Who’s your Psychopomp?


As for qualifications, I have camped on the south shore of the Gulf of Corinth at the mouth of the River Styx and crossed it several times. So have all the other residents of Akratas. No that won’t do. (The Ancient Greeks believed that Charon, the boatman ferried them across the River Styx to the Underworld. They were buried with coins on their eyelids to pay him for his service.)

As a child, I was shut in boxes. Maybe that was my early training.

At a certain point in my life, the recently dead started turning up, usually sitting in a chair in the corner of my bedroom. Just sitting. Never talking. Or in my dreams, they phoned me, never saying anything sensible and never answering questions. My father’s spirit persistently offers advice such as ‘Buy lottery tickets’. He was a villain on earth, but he has spent 30 years on the other side and seems to be a reformed being. He even shows up at hospital bedsides to comfort those he once harmed. So they tell me.

Somewhere along the line, my family started to assume that I was a conductor of the dead, a psychopomp. They didn’t use that word of course. It is not a role I aspire to. At the moment, for example, I have a recurring image of a man who has passed over, but doesn’t believe in the afterlife. He is huddled in a fetal position with his ears covered, pretending he is not conscious. I repeat the 23rd Psalm to comfort him and, alternately, offer to give him a swift kick.

I’m not religious at this point, but I remembered that comforting song of David, and thought it might help – Josh, let’s call him Josh. If you feel inclined, you could join me in your own way, encouraging him to “Wake up! Wake up! It’s not so bad. You really are forgiven.”

When I uploaded my e-book, Hour of the Hawk, Amazon called ‘psychopomp’ a spelling error. An aberration, a delusion, perhaps, but not a spelling error.

Creating my main character, Joanna Hunter, I saddled her with that ‘ability’ as well as a conscience which speaks to her in her great aunt’s voice, admonishing her to fulfill her duty.

Her first duty is to attend to Tom Braddock who has been mauled to death, in his own backyard, by an angry bear. Well, of course an ‘angry bear’. He would hardly have been killed by a grateful, happy bear, even though he did persist in feeding his bear friends honey in a tire swing. And the bear had good reason for being angry, although not necessarily at Tom.

There are other deaths. It’s a murder mystery after all. But those Departed have enough imagination to manage on their own.

As you will, no doubt, when the time comes. Just be sure to cure yourself of the idea there is a hell. Pretty sure we are doing our stint there, right here on earth. Like my father we may have much to learn in the afterlife, but as a school it’s much more like Play Mountain Place than the boarding school Prince Charles attended. It seems to me, the afterlife can be whatever you think it is. With night school courses in empathy.

For heaven’s sake, don’t call on me to guide you.

To purchase Hour of the Hawk as an e-book go to joycehowe.com. It will be available as a paperback from Amazon in January 2018.


Your Immense Heart – re-posted

This morning it seemed like a good idea to re-post this.

A jar floating in the river
Has river in it. The city lives in the room. Think of the world
as the jar and your immense
heart as the river.
Rumi – Coleman Bark’s translation in The Soul of Rumi p. 295

Apparently, Rumi is currently the best selling poet in America. He is the 13th century Sufi, born in Afghanistan, who fled Genghis Khan and went to live in Persia. Coleman Barks, his translator, has brought him to our attention. There are other translators certainly, but I am familiar with this one and came across the lines I have quoted high above the blue Pacific on my way to Maui. I kept running them through my mind so that, by the time, I saw the double rainbow over the ocean on the Hana road, I had committed them to memory. It seemed a wonderful thing that, instead of being carried along by the current of the world, my heart was the great river that bore the world along.

Well, easy enough to know the immensity of the heart when it is full of joy as it was then. Not so easy in times of fear and loathing. And disappointment and frustration, and loss and failure and recession and depression and so on until we end up with Grinch-sized hearts, hearts that need the jaws of life to pry them open. Little tiny hearts such as Connor  (“Why I Will Never Sleep Again”, posted May 30) must have had in the end.

Open-heartedness like a river accepts everything and sweeps it up in its embrace. It does not hold back to assess a situation, deciding perhaps that here, compassion is called for or there, that empathy is in order, that this is just and right and valuable whereas that is not. It doesn’t involve effort or reason. It isn’t deserved. It is more like grace.

Big-hearted people, the Falstaffs that we meet, give us a glimpse into open-heartedness although we may dismiss them as tiresome good-time fellows. But the open heart is not necessarily ‘Hail-fellow-well-met’.

