Tracing Lines Between Stars: A Shamanistic Happenstance with Dr. David S. Whitley
Updated: Jun 29
Many of the magical encounters that I've had throughout my life have happened because of music, art, books.
These days are very magical. I’m connecting with a lot of people in strange ways. A few days ago, I woke up and read a poem by Fernando Pessoa's "If, After I die" The poem's words lingered on my tongue, sweetening me for hours until I swallowed them--so the beauty and wisdom of these verses could stay in me. A few minutes later, I found myself reading a book by another writer, and on that page, I read the same lines from the very same poem. Just this week, four former students contacted me with similar epiphanies, related to writers, books, singers, and they all know that these aren't Serendipitous occurrences but manifestations of Kairos. These aren't coincidences, but connections. People making connections.
Destiny, fate, not pre-established, but stories in the making.
I was writing a response to one of the writers in my MFA program at AULA, for a reading conference. Writers are readers, and we always talk about books, even when it might sound that we are talking about memory or imagination and stories. That we find in books. Books that trigger a memory, and the imagination thus, generating this urgent need to tell stories too, which it's like if a fire star dropped inside our stomachs, and we're in trance, and go on the quest to write our magical vision. I wrote to my writer friend, "it's not about if, but about when. Make it happen. Write Now.”
The Greek philosopher Aristotle said that to deliver a persuasive appeal, expression must combine the language of pathos (experience), logos (reason), and ethos (credibility and authority). But it's a keen awareness as to when the ripe moment is so to manifest a desire or a dream. This concept is called Kairos: seizing the instant. The Greeks had two ways to call time, the titan Chronos, and his twin brother, Kairos. While Chronos times everything systematically, Kairos' notion of time is the now, the fleeting moment. I teach this concept paired to the idea of serendipity, that fortunate event that catches us by surprise and fills our hearts with awe. But Kairos is us gaining agency over our lives. Instead of waiting for the stars to align, we align them ourselves. The thing is that I believe that Kairos happens when both, creativity and knowledge meet for us to reimagine our lives the way we'd like them to be. And be ready. Open up to see all those serendipitous moments that may lead to know when to take action, in that ephemeral moment that passes you by in such a haste.
Awareness opens our eyes to see, to gain access, and once we cross the threshold, we reach agency. And that is too, what brings the awe of experience, and the hope of justice. Love.
Recently, I came across an essay published on the American Scholar, entitled "There Is No Time in the Garden" about The Poetry of W. S. Merwin, written by John Kaag, last March 11, 2019. In it, Merwin says: "The time of wisdom cannot be measured. In ancient Greece, there were two forms of time: Kairos and Chronos. Kairos is usually regarded as the ‘time of wisdom’—stretching out in an endless staircase with no beginning or end. It is our staircase for the time being, but also the staircase of the unborn. And the dead."
This is almost full circle now.
My correspondence with David S. Whitley started because of a book, and paintings, and poems, and memories, and the imagination. And. Magic. Magic happened like when I dreamt a dream in a cave as though tracing lines between stars over draperies of stalactites and stalagmites. So I read, and I wrote. Again.
And it is almost a full circle. Once again.
3/2/14, 4:09 PM
Cecilia: Thank you very much for reading my book; for connecting with me; especially for giving me a beautiful and remarkable poem. I am grateful, honored and touched. As I mentioned in the preface to that book, I have always greatly valued what I have learned in my life from poets. And more so now. Plus, as a scientist trying to find the nexus between science and art, the connections that artists make with my work are deeply meaningful to me. (Archaeologists haven’t known quite what to make of the questions I raised and the arguments I made in that book. But I knew that when I wrote it.) Your reaction validates the effort I put into it. And that is a big deal.
