Category Archives: Just Life

On The Memory of Anthony Bourdain

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

—William Butler Yeats[1]


IMG_8648 I complete this blog, it’s been a week since I heard the devastating news. My virtual storytelling mentor, the oft-heralded rock star of the culinary world, Anthony Bourdain has made the decision to leave us. Bourdain was one of those people I kind of hoped would live forever. In my childlike fantasy world, a utopian future would feature brand new works by Robin Williams, Alan Rickman, David Bowie, and Anthony Bourdain on loop. But alas, all these greats have left us. And whether they leave us by illness or by choice, the loss of unique voices such as these is alienating and confusing. In our grief, we are left to try to understand the work of great minds, to bring forward the lessons they teach, both in life and in death.

What precisely can we learn from the life and death of Anthony Bourdain? Well, as it turns out, quite a lot. In life, he was a master storyteller with a fresh perspective on the world. He hated pretension. He was known for calmly but insistently making his way into some of the most conflict-torn places in the world, and his work conveyed the universality of life. How many correspondents, for example, could venture into Iran and discuss the political implications of re-entry into the country experienced by Iranian-American expats? During a show on CNN honoring his life and contributions, his colleague Chris Cuomo lauds his ability to help people see beyond the kinds of things that divide us as humans, to weave a web of interconnectedness, and remind us that every story is our story. His genius is present in the way he brings people from all walks of life together to discuss topics that are generally be considered divisive. And in death, he continues to teach us about the chameleon nature of depression, the transience of life, and the fact that we can’t outrun ourselves, no matter how far we travel. There’s so much I could say about him, but I’ll keep it to two major points: in life, he taught us about what we can give each other, and in death, he continues to teach us about what we could have given him, and what we can give others like him.

Bourdain wasn’t shy about sharing the way his experiences shaped his life. He often made reference to the “demons” that followed him around everywhere he went. A close reading of his work reveals many references to self-harm. In an episode of The Layover where he visits Seattle, he references the actual method he used to take his life. He seems poised right at the gateway between this world and the next, between physicality and ecstasy. In many ways, his life follows the path of the traditional shaman – alienation from the tribe (dropping out to work in kitchens), the descent into the underworld (drugs, drugs, and more drugs), the nearly fatal wound (addiction), the journey to the land of the gods (drugs again), and the return with the wisdom to impart to the tribe (his empathy, his writing, and the gifts he offered through his time on television). As a kind of contemporary global shaman, he travels the world offering healing through food, story, and biting sarcasm filled with wisdom. It’s pretty clear from the outpouring of grief and love for him that much of the world agrees. He was a mentor, a friend to many, and an inspiration to those who watched him and were transported by the stories he told. He was loved. He had family, a daughter he adored, friends, and partner in life of whom he was fiercely protective and who was fiercely protective of him. Which leaves me with one central question – what happened?

The Thinness of American Vocation

I can’t and won’t begin to speculate about the reasons for his decision to leave. As another teary-eyed colleague, Anderson Cooper, noted, we can’t begin to know what kind of pain he was experiencing in those final moments. It would be presumptuous and frankly indelicate of me to speculate as though I have any real answer. What I can do is muse on what we might learn to make a better world for the shamanic voices around us. The first thing that comes to my mind is some thoughts on vocation from a keynote address given by Dr. Ed Tick at a Pacifica Graduate Institute Alumni Association Coming Home event in January of 2016. Dr. Tick works with military veterans to promote psychological healing through group connection. He organizes trips back to Vietnam with veterans who seek reconciliation and healing, something I’m sure Bourdain would encourage wholeheartedly. He has had amazing success with his work. These trips change lives.[2]

Tick suggests that being a warrior is a vocation, a calling. He reminds us that the spiritual traditions of many people have understood it that way. They made ritual around it. When warriors of these traditions enters into rites of initiation, they are fundamentally changed. This change forges a new identity for them. When they go to war, they fight bravely; when they return home to peace, they know they have other jobs to do. He argues that this kind of self-assurance of identity, of vocation, is largely missing in our society. He suggests that re-forging the connection to the ancient warrior is vital to the psychological health of a military person, both during their service and after.

This talk moved me deeply, and it returns to my mind now as I ponder the vocation of the contemporary healer. The thin experience of vocation in our contemporary society is a problem, not just for warriors, but in the way we craft (or ignore) vocation across the board. Recent studies suggest that depression might stem from a lack of connection,[3] of deep soulful belonging in the sense that Brené Brown writes about in her book Braving The Wilderness: The Quest For True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone.[4] She suggests that being able to walk the vulnerable path is inextricably linked to the ability to get comfortable with being alone. She also suggests that we come to true belonging not by being surrounded by what is the same, but by engaging with what is different. That certainly sounds like the path walked by Bourdain. But it’s not that simple for those whose path requires that they get in touch with the darkest and ickiest parts of life.

This is particularly challenging for those walking the path of a mystical healer, because let’s be honest, what has a shaman ever been but a delicate combination of artist, storyteller, magician, and psycho-spiritual (sometimes physical) healer? It’s their vocation to sink into the darkness, to allow the wound to take them to the edge. They do it to help us feel. Brown says, “When we hear someone else sing about the jagged edges of heartache or the unspeakable nature of grief, we immediately know we’re not the only ones in pain. The transformative power of art is in this sharing. Without connection or collective engagement, what we hear is simply a caged song of sorrow and despair; we find no liberation in it. It’s the sharing of art that whispers, ‘You’re not alone.’”[5] That was certainly true of the impact Bourdain’s work had on his viewers, but did it ever find its way into his own heart? The ultimate tragedy of the thinness of our cultural structures is that instead of true belonging we get fame, and instead of rootedness, we get wealth.

