"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."  --William Shakespeare

Entries in spirituality (2)


Open Minds


I was full of inspiration after the evening panel discussion by French, British and American literary magazine editors at Shakespeare and Company Books. I wanted to get home quickly to open my new books (Giovanni’s Room! The Stockholm Octavo! The Tenants of The Hôtel Biron! Londoners! Tin House’s issue on Beauty!). But I was hungry. I took a short detour down one of those twisty golden Paris streets to a little Italian trattoria with phenomenally tasty pizza.

The small black-haired Italian girl behind the counter was talking with the older Italian customer just as if the scene were frozen since the last and only time Richard and I had stopped there.

The Italian man asked where Richard and I lived. Paris, now. And where did you live before? said the girl. Playa del Rey, a beach town in Los Angeles, I said. The Italian girl wanted to know why we’d rather live in Paris. The older man laughed. He knew. He moved to Paris from Bari some thirty years ago.

My pizza was ready. There was a booth at the back, near two women who were belting down red wine.



I opened my book, The Tenants of The Hôtel Biron. It’s a fictional account of the years when the house that is now the Musée Rodin was inhabited by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Rainer Maria Rilke, Auguste Rodin, Camille Claudel, Vaslav Nijinsky, Eric Satie and Jean Cocteau. I know, you want to read it, too, right? I read with special relish because the author, Laura Marello, had passed the manuscript to me about ten years ago when we knew each other in Los Angeles. I’d been knocked out by the story and the writing, felt it was publication-worthy then, and now, ten years later it had found its publisher, Guernica Editions. Do you have any idea how happy it makes me when a writer finally breaks through?

So I’m savoring the pizza, devouring the book, and the two women speaking Spanish behind me are growing boisterous with gaiety. One taps me on the shoulder and asks in French if I have a cigarette.



Non, je suis désolé, je ne fume pas.

She gets up to ask the only other diner, a man who looks like Serge Gainsbourg, for a smoke. He hesitates, gives her one, and she puts it in her mouth as if she’s lighting up.

You know it’s not legal to smoke in restaurants? I ask.


Street art (mask) by Gregos, additional artist unknown


She scurries over to the edge of my booth and leans in and makes a face at me. Then walks outside to smoke.

Her friend behind me says, Forgive her. She doesn’t understand that you have to respect the cultural customs of the country in which you live. She has a problem with depression.

It’s okay, I say. For me it’s just a matter of health. I’m so relieved that France changed its laws about smoking in restaurants.

The woman and I banter in French. She tells me she talks to her friend about her surly attitude.


Street art by PopEye


The smoker returns. She sits down, her back to my back but turns to look at me as I talk with her friend. She is drunk, with a sweetly cow-like expression on her face, melancholy eyes, and a sprinkling of freckles. Like her friend, she has very short hair.

We ask questions of each other. Discover we are from the same continent, only they are from South America.

It’s the continent of the heart, I say.

South America, maybe, says the older woman.

North America too, I say. It’s all one heart.



Then an odd conversation begins. The older woman begins to talk about her friend as if she isn’t there. She is too closed, she says. She stays at home and is depressed. She doesn’t have any confidence in herself.

The younger woman nods, That’s right.

The older woman says, We’re out tonight trying to cheer her up. Getting her out of her apartment. Having a little wine.



There are four empty bottles on the table.

We talk about living in Paris. I notice that the younger woman’s fluency in French, her accent too, is excellent, and ask her about it. She was educated in Paris.

The older woman is originally Basque—we have rebellion in our veins, she says. Her family emigrated to South America before she moved to Paris. She never wants to leave.

The younger woman asks me if I’ve read Stefan Zweig.

No, I say. Is he good?

Very good, she says.

Do you like Proust? I ask.

The two women shake their heads. There are certain moral problems it seems with Proust. (Do they mean that he was gay?)


Street art by PopEye


He was Jewish, wasn’t he? the older woman asks.

Half Jewish, half Catholic, I say. He was raised as a Catholic, but really identified more with his mother who was Jewish.

I can see in their faces that there’s some difficulty in the way they regard this fact.

But you can’t be two religions, says the older woman.

Well, God, gods, spirits—what difference does it make?

They look at each other meaningfully. (Unspoken: a huge difference.)

You are Catholic? I ask.


Anti-Israel/-American street art in the Marais, artist unknown


They both nod as if to say, Exactly. And then the older woman, her lips red with wine, begins to talk about Jews. How grasping they are. How they try to take over the banks.

No, no, no, I say.

How Hitler tried to save his country from the Jews.

Hitler was a monster! I say.

No, he was trying to save his country.

The Jews were not responsible for the wretched state of Germany after World War I, I say. Germany was economically ruined and Hitler offered a scapegoat, someone to blame. He was a failed artist, a maniac.



I suddenly see that a visor-like armor has fallen over their faces. There is no further place to go in conversation with these two. Closed minds. Time to go. I pack up my book bag and say goodbye.

And the Italian man who still stands talking to the girl behind the counter, says, Dites bonjour à votre mari. Say hello to your husband.

Merci. Et bonne nuit à vous.

Buona notte, says the girl with a big smile. California, she sighs.

I walk home thinking about bigotry and hatred. How an atheist Jewish friend of mine used to talk about Catholics, and mock my spirit helpers, who appear to me in the form of gods and goddesses. She is someone I love, but it cost the friendship. No one wants to have to defend his or her own spiritual beliefs, nor should any of us have to.



I think about how a recent online discussion of a well-known Native-American poet’s reading in Tel Aviv elicited a furor on Facebook. There were those who, objecting to Israeli bullying of Palestinians, said, Don’t cross the picket line. There were those who defended Israel at any cost. There were those who sent her love and blessings on her performance there in the role of poet and musician.

