Fourth of July, looking back

OK, so that was a bit of a break. I’m here now at the very end of my trip and I’ve not blogged anything about it for about two weeks. I’m determined to catch up, with myself at least, before flying home, so here comes a monster travel digest.

It’s Independence Day today. I thought I might feel like checking out the local parade here in Palo Alto, but actually my lack of connection to the whole thing, together with everyone else’s immersion, creates the ideal sense of dislocation in which to take stock and reflect. The thumping parades have died down, so I guess everyone’s tucking into the barbecues now. Where shall I begin?

San Francisco

San Francisco

A wonderful city. The air is clean, fresh and bright, and the feeling permeates. Well, it seemed to permeate pretty much everything except my skin. The expression “hitting a funk” bubbled up at the time as the best description of my state. Some combination of the mounting length of time without real personal space, and the contrast between some ugly feelings this brought up and the prettiness around me… all conspired to conjure a less than ideal introduction to the city.

There were good things, of course. I caught Erik Davis doing a reading from his new book on Led Zeppelin in a bookshop on Haight Street, which was a blast. Erik and his wonderful partner Jennifer Dumpert graciously let me crash at their splendid place for a few nights, and the bits of their social whirl that I hooked up with were great. Had some great chats with Erik’s fiery, freaky friend Wef, and met a bunch of great DJ/artist friends of Erik’s. Sadly, my dancing feet weren’t around for the night these guys put on. By then, Erik’s sage recommendations from his arcane, extends-to-every-room library had possessed me, a channel to cope with the dark clouds gathering over my head.

James Hillman is an author who’s been looming over my horizon for a while now, and his Dream and the Underworld immediately started hitting home, crystallizing some of the vaporous thoughts and feelings I’ve been having relating to this Dreamflesh journal I’m planning. Even more potent was Michael Ortiz Hill‘s Dreaming the End of the World: Apocalypse as a Rite of Passage. Published in 1994, the year I started a zine about dreams, the year before I started a journal concerned with apocalyptic themes, it’s one of those books that you can’t believe you haven’t discovered sooner – and yet in a way, you’re glad you didn’t. In short, it comes at just the right time. Michael’s sophisticated yet heartfelt analysis of themes and patterns in people’s dreams of nuclear and ecological holocaust resonated deeply with my own perspectives, feelings, and yes, dreams. What’s more, the brief biographical details in the introduction – mentioning his period of homelessness and his work with the dying as a registered nurse – underlined his “effort to understand the path of compassion during a tumultuous age” with something more than mere credibility. When he talked of sneaking in to lectures by Norman O. Brown while he was homeless, to listen to this oft-neglected curiosity of classical scholarship colliding with the millennial fervour of the 1960’s, the connections deepened (Brown was a key influence on my thinking during the 90’s, and I had as yet failed to come across anyone else standing up to claim him as a key source). So I tracked Michael’s email down, and got in touch. I’d left the last week of my stay here open for “what may come”, and it seemed like Michael fit the bill. Over the next week I gradually planned my trip to visit him in the Santa Monica mountains.

Before leaving San Francisco, my funk came to a head, and Erik’s prize cactus bore the brunt. In one of those accidents that immediately feels like psychic steam forcing its way out any which way it can, I knocked over a Tjuringa board that in turn toppled the cactus that was well over a foot high. It’s now considerably shorter. Sorry, Erik.

Garberville

So I was in kind of a state on the Amtrak bus north up to Garberville in Humboldt County. Initially, my fragility wasn’t helped in the slightest when, just as the landscape started to kick in with beauty and majesty, a few of the other passengers lobbied to get a video showing. The gaudy teen-flick vibe of Orange County‘s opening half-hour sent me reeling into a profoundly stressed space between America’s good (outside drifting by) and bad (inside being loud at me). But, the film turned out to be kind of interesting and pretty funny in a goofy-but-intelligent way. Jack Black has a very-much-in-his-element turn as a drugged-out loser, and there’s some great supporting roles filled by Lily Tomlin, John Lithgow, Chevy Chase and Harold Ramis (doing a great scene as a Stanford dean getting spiked).

