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Cookies and Milk

It may very well have something to do with the fact that it's two in the morning, and I couldn't sleep so I got up to read a while. And it certainly has something to do with what I've just read: Ken Wilber's essay "Was Carl Jung a Mystic?" As well as the previous one, "Contemplating Art." (These are contained in The Essential Ken Wilber.) But the theme comes directly and strongly from my own memory—a memory that extends back to my early childhood.

At three or four years of age, I had an experience that puzzled me for years. I was lying in my bed, half asleep, half awake, and was conscious of an image—a rather smooth, rounded surface that appeared in my imagination. The surface was modulated by small indentations, and I liked it. I didn't know what it represented, but I was drawn to it. However, as it remained in my awareness, it changed, and became rough and dark in color. In my half-awake state, I willed it back to the original smoothness. For some reason, I wanted to avoid the rough surface. But as I relaxed my will, it again changed. I fought this as one fights a bad dream. Eventually, I suppose, I dropped off to a deeper sleep.

The experience was repeated, I don't know how many times. Enough that it was burned into my memory, an archeological relic of my psychic development. Eventually, while still young, I decided that the two images were cookies, the first being of those smooth sugar cookies that everybody's mother makes, the shape that was immortalized in the vanilla wafer. The other shape, or rather the other surface, since it was only the surfaces that I was aware of, resembled an oatmeal drop cookie, rather rough and darker brown in color. What I couldn't understand, upon deciding what they were, was why I felt such a strong affinity to one and such an aversion to the other. It was one of those mysteries I suppose we all grow up with, the original memories becoming fainter with the years even as the question remains.

Many years later, after countless psychology classes and much probing into the peculiarities of my mind, I suddenly realized: those were not cookies I "saw," at all. And the attraction-aversion puzzle became perfectly clear. The first, the smooth rounded, comfortable surface, was the softly dimpled surface of a breast, seen from the infant's perspective of mere inches away. A baby, I've heard, is at first very myopic. For good reason. And the feeling of desire, even though when I first experienced the "dueling" visions I didn't understand, is no harder to comprehend. The other surface, I came to see, was nothing less than the brown chaotic surface of feces. Yecht! The experience was almost primal-the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.

And it all fits with other memories of my first few years. I compulsively sucked my thumb. And my mother made an issue of toilet training, forcing castor oil down my throat to get me "regular." No wonder I had dreams. About the time of those visual experiences, I can also remember lying in my bed at night, crying for no reason that I knew of. When my mother came into my room and questioned me, I resorted to making up reasons—a lost doll, or some other understandable crisis. Of course she comforted me (perhaps all I really needed, anyway), and I soon outgrew the crying spells as well as the dueling images.

In Ken Wilber's essay on Jung, he writes that Jung mistook the mythical "archetypes," that made him famous, for "mystical" images. That they come to us from what he called our collective unconscious is not in question. Wilber agrees that they arise from the depths of our very cells, from eons past in the childhood of our race. They do not, however, represent the mystical Ground of our being—that awareness is formless, and comes to us at a stage of development beyond our present rationality. The collective mythic structures, like the trickster, the shadow, and the Great Mother, all come down through the ages from the near-infancy of humanity. According to Wilber, Jung is a victim of the "pre-trans fallacy," the fallacy of the Romantics, mistaking  pre-rational mythic images with trans-rational insights. But that's another story; it's just the one that stimulated my thinking about my own "mythic" memories.

Coincidentally, the essay "Contemplating Art" looks at the experience of encountering great art as an almost mystical experience, stopping us in our tracks to be in the present timeless moment. "While we are in this contemplative state," Wilber says, "we do not want anything from the object; we just want to contemplate it; we want it never to end." He uses an example of "say, a great Van Gogh" to remind us how art affects us, "the capacity to simply take your breath away."

At this hour (now three in the morning), I wonder if there might be something more of a connection between Jung's archetypes and "great" works of art than Wilber acknowledges. Remembering my own personal "archetypes" that drew me and repelled me, I wonder how much I'm affected by art that reminds me, however unconsciously, of those first awe-struck years of my life.

I haven't tasted a vanilla wafer in many years. Yet I seldom fail to notice them as I pass by their shelf in the grocery store. A work of art.

Donald Skiff, January 22, 1999

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