Three things arise then: (1) You teach at Santa Monica College. My first publication—poems—where in the SMC literary/arts journal. (2) That you found A FIX OF INK in a dream—and that there is a technique for doing so—it is in fact very significant from the scientific perspective of understanding the source of creativity, and its relationship to shamanism. I would be indebted if you could send me any information on that process. (Was Robert Lowell who said he found his poems behind his sofa? That was a poem I read at least 35 years ago, and the details have faded but, somehow, I recall that Uruguay was involved. Or maybe I am confusing Lowell in Argentina with someone else. It happens. And I still haven’t found any poems behind my sofa--only my dogs—though I keep looking.) (3) There is a much abridged/updated account of my book in a recent TEDx talk I gave, which is here, in case you want to see the live version: How mental illness changed human history - for the better: David Whitley at TEDxManhattanBeach
Thank you again, very much, Dave
3/2/14, 6:35 PM
I posted a note on my FB wall, which I now share (at the bottom of this message), after having coaxed me to stop reading (your book), because I needed to prepare my teaching day! I just didn't want to stop reading! As I posted that note, I was extrapolating from what your book was evoking, to that same notion as the one you quote from R. Lowell. The quote is in Spanish, but, as you say in your book, you do speak Spanish by default, so I'd assume you know what this quote means. It really resonates with your example of looking for poems behind your sofa. I think that you have found your poems in your unique perspective observing art from an academic standpoint, and yet, never, not for one second, you forget the spirits lingering on those rocks, on those traces, in your attempt to imagine how these artists were and what inspired them to create such overpowering works of beauty.
“Although I have promised myself to search for my self tomorrow morning, I began to pursue it tonight. And not only within my body but also within the basement where I live”
Journal of the Scoundrel.
Felisberto Hernández, Uruguayan musician and writer. (trans. by me)
3/2/14, 7:03 PM
There is no doubt in my mind, in the corners where intuition dictates my understanding, that you are a poet and a shaman. Moreover, you are a poet and a philosopher (I am now quoting Henry David Thoreau) as you so clearly articulate that beauty is truth and that truth is beauty (now quoting my beloved John Keats). You demonstrate that you grasped that man is only half of himself, because the other half is only manifested and granted through "his" expression (HDT). When I read your response here on a FB messenger, I remained speechless for a while (not a small feat). Now that I have recovered my ability to utter something meaningful (despite the rushed nature of a FB message), I am not concerned about making any sense, because all the words in your book, and all the lattices my mind created after that which you've evoked are coming like in a helix. I am thrilled that you appreciate my words about your book. You make my work worth writing it, filling with sane pride, the shreds of trance or madness that I feel when I must write. There are two or three things that I feel are necessary to mention. I also think that they aren't trivial, even though these might sound “superstitious.”
1- When I began conceiving the collection of poetry titled a fix of ink, I imagined it at first, with the design of a cover that is a picture (a bit Photoshopped by me) of the Panel of the Horses.
3/2/14, 7:33 PM
2- Last November, as I was browsing book titles on Amazon, the site suggested your book, probably because I'd bought Cave of Forgotten Dreams dir. by Herzog (to induce a lucid dream about being in a cave to write a poem). The first thing that allured me into your book was its cover because it was just like the one I have designed and presented as my final work for the workshop of Poetry of Dream and Space that I had taken during my graduate tenure at LMU under the mentorship of poet Sara Maclay. The work I submitted then for this class, was a chapbook with poems developed after proposed tasks and prompts. After I graduated it grew into a full collection of about 80 pages. The cover remained as it was first thought out, providing a thematic cohesion to the developing pieces.
As soon as I've clicked on Amazon's suggestion, I started to browse your book, its table of contents, the preface. I was struck when I read that you pay attention to poets to ensure that your empirically based studies didn't objectify art or devoid it of its truth and beauty. I remember pausing on that page and reading those lines aloud. Memorizing your words. The next click was to gifting myself with your book, for Christmas.
3- I kicked off SMC literary series as an alumna who had won several awards for a book of poetry that was first conceived (in its English version) at SMC, while taking a poetry workshop back in 2003. Before I was hired as teacher, I was back on SMC's stage to read from my published books, to read to my former teachers (and my future students).
