enthusiasts, imposters, and frauds, Greatrakes distinguished himself by advancing no agenda other than to heal the sick. A member of the landed Anglo-Irish gentry, he was a wealthy man who accepted no payments for his services, unlike the common quacks. His charitable work drew particular scrutiny from members of the recently formed Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. In Greatrakes, the virtuosi saw the opportunity to employ Francis Bacon’s new empirical method of investigation and to establish, once and for all, if phenomena truly existed.
The Stroker was drawing crowds in the county of Warwickshire when the king and his court returned to Westminster from Oxford, where they had fled to escape the bubonic plague. The idea of contagion existed in the seventeenth century even if the method of transmission was not understood and the causative organism, Yersinia pestis, was not yet known. Robert Hooke had just begun to study fleas and plant cells under his gold-tooled microscope.
Lacking understanding of the plague’s etiology, physicians prescribed sweat-producing cordials, remedies of angelica and rue, costly Venice treacle, and blood-sucking leeches. Given the limitations of Galenic medicine based on the theory of the four humors, physicians might almost be forgiven for absconding from London with their wealthy clientele during the epidemic. At least the apothecaries stayed behind to offer up antidotes such as unicorn horn and powder of toad.
To continue reading more from this issue and purchase a copy of Parabola magazine, click here.
Posted inUncategorized|Comments Off on An Irish Miracle Worker in the Spring Issue of Parabola
In the midst of a pandemic, there is still the simple joy of being out in nature.
There is, I think, cause for optimism, even though the war is just beginning. No doubt, the next couple weeks will be a bumpy ride. Maybe you are one of the fortunate soldiers like me, charged with staying home and flattening the curve. Stationed at my home office, I stand in awe of the health care workers who are serving on the frontlines, risking exposure to coronavirus as they go about their jobs. Their dedication is a daily reminder of the very best of humanity. Here in my Chicago neighborhood, I felt the love, too.
Earlier this week, a neighbor sent out a group email to everyone on our block. He wanted to identify those who would be able to help secure food and supplies for neighbors in need and those who would potentially need assistance. Right away, a whole lot of hands went up with offers to volunteer.
On Monday I had a long phone call with an old friend. We hadn’t done that in quite a while because there never seemed to be time. As we talked, I was sitting in my backyard. It was a cool day, but I felt the sun on my face. I saw a cardinal and noticed all the sprouting plants in my garden.
On Tuesday, I drove over to my favorite local bakery and dinette, Baker Miller, on Lincoln Avenue. Since all Illinois restaurants are currently closed, Dave, the owner, set up a curbside pickup window. He waved to me when I pulled up. It was raining that morning, and before I even got out of my car, a cheery millennial came running out with my brown bag of lovingly baked sourdough.
Yesterday, my best friend and I exchanged thirty-some texts. We covered a lot of ground, including virus anxiety, recipes for a pandemic, and the latest on our kids. Another close friend has planned a virtual cocktail party. You can practice social distancing without feeling alone.
This is not to downplay the seriousness of our situation. When the pandemic is at last behind us, some will have lost loved ones and fortunes. But I have a feeling that we won’t take things for granted the way we did before. We might finally understand how much we need one another and how one person’s welfare impacts everyone’s welfare. It is just possible that humanity might emerge transformed for the better.
Long before Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the third century AD, long before the custom of Christmas became a worldwide phenomenon, cultures across the globe celebrated Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, this mysterious event occurs when the tilt of the Earth puts us at the farthest distance from the sun, after which every day grows a minute or two longer and every night a minute or two shorter. As it is with Earth, so it seems with our individual and collective lives; spring follows winter, light overcomes darkness, again and again, as our great religions proclaim.
Meteorological winter is only beginning, but it sometimes feels as though the barren season has long been with us. Millions lack food, medical care, safe housing, or basic human rights. To tune in to the nightly news is to wonder if we have been condemned to an eternal winter of despair by the White Witch, as was the Kingdom of Narnia. If we are to find any peace amidst the chaos, the great sages advise, we have to seek it within ourselves.