What happens to the soul of a shaman when they to go through the depths of the darkness of initiation only to be met with no true ritual container on the other side of the experience? Think of what it would mean to have no language with which to hold the transformation, no way of truly understanding who one has become. The sheer terror of the experience itself is enough to break the psyche open and the wound is enough to kill, but when it happens without the benefit of a cultural understanding of the change in one’s identity, the end result is often depression and a retreat into oblivion.
Brown continues, “Right now we are neither recognizing nor celebrating our inextricable connection. We are divided from others in almost every area of our lives. We’re not showing up with one another in a way that acknowledges our connection. Cynicism and distrust have a stranglehold on our hearts…. Addressing this crisis will require a tremendous amount of courage.”[6] Bourdain had that courage in excess. He had these connections in life. He had loved ones who were there, who certainly made him feel loved and valued. We saw this courage in him, but ultimately it wasn’t enough to sustain him. There is no easy solution to this problem, no simple answer that will plump up our vocational roles in society enough to make them whole and hale. As we walk this path in life, we will most certainly lose many more of the brightest souls around us. The best we can offer is a true recognition of the road they are traveling, to make ritual with them, to honor the balance of life, to fluff a pillow for them to land on when they arrive, and to pour them a stiff drink for the road when they are ready to return to the land of myth and legend. RIP, Tony. Peace to you on your return trip back to the stars. And thanks for the memories.

Dori Koehler, Ph.D. is a cultural mythologist and scholar of American popular culture. She is a professor of the Humanities, Interdisciplinary Studies, Popular Culture, World Mythology, and the Fine Arts at Southern New Hampshire UniversityShe also teaches Classical Mythology and Shakespeare to children online through the Gifted Home Schoolers Forum. Her book The Mouse and the Myth: Sacred Art and Secular Ritualis available on amazon. Her latest article on Walt Disney as a manifestation of the trickster archetype will be published in a forthcoming collection of essays through John Libbey Publishing. She lives in Santa Barbara with her husband and their cocker spaniel, Lucy.

[1]The Second Coming.



[4]Page 40.

[5]Braving The Wilderness, 45.

[6]Braving The Wilderness, 46.


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The Audacity of Love: Lessons I Learned from an Obama Presidency


I’ve never been an especially political person. In fact, I’ve never felt particularly at home in the community around me. My mind is often engaged in the foreign past – Regency era England with Jane Austen, Victorian England with the Bronte sisters, the Modernist period with W.B. Yeats, or in ancient Celtic world with myths and legends from Ireland and Scotland.

I didn’t even vote in elections until 2008. I was convinced that my vote didn’t count anyway and like so many other members of the Baby Bust generation (also known as Gen X), I carried my apathy around like a medal of honor. Then came presidential candidate Barack Obama. He electrified my politics. As I listened to him, I thought more deeply about the choices we make as a nation. I began to care. I began to think about ways that we might do things better. I started believing in the idea of a more inclusive America – a nation that practices the doctrines of freedom and justice we preach.

America often falls short of fulfilling its ideological mandate. Even when we do the right thing, we often do it for selfish reasons. We claim to be a nation of ethical, spiritual people, self-righteous with our high moral code, but when that code is tested, when we are asked to make choices that benefit the most vulnerable among us rather than ourselves, when we are asked to look at the places that our society might still be unjust, we too often choose to protect our corporate bank accounts over helping our neighbors and seeking to be a force for reconcilliation for the world.

Perhaps it’s this basic hypocrisy that has caused me to opt out of American stories in my work, preferring the land of the fairy or the lure of irony to the realities that are so difficult to face. Even in the areas where I do study American story, I gravitate toward Disney, stories that intentionally focus on what is possible, rather than what is real.

Perhaps this also explains my personal adherence to progressive ideals and my love of President Obama. To me, his presidency embodies an optimistic view of nostalgic possibility, rather than an adherence broken stories of the past. The rhetoric of his administration has invoked the only nostalgic images I can connect to from the 20th century; the progressive ideals of Walt Disney, the social justice movements of Dr. King, and the ephemeral optimism of the Kennedys. Nostalgia, after all, is the soothing balm Americans apply to the soul whenever the real becomes too real for us to take, and in that particular case, I am thoroughly American.

But, is that all there is to it? I don’t think so.

Re-Visioning Personality Types

In his book redefining C.G. Jung’s personality typologies, the late, great Walter Odajnyk classifies archetypal dichotomies: Introvert and Extrovert, Power (control) and Eros (connection) and Physis (material world) and Pneuma (spirit) as complementary pairs of personality types. Rather than use the abstract types Jung created “sensing, feeling, thinking, perception,” Walter suggests that we use archetypes to create a framework that offers a kind of magnifying glass meant to lift unconscious aspects of soul to the surface. He hoped to find a more resonant language to helps us understand who we are.

When he sets up Power and Eros in contrast to each other, he means to suggest that individuals have an orientation toward one side of the archetype or the other. He does NOT mean to suggest that we are one thing – all Power or all Eros. In his mind, we are whole beings with a fullness of archetypal possibilities inside us waiting to be explored.

