Where, Now, the Big Dream? An Amen for Ambivalence

No symbolic system [i.e., basis for culture] in history has been able to rival religious faith, which forges a bond between the routine behavior… of individuals and ultimate, imperishable truths.  It’s the most enduring, deep-rooted universal form of popular culture that history has ever witnessed….           

– Terry Eagleton, Where Does Culture Come from? London Monthly Review 4/25/24

Like all poets…I am full with the question of how the human being will be put to right….The question is how to fix ourselves.  Give birth to ourselves.  To make us live free of all these swaddling clothes, free of these habits.

– James Baldwin, interview 1969

Our bodies are the texts that carry the memories and therefore remembering is no less than reincarnation.        

– Katie Cannon, quoted in The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel van der Kolk

At the most recent Board meeting/potluck dinner of our little Utica non-profit arts space, the conversation at Ruth’s table veered not for the first time toward the vexing problem Utica has of retaining people (meaning, of course, the people we’d like to stay!).  Looking back, it’s clear to me the conversation arose from the fact – which they are clear about – most of the friends at that table had stayed in Utica because of the Cafe Domenico (and the Cafe is gone).  

Here is my analysis of that astonishing fact: A little coffeeshop had the power to endow a sense of place, the loss of which leaves the people who caught its sense somewhat in the situation that must have been true for Jesus’s followers after his cruel execution.  That is,  it’s possible even for college-educated 21st-century secular white people to have this kind of experience of being touched profoundly by a reality other than empirical.  And its not only possible, but a fact, the Cafe was the medium for such an experience!

Back in the early days of the millennium,  Orin and I followed a vision as if it were not crazy to do that!  Manifested first in our Cafe and then in the non-profit The Other Side, it included our publication Doubly Mad a journal for arts and ideas.  Vision, then, has this extraordinary capacity to transform into symbols those who give it expressionit made us intermediaries between everyday life and the “ultimate imperishable truths.”  We had hopes for a social movement, but had not thought about the potential for being more. Evidently we’d become symbolic elders:   the friends at Ruth’s table had come together joined by something the Cafe had for which there are no words, both a sensory experience and a vibe.  

Moreover, the “something” included moral conviction. Part of the allure for owning a small business was the independence it would give to our moral voice.  Orin and I were confident we could run a business being our whole selves – convictions, as well as “new-aginess” included! For many years, it actually worked, never making us rich, but giving us something quite priceless: a space in which the unhealthy society of white supremacy, individualism and competitiveness, violence and imperialist intentions is outside, while we are safe inside.  The loss of the Cafe pushes us – like the apostles – to imagine the “then what” – secret formula, the open sesame, that can keep the door open that speaks to peoples’ hearts, its message entirely inclusive, here, in Utica.

The formula for Cafe Domenico was not written down and if it had been, it would not have been replicable anyhow.  Our shared dream, following a long process of inner transformational work, was familiar: it resembled the Big Dream of the 1960’s.  Back then that Dream, and its expression in songs like “Come on people now, smile on your brother,”was common among our then pre-career peers.  That Dream has been so marginalized in mainstream society and the media, the hippie dream so trivialized  that thinking people should scratch our heads in consternation with Elvis Costello: just what was “so funny about peace love and understanding?”

In particular the Cafe’s magic spoke to young people. It suggested, if I may, to adolescent and 20ish fledglings, the world offered a place that unambiguously affirmed desire and aspiration.  It invited their imagination, their feelings and their ideas, aspects largely marginalized in their public school education.  Many were influenced to at least hesitatebefore seeking the greener pastures of a PLACE, meaning, a place with an economy, i.e., jobs.

For these young people who stayed and tried to figure out a place for themselves here, not yet convinced they must clip their aspirations and seek the safe career in IT or AI,  the sense of a place has little to do with the economy.  It is the feeling you are where you want to be, and even ought to be.  One expression people use for that “just right” place is a “hip scene.” Some say it feels like “belonging,” like “home.”  Because so many of us no longer are sure what a culture is, the pressure to assimilate in mainstream America being so powerful, I want to suggest that feeling of being where you ought to be  is the feeling of an authentic culture.  

