Friday, October 21, 2016

File This One Under "Hestia"

Have you ever asked yourself: I wonder what a mytho-writer does in her spare time? Well, I can answer that. There's not that much going on this week, except that I have been having lots of fun with my Halloween cookie pan. For the last few years, I've made gingerbread at Halloween, but this year, I wanted something different. Just as I got tired of pumpkin pie a few years ago, I've grown a little weary of gingerbread cookies after enjoying them for several years. As an alternative, I hunted around on the Internet for a ginger snap recipe and recently found one that sounded like it would work in my cookie pan.

The recipe I decided on calls for freshly cracked black pepper, which I think is probably the key ingredient in giving the cookies the right amount of heat. They were nice and crunchy, too. Oh, I parceled them out over a period of days, but I finally finished them off last night, and since today was rainy and cool, I decided more cookie-making was in order. Tonight, I mixed up a batch of Chocolate Sweet Hearts (described here, in rapturous tones, in a previous post) and pressed it gently into my Halloween molds; I'm happy to say the cookies came out lovely without benefit of cooking spray. They popped out of that pan chocolate-y and perfect as you please, cheerful little ghosties and haunted houses and bats, and were just great as an after-dinner treat with milk (as were the ginger snaps). I have been excited to discover that I can do without cooking spray, as that is one less thing to buy (a frugal baker is a happy baker).

Other than that, I braved the rain to take the trash out and check the mail (I told you not much was going on). For that, I had to put on my rain cape, which hasn't gotten much use this year. For a long time, I kept forgetting it was reversible, but tonight, in honor of the season, I turned it inside out so that the black was showing on the outside and the red became an accent visible only inside the hood. It occurred to me that it might do as a witch's cape if I needed a Halloween costume, but since I don't plan to dress up, I'll just have to be on the lookout for rainy days. If you see me coming in it, don't worry (or if to worry, not to worry unduly, as Katharine Hepburn's assistant used to say). If I have any magic, it's mostly the little domestic type that helps out in the kitchen and on cleaning days.

I will also admit to getting a kick this afternoon out of a photo feature I saw on the Internet of various pets dressed up in Halloween costumes. It looked like some of them had submitted to it more graciously than others, and some of the outfits were a little cringe-worthy (like the "dog-being-eaten by an alligator" costume), but it was all in good fun, I think. A week or two ago, I saw another photo essay of the type that usually appears around this time of year, candid photos of groups of people taken as they passed through a haunted house attraction. One feels more inclined to laugh at grown-up people looking really, really silly than at little animals looking bored, so I did, I laughed until I almost fell off the couch. The pictures were that good. (If I were goofy enough to go through a haunted house, I'm sure I'd look silly, too.)

Well, getting back to the cookies--today's Chocolate Ghoulies won't last forever, so I'll probably end up getting out the pan for another batch of something before Halloween. I don't know whether it will be ginger snaps again, or chocolate chip shortbread, or something else, but I've got all the molasses and cocoa and brown sugar and eggs I need and am pretty much ready for anything with a reasonable ratio of fat and calories to deliciousness. You may be thinking, gosh, you must be popular in your building, with all those good baking smells. Do you ever give any of those cookies away? 

Well, bless your heart! Where have you been? The answer is no, of course not. Are you kidding me? Neighbors like these, and you think I'd be giving them cookies? A kick in the pants, maybe, but never cookies. If you'd like to take them under your wing, you're more than welcome to pick up the lot and cart them off. It would improve the surroundings immensely. I'm too busy looking for recipes that don't use shortening, considering pie options, and trying to keep my apartment clean. And treating the occasional water stain, of course.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Soul and Three Cities

Last night, I picked up a book I've had for a while on psyche and the life of cities. I read two or three chapters some time ago and laid it aside; last night it happened to be sitting in a pile of books near at hand when I was looking for something to read. I started with the chapter on San Francisco, which I apparently hadn't gotten to before, since none of it seemed familiar. I picked the chapter out of curiosity, since I've visited the city a number of times and wanted to see what the author, a long-time resident and psychoanalyst, had to say about it.

A recent incident helped prompt my curiosity. I sometimes look at apartments and places to live in other cities, just for fun; I like to see how much things cost and to consider possibilities. I rarely look at San Francisco, but one night, in an idle moment, I did a search for apartments in an area of the city that I rather like. I did the search, pulled up some results, and looked at a couple of apartments; I was looking at one with a lovely view of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge when I was hit by a feeling of claustrophobia that nearly amounted to revulsion. I had the sudden conviction that I couldn't see myself ever living in San Francisco, and the strange thing was how strong the feeling was.

The author of the San Francisco essay confirmed my feeling rather than dissuading me from it, despite the fact that he obviously loves his city. His essay suggested to me that it might be hard to feel grounded in San Francisco, that the distance between people in that city of people in pursuit of themselves could make meaningful connections difficult. The writer describes an unusually high degree of self-preoccupation there, not that this is necessarily a bad thing. It may be unavoidable for the people who are drawn to live there, since the city's famous openness, as he tells it, almost demands that residents make a project of their individuality. It left me feeling, though, that San Francisco might be quite a lonely place, and a tenuous one, too.

I agree with the author that San Francisco is lovely to visit and has great physical charm; I also agree with his observation that the city probably doesn't reveal its inner life readily to a visitor. You could go to San Francisco for a week or 10 days and enjoy every minute of it as a tourist, but what you're seeing tells you very little about what it would be like to live there. This is true to some degree of most places, I think, but perhaps even more so of San Francisco. The author attributes this to a high degree of introversion among its residents, something a casual visitor wouldn't be likely to notice.

After the San Francisco chapter, I turned to the section on London, another city I have spent time in. It was, oddly, rather a relief to turn to this chapter, though the author's designation of the color red as the city's signature color, a provocative idea to start with, got to the heart of something I noticed when I was there. One of the fascinating things about London, as he points out, is the way its long history is layered so visibly in its buildings, layout, monuments, and place names. He pointed to the double nature of the color red, emblematic of life and vitality but also of death, a reminder of the many centuries of struggle and upheaval the city has endured.

I remember my long-ago first visit to London's Westminster Hall and the almost physical feeling of the weight of years that hit me while I was standing inside. I'd never had a sensation like that before, a feeling of being buried under layers of history, as if all the events that had ever taken place were still present in the room. It wasn't a pleasant feeling and was actually rather frightening, though that was the only time I really experienced it that way. As I got used to finding my way around, I was increasingly fascinated by the way pieces of the past were embedded in the present, sometimes subtly, so that you had to know they were there--a piece of Roman wall visible through the window of a basement, for instance, if you bent your head and looked.

After reading the London chapter last night, I found myself thinking: if I had to choose whether to spend six months in San Francisco or six months in London, which would it be? London appealed to me more. Somehow, London seems more definite and less ghostly to me than San Francisco does, strange though it may seem to say it. Even as an American, I think I could find my way around London more easily than I could around the Bay Area, which says more about me, of course, than it does about the merits of either place. I'm not saying the same thing would or should be true of anyone else.

This afternoon, I read the book's chapter on New York City, a place with which I have very little personal experience. I used to find the idea of New York positively overwhelming, but lately I've begun to feel that I wish I knew the city better. Maybe sometime I'll get the chance. In any event, I learned more about New York, its history, and its layout (which has always been a source of complete mystification to me) in just two hours than I've managed to pick up in decades of hearing about it and seeing it on television and in the movies. The author of the piece made no assumptions, as others sometimes do, about a reader's prior knowledge of the city, providing not only a pictorial overview but also a succinct summation of history and geography that helped give it shape in my mind.

I'm not sure why I've always been content to have such a pleasantly vague notion of New York, to hear about Central Park, Greenwich Village, the Hudson River, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and the Lower East Side without really having any idea of how they relate to one another. Curiosity finally seems to have kicked in, perhaps due in part to the many novels I've read in recent years that have managed to convey some sense of the city's allure, leading me to think that, while it's a tough place, it has its own magic. Why I have derived such a feeling for the city from reading fiction rather from seeing it in movies or on TV is a bit of a mystery. I do think that since 9/11, many Americans have developed a more protective feeling toward New York. The psychic wound created there still affects us all, and that may be another reason I feel drawn to the city.

After reading about New York, I posed myself another choice: "OK, what if you had to choose between San Francisco and New York?" A very interesting psychic exercise, to be sure, because there was a time I never would have said this (or even thought it), but New York appealed to me more. I wouldn't go so far as to say I can picture myself as a New Yorker, but if I had to choose a place for a longish visit, I'd pick New York. How strange that hard-edged, fast-paced New York should end up seeming more human to me than San Francisco, swathed in its fogs and soft hills, but that does seem to be the case. Again, this isn't a statement of absolute value but rather a reflection of a psychic shift on my part.

If you're interested in reading about the ways Jungian analysts describe the psychic life of their cities, the book I've been referring to is Psyche & the City: A Soul's Guide to the Modern Metropolis, edited by Thomas Singer. You may agree or disagree with the way a particular writer sees things, but Jungians are unusually sensitive to the inner life, distinctive rhythms, and peculiarities that give a place character, and this is reflected in their writing. Their intimate knowledge of the cities they live in may provide insight (or rebuttal) for experiences you've had as a visitor (or even as a resident) but couldn't quite explain. I'm still in shock over the way my psyche has rejected San Francisco (the home, after all, of Ghirardelli Chocolate--think about it!), but John Beebe's chapter on the city helped me to see some of the reasons why this may have happened.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Listening to the Road

This week, I finished Neil Gaiman's novel, American Gods, which I decided to re-read after a recent conversation with a friend about some of my travel experiences out west. In particular, I was trying to describe the oddly discomfiting experience of driving east on I-80 through Wyoming. She mentioned a friend who'd had a similar experience once, and the conversation then shifted to Mr. Gaiman's book, in which the main character undergoes many peculiar adventures in a series of road trips. One of the novel's conceits is that roadside attractions in America often disguise places of ancient power, places where people feel compelled to stop without knowing why.

In my case, the drive through Wyoming, a harsh landscape with (to my Eastern eyes, anyway) remarkably few people, was punctuated by road signs referring to a place called Little America, which seemed to be the Western version of Stuckey's, those gift shops (famous for peanut brittle) one used to encounter off the interstate on trips to Florida. I couldn't quite make out what Little America was known for, though it seemed to be a kind of inn. It may have been a trick of the winter light or tired eyes, but all the signs I saw were a bit on the oafish side, as if the advertising agency had a strange sense of humor. I later read on someone's blog that Little America is known for ice cream, admittedly not a big draw in winter.

When at last I came up to Little America, it was on the opposite side of the road, and--as happened frequently on my trip across Wyoming--there wasn't a person in sight, just a sort of sprawling building. I hurried past it, but that wasn't the only time that day that I passed some small town or other and wondered, "Where are all the people?" Often, these tiny burgs had the look of ghost towns or movie sets, a phenomenon that persisted across much of Colorado and Kansas. I stayed on the road rather than spend the night in any of these places--so I actually had the opposite experience from the tourists in Mr. Gaiman's book.

I wasn't really sure re-reading American Gods would give me insight into my experience, but I was mildly curious to see what Mr. Gaiman made of the American road trip. It's been many years since I first read American Gods, and I didn't remember it well. As it turns out, the book I read this time was not even the same book, not entirely, since Mr. Gaiman put out a revised author's preferred edition some time ago, and that's the one the library had. I'm not even sure where the differences are, though the preface mentions that the preferred edition is longer than the original. The experience of revisiting a familiar book after a long period of time to find it utterly changed is compounded in this case by the fact that the text actually has changed. So, that's one thing.

I remembered American Gods as being offbeat and strange but humorous; this time I found it much less funny. When I first read it, I hadn't yet made a formal study of mythology but was interested in any story that incorporated mythological characters. Mythology is quite trendy these days, but when I first read the book there didn't seem to be that many people doing it, or doing it well; I found American Gods to be wildly imaginative and original. I still think that, though I am somewhat surprised not to have realized back then that the genre of the book isn't really fantasy but rather horror. It's one of those stories that are hard to categorize, and I believe it has won major awards in several categories, but still--it's a horror story more than it's anything else.

The novel is complex and sprawling, with a large number of characters, and Mr. Gaiman seems to be doing several things at once. The protagonist, a man named Shadow, becomes entangled in the plot of a character called Wednesday (actually a god) to round up all the old gods of culture and religion, living in American under assumed names and disguises, for an epic confrontation with the new gods of media and technology. His ostensible purpose is not his true one, and Shadow realizes this in time to foil Wednesday's ultimate design, though his own life has in the meantime completely unraveled--due, it turns out, to Wednesday's machinations.

Much is made in the novel about America being "a bad place for gods," which is not perhaps surprising, since most of the gods in the story are transplants from other cultures, arriving here in the minds and hearts of immigrants from those lands and trying to make a go of it on foreign soil. One implication seems to be that American culture is too shallow to support them, that Americans are too taken up by television, pop culture, and other diversions to give proper consideration to the sacred. While recognizing that pervasive materialism is a fact of American life (though not the only fact), I'm much less convinced this time around that most of these gods deserve any pity. Their main raison d'etre is a constant need for attention and adoration, which becomes the excuse for all kinds of bloody-mindedness and cruelty. If we're supposed to think it's a tragedy that they've been diminished, I must say I came away with the opposite feeling.

Shadow is a curious kind of a hero. Though he ostensibly saves the day by averting the war between the old gods and the new, he takes the ruin of his own life with much less bitterness than you might expect. It's not clear in the end that he himself is still human . . . he seems to have gone at least partially over to the other side. He solves the mystery of what has been happening over the years to the children who have disappeared from the small Wisconsin town he settles in and in the process reveals the crusty town father to be just another murderous divinity in disguise. After so much death and destruction at the hands of these folks, you might think Shadow would be delighted to get away from them for good, but it's not entirely clear that he feels that way. It's a bit like Chaucer's narrator disavowing, at the very end, all the bawdy stories he's repeated in The Canterbury Tales. You suspect him of being disingenuous.

The name "Shadow" could be taken as an indicator that the character, largely unconscious of what is happening around him in the beginning, is much less so by the end of the story. It might be going too far to say that he's an "Everyman," standing in for the average American consumer who lives in a shallow, material world and grows in consciousness by getting in touch with the ancient powers both around him and within him--but there are some indications that this is the point. It's less clear what Shadow has actually accomplished. There are many images of suffering and death in the book, and much gruesomeness, and it all seems rather gratuitous after a while. I finished the book with the feeling that I had something on the bottom of my shoe that needed to be scraped off.

Mr. Gaiman mentions some roadside attractions that are apparently quite real, though Little America isn't one of them. There is a scene in which some mysterious characters temporarily imprison Shadow in a cell until he is freed by his wife, who's been turned into a zombie (don't ask if you don't want to know). When he escapes, he realizes he's been on a train parked in a remote area. Coincidentally, I noticed a freight train out in the wilds of Wyoming, the only thing moving in the whole landscape aside from the vehicles on the interstate, and wondered where it was going in all that remoteness. It might have been the train to nowhere and would easily have fit into Mr. Gaiman's story. The bleakness that adheres to many of Mr. Gaiman's locales matched what I saw through my car window, though I suspect my experience might have been different under different circumstances. If I ever revisit that area, I may try a Native American blessing--maybe that would frame things differently.

Next time I'm trying to put my own travels in perspective, I'll have to remember not to turn to a horror story. Things are bad enough without that. I feel sure there are other narratives out there, other ways to look at the land that neither sugarcoat the past or excuse it but allow us to see it for itself. If Mr. Gaiman's book is a map of a certain kind of journey, I feel sure it's not the only one available. It certainly isn't one I want to take.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Autumn Flow

This time last week, it was high summer; today, I dressed in light layers for the first time this season. Despite the change in the weather, we haven't seen much, if any, fall color as of yet--but I don't think there's any doubt that our long, hot summer has drawn to a close. I'm just easing into the cooler weather. After three or four months of days in the high 80s to low 90s, that's what you find yourself doing. I even, for goodness' sake, found myself thinking about what I'll have for Thanksgiving dinner this year, and normally that doesn't happen until a week or two prior to the event. You know it's been a hot summer when you start thinking about Thanksgiving pie (fruit pie? or custard?) before the end of September.

I've been reading novels again, too, as something about the transitional period has seemed to stimulate the imagination. I enjoy looking at websites with fall travel suggestions, and even though I'm not planning to take any of them, they're fun to read. Earlier today, I actually got excited about the possibility that it might be cool enough to wear cords (it was, though I didn't wear any). This week's presidential debate, which might seem guaranteed to stir up emotions and opinions, sturm und drang? I watched it, went to bed, and had very peaceful dreams, waking up feeling fine the next morning.

Yesterday afternoon was actually the first day that "felt" like fall, although the change has been in the air for a few days. I wore a light sweater over a summer turtleneck to the coffeehouse, and when I got there I decided on a hot drink rather than the iced ones I prefer in the summer. I had been thinking about how few opportunities I've had this year to watch it rain while lingering over a book, something I enjoy doing, and lo and behold, an afternoon rain settled in while I was there, giving me a chance to stare dreamily out the window. There aren't too many better ways to spend a rainy fall afternoon.

Today, believe it or not, I actually took pleasure in getting twill pants out of the drawer and looking through the closet for an appropriate top layer to go over a shirt. Since I was going out walking, I decided on a zip-up vest instead of a jacket, which turned out to be just the right amount of layering. It was a moody afternoon, with a lot of gray clouds and a little light breaking through intermittently, but it was ideal for a relaxed walk--and how pleasant to arrive back home fresh instead of in a lather, as I have been doing regularly since May. I found myself in tune with the day, the weather, and the surroundings, and it's nice when that happens.

May the rest of our autumn be as blessed as the beginning. Even for someone who doesn't mind the concept of "Endless Summer" in theory, the actuality of hot days persisting throughout October (as has happened before) is not comforting. As I told someone recently, I remember when you used to feel that discernible cooling in the air a lot closer to Labor Day. We missed it by a few weeks this year, but at least we didn't have to wait until Halloween for a break in the heat.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Mnemosyne and the City Block

By chance, I was in the vicinity of my old neighborhood the other day and decided to drive through. I frequently drive by it but very rarely through it, though when I lived in my last place, its streets were almost as familiar to me as the back of my hand. As often happens with the passage of time, I found that I now had a different feeling about it. What was once merely commonplace and familiar now had a heightened significance: the brief excursion was like a homecoming of sorts, in spite of the fact that I still live in the same general area. (You'd probably laugh if you knew how close my current place is to my last one, but sometimes even a small distance can make a big difference. It feels like a different world over here.)

So I drove through and noted something that shouldn't have surprised me but did, a little. The streets of modest bungalows mixed in with a few apartment buildings were mostly intact, but here and there houses had been torn down and replaced with what I take to be student housing, newer construction that doesn't match the look of the older brick dwellings and single-family homes of the neighborhood. I'm not certain if a person unfamiliar with the old look would be struck as much as I was by the patchwork quality of the neighborhood as it is now, but to me it was as if I had seen the handwriting on the wall. The neighborhood is changing--I wonder how much of it will even be there 20 years from now.

A eulogy is still somewhat premature, and I really have no say in what happens to a neighborhood I don't live in, so I'm strictly giving my personal reaction here--but it did make me sad. It's not the fact of change in itself but the way in which it seems to be tearing holes in the fabric of something that used to seem organic and of a piece. I used to walk those streets every day without thinking about them much, but after driving through the other night, I started thinking about Joni Mitchell's song "Big Yellow Taxi." It is indeed true that "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." Understand, we're not talking paradise here, but rather a very ordinary neighborhood . . . though I don't know, I guess it depends on how you define paradise.

I started to remember small things from the days when I was a familiar sight on those streets: the day in late April, finals nearly completed, when I suddenly noticed how gorgeous the dogwoods were at the end of one street. The flat-roofed home that I always thought looked like a Florida house, an anomaly in that neighborhood but a reminder of my childhood. The stretch of shady street overhung with trees that somehow gave the impression, for a quick half block, of a country lane, especially on a hot summer day. The house with the lamppost in the front yard that gave me a comfortable feeling, especially that night I was out walking with friends and the lamp was on when we passed by. I couldn't find it the other night and don't know if I just missed it or if it's been torn down.

After my detour through the neighborhood, I was in a thoughtful mood, thinking about things, people, and places that have passed through my life. In a strange miracle of timing, a friend from the old days called the next afternoon to say she was going to be in town. I told her about what had happened. We didn't spend a lot of time reminiscing, but the subject of how much time has passed did arise. She commented on how long ago it all seems, and I said that to me it feels like almost another lifetime. She herself, however, seemed unchanged, which was some consolation.

I was just writing about the inevitability of flux last week. If someone is going to put up a new building, I would rather they did it with some regard for aesthetics, but realistically speaking this isn't always going to happen. Nevertheless, places matter, as do trees, buildings, and homes. One realizes that paradise will occasionally be paved over, as Ms. Mitchell says, for a parking lot (or parking structure, in this case), and you're going to lose a lamppost here and there, and as long as some things remain constant, I guess it's not a total loss. Knowing that it won't always happen, I still wish, though, for some attention to things past and some respect for the spirit of place, something our society hasn't always been good at giving.

If we don't respect where we've been, how can we build something worth moving toward?

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Innocence and Experience

You know, I think Heraclitus was right: we really don't step in the same river twice. I've certainly found this to be true of my relationship with authors and books. I know I've mentioned the way a book can seem different when you re-read it after many years, but I also find that a new work by an author I'm familiar with can elicit reactions I wouldn't have had the first time around. It's not always a matter of enjoying the work more or less (though sometimes it is); it's more a function of relating to it from a place of wider experience. It can mean you're more critical, or it can mean you're more deeply appreciative. It can also mean you miss being able to see things with "Beginner's Mind." (I'm not going to say that being more critical is always an improvement.)

It's a little like the experience of going back to a place you knew as a child--a school building, for instance--and finding that it looks so much smaller than you remembered it. In a certain sense, it is smaller, because you yourself have grown, but the apparent change is only the result of you getting taller. Objectively, the building's dimensions are unchanged.

Recently, I managed to get hold of the edition of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table that I remembered from my childhood and had been searching for for years.  Trying to locate this book, in which I first encountered the story of the Holy Grail, had itself almost taken on the elusive quality of a Grail Quest. I remembered what the book looked like but not the author or publisher. For years I looked in bookstores, often finding illustrated versions of the King Arthur story, but never "The One." The edition of The Romance of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table by Alfred W. Pollard that I came across years ago and purchased came the closest in its solemnity of tone and language. I knew, though, that it wasn't the one I was remembering; the illustrations didn't match, and the telling didn't include a key episode I recalled at the beginning. Nice, but no cigar.

But years later, behold: the power of the Internet. One day it occurred to me to try just typing a description of the book into Google. There was a time this wouldn't have worked, but the sophistication of search tools these days along with the sheer volume of information that's out there now made me realize this method really wasn't all that quixotic. And it worked! After a couple of tries, the object of my search appeared on the screen in front of me, the same cover, the same title page. With a few keystrokes, my quest had ended. A short while later, I had the book, and although the edition arrived with a different color cover than the one we'd had as kids, it was undoubtedly the same book.

Or was it? It was definitely the right book, though a slightly different edition. The color was blue instead of the deep maroon I remembered, and it seemed smaller (and may actually be smaller, although that, too, may be an illusion). It would be exaggerating to say that the experience of opening the book again was on par with Keats' experience "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer." I didn't gaze with "wild surmise" or fall silent, as if staring "from a peak in Darien," but I was pretty excited. The episode of the dragons was there, and the illustrations, so vaguely remembered, were the right ones. But as I looked through the pages, I found, to my great surprise and dismay, that the language, once so evocative, now seemed more obviously written for a child. The glowing, full-color illustrations had lost their high magic and seemed more ordinary than I remembered.

Alas, what is this? Is this what we call "growing up"? I recall how remote and mysterious the doings of Arthur's court seemed to me as a nine-year-old, part of the mystery deriving from the fact that the characters were all adults, with adult motivations and aspirations. Now that I am an adult, I guess the glamour has worn off that particular part of the rose. The characters, not only in the telling but in what they represent, seem much less compelling than they once did, even more cartoon-like. I have not re-read the book from start to finish; it may be that in doing that, I will rediscover some of the magic that was formerly there. One thing's for sure, though, and that is that it will not be the book it once was for me.

Last year, I had a similar experience in re-reading the book of a very accomplished travel writer--similar, but with a difference. I found that I enjoyed her descriptions of places and activities--the angle of light on a certain street corner, the taste of a particular dish--more than ever. I often felt that I was seeing things right along with her, and this must surely be because I'm more in touch with the world of the senses than I was when I was younger and tended to have my head in the clouds. I appreciate the simple justness of a description, the precision of a scene well rendered. On the other hand, I found myself getting angry with her over what I experienced as her uncritical religious faith, which she wrote of openly. I was constantly thinking things like, "How can you believe that!" and "Yes, but . . ." Of course, this merely reflects my own thinking; another reader may well find her expressions of faith beautiful and inspirational. The point is, I don't recall being bothered by that aspect of the book at all when I first read it.

More recently, I've been reading a book by an author in the depth tradition whose work I know. For me, it's a new book, and while I'm familiar with his thinking, I find that I'm arriving at it from a different place, that I'm much more likely to engage in mental arguments with him. Early on, he was one of the first modern thinkers I came across who was writing from a mythic and Jungian perspective, and I treasured my experience of his books. I still find what he has to say thought provoking and useful, but I sometimes find myself in profound disagreement with him. Instead of plunging in headlong, as I used to, I read now with a bit more resistance.

Of course, this merely means that I'm a more critical reader, which is not at all surprising, but I have to say that I am missing the lost magic of my King Arthur book. There's a time and a place for the critical mind and a time and a place to be open to wonder. I've known people who get the greatest satisfaction from figuring out the mystery or anticipating the end before it happens, but I'm not really one of them. I'd rather have joy than be right every time. Do we have to lose all innocence in the name of experience? I hope not . . . though some people will tell you otherwise.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Genius Loci

As a follow-up to last week's post about Rebecca Solnit's book on the anthropology of walking, I should mention that I went out of my usual bounds today to take a short walk downtown. I used to work downtown, and its streets, buildings, cafes, and sidewalks were a part of everyday life, but I rarely have reason to go there anymore. I was only there today because I needed to go to the library on an errand and decided it would be easiest to go to the main branch. I was struck by how little downtown felt like a "hometown" any more, in any sense of the word. I almost had the feeling that I had been living elsewhere and dropped in for a visit after an absence of several years--that's how alien it felt. And yet I've been here all along.

There have been many, many changes downtown over the years; I'm old enough to remember "Urban Renewal," and even before that, what the city looked like when it still had department stores on Main Street. I have nothing against shopping malls per se, but I do think the decline of downtown areas as principal shopping districts has had a bad effect on many communities that they have spent years trying to compensate for. In many cases, "downtown" is still the principal business district and offers such diversions as restaurants, museums, and nightclubs--such is the case here. But the changes I felt were more subtle than the coming and going of a business, the resurfacing of a street, or the introduction of a new parking lot. The soul of the place seemed to have leaked out somehow.

It looks much the same now as it did when I was down there every weekday, but it felt foreign to me. Of course, you have a major problem any time the center of your downtown district has, literally, a hole in it. Directly across from the library is a huge pit in the ground that takes up an entire block, the result of a stalled construction project that began a number of years ago, when I still worked downtown, in fact. Why would any city, especially one with such pride in its historic districts and one-time reputation as the "Athens of the West," allow such a gaping hole to exist for years at a time in one of the most visible spots in the entire city? Good question.

Some people regarded the long-existing buildings on the block before demolition as eyesores; others saw them as treasures. I remember trying to frame what was happening during the initial controversy over the project, a proposed multi-story hotel, in mythological terms. Certainly it seemed that two diametrically opposed forces were at work, one that valued the old and one that championed the new, a sort of clash of the Titans. Regardless of the merits of the project itself and who was right and who was wrong about its benefits and costs, it's tough to argue that having what looks like a rock quarry in the middle of Main Street is an improvement over what was there before. It gives downtown an air of neglect.

I can remember when it was fun to walk around and notice little things, a pocket garden here, a public art project there, something in a store window that caught the eye. A public art project called "Horse Mania" once transformed the streets into an outdoor sculpture garden with creativity and imagination on display at every turn--who would have thought there were so many ways to interpret the basic form of a fiberglass horse? Another project involved the installation of doors recovered from a demolished housing project that had been transformed into works of art--pure genius.

When I looked around today, I noticed a couple of sad-looking murals, neither one of which did much to appeal to either the eye or the heart. I actually stopped and asked a parking lot attendant who had painted the mural of the somewhat demented-looking elvish creatures presiding over one corner. He couldn't tell me. Any city that allows something like that to pass for art needs a bit of shaking up, if you ask me, and you didn't, but I'll tell you anyway. No amount of Thursday Night Lives or Gallery Hops is going to cover up something like that. Why is it even there?

It seems to me that the genius loci of our town is either missing in action, falling down on the job, or has something else in mind. If that's what passes for progress, I guess I'll stick to the suburbs. They're only marginally better, but at least there's no risk of stepping off the sidewalk and falling into a chasm that could lead, who knows, right into the center of the earth. I mean, it's a really big hole.