Jesus Christ urged his followers to love their enemies, to refrain from judgment, to care for the least among us. His words offer a way to respond to unfathomable suffering, to seek transformative wisdom. Those who follow Christ and believe the story of His Holy birth are sometimes thought naïve or ignorant of science. Improbable miracles are not unique to Christianity. The Talmud tells us of Hanukkah, the wonder of the single cruse of oil that lit the temple Menorah for eight days. Buddhist texts tell of Guatama Buddha’s miraculous powers of telepathy, super hearing, and seeing of past lives. Think what you will of the ancient stories, I hold them dear.
On the silent, joyful nights of Advent, Hannukah, and Kwanza, on the eve of solstice, we are surrounded by the strange, the otherworldly, the glorious. Beyond the supernatural wonders are extraordinary human feats. There are the peacemakers and educators working to build up their communities and vulnerable neighbors. There are the healthcare workers caring for us on the home front and in war-torn countries. There are the spiritual leaders tirelessly reminding us of our divine, lost lineage. There are the artists who share their beautiful and inspired visions. These Earth angels give us many reasons to believe.
In the bleak days of winter, when darkness falls early, when the sad events of the day weigh heavily upon us, we can set down our phones, turn off the news, and think about every day miracles. You have probably experienced at least one or two in your life. And we can celebrate, in our assorted ways, the victory of light over darkness.
From the writer’s desk, wishing you peace and joy this holiday season.
Posted inUncategorized|Comments Off on The longest night of the year
René Descartes, the French philosopher and mathematician, imagined the cosmos as a complex machine operating according to precise mechanical laws. His theory implies the existence of a designer, a benevolent Creator or watchmaker, and describes an ordered elegance that seems counter to the madness of modern life. Joining Descartes and Newton—the men of the scientific revolution—writers and poets seek patterns amid chaos and explanations for the inexplicable.
The desire for order drives me to my desk, where I get to devise the plots and the characters conform to my whims. If only my city and my world would follow the structure of a novel. At the climax, the turning point, the good guys would emerge from their struggles better off than they were before.
Writers write stories, not the daily news. And yet we are, collectively, writing the story of our destiny. Just maybe we can write an ending other than tragedy. There are many among us—teachers, nurses, and counselors, to name a few—who do their jobs every day, trying to make it better. Good works create impact, as do beliefs.
What we imagine for our lives becomes our reality. Jesus, Buddha, and the mystics all tell us that what we dwell upon comes to pass. From the book of Matthew: “According to your faith be it done unto to you.” If this is so, collective pessimism, regardless of good works, will do nothing to lead us out of the mire.
Mindset is a choice, offered by the watchmaker, who stepped aside once his job was done. Negativity might seem the more natural attitude, in light of current events. But oh, how much better it is to imagine peace than annihilation. John Lennon wrote it best. Imagine all the people living life in peace. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
Does this mean all my books will have happy endings? Hmmm. It will be a while before I know for sure. The Last of the Magicians, my third historical, is on slow cooker mode while I work to complete a commissioned biography. (More on that later.) A writer has to eat as well as dream.
Posted inUncategorized|Comments Off on Intelligent design and the imagined world
I’ve been worried about things like climate change, clean air and water, nuclear war, women’s and immigrants’ rights, corporate greed, racism, and affordable health care. So many causes, so little time. I try to be a good citizen by doing things like writing my congressmen and volunteering as an ESL tutor for refugees. But as a novelist rather than a political activist, it’s not my forte. As such, I’m more or less okay with spending countless hours researching 17th century England and working on my third novel, The Last of the Magicians. This doesn’t mean I’m burying my head in the sand. Midnight Oil’s song comes to mind.
The writer's desk
How can we dance when our earth is turning How do we sleep while our beds are burning
The world is on fire. The problems we face are grave and time critical, and how we respond matters enormously. We can respond by voting, protesting, running for office, canvassing. And if we’re writers, painters, musicians, and actors, the very process of creating art is an exercise in freedom of expression and an act of defiance against the status quo. The artist is the ultimate free spirit who flies in the face of complacency and never pauses to ask, “what’s the use?”