It’s also the case, however, that this archetypal material is in continued flux as we live our lives and engage in what James Hillman called “soulmaking,” the process of bringing consciousness and psycho-spiritual healing. The challenge of psychological healing is to discover where our psychic realities are on that continuum and to develop awareness of those parts that are still unknown to us.

That being said, we do begin somewhere, and our orientation plays out in way that are both positive and negative, ego and shadow. Working to understand the way these personality types move back and forth helps bring those potentialities to the surface. This archetypal orientation is made manifest through our choices, our values, and our rhetoric.

The Eros President

In order to understand Eros oriented personalities, we must return to myth. The term Eros derives from Greek mythology. In the earliest iterations of Greek mystery religion, Eros is one of the generative forces that create the cosmos. In later sources, he is presented as the son of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. Aphrodite is born naked from the foam of the sea. This implies that true love and beauty are born out of the process of being stripped bare, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. When in its most positive form then, Eros, is the generative force born of love, beauty, and vulnerability without shame.

Such is the case with President Obama. From the moment when he burst onto the national political stage in 2004, he became known for electrifying audiences with his passion and charisma. That ability to move his audience has only grown over the years. He is also known for his continued effort to speak to the connections that exist between people. He speaks passionately about the difficulties of growing up feeling marginalized, not by his family, but by a culture that automatically marginalizes and objectifies young black men. He speaks the language of empowerment and justice, reminding Americans that change is possible if we remain focused on who we are and what we believe. He unites audiences with the energy behind his words. He speaks for Americans whose voices had long been silenced. And he never once attempted to do this by shutting anyone else out.

When I suggest that President Obama is oriented toward Eros, I mean is that he leads with the psycho-spiritual energy that seeks connection. Eros energy unites us based on what we have in common. It seeks to share authority with others, in contrast to the archetype of Power, which would lead an individual toward singular authority. The term is connected to sexuality because the energy itself makes life new, but it cannot be distilled down to one aspect of desire. Eros specifically represents the connection that occurs through inclusion and deep empathy. Such is the legacy of President Obama.

As a bi-racial self-professed feminist man who was born in Hawaii, brought up abroad, and in the rural Midwest state of Kansas, he should have been our great unifier. He understands the value of a variety of American viewpoints. He suggests that there is room for everyone to connect on terms of equality. As a leader, he has been humble, stable, and gracious, kind to small children and animals, and inclusive even of those who have mocked him.

He has never allowed personal slights against him to interfere with what Americans need from him. Had he been oriented more by Power, he could have spent many of his early years forcing his way in government and retaliating against anyone who disagreed with him. Perhaps that orientation toward Eros instead of Power contributed to his continued frustration as president. He tried so hard to bring people together based on common ground, but one can’t bring people to together when they refuse to work with you.

That liability that President Obama faced, however, is also his greatest strength. Eros types lead with their heart. On Tuesday, January 9, 2017, I watched President Obama give his farewell address to the nation. I promised myself I wouldn’t cry. When he spoke of his belief in all Americans, I teared up. When he spoke of our ability to create the change we wish to see, I felt my heart soar. But when he turned to thank his love Michelle, I finally broke down.

Seeing the person who holds the most powerful office in the world with tears in his eyes expressing his love for his partner and children both broke my heart and healed it. I thought back to all the times I’ve seen him wipe away tears over the years – from his announcement about the tragedy at Sandy Hook to emotional ceremonies with the military, to gifting his friend and self professed brother Joe Biden a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in an instant, I understood that the most valuable part of the Obama presidency has been this outward expression of emotion. That one small gesture, wiping the tears from his eyes as he thanked his family, physicalizes the guiding ethos of his presidency.

Opening the door to love is the central hallmark of Eros’ presence. Listening to the needs of others, submitting to those needs, and balancing those needs with your own as they respond in kind is the very essence of love. For the last eight years, we’ve had a president motivated by that kind of love, and not the kind of love that is easily thrown around as a term on Valentine’s Day and in church on Sunday. It’s not the kind of love that makes our lives simple or our paths unobstructed. It requires pain and sacrifice as it grapples with the drive toward power. Those who are truly motivated by love are also motivated by a deep empathy and the action that empathy requires.

As he leaves the White House, President Obama’s legacy is becoming a fixed image humanity will continue to unpack. These images that our leaders represent through their decisions are of central importance to humanity, particularly as those images illuminate facets of our cultural myths — the stories that make us who we are.

The legacy of President Obama is complicated, difficult to discuss much less answer definitively. Some say his presidency divided Americans more deeply than ever. Some say that our credibility as Americans across the world was elevated as our leader sought to bring diplomatic solutions to international relations that are still in peril. Some claim he believes deeply in social justice and others claim he didn’t do enough.

One thing is clear: we’ve had a president that was motivated by the convictions of his heart. Speaking to a crowd about the importance of the ACA, he once said, “I don’t mind that they call it Obamacare, because I do care.” It’s obvious that he does care. But beyond caring, the most important part of his legacy is what it teaches us about the joys and challenges of a true commitment to community. I am personally motivated by this example of Eros in action, and I will always be thankful for this example.


So, on this day of all days, Inauguration Day, when our new President has already removed any trace of discussion about Civil Rights, ecological conservation, and equality from the White House website in favor of pushing isolationist politics, fossil fuels, and lauding our ability to destroy our neighbors, I just want to end this blog by saying thank you to the Obama Administration.

Thanks to Barack and Michelle for being the example of a loving marriage that my husband and I continue to strive to emulate. Thank you to Sasha and Malia for sharing your wonderful parents with the American people. And thank you to Joe and Jill Biden for your hard work and sacrifice. Your class and gentility make us all better people.

