I am walking along the edge of a stream. A male friend is leading me to look at a house that is still under construction and which belongs to his friends. The house is being hand built; beautifully carved out of wood and stone and earth. The outer layers are still a building site, but as we tiptoe over the piles of construction materials, and crawl through a half-carved door that is awkward to get through, we enter the central living space. It is breath-takingly beautiful. A large square room with many windows. Sunlight streams in. Opaque net-curtains shift gently in the breeze. The house is built on the side of a mountain, so the wooden floor has gently rising levels to accommodate the sloping ground. Green healthy pot plants fill the room. It is furnished and well-lived in. Apparently the house belongs to a couple and their children who are living here while they’re constructing the rest of the house. As we approach the far end of the room, I see what I think is a large tree growing in a pot. On closer inspection, I see that the tree is in fact growing in the ground. It is a living, rooted tree, and the house has been built around it. “I always wanted a house built around a living tree!” I exclaim in delight.

Hello Folks!

The above is a dream I had a few weeks ago. It is one of those dreams that was filled with a blissful, numinous quality. Like most people, I have walked through several dream-houses in my sleep over the years, and this was one of the best so far. The presence of the living tree feels like a gift… the symbol of hope after this time of wintering, as I wrote about in July. It gives me fortitude as I still seek ways of building greater sustainability, security and wellness in the waking world of the everyday.

Then, a couple of weeks after this dream, I found myself in Ithaca – beloved homeland of Odysseus. I was taking my first proper holiday abroad in twelve years, and valuing every hot and flustered and exciting moment with my son. I was suddenly struck by the resonance with the image of Odysseus’ own living tree and the house he built around it. How had I not noticed this before!

For those of you that don’t know the myth, Odysseus finally returns home to the island of Ithaca, after 20 years of battling and searching and being blown off course. He arrives back on the shores of Ithaca, alone, humbled and in a swirl of goddess-given mist. After he slaughters the suitors who have been eating and drinking their way through his wealth, Odysseus finally stands face to face with his enduring wife, Penelope. Equally as cunning as her husband, Penelope refuses to believe outright that this is truly her husband returned… so she tests him. She says to her maid:

“…move the bed from the bedroom
That he (Odysseus) himself built. Bring it out now and make it
Up for him…”

Odysseus responds
“ Woman, what you just told me
Pierces my heart […]
There is no man alive
who is capable of prying that bed from its place.
I built it myself, and a secret went into its making.
There was an olive tree growing inside the courtyard,
Young and strong, and its trunk was as thick as a pillar,
And around it I built my bedroom with strong stone walls,
And when I finished, I covered it with a roof
And put a solid, close-fitting double door.
I cut off the olive tree’s top branches, and trimmed
The trunk from the root up, and smothered it all with an adze,
And drilled holes through it, and fitted the other posts
around it, and inlaid the whole frame with gold and silver
and ivory, and stretched across it thick straps
of leather dyed bright red. That is the secret we had.”
(The Odyssey – Homer, translated by Stephen Mitchell, 2013)

The revelation of this secret, shared only between husband and wife, affirms Odysseus’ true identity to Penelope. The twenty long years of waiting are over. Odysseus really has come home. The tree rooted in the soil, the bed built into the tree, and the house built around the marital bed – what an image of ‘home’: enduring, whole and living.

I am aware that the house in my own dream is still under construction, and so there is work to be done… especially on the outer layers; the layers that interface directly with the world; the ‘walls’ that make up the bit that people see – the invitations, offerings, work – and the doors which allow commerce with the world.

I am also aware that it took Odysseus twenty years to get back home, and I pray it will not take that long before my ‘house’ is built! So, as James Hillman advises, we will simply ‘stick to the image’ and let it turn over in the mind like a stone in the pocket, as Jung wrote.

For now, I wish you well on your own odysseys, whether on or off course, and in the construction, renovation, or dwelling-in of your own house, be it a hut or a palace; may it grow from the inside out; may the living tree by rooted. Go well and many blessings for the final green, sunny days of summer.

See you in autumn!

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