Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Blessing on the Road

Last week, I wrote about the imaginative possibilities of walking. I know the area surrounding my home intimately as both a walker and a driver, and this past week has ushered in a new era for those of us in south Lexington: a major connector road, closed all summer, has reopened, newly realigned and boasting not one but two rotaries. Rotaries are relatively rare around here (I know of one other in town), and I was curious to see how people would take to them. So far, everyone seems to be taking them cautiously but in stride.

I set off down the road myself the first day I saw it open, and it was a bit like a circus (no, really, a circus) to come upon the first rotary, bristling with crosswalks and traffic signs where there used to be a simple four-way stop. At the old intersection, there was one crosswalk, not clearly demarcated, and it was always a question when you were on foot whether the driver would stop (or even see you). Navigating the rotaries takes a little attention, so it does require drivers to slow down. If you're making a left turn from either of the rotaries, your semicircular sweep is a little like a twirl on a carnival ride, with the caveat that you may have to stop.

Work on the street took all summer, starting in May, and I remember the first time I crossed the newly closed road on an evening walk. The familiar pavement was simply gone, leaving a dirt road leading off through the low hills into the middle distance. In my reading lately, which has focused on Celtic mythology, there's a lot of emphasis on shapeshifting, mythic events impacting the shape of the land, and the existence of an Otherworld often contiguous with the everyday one. My first glimpse of that formerly busy road suddenly transformed (almost overnight, it seemed) into a dirt track gave me a little of the feeling of all three phenomena rolled into one: the same familiar hills and trees, the same sky, the same buildings were there, but--poof!--the road had vanished. What was once suburban now looked like the country, and I hadn't had to go anywhere.

Now, I have to say I haven't encountered any even remotely Otherworldly beings all summer (though I have seen a few mortals who may have gone astray on their way home from the pub). No Sidhe, no bards, no supernatural warriors, nor even any wandering knights, magical horses, or enchanted deer. But I'll always remember the day I crossed the street and the road was gone, giving me a quick glimpse of what the area might have looked like before there were any roads (though I bet there were more trees then as well).

It's ironic that this brief, bucolic experience came about as a result of progress; new dorms and a big new parking lot have brought more people to this side of town, and the old road was no longer adequate to serve the increased traffic. But actions sometimes have unintended consequences, as may happen when you tear down a road to build a new one and shift the view temporarily. As to whether all the new bustle in the neighborhood has bothered the Sidhe, if there are any about, I'm not really sure. I believe some people think that they don't like busy places and lots of people, but if my understanding of their essential nature is correct, they're not likely to care one way or the other. If they did, you'd be the one discommoded, not them.

May the road rise to meet you. Oh, no worries, it already has.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Shakespeare and Alice

I once read a novel called Mythago Wood in which a forest was a sort of otherworldly zone from which mythical figures occasionally emerged into the everyday realm. The main character saw this happening and kept trying to cross the barrier that kept ordinary humans out of the mythical space, which turned out to be a tough go. The idea of the forest as a sort of zone of the unconscious is a familiar one to most of us, so the existence of a patch of woods next to our local arboretum may help explain why walking there is often such an imaginative exercise.

Then, too, I've seen a number of Shakespeare plays produced in the arboretum in the past, which probably helps explain my penchant for peopling the park with his characters. I once had the idea that it would be fun to have a free-roaming theatre company enact scenes in various parts of the park instead of on a fixed stage, so that playgoers would stroll from one scene to another. Since the idea occurred to me, there's been no looking back. I'm sure this would entail a lot of logistical headaches, but just think how much fun it would be.

You might stage the beginning of A Midsummer Night's Dream in the parking lot to represent Athens, then move the bulk of the action to the park itself, with lovers, fairies, and rustics continually stumbling onto one another under the trees. Think how magical it would be on a summer's night to eavesdrop on the fleeing lovers in one leafy corner of the park and overhear Titania quarreling with Oberon in another, as the fireflies winked and the moon rose over the trees. I've been living with this idea for so long that I sometimes stage scenes in my head when I'm walking, picturing the mortals waking up in this particular grove, Puck flitting about behind that oak over there, and the rustics enacting Pyramus and Thisby using that low wall as a prop.

And why stop with A Midsummer Night's Dream? There's an open grassy area in back where I occasionally imagine Richard III stumbling about, calling out for a horse. That quiet corner with the arbor would do admirably for Friar Lawrence's cell, while the gazebo works for Juliet's balcony and bedroom. A patch of hilltop trees sheltering a shaded path translates in my mind into the gloomy corridors of Macbeth's castle, and over there, behind the hedge, is Ophelia's pond. That bowl-shaped meadow is plenty big enough to represent Agincourt and the meeting of Henry's army with the French. The garden, with its series of outdoor rooms, is the perfect spot for staging Much Ado About Nothing, while Julius Caesar could meet his murderers on that narrow walled court down by the roses.

Probably, the nature of the park itself--an open space of trees and fields shaped by human hands and filled with paths--situated next to a small but thickly wooded forest--contributes to my tendency to see it as a stage. It's part nature and part human and has, as a place set apart for no purpose other than leisure, a bit of a liminal feel. Your mind wanders as your eye roams over broad vistas punctuated with many intimate spaces, and there are numerous ways to explore aside from staying on the main path. Paths into and out of the woods provide access to a deeper imaginative realm. It's a writer's and an artist's dream.

The park tends to be well populated these days (see my post "Is That Really Necessary?") and much noisier than it used to be. It strikes me that the increased noise works to decrease the park's liminal qualities, making it harder to imagine Athens, Rome, Verona, or the English countryside. It's more of a neighborhood circus many days than a "thin place," but if you cultivate mental self-containment, it's still possible to have stolen moments of reverie, which gives walking there a sort of fitful charm.

I often encounter rabbits in and around the park, which takes me in a different but related direction, making me think of Alice drowsing on her river bank on a summer day--a subtle reminder that the world of the imagination is never far away, if indeed, there is really any distance at all. (Alternately, it's a reminder that any time spent in a public space these days, from the park to the shopping mall to social media, carries the possibility of falling down a rabbit hole--but let's accentuate the positive.) With the busy outside world surrounding the arboretum on all sides, the park still manages at times to fill the important function of providing room for imagination and untrammeled thought. For that, I thank it.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Battle of the Bulls

Following up my interest in Welsh and Irish mythology from last week, I've been re-reading The Tain, Thomas Kinsella's translation of the great Irish epic, Tain Bo Cuailnge. The story concerns a great cattle raid in which Ailill and Medb, king and queen of Connacht in west Ireland, attempt to steal the Brown Bull of Cuailnge from Ulster in the east. (I wrote about bulls recently in recounting the story of King Minos and the white bull from Greek mythology; a bull is a potent symbol in both stories, though I wouldn't say it necessarily represents the same thing in both cases.)

The idea of stealing a bull stems from an argument Medb has with Ailill concerning which of them is worth more. She's greatly displeased at finding, after an exhaustive inventory, that no matter how closely her wealth matches that of her husband, she is one down because of the defection of a prize bull, Finnbennach, the White Horned (which, we're told, didn't care to be ruled by a woman), to the king's herd. Determined to fix this, she sends around the whole of Ireland to find a bull to replace it. After being told that Donn, the Brown Bull of Cuailnge, has no equal in the land, she decides to get him for herself. When the owner balks at lending him to her, Ailill and Medb amass a great army to go after the bull, despite omens of certain disaster for their warriors.

When I started the story the other night, I sat up in disbelief at the part where Medb and Ailill agree to go war to obtain the bull. What started as a marital disagreement quickly turns into a full-fledged military campaign, with Ailill's full participation. I'd forgotten how foolishly it all started . . . though the reasons for fighting in many of the old Irish stories (and not just the Irish ones) often turn on something this seemingly insignificant.

The story is full of death, destruction, foul deeds, and the exploits of the hero Cuchulainn, the famous Hound of Ulster, a one-man fighting machine who adroitly destroys a whole host of Medb's and Ailill's warriors. Despite the epic's bloodiness, the story is told with great humor and wit; Cuchulainn's outsize accomplishments and outrageous feats of arms provide, in my reading of it, an ironic commentary on the supposed heroism of the entire affair. So much is attempted for so little, and so many lives lost; the countryside is hacked and hewn so that ever afterward place names reflect the deadly events that took place there; friend fights against friend and alliances are broken--but Cuchulainn's superhuman acts will never be forgotten.

That the war comes to nothing in the end is no great surprise. As the Connacht faction attempts to escape with the Brown Bull, they come across his counterpart, Finnbennach, and it is the two beasts' turn to give battle. Following an epic struggle, the Brown Bull shows up the next morning bearing the mangled remains of his enemy, and after staggering about for a time, mortally wounded, gives up the ghost. Ailill and Medb make peace with the Men of Ulster, and everyone goes home. So much for the urgent imperatives and well-reasoned arguments of war. This is one epic that seems to turn on the futility of war, not its nobility.

When I first read this story a few years ago, it was entirely new to me, or so I thought at first. At some point during or after my reading of it, the phrase, "the Brown Cow of Cooley," surfaced from somewhere in the past. It was a phrase I remembered hearing my mother (who was Irish) say when I was little, and it occurred to me that her Brown Cow and this Brown Bull must surely be one and the same. I can't remember the exact context in which she spoke of it, but I seem to remember some exasperation in her tone that went with the phrase, as if it represented some great undertaking that was either impossible, not worth the effort, or both.

The story itself, if not the battle, is well worth pursuing for the verve and humor of the telling. When Medb, who does not know Cuchulainn, asks who he is, she is told, matter-of-factly, "You'll find no harder warrior against you--no point more sharp, more swift, more slashing; no raven more flesh-ravenous, no hand more deft, no fighter more fierce, no one of his own age one third as good, no lion more ferocious; no barrier in battle, no hard hammer, no gate of battle, no soldiers' doom, no hinderer of hosts, more fine. . . ."

"Let us not make too much of it," Medb said.*

*(Quotation from The Tain, translated by Thomas Kinsella from Tain Bo Cuailnge. Oxford University Press.)

Thursday, August 6, 2015

In the Day of Trouble

I had a curious dream the other day, which I was moved to jot down. It seemed more amusing than anything else, but it left me feeling oddly cheerful and optimistic. At first I couldn't see a relationship between the events of the dream and waking life, but as often happens, connections appeared after I started thinking about details, such as the bottle of Frangelico that popped up in the middle of the dream, seemingly out of nowhere. Yeah, really--Frangelico!

In the dream, I was stranded in an affluent suburb outside Omaha. I know: why Omaha? I've no idea, except that to me, the city seemed to be somewhat farther south and to the east of Omaha, more in the vicinity of, say, Saint Louis. Nevertheless--Omaha. It was an attractive retail area and actually had more of an urban feeling than the word "suburb" indicates, but I really wanted to get back downtown, where I was staying. I seemed to be there for a conference at a university and had somehow gotten stuck in the outskirts, where I was repeatedly frustrated in efforts to catch a bus.

I had several bus tickets with alternate numbers written on them, along with a bottle of water and some other items. I kept seeing buses go by, but never the one I needed. There was a chic little restaurant just off the street, and I passed a little time inside at a table. (For a moment, I seemed to be in my own neighborhood at home, but that feeling passed.) When I got up to leave, I had the bottle of Frangelico in my hand, and my bottle of water was nowhere to be seen.

As far as I know, I've only had Frangelico once, in a delicious chocolatey sort of drink. It was very good, and I'd certainly have it again, but in the dream I was incensed that my bottle of water had disappeared. I complained to the cashier, who, while polite, seemed mildly obstructionistic as I tried to exchange the Frangelico for my bottle of water. It didn't look like a real Frangelico bottle but was instead fairly small and flat, like a flask. The liqueur was golden brown and had small brown seeds at the bottom similar to cloves.

I'm not actually sure whether I ever got my water back, but I was outside and sort of flying around chasing a bus when Harrison Ford showed up. Then we were both chasing the bus, and I had the feeling that I'd known Mr. Ford before and that we were actually old friends. It finally started feeling like things were going my way, and although we still seemed to be pursuing a bus, it was now a fun sort of pursuit and no longer worrying. Then I woke up.

I may have known that Frangelico is made from hazelnuts, but if I did, I'd forgotten, until I looked it up. I then had to look up hazelnuts, remembering vaguely some associations they have with Celtic mythology. In fact, I had just been reading about hazelnuts in the last book of "The Dark Is Rising" series (which I wrote about last week). In the book, two heroes on their way to retrieve a crystal sword stop to eat some hazelnuts and apples given to them by a character who may or may not be Taliesin, the mythical bard and sometime god.

You may be wondering what that has to do with waiting for a bus in Omaha. Me, too. I note that I was not particularly happy to have a bottle of hazelnut liqueur instead of the water I started out with. Frangelico didn't seem like a practical beverage for a long bus journey, but more than that, I seemed to be saying "no" in some way to an idea of someone else's. In some of the old Celtic stories, hazelnuts are a source of wisdom (obtained in one instance by eating a salmon that had previously eaten hazelnuts). You'd think a mythologist would be the first one to say "yes!" to hazelnuts, but apparently it's different when you have a bus to catch. Maybe a jar of Nutella instead?

The beauty of the old tales about Taliesin, Fionn, and the Salmon of Knowledge, slippery and shape-shifting, has long appealed to me, and I had a good time today re-reading just about everything I've ever read about them. One nugget I came across was the idea that Elphin, the hapless youth who fished Taliesin out of a weir and was rewarded a thousandfold for his act, did this on April 29th. This is so close to the cross-quarter day of May 1 that I assumed a connection, and, yes, there are stories linking Taliesin and the salmon to May Day. Wisdom (and possibly fertility) is a special gift of Taliesin, who told Elphin, "In the day of trouble, I will be of more service to you than three hundred salmon." And he proceeded to make good on his word.

I actually had my dream not on May 1 but on August 1, which happens to be the cross-quarter day of Lughnasadh, an early harvest festival and celebration of the Celtic god Lugh. Lugh, by the way, had an emblem, a spear that never missed its mark. I may have had Lugh in the back of my mind, since I've written about the cross-quarter days before, and his spear certainly has a connection to a magic sword, the sword of Nuada; together, they are two of the mythical Four Treasures of Ireland. Apparently, reading about a magic sword and hazelnuts shortly before having this dream triggered an association.

But a spear is not a sword, and it wasn't Lugh, Nuada, or Taliesin that I encountered while chasing a bus, but a calm and collected Harrison Ford. While not a Celtic god (or is he?) he is certainly known for playing larger-than-life characters. So the moral of this story is . . . better one good hero of proven vintage or a bottle of spirits of dubious provenance? Well, which would you rather have in a tight spot?

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Finding Arthur

Over the last couple of weeks, I've been reading Susan Cooper's "The Dark Is Rising" series for young people. I read the second book, The Dark Is Rising, years ago when I was studying children's literature, but I'd since forgotten most of the plot details. What I mainly remembered was its tone of eerie suspense and the elaborate interweaving of the ordinary with the supernatural in the adventures of its young hero, Will Stanton.

I've been reading the books out of order, which has actually made it more fun than if I'd done it linearly. This is not surprising if you know the story line. The plot involves a lot of time hopping, past lives, recovery of things forgotten, and travel from one world to the next, so jumbling the order of the books just increases the pleasurable sense of not knowing what's going to happen next mixed with a bit of deja vu. It's similar to the way I might have read the books when I was a kid, coming across one at random and not being overly concerned with sequencing. It's a very relaxing way to read, I have to say.

After reading just The Dark Is Rising for class, I didn't realize the extent to which the series relies on British and Celtic mythology for some of its characters and themes. This would have been clear if I'd read the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, first, because it contains a major plot reveal concerning one of the characters. Finding out the probable identity of that character makes it clear that the series is steeped in Arthurian legend, which for me is the icing on the cake. I knew there was a reason I liked that book!

Taking a children's lit class cured me of any tendency I might have had to think of young adult literature as escapist. The Dark Is Rising (as well as many of the other young adult books I read) has a much more serious outlook on life than you might imagine given the sometimes fantastic elements of plot. All of the fantasy and magic is in the service of a gigantic and ongoing battle between the Light and the Dark, or Good and Evil, in which even a little boy has a great and inescapable responsibility. Young Will, with his unique role in the age-old struggle, sometimes feels the loneliness of a burden that's impossible to share with others, including his family.

The series deftly portrays ordinary time and mythic time co-existing and interacting. A basic dualism in the stories is somewhat complicated by natural magic, which is independent of Light and Dark and not easily biddable. While it's essentially neutral, it sometimes plays a role in the fight by lending its influence to one side or the other. There's an indication that the Light/Dark struggle will end, although I don't know how because I haven't gotten there yet. If the Light wins, presumably this ushers in a Golden Age of some kind, so that although the membrane between past, present, and future is very fluid in the stories, there is a kind of historical movement. Does that mean that ordinary time will be subsumed into eternity at the end of the story? It's hard to say, which is why I'm continuing to read.

I was thinking today about the role of figures like Arthur and Merlin in this story, guardians for the Good with a special authority and responsibility. This is, I suppose, a bit elitist, since they are portrayed as a category of beings with powers and superior wisdom that more or less set them apart. The author plays down the elitism by incarnating her heroes into fairly conventional people who find out that they are not merely who they think they are but something more. Will comes from an average family, and so do many of his allies, but they are born with inherent abilities that are part of their special destiny.

There's an old saying that King Arthur never really died and will come back again in an hour of great need; this series interprets that part of the legend in its own way, depicting a world in which anyone, even the youngest boy in a large middle-class family or a lonely child on a working-class farm, can discover inner nobility and purpose. That matches my idea of the return of Arthur, which is to say that if he lives anywhere it's inside all of us. It's no good waiting around for him to come back; if we want him, we have to discover him in ourselves and bring him back around that way. Even in America, where we don't have kings, this is possibly a good thing to remember.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Is That Really Necessary?

Is it noisy where you are? One of the hardest things to come by in this day and age seems to be the simple ability to hear oneself think. A bit of peace doesn't sound like much to ask, but, even as someone who lives a quiet life, I'm constantly inundated with noise--specifically, noise in the form of loud people. I'm not sure when yelling became the normal mode. I, personally, don't feel the need to announce every idea I have in an ear-splitting voice to all and sundry, so I must ask: Is all this noise, strictly speaking, necessary?

I occasionally switch coffeehouses when the one I'm going to seems to get too popular (which always happens sooner or later). Finding one in an unfrequented part of town, going at off-hours, sitting in an unoccupied corner--none of these tactics seems to hold off the noisemakers for long. People who can't seem to speak without yelling are drawn to me as moths to an open flame (it's a bit like the old saying that cats always seek out the person who doesn't like them. I actually think cats are smarter than that, but I'm unsure of the people).

Not long ago, I was sitting in a coffeehouse wearing earplugs, with my fingers in my ears, as a parade made up (apparently) of every friend and acquaintance ever known to the baristas made its way through the line. In that posture, I usually hear little of what's actually said, though I always feel annoyed that I have to go to that length to maintain psychic space. After switching seats for a corner perch, I got so annoyed with the high-pitched laughter of a woman standing in line that I simply left. It sounded like she'd just come from Bedlam (no exaggeration). I wouldn't be surprised if all the milk in the place had curdled after that performance, but the barista stood there like it happens every day.

Even the public library isn't immune to noise displays. I went to return some books the other day and found myself sitting in the car, reluctant to go in, knowing I'd have to pass through a crush of people just to get to the Circulation Desk. I decided to wait until almost closing time to let the place empty out, which wasn't a bad plan. Understand, I'm not a misanthropic person and generally enjoy polite society, but I don't like wading through crowds of exhibitionists, where it's not uncommon for someone to walk right in front of me, screaming on a cell phone, or even to bump me. For heaven's sake, the place is not that cramped. In fact, it's fairly spacious.

The park is another wide open space that should have plenty of room for all but starts to seem like a very small world indeed once you begin encountering all the declaimers and lollygaggers it pulls in. I hate wearing my earplugs in the park, but if I don't, I have to endure one screeching group after another. It's worse than parrots. This even happens at times when you'd think the park would be nearly empty. And don't get me started on people who stop right in the middle of the path to gab, blocking access for everyone else. I'm assuming that at least some of these people are tourists, because most people would behave more considerately knowing that they're likely to encounter friends and neighbors--though tourism is still a poor excuse for rudeness.

I do occasionally get crotchety with someone over this, and you can never really tell when it will happen. I'm sort of a believer in live and let live, but I also believe in appropriate boundaries, which are really a necessity (not an option) for social living. Here's a hint: If I wanted to hear what you have to say, I'd invite you over for tea. Otherwise, we haven't met but are actually perfect strangers in a public place, and in public settings, a little politeness goes a long way.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Pluto, Is That You?

Yesterday I took an online quiz to test my knowledge of the planet Pluto, and to my surprise I got all the questions right. I didn't know I knew that much about it, but I have seen a couple of news articles about the New Horizons space probe and recently read the story of how Pluto was discovered in 1930. I understand that the photographs received by NASA have revealed the planet to be a bit bigger than scientists thought it was, and I'd like to congratulate Pluto in this regard. It must be hard enough hanging out there in the Kuiper Belt without being demoted; maybe being bigger will give Pluto back its bona fides.

When I was growing up, I thought of Pluto as almost the mascot of the solar system, probably because it shared its name with that friendly but goofy Disney dog. At the same time, its remoteness gave it a mystique no other planet had. Now all these years later, images of its surface are raining down on us from the space probe, and we're getting acquainted with its actual features. Imagine an object the size of a piano traveling safely for nine years across the vastness of space, arriving in the vicinity of distant Pluto in good enough condition to send back crisp images. What a miracle.

I read today that scientists are excited about the size of the mountains on Pluto and the likelihood that the planet has water. Pluto seems to be defying expectations in lots of ways, but surprisingly, the images I've seen don't stray all that far from what I might have imagined if you'd asked me to draw it when I was growing up. I think I imagined it as a very cold, silent, dim place, a place it would be hard to get to know.

As everyone knows from mythology, Pluto was also called Hades and was the god of the underworld--conceived as being below the ground, not out in space. Pluto was in some way connected with wealth, which may have come from the fact that he ruled his own vast kingdom, quite distinct from that of the upper regions. Despite the riches below the earth, his realm was a dim, inaccessible place for the living, not a place to go willingly even if you could get there, in contrast to all the effort it's taken to get to his planetary namesake.

We've sent a spacecraft as our emissary to the planet Pluto, a destination that will, in its own way, have a wealth of features to discover. I sometimes have mixed feelings when I read about explorations of other worlds and plans to possibly exploit them for our gain (though I realize anything like that is probably far in the future for distant Pluto). If only we could get our own house in order on Earth I might feel better about the possibility of colonizing other worlds, but I guess if we waited until we were perfectly wise we might never get anywhere.

I hope the images we're receiving will make all the work that went into the New Horizons project pay off, and I'm glad the ashes of Pluto's discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh, went along for the ride. That was a lovely gesture that puts a human face on the whole enterprise and makes a nine-year voyage seem perhaps a bit less of a lonely ride. It also makes Pluto seem not quite as remote as it once was--though regardless of the distance, Pluto will always be a part of my solar system.