Northern California

As we hit real redwoods-and-windy-rivers country, I was thrilled and privileged by my first site of the Eel River: an osprey plunging straight into the waters and emerging swiftly with a fish in its claws. I was in love with birds of prey as a kid, and this is one of the archetypal scenes of such a love. My jaw dropped. When the first really fucking big redwood trunks slid by, a tear threatened to drop from my eye. There are no words for such impassive, undeniable presence.

Scott's place

I was in Garberville at the invite of a friend of a friend, Scott, who met Merrick while he was at the protest against the extension of the Manchester Airport runway. Scott lives in an Airstream trailer (while he builds his cabin) on some land way up in the hills near Garberville, and works with the Trees Foundation, a charity helping grassroots groups to preserve the ecological integrity of the Pacific Northwest. The week I arrived he was working with some other people preparing to do a fund-raising Thai noodles stall at a festival that weekend. Unfortunately the festival itself clashed with the dream conference I’d come to attend in Berkeley, but it was gratifying fun to muck in a help paint signs and such like for the stall.

My residence in Garberville

Scott was – like pretty much everyone who’s extended their hospitality to me over here – a gracious and generous host, and we put up a groovy tent (actually more of a grandiose mosquito net) for me to get some up-close-with-nature time during my stay. Connecting with Scott that first night was great. Feeling more and more ecological ideas weave themselves forcefully into my thinking for Dreamflesh journal, I found myself hitting the classic writer’s guilt about not doing enough practical, hands-on work. If the environment’s so screwed, shouldn’t I be learning permaculture and agitating instead of waxing philosophical? Naturally I’m never much of an either/or person, but I do manifest an imbalance… But then here was Scott, someone devoting so much energy to pragmatic activism, and yet, at least that night when I arrived, he felt starved of perspectives, ideas, inspiration. So between Scott’s responses to my loquacious musings, and my lending a hand to Scott’s stall construction efforts, we seemed to find exactly the kind of fruitful meeting and exchange we both needed. Cool.

Redwood tree

Sadly I was stricken with flu and allergies the next day (and for over a week from there, in total). One of Scott’s first, fatal remarks to me were, “Oh, I’ve got a bit of a cough, but don’t worry, it’s not catching.” But despite the hacking and sniffling, I couldn’t not appreciate the humbling redwoods in the Humboldt State Park, on a daytrip with with Scott’s girlfriend Joan, and her friend Matt from New York.

The strange little town of Garberville, I soon learned, is renowned for its dope-growing. Oddly, I missed out on sampling some while I was there. But knowing this, the hemp shop and the fantastic organic bagels and smoothie shop fell right into place, as did the wiry Latino guy called J-Bird who approached me about ten minutes after I arrived asking if I wanted to smoke some pot with him. I also remembered a great little film called Homegrown about dope-growing in northern California, and realised where the region depicted there hooked up to the place I was now in.

On my last night there, I checked out the tiny cinema to see Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. It’s an essential film for our times. Seeing it in California – especially such an environmentally-conscious area of the state – added some force to it, given those infamous recordings of Enron traders as they create California’s rolling blackouts for blatant, ugly profit. And yet more Dreamflesh concepts resolved themselves into sharper focus; the Enron saga seems to be as crucial as 9/11 for understanding what’s going on in our world now, and it seems to me there is more than a little uncanny cosmic resonance in the fact that CEO Jeff Skilling resigned a week before the World Trade Center was destroyed.

Berkeley and the Dream Conference

The tail-end of my flu kind of smothered my engagement in the Association for the Study of Dreams conference in Berkeley, but it was definitely worth my while. I loved Berkeley itself. Being the old stomping ground of Philip K. Dick and Terence McKenna, among others, it had strong associations for me, and it didn’t disappoint. As pretty in its way as the hipper parts of San Francisco, but lower-lying and less assuming, seemingly more at ease with its run-down aspects, it exuded a relaxed kookiness evident in its wildly diverse religious communities. Curiously, the evident Indian and Pakistani community – I grabbed some very passable samosas on University Avenue – made me feel quite at home, having spent most of my adult life surrounded by transplants of these cultures in Leeds and London. Yet more warm hospitality came in the form of Antero and Sylvi Alli, whose place was the picture of esoteric Berkeley homeliness.