Here, I must confess my influences – the period of inner work inspired in the 1980’s in 12-step recovery groups, great imaginative thinkers like mythologist Joseph Campbell, depth psychologists Carl Jung, James Hillman, Marion Woodman, the poet and mythopoetic men’s movement leader Robert Bly, etc., years of psychotherapy.  These confirmed and helped me validate the reality of vision, as my conventional divinity school education did not. They fed my intuitive belief: authentic culture is face-to-face,  pluralistic and communalistic.  It mediates by means of the traditional social roles – of fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, neighbors and local tradesmen being fulfilled notaccording to the power structures of the world favoring power and profits, but according to the timeless, eternal, imperishable truths given in authentic vision. Vision, that is, can be supported and maintained by a functioning culture, its traditional roles fulfilled in a process that includes grief and healing, that honors both the wounds people carry and the truth of reconciliation.

I’m aware of the valid mistrust people have of the longing for a culture; when linked with rigid patriarchy,  pernicious nationalism and racism, overly nostalgic (MAGA!) it leads to bad ends – i.e., to fascism and the KKK.  But the longingis of the soul; it cannot be eradicated.  The young will always seek cultural inclusion, as young people in the 1960’s did; the aspiration wasn’t wrong, the young were failed by their society.  Having no elders who could affirm their idealism nor initiate them into a healthy society, they could only bury their disappointment and look for a job in banal liberal reality.  It’s up to the men and women, the elders in a healthy society to ensure that culture is not another excuse for exclusion and racial supremacy.

Many people besides myself have considered “going local” to be a moral response to the multiple crises the world now faces – environmental, social, economic, spiritual.  The hurdle for such localizing for us over-educated middle class white liberals is religious faith. Without the symbolic system, without one’s head being in an authentic unifying reality,  though one’s physical existence is in the local,  social identity settles for the one given in mainstream liberal reality and as well, it settles for the default tiered social structure that is caste.  In a way, I am saying the very opposite of those who fear mysticism leads to fascism. I’m saying without the container (or filter) culture provides, local living may be just parochialism fed by screens, and no resistance to the toxic mainstream and its normalizing of white supremacy, religious antipathies, wealth inequalities, etc.

However, I’m with the critics of culture to a point. Even the lofty ideals of the Big Dream  do not escape getting co-opted.  Absorbed into the dominant power reality, peace and love become words for Marine recruitment or selling life insurance, (or war and hate).  As a checks and balance, something else is needed to make local culture fully inclusive. I’m calling that element ambivalence.  

Going local, back to the land, whatever one takes as the moral lifestyle choice, has to have ambivalence in it.  The best known and more conventionally attractive “destinational draw” for peacenik dreamers since the 1960’s –  going back to Thomas Jefferson and the republican ideal –  has been rural places, not small rustbelt cities.  Obviously, local culture rests upon local agriculture but there are risks in finding ourselves in the pastoral – or any – ideal.  Without the crisis of ambivalence there’s no push to let go of default caste identity (or, saying the same thing but on a different level,  to come down into the body).  And of course, in some locales, especially in the South,  the very social glue of white local identity is racism.  That it might also be ours is an idea we rarely entertain!

But some of us white liberals remain deeply troubled by the intractable evil of unconscious racist and caste identity and entrenched power structures; the crucial thing may be when one realizes the voice coming from the lower caste people in our society tells me something important about myself. It tells me there is a shadow side of myself I really do not know!  I take seriously the suggestion coming from a James Baldwin or a Malcolm X that it’s white people who need to change if there’s to be a change in the caste reality. Given this, its possible a locality about which one is ambivalent, as I am in Utica with its mixed racial, ethnic and income environment, and its dreadfully stuck politics, offers something completely necessary to escaping caste identity and necessary I add to embodiment in our own depth of soul. 