I identified, in some way, with all of them.

It’s so obvious. Peace and love are not clichés. They’re the answer. But when you encounter scapegoating and bullying, where do you draw the line?





How to Live: A Vision Quest, Part Two


There were twelve voices. 

I listened to each, and I named them.

Each had his or her desires and concerns. All were important, but some were more important than others. They took the shape of sea creatures:

Sea horse, Whale, Hermit crab,

Flying fish, Electric eel, Octopus,

Sea turtle, Mermaid, Starfish,

Shark, Dolphin, Swordfish.

I recorded my dialogues with them in my journals for about ten years. By that time, their natures were distinct and I had heard very clearly what each one represented and what each wanted. Each seemed to represent one of the twelve realms of life.     

I began to draw a mandala every day, twelve petals around a circle, and colored each petal the color that I felt corresponded to the sea creature.



I wasn’t eager to discuss this process with anyone else, not after mentioning it to one boyfriend: “You talk to twelve fish? Maybe you should talk to a shrink.”

This work was eccentric, but I knew it wasn’t crazy. I knew because it was helping me find a sense of harmony and purpose.

After ten years I began to read mythology. All of C. G. Jung, Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths, and Joseph Campbell’s work. 

What irony. Campbell had taught at, was still teaching at Sarah Lawrence, the very college I’d dropped out of. But I hadn’t been ready for his work then. If I’d encountered his books ten years earlier, I might have approached myth from the outside, rather than, as I was doing, from the inside, from my own subconscious.



The electrifying thing I discovered was that these twelve inner creatures to whom I’d been talking for ten years, almost perfectly (with some minor variations) corresponded to the twelve gods and goddesses of ancient Greece. The only difference was that the Greeks saw these divinities as outside the human realm (though powerfully interacting with it and affecting it), and the modern variation I was discovering was a vision of them as twelve inner archetypes of the unconscious. (Because in symbolic terms, what else does the realm of water, and sea creatures, mean?)

Now, here in Paris, I still create my daily mandala, listening to the voices of each god and goddess, following their leads, and noting each day what I accomplish in each realm. That other Greek term that intrigued Montaigne, prosoche, means mindfulness, attending to the inner world, and in that way to the outer world as well, since uncontrolled emotion, chaos, warps one’s view of reality. My continuing dialogue with the gods and goddesses, and the creation of a daily mandala, is my method of prosoche.

The major four effects of this vision quest were:

* The sense of the sacred had been restored to me, not in the form of religion, somebody else’s rules, but in an individual vision of meaning. With a sense of the sacredness of daily life, comes imperturbability, freedom from anxiety, what the Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics called ataraxia.

* I discovered my purpose as a writer: the god Daedalus, the craftsman, was at the center of my personal mandala.

* I felt a growing sense of harmony in daily life. When you are clear about your central purpose, and have control over your emotions, you are free to live in the present, and that brings joy, what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia.

* My compulsive eating completely disappeared.



Any compulsive addiction: alcoholism, drug addiction, sex addiction, addiction to eating or not eating, is a sickness of the soul, a symptom of chaos, confusion, lack of clarity at the core. A spiritual symptom. And “symptom” is the key word: you cannot cure the behavior unless you cure the underlying sickness, which is always spiritual.

Okay, Kaaren, what do you mean by “spiritual,” anyway?

I answer, Invisible forces or archetypes or “spirits” inside you. And what is inside you is inside everyone, therefore, all around you. And these spirits are within birds, mammals, fish, plants, the earth itself, even her weather.

After thousands of years of a patriarchal vision that imagines the divine as a Single Dominant Male with a Human-like Visage, we’re returning to the vision of a more balanced force animating the world. Anima mundi, the ancients called it. Animism, as most so-called “primitive” peoples see the world.



I grew up in the desert of Arizona, galloping around on a donkey among mountains and saguaro and abundant desert creatures, pygmy owls and jackrabbits, roadrunners and rattlesnakes, in a state where Papago, Hopi and Navajo lived.

Many of the kids in my elementary school were Native American. My Navajo friend, Nellie, lived in a hogan, one school bus stop beyond ours in Paradise Valley, before it was as populated as it is now. I encountered kachinas, carved and painted wooden dolls that represented the various spirits the Hopi saw all around them.

That the world was alive with spirits seemed obvious to me. Cat spirits had a particular hold on me. I remember (after our cat gave birth on my stomach in the middle of the night) cradling the newborn kittens and feeling such intense love I was afraid I’d squeeze them to death.

Animism: a world alive, animated everywhere by spirit.

Every spiritual vision leads to a way of treating other people, and of treating the world.

How differently would we choose to treat a world that we see as wholly alive, rather than the world viewed by our late industrial society as dead matter, as “resources” to be plundered?



It seems to me that there are really four essential spiritual approaches: 

* atheism

* agnosticism

* religion

* individual vision quest

The first two, atheism and agnosticism, were never a possibility for me. The third, religion, was compelling to me as a child, but then I grew up. An effective moral police force for much of the world, it relies on an image of external authority; 3.6 billion people who live under Christianity or Islam subscribe to a monotheistic, dominating male God who passes down laws that we humans, like children with their parents, must obey.

All along, traditional cultures that much of the ‘modernized” world treats condescendingly, like arrogant parents with naïve children, have had an animistic vision that I think may be the only one that can save our planet. Because if we do not return to en-souling all living things, if we continue to behave as if only man is alive (and more deserving than woman, animals, the earth) and as if all else is dead, we will realize that vision across the planet, the natural systems that support the planet will die, and we will, too.