Paul Gauguin: Les Miserables 1888
Artists have always been revolutionaries, have always been creating profound impact. Confronted with numerous obstacles and a distracted world that often forgets their value, artists will go on celebrating the beautiful, exposing truth, defying conformity, and decrying injustice till the end of time.
So no, making art and writing novels is not escapism. It is an act of patriotism, a symbol of the enduring human spirit. While the earth is burning, I will be right here at my desk, much of the time, writing a novel.
Posted inUncategorized|Comments Off on Making art while our beds are burning
Artists, writers, creatives, take heart; even Michelangelo was waylaid from his vocation as a sculptor when practical demands required that he direct his efforts elsewhere for a time. The master of Renaissance art was obliged to set aside his excellent plans to carve Hercules from a block of marble when the governor of Florence requested that he build defense towers instead. Perhaps Michelangelo complained, but he apparently rose to the task on behalf of his beloved Republic. Still, I cannot help but think he yearned to return to his art all the while. This episode of the great artist’s life both fascinates and inspires patience. As I stand before a boulder in the road to writing my third novel, I take particular comfort in Michelangelo’s travail.
One of Michelangelo’s drawings for the fortifications of Florence, made in 1528-9. Courtesy of the Casa Buonarotti, Florence, Italy. From https://lebbeuswoods.wordpress.com
While Michelangelo is remembered for sublime works such as the Pietà and the David, he is less well known as an architect of fortifications. But in 1529 Michelangelo’s talent for working with stone was put to practical use. At this time, Pope Clement sought to vanquish the independent Republic of Florence and the enemies of the Medicis and to restore the family dynasty to power. Abetting the effort to obstruct the Pope’s plan, Michelangelo was appointed the position of “General Governor and Procurator of the fortifications of Florence.” In this capacity he was charged with designing the towers and walls that would protect the city-state from invasion. Detailed drawings for these plans illustrate the considerable depth to which the artist was occupied with this project. So impressive were his bastions, in fact, that the greatest architect of fortifications of the seventeenth century, Vauban, looked to Michelangelo’s plans for inspiration. (The Art Bulletin 22.3 (1940): 127-37. JSTOR. College Art Association. Web. www.jstor.org.)
Like Michelangelo, I now find myself in a situation that necessitates a shift from creative pursuit to practical endeavor. Rather than focus on my first draft of The Last of the Magicians, I am now thoroughly occupied with the business of buying and remodeling a new house, and eventually moving. This all came about rather unexpectedly, for I had no intention of selling my present house in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. But as fate would have it, someone, quite literally, appeared at my door and made an offer that a prudent person would not refuse (although I did refuse for a while).
The little office where much of Alchemy's Daughter and Nonna's Book of Mysteries were written
Have I prostituted my writing life for some cash? Perhaps. But more likely, I have bought myself more time to write in the future. Michelangelo returned to sculpting after the war, and I will return to writing in earnest once I am settled into my new place. It is a lesson in learning to go where the current takes you, and perhaps also in accepting a plan for your life that is bigger than your own. Alchemy’s Daughter and Nonna’s Book of Mysteries were both written in between the demands of being a single mom, landlord, and a part-time nurse. One way or other, book number three, The Last of the Magicians,will get written as well. We all get waylaid from our dreams at times. Keep the faith and know the boulders in the road will eventually be moved.
While waiting for the right time to begin that novel you’ve been thinking about, or to take that trip or write that song, the days march on. We give our precious time to obligations that have nothing at all to do with our heartfelt dreams. Or when the opportunity finally arises, we feel overwhelmed by the size of the task and don’t know where to begin. I feel this way every time I start a new book (as in now) or essay. There is just one thing to be done: dive in.
Begin anywhere, begin badly. Almost all writers write terrible rough drafts, initial pages are crumpled into balls and tossed in the waste basket. I’m pretty sure that little of what I wrote today is salvageable, but that’s beside the point. I know that if I keep writing, and if I persist through a very long and painful struggle, the story will unfold. The only obstacle is an over abundance of caution, a fear of failure, the caution of T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock:
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
Don’t be like Alfred. Be willing to look a little foolish and have fun with it. There is no time like today to reach for your heart’s desire.
Daring to eat a peach
Posted inUncategorized|Comments Off on Diving in and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock