Wells figure widely in the collected stories of the world. Wishing wells particularly, in the life of the imagination. To draw life-giving water out of the Earth is no imaginary act, but that act has fueled folklore traditions across the globe, across time, across geography. If you are looking for a strong metaphor of the imagination, you won’t find a better one. I know this is true having spent 50+ years, my shoulder bent to the wheel to get at that water. Years ago, I memorabily dreamed I was standing on a wide plain dotted with wells. The kind of dream wells like in this still from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
On that dreamscape plain there were countless wells, fading into the misty distance, all looking a bit different from one another, but all drawing water from the same source. A universal aquifer. It seems to make so much sense both metaphorically and, in the reality of studying Art History across time and geography; I know wherever there are people there is someone making what we’d call Art. The exceptions are so rare, Anthropologists have made a point of it.
Judith and I were the hired-hands on some memorable travel excursions, some sponsored by UCSC, one by SFMOMA, some others privately, hired on as a watercolor painting instructors. We were competant at our task, 5 trips to France, 2 to Indonesia. It was not my preferred way of travel, being, the groups were a roll of the dice, and there was always the limiting train-track of the itinerary. Mostly, though, a very copacetic & well-fed way to travel. One group, was a downright open-arm, lets-get-together-for-a-reunion kind of trip (we did). Another group we called the rolling DSM-5 tour. The DSM being that fat book of mental disorders used for diagnostic purposes. Whiney agendas filled the this travel bus. “When can we go shopping?, Isn’t there any American food?” A couple of secret drinkers and one not so secret. A trio of bitter divorcés bent on making me their scapegoat & a kleptomaniac rounded out this clown-car of a trip, though greatly molified by French food & great destinations. I’m telling this story because at one stop, while a gaggle went shopping at the great romantic castle-used-in-several films, another bunch pouted on the bus, “the shopping’s no good.” We were parked at a road-side pull-out adjacent to a charming stone cottage, with a working stone well at the center of a lucious vegetable garden. Roses climbing everywhere. We’ve been tasked to hike back up to the castle to bring the shoppers back to the bus—we come upon this scene on our return: Our pouters have gotten off to click away at a fairy-tale crone doing something at the well. They are intent on getting this “shot” to bring home. We come to find our, now, photographers crowded up to the fence, ignoring the old woman’s pleas for help. “M’aidez!, M’aidez! she’s saying through not many teeth. Of course May-day is the universal call for help from vessels in trouble, we get it from French—help me! help me! We brush past our folks and go into the garden to help the old woman land the bucket, she’s filled it too full, too full for her. She invites us in for soup…oh, if only. But we did get to see an old-timey stone well with a wheel pulley, really raising the vitality of water and feel its weight.
I have no doubts about there being a universal aquifer for the human species. Take any survey Art History class and you’ll see. The sooner we realize this the sooner we can stop a lot of the fussing on our dying, burning world. We can easily imagine doing that as Snow White has depicted for us, but, to actually lift a bucket out of the well takes it out of the imagination and into somatic reality. This “brings up” the topic for the next essay which will be on the topic of Knowing, Understanding and Realizing, that three-part epistemology we gained from our family friend Fr. G. Ronald Murphy, S.J. (This is how the mind works when engaging, bent to the wheel of Art—you pay attention to the small voices, like this one just-popped onto the mind-screen). But for now we, proceed…
Access to this well is gained in many many ways. Think of all the monasteries, devotional roadside shrines, the holy cities of Benares and Lhasa, the proliferaion of the weekend retreat. There is an obvious hunger to “go to the well” and draw up some water. I have found Meditation to be a useful wheel to help that old lady in my mind land her bucket. Dreams are another way, like the one of the myriad wells. But watch out…when some says to me, “I had the most amazing dream…” I suddenly remember I have an appointment with the endodontist. Or as Wallace Stevens says, …“It was not from that vast ventrioquism of sleep’s faded papier maché…” that line is from his poem Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself. I have been recording dreams as though I have another life, been doing it since I have kept a notebook starting in 1967 and only a very few ar e worthy of mention, as having impact on my waking life. One I’d like to mention (is that tooth bothering you again?…) was of walking down my street, Railroad Ave, my dream-pet-lizard on a leash, the lizard, like a Gila Monster was beaded in rainbow colors, big as a 60 pound dog. I bend to pet the thing feeling the texture of its skin. Very soothing to the touch. I apologize to my pet, for leashing the poor thing, “but, you know,” I say, “the neighbors…the neighbors”. It turns back to me saying , “not to worry, a leash works two ways.” And the Lizard pulled me into the sky on a free-floating ride. I woke from that dream with the idea I’d make a rubber stamp of the lizard’s aphoristic pointer to a Taoist way of thinking. The religion where, as I’ve said before…wondering about the nature of Tao-ism: Is you is or is you ain’t a Taoist, and even if you ain’t, you is. A leash really does pull two ways. I actually had the rubber stamp made with the lizard’s wisdom; made it and used it to sign letters.
