The Storming Bohemian #34: Descent into the Underworld
The last time I punked the muse, I wrote of the summer solstice, a meditation into the heart of the sun. My goal was to leave behind the ever-more-depressing news cycle, and touch some place deep down where hope resides.
We live in the Sun, I concluded. I envisioned a home where we could all embrace, dance, love, and feel our power, rich in hope.
“We are more powerful than we think,” I wrote. “We can make the world we imagine. We must.”
And we shall.
But, as I should have expected, I soon encountered the flip side.
When you start playing games with images (neoshamanic journeys, active visualization, Tarot readings, guided meditations, what-have-you), the subconscious discoveries you uncover may start invading the “real” world. And they may not be nice. Where there’s light, there’s shadow.
The first intrusion, like Orson Welles’s Shadow, reached me through the radio. As I was driving around the East Bay in my LYFT, waiting for passengers, I heard a story about homeless camps in Oakland. The reporter spoke of camps which, two years ago, consisted of only twenty or thirty people. Now they are neighborhoods of up to two hundred souls, some living for years on the street. These are not “street people” or our usual idea of “the homeless.” The description sounded more like that of refugees. These tent and cardboard villages are unsponsored refugee camps—their citizens are refugees from our dying mental health system, the ravages of gentrification, economic despair, persistent racism, the opioid epidemic, the general collapse of our national fabric, and the fraying safety net. This didn’t sound like “living in the sun.” I began to cry.
I passed through unfamiliar territory in parts of Oakland often described as among the poorest, most crime-ridden inner city neighborhoods in America. There were blocks after blocks of narrow streets, some strewn with garbage. There were many crumbling houses with unweeded yards. I noted an absence of businesses—not even corner liquor stores—or amenities of any sort. Intersections were missing traffic lights or even stop signs. A few police cars were on slow patrol, at nine in the morning. The people on the street looked broken and bewildered. Several ignored cars as they wandered intersections, aimless as tumbleweeds. A couple of elderly men sailed by on bicycles, drinking from wine or whisky bottles masked by paper bags. I felt as if I’d entered a different America than where I reside. I know that this, too, is America. For some, it is the only America.
Of course there is more to see in East Oakland than I had eyes to perceive, but I was in a fugue, under the effect of my activated imagination, experiencing the world as metaphor.
I turned a corner and saw something amazing: several railroad cars, and a couple of old buildings, covered with graffiti. It was the first color I’d seen in miles of aimless driving. It was beautiful art. Now, I’m a pretty hip guy for a white old-timer; I understand that graffiti can be art. Nevertheless, when I see graffiti in my own neighborhood, it usually looks like blight to me.
Not here. Here, it is everything else that is blight and the graffiti is beautification. It struck me in the gut for the first time: graffiti may not be vandalism but beautification, a pure expression of art and a light in darkness. I got it, finally! And, yes, I know, I’m a slow learner.
Then I thought this: In a world where graffiti can look like (and be) beautification/beatification, couldn’t a gun look like an opportunity? Everything is upside down.
…something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?
That night, I dreamed.
I am walking along a highway on a cliff above a beach. The early morning is bright, warm, yet windy. I walk beside a parked convoy of flatbed trucks. The trucks are stacked with corpses. They add a sweet scent to the salt scent of the sea. I am the only living creature. There are no gulls, no scavengers, no flies, even. Just me and the bodies. I come to a wooden stairway that leads down to the beach, which is rocky and shell strewn and damp. There are a few raggedly dressed people milling about and some police officers. I think of zombies. Clearly, this is a camp of some sort: refugees or the homeless. There is a food truck where the cops are buying coffee and cinnamon rolls. I walk to the edge of the water, then turn around to walk back to the staircase. I pass a middle-aged Black woman, sitting in the sand, and she says “Romanoff!” as I pass. “Romanoff?” I ask. But I am thinking of the Russian composer, Rimsky-Korsakov, and can’t imagine how she has come to mention him. She responds, “Senator Ed Romanoff. We’re going to call him.” I continue walking, and as I reach the staircase, I wake up.
Remembering the dream later, I consider associations. A phrase pops into my mind: “The corpses are piling up.” Thinking of this, I get that the corpses are metaphors for Trumpian policies. Poisonous policies that are piling up.
I think: “Soon, the corpses will be for real.”
I consider the name Romanoff and think of the Russian revolution and the deposition of the Romanoff family. I laugh when I also think of Rimsky-Korsakov, the composer: this dream is all about decomposing! And who could Senator Ed Romanoff be? Perhaps he is a powerful man who has been “roaming off,” not doing his duty for the people.
My laughter doesn’t last long.
The following night, my adventure in underworld metaphor continues when I go to see the movie Beatriz at Dinner. Beatriz! Well, how underworld is that?
The movie tells about a relatively poor Mexican immigrant healer, a body worker, who finds herself, accidentally, at a fancy dinner party. The other guests include a Trump-like real estate magnate, who represents everything she finds evil: he is a big game hunter, a destroyer of communities, an indifferent capitalist, perhaps even a murderer by proxy. In spite of the elegant surrounding, and the seemingly gracious manners of hostess and guests, for Beatriz it is an experience of Hell. Departing after an embarrassing confrontation, she reflects on her efforts to heal and, unable to see a healing way forward, she commits suicide, walking alone into the sea. Beatriz is a casualty of Trump.
I sit down to write this column. I remember how, just a week ago, I wrote of living in the Sun and the certainty and power, and, yes, the audacity, of hope.
There is hope. But it cannot be found in denial.
Things are bad. We are facing a season of hell. Denial will not save us.
Oh, my friends, I wish I had political advice to give. I wish I could see the best way to be an activist, the most effective strategies, the way to revolution, if that’s what is needed.
All I can offer is this witness. And a call to others to look! Pay attention! The waters are rising. The dangers are as real as dirt. Don’t pretend otherwise and do what you can.
Please. Do what you can.
Rumpus original logo by James Lorenzato, aka Argyle C. Klopnick (ACK!).
“The Storming Bohemian Punks the Muse” was originally developed as a column under the editorship of Evan Karp at Litseen. An earlier incarnation of this work can be found there, along with many other interesting things.