For Orin and me, ambivalence was something we both struggled with all our adult lives. That we were ambivalent toward  liberal, white-privileged reality and to committing to a profession, appeared to be sure signs the flaw was in us. We were “2 birds of a feather” in that we’d been flagged away from mainstream careers by artist fathers (intentionally or not), and at the same time, intentionally or not, dissuaded from serious pursuit of art.  Thus baseline ambivalence perhaps is what drew us to building the dream in the very mixed, non-destination, uncharming – unless you’re an ethnic East Utican  –  reality of Utica.  To refuse the dream of creating the Cafe we would have had to deny the most liberating message our lives – and our marriage –  had yet received – we could together create, in the manner of artists, something unambivalently meaningful to ourselves.  To others similarly plagued by ambivalence,  I can say, resolution is possible.

Building our dream here “despite” ambivalence,  in a society considering itself well-rid of the obnoxious 1960’s, we were forced to assert ourselves, peacenik dreamer included; by building our dream we made Utica a place that wanted us whether it did or not.  It was the place we wanted to be in,  not the place that we were merely in because we’d not come up with something better.  The discomfort of ambivalence drives one to resolve it.  Though it can be resolved by caving in to pragmatic realism, it drives as well in the direction of creative imagination,.  A dream realized can – and did – take a desolate, economically left-behind 5th rank city – and make it beckon. For a tiny minority, yes – but any other kind of change, that’s not from the soul up is bound to end us up with more of what we have – divisiveness, resentment,  fascistic tendencies.  

Continuing in this “defense of ambivalence” one more thing need be said.  Ambivalence, and the capacity to bear it both are givens in the creative souls of you and me.  Catastrophe did not first appear in the world with the Romans or the Nazi’s, or Donald Trump, or genocide in Palestine, or with colonial settlerism and global warming, but with the given conditions of biological life that has contrary realities embedded in it.   Fairy tales in their raw form teach this truth. Disney, a great supporter of the toxic society,  erases it.

The science of neurology now is amplifying ambivalent truth, showing it to be empirically proven fact. Specifically, this science is gaining acceptance for the truth that trauma is far more widespread in society than formerly believed. I’d go one further,  there is no such thing as trauma-free existence and the fact we’re shielded from this ambivalent truth in liberal reality keeps people not only identifying with the caste system, but keeps us sick in our souls and bodies.  It prevents the means for the feeling of being at home that begins in the body.

Okay.  It’s weird that I’m arguing for trauma – but remember, I’m arguing for ambivalence, not trauma. As well, I’m arguing for the “souls of white folks” the existence of which we’ve left in doubt for the vast majority of the earth’s people suffering under the reality of caste for centuries.  Without knowing the truth of trauma in myself (i.e., reincarnating) unaware that my white person’s life was not what should have been – I naturally suppress the ambivalence in my soul in favor of the default status quo that is caste.  For some of  us white people it can make sense to look to the unevenness of our cities for the soul-level clue, the ambivalence that gives grounding to the “Big Dream.” In this way, we might be able to let go of our whiteness, and join the rest, living at the level of in-common humanity. This would be a great relief to those others and to the planet.

But the reward for befriending ambivalence goes beyond even the call to justice. I make herein an elaborate case for being dreamers by which I mean  being non-celebrity art-makers. The very simple formula taught to us in the 1980’s by mythologist Joseph Campbell, the prescription Orin and I followed in establishing the cafe and in practicing our respective arts was follow your bliss. Followed honestly it’s the means to bear the reality of trauma and to experience its linked companion, which is transcendence, aka, joy.


For now, in the wake of the Cafe’s loss, as we stumble somewhat trying to consider the “then what,” the important thing for us to remember is the Cafe’s real meaning.  Though the word absurd applies to modern liberal secular neoliberal reality on its hellbent trajectory to Armageddon, meaning is possible.  The Cafe told us this. For those of us who must have meaning, the work continues of being elders to a culture –  poets and dreamers.  For now I keep writing.

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: kodomenico@verizon.net.