David, It would be a shamanic, transformative honor to share with you some of the techniques that I use and rely upon to write poetry. I've been a poet and a writer for almost the entirety of my life. I, like you, knew my calling at early age: I at 8, you at 12. I know that this is a poetic way to begin what I predict will be a mesmerizing, transcendental dialogue. Thank you. I am indeed grateful and thrilled. Sincerely, Cecilia
2/23/16, 3:21 PM
Dear David, I hope that this FB message finds you and finds you well. I wanted to write to you regarding the forthcoming publication of my book, a fix of ink, to ask you if you'd be willing to write a blurb. I know that I asked you informally on my Facebook post out of a whim, but now, on a more contemplative phase, nothing makes more sense! "Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit," inspired me greatly, and even though there's only one poem that actually refers (or is written in the actual Chauvet caves of my mind), many of your scientific ideas transpire in strange mutuality throughout the book. Or at least from my perspective of a poet. Your book's pages display marginalia and highlights throughout it, still feeding me with amazing knowledge and notions. You said in your book that you pay attention to poetry, poets, and that your book is a personal account, your perspective of the human spirit, creativity and belief. You write from a scientific standpoint, and I believe that I am on a similar quest, but writing poetry. It is the shaman in me! It'd be an honor if you read my manuscript and commented on it. Let me know if you will do this, and I will send "a fix of ink" right away. Many thanks, truly yours, Cecilia
David S Whitley – Blurb for a fix of ink
In this remarkable collection of poems, Cecilia Martinez-Gil deftly sketches the genome of human written expression, tracing our creative journey from ancient times to modern places. The cave walls of the past, the blank pages of the present and the digital bytes of the future are, like moth and flame, the siren calls of our imagination. Martinez-Gil artfully captures the eternal tension between void and the human need and desire to fill it, awarding us with a kind of dreamscape where touches of ink fix us in time and place: here, there, past, present, and future.
David and I kept corresponding, and typically, there were surprises and magical connections in every exchange. Once, we discovered that we share similar ancestral connections comparing our DNA tests. We're descendants from the same woman, our ancestral mother in the HAPLOGROUP C, and other ethnic idiosyncrasies.
It’s still puzzling, however, that the terracotta color for my cover design for the work in progress that was going to become a fix of ink (later designed by Siolo Thompson for the Finishing Line Press publication), was going to match the hues of Earth colors, flowers and plants of the dessert, and the traces of paintings by the Shamans of Coso Junction. And everything was earth colors, around me, and in me--the skin of my own. My brown skin. The wind sang as it squeezed through bushes and shrubs, and it sounded like bells and sporadic whistles of hot air. I was home. I am.
On the first weekend of September, Federico and I drove to Tehachapi where I finally met David in person. New recent serendipitous/kairotic instances had tethered us once again. And they were also related to Cave Paintings, and Magic, once again brining us together, drawings us closer, triggering the awe of experience when awareness whispers signs of destiny, and fate, not established, but in the making, in the now of living the stories that interlace people, and love.
Dave took us on a Shamanic Journey to secret and sacred sites to observe rock art created by Native Americans. Some were petroglyphs dating as far back as to the Ice Age, about 12K years ago, others were pictographs dating 5K, 3K and the most recent, created in the early 1900’s by the Coso/Kawaiisu rain shaman, Bob Rabbit. I am still in a daze, and nothing is surreal, and everything makes sense--the rituals, the ceremonies, the vision quests, my dreaming lucid dreams, my writing poetry, my life in the in-betweenness.
But this is another chapter of this story - Part 2 of this blog post: coming soon [eventually].
a fix of ink – video.
Still and moving pictures taken from Rock Art at Coso Range, Coso Junction, Red Hills, and Tehachapi.
Wonders. ["Oh, will wonders ever cease?" Sufjan Stevens asks]
Music originally composed by Federico Ramos, (inspired in the same vein in “Drawn to the Blood” by Sufjan Stevens).
Video edited by truly yours and Magaluna.
My home is my breath. Eco means Home. Earth is my Home. So I breathe Earth's air.
I've nothing by gratitude.
Mitakuye Oyasin. [To all my relations]