The conference opening didn’t bode well. A woman had been invited to initiate proceedings with a song. She explained very sincerely that she had done “a lot of research” on the internet about dreams, songs, and the current world situation, but when she started her backing tape and some terribly standard pseudo-soul session music issued forth, I braced myself. She launched into some sub-‘Ebony and Ivory’ lyrics about dreaming of a better world, and asked us to clap along and sign the word “dream” in the chorus. My ice is often reluctant to break with these things, but break it will, given enough seduction through humour, intelligence, or just plain charisma. Sadly none of these showed themselves, and I half-heartedly suppressed my smile as I wrote, “… this is California. I have arrived.”

It was good to see some of the “big names” in consciousness research – Charles Tart and Stan Krippner being the most prominent – but as is usually the case with conferences, it’s the impassioned people with less of a standing that make the most impact, that and the social connections. Texan Bitsy Broughton‘s talk on manifesting connections with dream animals, entwined with working with ancestors and a vision of dream animals’ relevance to our ecological crisis, set a chorus of bells ringing for me, as did the brilliant Jeremy Taylor‘s lucid, gutsy approach to dreamwork and social justice. The panel on dreams and spiritual practice could – given the tone set by the opening song – have been pretty uninspiring, but Anne Hill and Rose May Dance (both from the Bay Area witchcraft group Reclaiming) gave us some righteous, open-minded, grounded perspective from their work with dreams in group rituals and solo retreats, and Jungian psychologist Meridith Sabini managed to bind her own thoughts with Jung’s and conjure a palpable sense of spiritual common ground in the room.

I met a couple of great people: Brian Mills MacGregor, a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed artist from Savannah, Georgia, and Clare Johnson, a fellow Limey who researches lucid dreaming and creativity. We drank to our common achievement of having managed to avoid regular working hours for most of our lives.

Dream Telepathy contest hugs

On the Sunday night, there was the Dream Telepathy contest. Someone concentrated on one of three previously unseen images that had been especially posted in, and if people felt their dream that night connected with any of them, they put their dream in an envelope next to that image. The closest match wins. Clare had actually won the year before. Stories abound of people in previous years having gained lucidity in their dream to go searching for the image being transmitted; I hadn’t been dreaming much at all on my travels, so I didn’t hold out much hope of hitting any connection.

Well, before the contest, of course, we had to establish some form of personal connection with the “sender”, so we all lined up to give her a hug, which was great fun, reminding me of those Indian gurus who go around do gigs at arenas where everyone lines up for their hug-dispensed prana. I did a little affirmation to dream before crashing, and dozed off in a red wine haze. I was pretty shocked to wake up the next morning with the vivid memory of becoming lucid in my dream and going, “Oh yeah, there’s this contest on. Where’s that woman who’s sending the image?” I ran around looking for her, finding one woman, deciding it was the wrong one, then moving on a trying to find another, and so on. Well, all this feminine contact seemed to veer off in a direction that derailed my lucid awareness of the situation (dreams aren’t much different from waking life in many respects), and before long I was introduced to an especially beautiful young woman naked from the waist down. Things became, how shall I put it… predictably personal. Suffice it to say, I had zero success with the telepathy thing.

Mulholland Drive

Flying south to LA

By now I had booked myself a flight to Burbank and a hire car for me at the airport. The plan was to visit Michael Ortiz Hill in the Topanga hills west of Los Angeles, then take it easy driving back up to the Bay Area along the Pacific coast.