The open heart sees things in a positive light. What seems negative is just misunderstood, for always life is carrying us on in the right direction, the direction our soul is seeking in spite of where we think we ought to be or go.

But how to come to such an inclusive, accepting, positive frame of mind can be a difficult question. We each have to find our own way. Someone might begin with gratitude. Someone might arrive by being in love. Some by family love. Some by love of a pet, some of nature. To be truly open-hearted will always mean expanding beyond those beginnings and, for example, including everyone in that beloved family, loving your mother-in-law as much as your cat, for example, your political opponent as much as your child.

It is not a way of being that comes naturally to us yet, but I believe that technology is coming to our assistance. The internet can serve as one immense heart as well as mind. We share our thoughts instantly and spontaneously now and we have the opportunity to be more empathetic.

In another poem, Rumi says we are cups floating in the ocean and we should strive to wet our lips.

Reading and Empathy

The other night on television I saw a horse whisperer train a wild Dartmoor pony to reins in less than three hours. In actual fact, he didn’t whisper or talk at all. He just used body language, standing sideways near the pony’s head at first so as not to frighten the animal with his full on frontal energy. He didn’t use fear or domination at all, yet he was able to put  a rope over the pony’s head within an hour of first approaching him. (The program was an episode of Edwardian Farm, the one set in March, a British production.) It was a far cry from the bucking bronco method that tames a horse by breaking it. It seemed like evidence that as a civilization, we are learning kindness and becoming more empathetic.

Not that many of us are developing Star Trek’s Deanna Troi’s ability to feel other people’s emotions, but that we are more willing now than we once were to convince rather than control, to understand members of our own species and others and to relate to them less cruelly.

A few months ago,this idea led me to Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization in which the author explores the idea that we are not by nature aggressive, materialistic and self-interested, but rather fundamentally empathic. We “seek companionship and use empathic extension to transcend ourselves and find meaning in relationship to others”. (p. 21).

Whenever I talk about this idea, someone objects that there is still a great deal of cruelty in the world and there is never a scarcity of recent examples in the news to prove that. Too true and Rifken discusses that paradox. But that is not my point.

In general, society as I experience, it is growing  kinder. Certainly it seems to be as far as parenting is concerned. My own grandchildren attended an alternative school where the child’s needs came first to the extent that they planned their own lessons and misbehavior was subject to discussion and negotiation rather than discipline. This was in sharp contrast to the way I was taught and parented.

(Is it possible that that great cataclysm World War I and II grew out of the hands-off-unless- disciplining approach to childcare that characterized the time?)

Children learn to be empathic by having kindness and understanding modeled for them. Thank goodness there is more of that happening. But there is another route to empathy and that is narrative.

I realized this when I was teaching English, especially once we began asking students to write response journals about what they were reading. I observed their growing understanding, for example, of the children in John Wyndham’s The Chyrsalids or Harper Lee’s Scout and Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird. Because these children were learning empathy for the other, the students learned it as well.

I taught Shakespeare from that point of view. Teenagers identified readily enough with Romeo and Juliet and suffered their tragedy. Hamlet was more of a stretch, but they could be hooked by his grief and his sarcastic cynicism.  Lear was a big stretch because he was so old, not to mention arrogant at first, but by the time he carried his dead daughter on stage, he too had won their sympathy. I could see their feeling for others expanding as they read.

My grandson, Leo, convinced me all over again. He started out with a core group of four: parents, half brother and family friend/care-giver.  Then his half-brother chose to go far away to live with his own father, the family friend moved back to Ireland and his parents separated. By the age of three, Leo was an angry, “difficult” child. He did play therapy. He attended a school that addressed these issues.  Both helped, but it was being read to that seemed to help most.

His mother started with Captain Underpants, no doubt, as she had with her older son and moved on to Wind in the Willows and other childhood classics. She read the entire series of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Hobbit and then began The Lord of the Rings. Once when she was on holiday, when he was seven, I was reading The Return of the King to him and he said, “Wait, wait, who said that?” How he usually kept all the characters straight in his seven-year old head is beyond me, but he did and he grieved when Boromir died.

In short, hours of being read to, night after night, not only established a steady bond, it also lead him out of his angry isolation into an understanding of others.

As a society, we are emersed in narrative more than we have ever been. We still dream stories at night, tell each other stories and read them as we have for centuries, but we also listen to stories on the radio and on ipods and watch them in our living rooms and movie theaters. Each of these stories invites us to expand our self-centeredness and embrace others.

This enriched narrative may well be producing a more empathic civilization.