Our determined intention to express
Editors note: Bradley Olson is a regular contributor to The Meteor. His column called for now, Flagstaff Reflections, will appear in the Meteor monthly.
It’s always exciting for me to hear of new journalistic or literary adventures, and all the more exciting to be even a small part of such an undertaking, and I hold onto a fond hope that the Meteor makes an enduring impact on the Flagstaff community.
Compared to the broad reach and scope of journalism, my areas of responsible knowledge are relatively narrow: my first real job in the adult world was that of police officer, and after six years or so I returned to school—over and over again, it turns out—and finally ended up as a depth psychologist, a mythologist (primarily of ancient Greece), and a writer. I write mostly about the intersections of psychology, mythology, and culture, and much of my writing these days is for the Joseph Campbell Foundation where I am what’s known as the MythBlast Series Editor. I’m delighted to have the chance to write more locally about the issues, events, and people of the Flagstaff area and so, having offered my eisagogika scholia, my opening remarks, I hope to thoughtfully engage different aspects of contemporary life in Flagstaff.
Living here since 1995, Flagstaff has become my home and the place in which I’ve lived the longest—by far—and the most happily. It’s been an ideal place for negotiating a marriage, building a satisfying professional life, and raising a family. I’ve often thought that Flagstaff is a crossroads of sorts: literally for tourists and travelers, and spiritually for its residents (and other receptive souls, however transient, who set foot on Terra Flagstaff). This unique town on the Colorado Plateau has a way of embedding itself in one’s psyche.
In the ancient Greek religion, Hermes was the god of travelers, and by extension could be considered to be the god of the crossroads. Traveling the trails around Flagstaff one encounters Hermes, or a symbol of him at any rate, all the time. Often on forest trails, one sees small pillars or arrangements of rocks at intersecting or diverging paths. These piles of rocks function as orienting aids and are called herms. In antiquity they were associated with the god Hermes and his affinity for travelers. But Hermes, as anyone who has seen an FTD Florist’s ad can attest, has other roles in addition to that of guiding travelers. He is also the god of language and communication and, it sensibly follows, the messenger of the gods.
Because of his facility with language, he is also regarded as the god of liars. And the unavoidable, often crafty, uses of speech in the transactions of business cultivates, not only the devotion of businessmen, but of thieves, too, those criminal elements operating in the dark shadow of commerce. Most intriguing, perhaps, is his role as psychopompos, the god who conducts the souls of the newly deceased to the Underworld.
But before I get too far afield, I should like to return to the word, crossroads. With a little reflection, Crossroad becomes a pretty significant word, laden with all sorts of associations. Metaphorically, crossroads divide the pairs of opposites upon which we humans are often suspended and by which, we are often paralyzed. We are metaphorically crucified upon opposites such as life-death, past-future, failure-success, good-bad, right-wrong, us-them, and so on, the brightly delineated tensions between opposing impulses and desires that, in some very real way make life, well, alive. These crossroads, existing as they do in the inner world, are sometimes aligned with the external roads we travel and, as Jack Kerouac put it, “eventually lead to the whole world.”
Those who live here, and sometimes even the occasional wayfarer, may feel challenged by Flagstaff and its environs in surprising ways. That’s only proper when Hermetic energy predominates in a place (Hermes is referred to by Homer as a Trickster). The challenges to living here assume many forms: financial—we’ve all heard the phrase, “poverty with a view,” logistical—certain kinds of merchandise, housing, or medical specialties are still under-represented in Flagstaff, the day to day—a living wage remains outside the reach of too many, and issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation are ongoing conversions. But perhaps most significantly, I think, Flagstaff frequently presents its residents with spiritual challenges.
Flagstaff’s environment is one of extraordinary beauty and often, while immersed in the forest that enisles the city, people have spiritual experiences. Even if one is not so disposed, the predominating presence of the natural world cannot be escaped, and thoughts about its preservation, encroachment and exploitation inevitably cross one’s mind. Boundaries of all varieties are in play and, in the context of Hermes, that is only proper, for he was the god most linked to boundaries: geological boundaries; boundaries between the upper realms, earth, Elysium and the Underworld; between humans and gods, humans and the Underworld; boundaries between truth and lies, reality and illusion.
For these reasons and many more, living in Flagstaff means that an opportunity is always present for one to eventually, sometimes unconsciously, grow into the person one is destined to be. I know other places offer similar challenges and opportunities, but I’ve never lived anywhere where they are so unambiguously apparent. Add to that the sheer number of religions and spiritual systems one might explore which are practiced in and around Flagstaff, and there is more than enough spiritual curiosity to keep one occupied.
It’s easy for individuals and communities to lapse into materialism (in terms of both philosophy and the pursuit of capital gains) because we don’t understand, perhaps we never will understand, the mystery of existence that we inhabit; we frequently become tired, disillusioned, frustrated and cynical from the effort. William Faulkner was supposed to have said that “One of Keats’ odes is worth a hundred old women.” I suppose from a world-weary, rheumy-eyed view of what appears to be an increasingly soulless world, a world in which beauty is elusive and hard to find, I can understand such a sentiment. But the real truth is that those “old women” gave birth to the Keates and the Faulkners and everything in the world that we find to be good and necessary and significant in life. Those old women were not always old, and they were not always absurd; it’s life itself that’s absurd and if one is not careful, it makes one’s own life absurd as well.
When we try to explore the deeper structures and energies of life, we always end up by explaining what these phenomena are “like.” Such a description is not a failure; rather, describing what a feeling, an experience, or a thing is like, immerses one deeply into the rhythms of life that exist at the edges of one’s ability to understand them. At the edges of ourselves, however, exists another boundary tended by Hermes, the boundary at which we discover that the limits of our world are defined by the limits of our language. Ultimately, words will fail us, and what rescues us from the absurdities of definition, meaning, and language (among other human absurdities), is the conscious and determined intention to express, to whatever degree we can, human choice and action. And it is exactly those values of human choice and action, more than just about anything else, it seems to me, are the values most central to Flagstaff and its people.-