That was fun. Then I got the idea I’d write a book using just the rubber stamps as the text. I had several others made, all saying aphoristic nuggets, like, “It’s to know a veil” like, “there is no freedom in a lie”—I used the rubber stamps to write a picture book using the phrases as decorations on Kimono, like this:
So how do you actively engage as a water-walla—a well worker? Those dreams are as rare as hen’s teeth. Like our sculpture of Haphaestus looking beyond himself, he wants to put his shoulder to the wheel in an active way. Meditation is the obvious first answer, but to USE meditation engages in a bit of cross-purpose, some have called Spiritual Materalism. “OOOweee, I just meditated so good!!” Hardly the point. As many meditation teachers have said, meditation is only the drawing back of the bow. Releasing the arrow is the point. The point of that action is a life of work. There are methods for going to the well to actively draw up what lies below the surface of a busy life. They are effective for solving problems, unsticking a reluctant mind, conquering the Sin of Ascidia (this is the eight deadly sin—the deadliest IMO, the refusal of the call to vocation—like—”these plans I have drawn will never win me the Pritzker Prize…why bother?).
How to access the space of the well? A space I feel as the ineffable space of nowhere, of the surface tension of water, the cambium layer under the bark, the space between wake and dream; the thinnest space of what we experience, where ideas “pop” into existence. It takes some practice of the will bent to lifting the bucket, and you have to intend going there. It’s Haphaeostus’ wheel winding up the bucket. Try this: listen to Steve Reich’s piece Violin Phase while sitting quietly, in a dimly lighted space…this can open an imaginal zone where new ideas can land.
To the image of that mask itself…expressing that thin space: It came as a visual thought of mountains reflected in water, a doubling of peaks that became for me, a kind of coat-of-arms, describing that thinnest place. I saw the Teton Mountain Peaks reflected in Jenny Lake as toothy maws meeting in a calm pause to reveal a horizon line, another of those “thin” places.
There is so much written and talked about this space from the 60’s counterculture perspective. Drugs offered a shortcut. But drugs drive you far away, even though you feel like you are “there.” Drugs can be the ultimate Spiritual Materialism. I know lately, psychedelics have been used effectively to help people suffering from depression, addiction and end-of-life panic. I’m all for that. But let’s talk about Haphaestus.
This, the god of making, draws water from that well by making. And by making, more of it comes out of the well. His anvil and hammer are his regalia, but how does he know WHAT to make? As he peers out of his mask, he looks at that mountain scene of reflections, the upper and lower separated by the thinnest line of the horizon, delimiting sky and earth. It is this in-between space where ideas come from, and, it is the very act of making that makes more happen. It’s why I went about describing my rubber-stamp book—one thing leads to another. Artists of all ilk know this, dancers, architects, poets, muscians, know this, whether in the “flow” or “stuck”. Haphaestus knows this: Doing something every day turns the wheel—but the question of what to make remains. Next???