Hitting Burbank was interestingly crazy. I’d driven a bit up in Garberville and was pretty used to driving on the wrong side of the road, but the LA freeways are something else. I decided, given my intense love for David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, and as a huge stretch of that mythic road took me to the region I was heading for, I just had to go that way instead of saving a bit of time of the madcap, choked freeway. So, brushing past the Hollywood Hills, down through Coldwater Canyon, really digesting Lynch’s comment about the optimistic quality of the light and quickly absorbing what I could of the intense cultural emanations of this area for me (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction and Fishbone – all locals – were my three favourite bands as a teen), I joined Mulholland and headed west. Actually I missed the turning first time, giving me a little taste of things to come. You see, Mulholland Drive is impossibly twisty. I knew Lynch built on this quality in his labyrinthine, tricksy narrative structure in the film, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the in-the-flesh insight I was about to get into that story. There was one bit where you had to kind of join another road and rejoin Mulholland, but as far as I felt able, I kept heading west.

Mulholland Drive

Then I saw some traffic lights approaching. The junction looked familiar, but I didn’t recognise it. Suddenly it hit me. I was at the very junction where I had initially joined the road, only now heading out of it in the other direction. Such a spatial flip really hits you on a gut level. I could comprehend making a wrong turning – but doubling back on yourself, maybe two miles along then two miles back again, and only clocking it right at the end? The moebius strip quality of Mulholland Drive‘s plot seemed to now be etched into my brainstem. I gasped and reeled (and cursed), and meekly headed for the freeway.

Topanga Canyon

Topanga Canyon

Michael’s place is tucked away right at the end of a tiny road in the Santa Monica mountains near Topanga, a fantastic area ripe with the bohemian overflow from Hollywood, where the semi-arid hills ooze displaced Chumash myth and entrenched hippy dreams. Michael has been initiated into a Bantu tradition of healing by his mapatya (spiritual twin), Augustine Kandemwa, and, together with his humbling (for him and for anyone who reads of them) experiences as a registered nurse at UCLA Medical Centre, he comes across as someone engaged with compassion and spirit to the utmost degree. A Liberian guy, whose peacemaking efforts Michael is involved with, dropped by soon after I arrived. Michael told me of this guy’s brother, who was tortured to death during the civil war, and how this event forced him to a place where he knew he could take the path of vengeance or peace. It’s a realm of moral choice I have zero experience of; but it’s so heartening to meet people who have been there and braved such impossible forks in their paths.

I did a brief interview with Michael, then he read my tarot cards and performed a little ritual for me to get healing dreams when I slept up on the hill behind his house that night. Offering tobacco to a Buddha that Michael had once buried under the site of the first nuclear bomb explosion in New Mexico as part of an intensive ritual for peace, I gingerly smoked some too. (I swore to never smoke tobacco under any circumstances again about 6 years ago, but refraining here didn’t seem right. Any connection with the indigenous traditions of the Americas pretty much involves this highly sacred plant.) Michael sung his prayers in Bantu and Spanish (he’s half Mexican), and deposited me under a tree on the hill.

No dreams as such really came that night, but, as I was braced for something “real-seeming” (my strong dreams sleeping out are usually of things that seem to be there, very real), a certain event became my “dream”. I’d asked Michael for a blanket in case the night got chilly, but later he’d decided to bring up a duvet just in case. He said I was snoring when I came. My experience was a half-conscious fright as something brushed against my body and a light flashed above me. I lay motionless, terrified of looking around to see what had touched me. I was actually warm enough at that point, and before I got the courage to investigate, the warmth of the duvet soon had me sweating profusely. Of course I felt pretty silly when I realised a very mundane duvet had been benevolently placed on me. I could pull off some of my shiny sleeping bag and huddle up with the duvet’s softness. Michael took this as hugely symbolic, a feeling he saw confirmed in his I Ching reading for me over breakfast. My coin throws brought up the K’un (The Receptive) hexagram, with the middle line of the lower trigram changing it to Shih (The Army). I don’t know my I Ching, but Michael was pretty struck by how positive it all looked. The chili and cheese omlette tasted better and better as we discussed the reading.

[Final installment soon…]