President Obama — Thank you for teaching me that the leader of the “free world” can also be kind. Thank you for being the example of healthy masculinity I’ve always searched for in a leader. Thank you for being a vessel for a passion for justice I never knew I was missing. Thank you for inspiring my participation in government. And President Obama, in times when you feel like doubting your decision to try to bring people together in government, if you ever feel like you didn’t do enough, remember that you are the one who reminded us that you were only one voice of many. Thank you for leading with your heart.

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50 Shades of Shadow


Heads up, dear readers. I will soon write a commentary of 50 Shades of Grey. I’ve been resisting it forever. I’ve been told over and over not to read it…that it would kill my brain cells…so I have. HOWEVER, it’s been bothering me. The worldwide phenomena that this series has become has been bothering me…what it is saying about humanity has been bothering me, and (finally) yesterday I figured out what it is mythically that is going on and that bugs me so much. So, rather than make you wait for however long it takes me to finally read the books, research the topic, and write, I thought I’d pass along the epiphany I had.

What caught my mind yesterday as the torrent of Jezebel, MoviePilot, and The Christian Left articles entered my view from left and right on Facebook is that in many ways, 50 Shades is simply a new iteration of the Beauty and the Beast motif. Boiled down to its most basic archetypal ingredients, Beauty and the Beast is about the beautiful aspects of feminine humanity coming to love and nurture what is dark, ugly and in shadow, particularly, what is shadow in the animalistic nature of humanity.

Some of the earliest versions of the motifs of the myths relate this to the archetypes of love (eros) and the soul (psyche), a perfect example of which would be Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, in which he gives the story of Eros and Psyche itself…a tale of love’s affair with the soul that eventually elevates humanity into the realm of the immortals.

Here’s the short version: Psyche is married to Eros as a sacrifice because her the idolatrous worship of her beauty has become an affront of Aphrodite. Psyche has no knowledge of who/what she married (as he always visits her in the dark of night), but finds her husband loving, attentive, and well, hot in bed. In their disbelief and jealously, her sisters convince her that she must find out. So, she visits his chamber at night with a lamp. As she gazes over him, marveling at his beauty, she drips oil out of her lamp onto his shoulder and burns him and his wings. Eros wakes immediately and flies home to Aphrodite, who nurses her wounds. Psyche is heartbroken. How can she return to her god of a husband, as she is only a human being? Aphrodite steps in for the sake of her son (who is also heartbroken), devising a series of labors for psyche (one of which includes a trip to visit Persephone in the underworld-the queen of death). Psyche completes them all and is elevated to Olympus…to immortal status–THIS is the story that Beauty and the Beast grows from. Archetypally, we are talking about the interplay of two central archetypes: love and soul. It is a story about how the relationship between the two develops.


In contrast to this stands the story of Hades and Persephone, one of a young girl, still in the maidenhood of her development who, while picking a flower one day–a narcissus flower, which is definitely significant as far as self reflection and refusal to move out of maidenhood goes–is dragged down into the underworld and forced (essentially by her father) to marry the Lord of Death, (and her uncle, BAH) Hades. Now, much has been made of the importance of Persephone’s development out of maidenhood, so there is some value to that. The union with Hades forces Persephone to go deeper into the realms of what Jungians would call the unconscious than she ever would on her own, and in fact, some might suggest that without being snatched by Hades, she’s not likely to ever had made the trip at all. Furthermore, there are some details in the myth that support the idea that at least part of Persephone is pleased with the results of her union with Hades. Some might suggest that this is what is going on with 50 Shades…but this is “Western” culture. We are at complete odds with our shadow (the dark, unknown aspects of our soul). And the unconscious aspects of our sexual shadow, particularly female sexuality which has been relegated to the darkest realm of shadow, is millennia long. It seems to me that what is actually going on here is a manifestation of the Jungian shadow in a way that is particularly and insidiously dangerous and difficult to see.


Many moons ago, I had a class with Dr. Ginette Paris at PGI–seriously, if you don’t know her, google her and read her stuff. She’s faboo. I really can’t remember what class it was, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that she said something that stuck in my mind, and continues to make poignant suggestions to me from time to time. Ginette said (wait for it, and I’m paraphrasing…) that TRAGEDY IS A MISALIGNMENT OF ARCHETYPES AT AN INAPPROPRIATE TIME. For example, a story about motherhood can be tragic, if the woman giving birth is still in the maiden stage, completely uninterested in and unprepared for becoming a mother. Make sense?

Ok, so bear with me here. It occurred to me that this is exactly what is going on with 50 Shades. This story, in all of its badly written, mommy porn Twilight fan-fic-ness, is being presented to us as a story that taps the archetypes of love and the soul, when in reality, it is tapping (hehehe–sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun) the archetypes of maidenhood and death. Let me say that another way: 50 Shades of Grey sells itself to be a re-telling of the myth of Eros and Psyche, but what it is is the shadow aspects of the myth of Hades and Persephone. And that is what makes it so dangerous. It isn’t that the story itself is tragic on its own, but that the storyteller is giving us the wrong names for the archetypes, and in doing so, she evokes a different story than what the archetypes constellate. It’s not a love story people. There’s nothing authentic of the Aphroditic and Erotic here (Irish hottie Jamie Dornan notwithstanding). But it is sold as if there is. So there you go: my epiphany. Stay tuned readers. I’m on the case to prove this (and possibly write a journal article in the process). In the meantime, Happy Valentine’s Day y’all. Now go find some authentic erotic experience. It’s a good thing.

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Disney Parks and The Myth of Family Vacations


The season finale of The Middle aired last week. It took the Heck family to Walt Disney World via a contest that Sue wins, though she thinks she is competing for a car. The trip begins as a nightmare. Frankie (mom) ushers in  the trip by failing to read the tickets, which apparently are for Disneyland Resort in Anaheim rather than Walt Disney World. Before long the family is on one long Murphy’s Law of a trip. All along the way, however, the staff at Walt Disney World goes out of their way to make their trip magical. They honor their tickets and upgrade them to a room that makes their original room look like a broom closet. Even so, the Heck family is unhappy. Every plan the family makes fails. Sue carries a binder around convinced that she has the plan for the entire trip. Everyone is grouchy. Everyone is hungry. No one is having a good time. No one gets on any rides.

The first day goes by quickly. They fall asleep in their epic room. The next day they wake up at 3pm, groggy and panicked because they have slept their entire day away. At the park, they bicker and rip themselves apart trying to do too much…trying to consume everything the parks have to offer. The family stands in front of the Partners statue–Walt and Mickey–right in front of the castle arguing. Frankie shouts at them. “What is wrong with us?” she shouts. “Every other family here can figure this out!” “Everyone else can get that ONE good picture for the Christmas card.” Finally Mike (father) tells them “you know why I wanted to go to Epcot? Because never in my life will I be able to afford to tak your mother to Paris. And just once, I wanted to take her to dinner in Paris.” Clearly, he knows it isn’t actually Paris, but he also clearly knows that animating an illusion of life is what Disney does best.

The parents take off to Epcot for dinner and the kids split…and then decide not to split. Before you know it, the kids throw their plans/fears/false annoyances with each other out of the park. Silly faces are made and pictures are willingly taken. In the end, the whole family reconnects for the fireworks. All of the annoyances are gone, and they the fireworks show in awe. Of course, as they drive home, the kids fight just as they always do, but they do so with wry smiles and as the parents give knowing looks from the front seat of the car.

As I watched this episode, I kept thinking about Disney Parks as an American pilgrimage. I questioned, as I always do, what Disney/ABC is on about in this episode. Yes, ABC is NOT Disney, but The Walt Disney Company owns it. This episode was the second episode by an ABC show that took place at one of the Resorts. In 2012, Modern Family did an episode in Disneyland, and one of the central themes of the episode was familial connection and the concept being present in the moment. This episode seemed to convey a similar theme.

The Heck family drives all the way from Indiana to go to WDW. They go to have that moment of connection. Even so, it is difficult for them.  I am with Frankie all the way, because when I visit Disneyland, I always notice families who seem disconnected, frantically trying to consume everything…annoyed that they are spending so much money and not getting everything out of the experience.

Some might suggest that is the shadow of Disney–consumption. And they would not be wrong. I would suggest, however, that consumption is actually the shadow of our culture, not just here in America, but as a global American legacy. Whether we are at Disney or at a ball game, at a park or at a museum, our need to consume often trumps our ability to experience the moment in which we are living. We live in constant fear that we will be unable to consume enough to balance what we believe is being taken from us. We cannot balance the amount of money we spend against the experience of the moment.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the monetary cost of a trip to Disney. I appreciate that some families never get to go and some save for years just for one day at the park. But it isn’t just the trip to Disney. It is the commodification of family life in general. It seems as though we feel that “quality family time” must itself meet some sort of acquisition level in order to maintain its value. But the value of these experiences can only be truly measured by how much they make us feel…how they make us connect. That is the point of this episode. The Hecks win the trip, but they must become conscious of the gift of the trip. They must recognize it as a blessing, let go of plans and expectations, and allow the experience to move them. Once they do, they are able to appreciate its true value. They are able to have, as Joseph Campbell once said, “an experience of life rather than the meaning of life.”  It’s a message that goes to the heart of Disney, because it speaks to a tension in Disney’s myth: consumption vs. connection.



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“Sisters…Sisters…there were never more devoted sisters…”


Frozen is now called the greatest Disney musical since The Lion King…hailing Disney’s return to broadway quality the likes of which we have not seen since the team that gave us The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast (Howard Ashman and Alan Menken). I’ll admit it; I bawled like a baby. Pretty much everything about it is spectacular, but I was left thinking about what it is about Disney films that so affect me? When they work for me, WHY do they work? Answer: it’s the heart. For me, when art works it isn’t because of any intellectual exercise; it is because it makes me feel something. Disney has been known for intentionally going for the “feels”, and that’s what this film does. Furthermore, for me, when art works it “speaks” in some way. That is also what this film does. It provides perspective. In its purely archetypal, kaleidoscopic sense, it presents faceted images of the archetypal realm.

Please be advised that there will be **SPOILERS** ahead, so if you aren’t interested in finding out what happens in this film, please pass over this post. Also, in contrast to my other posts that tend to be theoretical, the following review is **PERSONAL**. I’m speaking my truth here.

Frozen is an incredibly loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. And when I say loose, I mean that pretty much the only thing this film and the original fairy tale have in common is some snow. Indeed, as per usual, Disney tends to pick up motifs from the older versions of fairy tales (trolls, royalty, snow, mirror) and re-mythologizes them completely. Andersen’s work is self-consciously moralizing in tone–lovely, but incredibly Victorian. That is not how Disney rolls…particularly since The Little Mermaid. Disney does comedy…caricature. It has always presented fairy tales in the vein of Hollywood standards, but since the late 1980s, (in my opinion the genius brought to the studio by Ashman) they have presented these tales through heart-stirring and powerful broadway style musicals. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that the films since Ariel all feature young women with strong, broadway caliber characters and voices. I’ve previously suggested that Disney princesses reflect the anima (or the soul’s feminine aspects) complex of the Disney Studios. They represent facets of feminine consciousness coming to light (hence the “feels”) through the belting ballads of Disney anima-tion.

Frozen features two of these power houses–sisters Elsa and Anna. As usual, Disney focuses on the ways love transforms us all and the importance of sharing bonds of love with family. This film is no exception. Though it is not the first story to focus of the power of relationships between women, it is the first to focus so intensely on the relationship between sisters as a catalyst for magical transformation.


Frozen begins with a powerful intro song similar to the opening piece of Beauty and The Beast or The Lion King. It’s a group of “ice harvesters,” singing about the beauty and power of ice and exhorting the audience to “beware the frozen heart.” The story soon turns to joy–two little sisters giggling and playing together in a wintery paradise created by magical powers. Elsa, the older sister, is the one with the magical powers to create ice and snow. Her younger sister, Anna, wakes her sister and begs her to play. “Do you want to build a snowmaaaaan?” An accident occurs as they play, and Anna is wounded by a stray bit of ice that enters her head. Elsa calls for her parents, and the family approaches a local family of trolls for magical advice. The elder troll heals Anna (he tells the family that she is lucky to have been wounded in the head–that the heart is more difficult to change), but also warns Elsa that her power is dangerous. He tells her that fear will be her Achilles heel–that she must master her fear to come into balance of her power. A central condition of Anna’s healing is that she have all her memories of magic erased.

The king and queen set about the business of trying to “control” Elsa’s powers. Between Elsa’s fear that she will hurt the ones she loves and Anna’s memory loss, the relationship between the sisters becomes distant, cold and strained. Elsa becomes more and more anxious about her powers, so anxious in fact that she locks herself away in her room. Anna is confused. She can’t understand why her sister doesn’t want to be with her. She can’t understand the breakdown of their relationship. Then tragedy strikes. While away on a voyage of presumed royal duty, the ship carrying the royal couple sinks. The princesses are left alone.

Fast forward to coronation day. The curtains and gates at the kingdom of Arendelle are about to open. Anna continues to seek Elsa, and Elsa continues to fear the possibilities of her power. They sing about their hopes and fears for the evening in “For the First Time in Forever” (Anna: “at least I have a chance”…Elsa: “But it’s only for today, It’s agony to wait”). Begin party…the sisters see each other and begin small talk. It’s awkward, but it’s clear that they both want to rekindle their relationship. Anna meets “the one” Prince Hans–a perfect IMAGE of a Disney prince. The two become engaged, much to Elsa’s dismay. They argue, and Elsa’s passionate response to her sister’s question of why she shuts her out ends in a display of her power. She flees, amid accusations of black sorcery, to the north mountain, and in an incredible moment that only Disney can create Elsa comes into her power as she sings the powerful ballad “Let it Go.” Dude, I gotta share it. It’s that good.

In doing this, Elsa unleashes perpetual winter, which sets Anna off on a journey to find her sister and “fix everything.” Along the way, she comes across a man named Kristoff, his fantastic reindeer Sven, and a snowman come to life by Elsa named Olaf. The relationship between Anna and these characters is adorable…but peripheral (though there is love, growth and education there) to a reunion between Anna and Elsa. Anna and crew eventually make their way to the north mountain where she and Elsa quarrel again. Anna believes that if they can just come together and be honest with each other, they can fix everything. Once again, Anna is accidentally injured…this time in her heart. The trolls tell her that only an act of true love will save her.

Kristoff and crew return her to her “true love” Prince Hans who, in a twist that apparently everyone but romantic little me saw coming, reveals himself as the villain (WHAT?!!). Hans locks Anna away and imprisons Elsa, attempting to drive an even deeper wedge between them. Elsa runs heart-broken into the snow, whipping up an even worse blizzard as she goes. Anna runs out into the snow searching for her “true love” moment, when suddenly the snow begins to die down and Anna sees Prince Hans attempting to kill Elsa. Anna, about to turn into a block of ice, gives herself for Elsa as she freezes. Elsa holds her sister and in a typical “true love’s kiss” moment, Anna comes back to life. Turns out that the act of true love she needed was one of her own, for her sister. All’s well that ends well…lesson learned…release the fear, embrace your power and love each other. Open the gates and never shut them again.

Now, Personal:

Confession: I have two sisters, both of whom I adore. I share a father with one sister and a mother with the other. And there is pain and trauma on both sides, which I am not at liberty to write about in this blog. Let’s just say that in relationship to both of them, I am the Anna. It is well known in our family that I am the silly, klutzy naive one of the group.I’ve got the freckles, the unshakable belief, the braids, the goofiness…they’ve got the beauty, the composure, grace, the maturity. I am also the one who has often been thought to need protection. I was so much younger that at different times, both of my sisters have, of their own belief and by our parents, felt that they could be the cause of hurt for me. Furthermore, they has caused them to doubt themselves and their gifts.

Both of my sisters are powerful women who have experienced differing levels of pressure to hold themselves back for fear of what release of their own intensity could mean. So they held back, and frankly, for a long time I didn’t really know my sisters. Now, as an adult, this story resonates with me. I can see how my sisters loved me and sought to protect me all through our lives. And, I know that an act of true love requires selfless acceptance, something I know that both my sisters and me were always willing to give. Just as Elsa needs to release the fear of her power…her ability to hurt the people she loves in order to embrace the beauty of who she is, so Anna needs to appreciate what her sister feels and support her in that power. But in order for that to happen, Elsa and Anna need to trust each other…a balance between the compassionate power of Queen Elsa and the boundless optimism of Princess Anna. These are powerful archetypal images that I find present in my relationship with my sisters. Older sisters, younger sisters. An act of true love can melt a frozen heart. And I’ve seen these archetypes in play in other families as well. My nieces, my cousins, my friends…

What could it mean for us all if we embraced our loved ones without fear? What if we bring what we believe to be shadow into light–accepting truth and loving each other, not in spite of it, but because of it? Disney’s Frozen tells us what happens. Love will thaw. And it is no coincidence that love comes to us through Disney’s healing touch of the feminine–on this point, sisterly love rather than romantic love. Sisters: The image of little girls at play and young women empowering each other. It is beautiful…and it heals, because we are more powerful together than apart. Together, we are whole.

Given, with love, for my darling sisters: Shari Merrill and Lisa Filippini



Filed under Disney/Pixar, Fairy Tales, Just Life, Movie Reviews

Letter to the POTUS in response to his inauguration

Dorene Koehler, PhD

Santa Barbara, Ca. 93103

January 22, 2013

Dr. President Obama:

I write to you today as one of your constituents—a supporter who believes in you and believes in the work you do for America.

Mr. President, I am tired, concerned, and anxious. I am concerned about our future as Americans, and I would like to ask you about some of what you envision for America.

As I write this letter to you, it has been approximately twenty-four hours since your second inauguration—a beautiful day filled with sacred American ritual. I want you to know that I heard your speech. I truly heard it! I have always known that one person and one administration alone cannot cure all the ills of the world and our system. It is a deep truth that we must act even in the face of the knowledge that what we do will never be complete, never enough. There will always be another day and another battle to fight.

You, however, must be aware of your own power as an iconic presence leading the changes we presently experience. The fact that you chose to be sworn in using both Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.’s bibles proves that you know the power of an icon—the mythic power of archetypal images—to move people.

And so I write to ask you: How are we going to begin to change our cultural understanding of the power of these archetypal images? How are we going to re-vivify the study of the humanities in America?

There were two studies released this year that really made the crisis in the Humanities clear to me (besides the fact that I’ve yet to find any kind of gainful employment utilizing my degree).

The first was the Pew Forum’s “Study on Religion and Public Life.” This 2012 study states that 1 in 5 Americans now claim no religious affiliation. That is a huge percentage of Americans with no organized communal outlet for their spirituality. American spirituality is in flux and in crisis. Large numbers of us seem to be abandoning old ways of connecting to the soul. Perhaps, in our secularized society, this may not seem like a huge crisis, but it is.  We cannot afford to allow our need to act on our ritual impulses to disappear into unconscious careless action. At the very least, we are called to address these changes, for the sake of the future–our children. If Americans neglect connecting with each other for the sake of tending to our souls in community, how can we tend to each other in the material world? Why would it even matter if we did?

The second study was an article released by The Chronicle of Higher Education, which notes a 43% unemployment rate among PhDs in the humanities. 43%!! How can it be that America has some of the brightest, most educated of its citizens living in poverty because they are burdened by the debt of an education that has taught them what it means to be a human being, and because they cannot find a job sharing that knowledge with their communities?

I understand (and agree by the way) that mathematics, science, and technology are going to drive our next economic boom. Everything you said about this in your inaugural address is true. But, we cannot expect Americans to come together in the way we need to for prosperity if we continue to neglect our spiritual, psychological, and mythological needs as human beings.

Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

And, in his book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum wrote, “I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death.”

I believe that you know this instinctually and viscerally. That is why I trust you with my vote. I know you value the power of symbols, of culture, of the soul, Mr. President, and so I ask you: What can we do? What can I do? How can I be a part of reclaiming and healing the soul of America for the future?

Thank you for lending your ear,

Dorene Koehler, PhD

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Filed under Just Life, Myth

Lessons I learned from Mr. Tigger O’Malley Koehler

Tiggy a couple of weeks ago.

In the spirit of Pacifica’s farewell to our sweet Herbie, I’ve decided to write my own tribute to our sweet Tiggy. He’s been missing for five days now, and we’ve presumed him passed on. Everyone keeps telling us to hang on and be patient…that he will come home. And, as difficult as it is, I have to admit that I’ve known since last Saturday that he isn’t coming home. Whether he passed away or just decided to go live with another family, the reality is the same, and Bruce and I have been heartsick.

This cat has been our constant companion for almost a decade. We rescued him off the street ourselves back in 2003 (with the help of our trusty neighbor Kathleen). Tigger was the most loving, gentle and kind cat I’ve EVER KNOWN. He never scratched anyone on purpose…never hissed…was never out of humor with the humans. He was kind to babies. He was sweet to dogs, although he wasn’t afraid of them either. He didn’t take their crap if they were at all agressive. He was incredibly intelligent. He was full of shenanigans.

A “wild thing” outside my office window

You may say “what cat isn’t??” but seriously everyone who knew this cat loved him. I often heard people say things like, “I don’t even like cats, but that one is amazing!” Yes he yoweled like he was on fire half the time. Yes he peed on things as a way of punishing us when we wouldn’t let him out. And yes he shredded our furniture down to the wood frame. But he was also affectionate, funny, and way smarter than the average person. So yeah, everyone loved him. So, in honor of this inimitable kitt-an, I thought I would note the things that I was lucky to learn from him.

1). True Friends are worth a slurp in the face

Dogs and cats are enemies in the wild (think lions and hyenas). But Tigger was able to see past the species divide and give love. He taught me that true love means acceptance of other creatures as they are…even if the other creature is a stinky, slobbery K9. When our 18 year-ancient Brittany spaniel, Chester, lay on his death-bed, Tigger sat in the window and watched him every minute. After we had to put Chester to sleep, Tigger sat and waited…a loyal friend forever. He and Chester were unlikely allies, but totally allies nonetheless. When Lucy arrived, Tiggy accepted the hyper, bouncy little puppy with grace and patience. Lucy was tiny. She weighed only 4 pounds when she arrived. Friends and family often asked me how the cat took this upstart. Well, it is true that Tiggy would play with her. But somehow he also knew that Lucy was vulnerable. His claws never opened against her. He played soft paws and never popped her too hard. It wasn’t until he knew she was able to protect herself that he began to play a little more rough, and even at that he never hurt her. He was incredibly sensitive. He taught me to practice acceptance of what Martin Buber called the “wholly other” in other creatures, and by doing so, he taught me about my relationship with the divine in us all.

A loving cat/dog pairing

2). If you are passionate about something, never let your passion fade.

Now, any of you who actually know us and knew Tiggy are aware that this cat…THIS CAT…HAD TO BE OUTSIDE!! Bruce and I kept him inside for 8 years. We accepted his systematic destruction of our house and his yoweling! OMGnss the yoweling! He cried all the time. And he never gave up. That crazy cat wore our butts down. Any time the door opened, he was there. If a window was open, he was there. Many a book, paper, lamp, electronic device, and pair of glassed ended up on the floor because of him. He attempted to go up the chimney. He tried the mail slot in the front door. He even climbed up a ladder left by some workmen and got into the attic, thinking he could get out of the vents up there. Each attempt proved futile, but Tigger didn’t care. He was possessed by the idea of returning to the outdoors. It was part of his identity.

After 8 long and painful years, Tigger finally got his wish. On a sunny day last November, we released him from the house. I cried for an hour (only one hour because he came back). I knew that one day he would not return. Truth be told, I think I began to grieve him at that moment. I knew that the act of letting him out of the house required letting him go. And as my BFF, Britta K, has often said, “Every cat dies; not every cat truly lives.” She’s right, of course, and I know it. But so strong was our desire to protect him that we took 8 years of his freedom. I still think it is better to keep a cat in the house, but Tigger wasn’t having it. Sadly, he lasted only 9 months after his release, but he was happier than ever. That crazy kitty! I always looked at him at said, “Tigger! What do you want out there? Here you have food, safety, shelter, and love! Sure we get angry over your behavior, but we always loved you!” He simply looked at me and meowed to be released, because that’s what he needed. He reminded me to never give up! Never surrender a dream that truly lights you up inside. Who would think a cat would  cry for 8 bleeding years to be released from a home that was feeding him and loving him. But his freedom was a part of him, and he refused to let go of that. That’s commitment, man!

And, it reminds me that I am too often willing to give up.

Thanks for reminding me Tigger.

3). One should never pass up the opportunity to lay in the sun

Tigger was a master at what many people call kitty yoga. He would sleep in crazy poses–laying in the sun for hours at a time–often with whiskers twitching and chittering in his sleep. On the bed, in our kitchen window (which we often called the kitty sauna), on the couch, on the walkway, and on the BBQ. It really didn’t matter where. Anyplace you saw him sleep, you would also see that joker-like smile on his face; a smile of pure kitty bliss. Like any other cat, he enjoyed his sunshine. But it’s not just about that. It’s about joy. Tigger taught me that there is joy to be found in any situation. He reminded me that no matter what, the sun will always shine on your face. Thanks for that lesson Tigger.

Tigger, you were the kindest and best of cats–our own Colonel Brandon meets John Nash meets Abraham Delacy Guiseppe Casey Thomas O’Malley the alley cat meets Puss in Boots meets Captain Jack Sparrow. We miss you. We will always miss you. We will always love you. And should you ever need/want to return (Lord knows I pray all the time that my intuition is wrong), our home is open to you. But if you don’t, wherever you are, please know that we are happy that you went the way you wanted to go–as master of your own cat tree. May you rest in eternal Elysian fields of catnip you fantastic feline.

Epilogue: I spent some time the other day thinking about all the nicknames Bruce and I had for him over the years. Tigger was all personality. The first time I saw Puss In Boots in Shrek, I shrieked because it was so like him.

Here’s a moment of sharing some of his aliases: Tiggy, Tiggy-Wiggy, Mr. Tigger, El Diablo Gato, The Furbear, Furbeaster, Monsieur le Fur, Monsieur le Meow, Mr. Frisky-Two-Times, Captain Jack, O’Malley, The Clickety-Clack Bastard, Mr. Mou, Cat, THE MEOW, Tigger-The-Rapist (long story), Kitt-AN, The Evil One, Kitty da Beast, Puss, The Golden Boy, The Sleek Weasel, The Bengal Boy, Mr. Sweet Cream, The Sweet Genius, and John Nash.

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