Sunday, November 23, 2014

Mythologist Dreams of a Blue Fish

I don't know why I dreamed this week about a giant blue fish jumping over a house, but I did. A few nights ago, in my dream, I was sitting or leaning on the porch railing of a white frame house very much like one I actually lived in when I was young. It was an overcast day in a small town neighborhood, and there were a number of people standing in the yard between our house and the one next door. All of a sudden, an enormous blue fish rose out of the depths, leaped over our house, and landed in a pool in the front yard.

Where the fish came from is an open question, since we were nowhere near the sea but in about as landlocked a situation as you could imagine. Not that that matters in a dream, of course. The sudden appearance of this enormous creature was extraordinary, but the lack of an ocean didn't seem to signify. Perhaps there was a subterranean ocean underneath the house.

My first thought was, "It's a blue whale." However, it was not a whale, but rather a large, flexible flatfish with a big head. It was not a kite or a ray--its shape was elongated and sinuous. It turned itself around in the pool to face us, and it may be anthropomorphizing to say so, but it did not have a friendly look. (Actually, I'm not sure it's possible to anthropomorphize in a dream, even if it sometimes is in waking life.)

It may be good to mention that Jung compared the stages of consciousness with the chakras of kundalini, so that the Leviathan that swims in the unconscious is associated with the second chakra, svadhisthana. In this stage, Jung said, one moves from lack of awareness to a confrontation with unconscious contents, a tricky undertaking requiring considerable courage since the flooding one experiences can threaten equilibrium. It's no minnow you're facing; certainly the fish in my dream had the menacing aspect of a Leviathan as it turned to look at us.

Everybody seemed to know the fish was going to make another leap and probably land on the house. There seemed to be a collective impulse to move out of the way, even a surge of panic. But for some reason, no one really did anything except stand and watch. I remained on the porch, oddly disinclined to move quickly, though part of me thought it was a grand idea. The fish did leap and actually landed on the house . . . but all that came down were a few splinters.

This dream reminds me of one I had some years ago (and have written about before) in which I was lounging on a cliff high above the sea, a brief idyll that ended when the water began to rise. It was not a single creature but rather the ocean itself that threatened. Interestingly, it was not so much physical danger in that dream but the damage to my belongings that concerned me; I was urging people in the house on the cliff to help me move things inside before they got wet.

In the fish dream, there was no water visible except in the pool, which was somewhat shallow, and though the fish carried through on its destructive leap, the result was anticlimactic--though there was still some talk of adjourning to the neighboring house for safety. The situation seemed unresolved, some feeling of uncertainty still remaining.

Maybe it's too much to pair two dreams occurring eight years apart, but I do seem to see a kind of progression from one dream to the next: from a diffuse but overwhelming threat to a specific, visible one; from a beautiful but exotic location to homely, familiar ground; from a frustrated feeling of trying to rouse others to a shared (but measured) sense of danger. The contrast between the urgent activity of the first dream and the watchfulness of the second dream is also striking, though I am not sure what we all were waiting for. A fish fry, maybe?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Natural Phenomenon

I have a memory of sitting in a car with my brother in downtown Fort Myers, Florida, when I was about seven or eight, and he was nine or ten. If I remember right, our Dad had gone into the insurance company to pay a premium or take care of some other business. I'm not sure why I recall that, but I do. Anyway, it was a mostly cloudy day, late in the afternoon, and while we were sitting there, looking toward the roofs at the other end of the street, an unusual cloud formation filled the spaces between buildings to create a shape that looked, for a brief time, uncannily like the state of Florida. To my eyes, it was quite incredible.

It was my brother who pointed it out to me, and I can still remember him saying, in an authoritative, scientific sort of way, "That's what you call a natural phenomenon."

I'm bringing this up because of what happened when I was out walking Friday afternoon. It was five o'clock, probably pretty close to the same time of day as that long-ago wonder. It's also a bit of a coincidence because I wrote another post about something that happened at five o'clock a while back; if there's a quota on five o'clock phenomena, I seem to be running through it rapidly.

I had put my sunglasses on when I left home, appreciating the blue sky and bright afternoon but doubting whether I really needed them; it was partly cloudy, and, anyway, the sun was rather low in the sky. It kept peeking in and out of the clouds, but by the time I'd gone nearly all the way around the Arboretum, it was shining directly in front of me.

That's when it happened. Due no doubt to moisture in the air and the layers of clouds above and below, the sunlight shaped itself, briefly, into a column of fire, dead center in the sky. It was so remarkable that the first thing I wondered was if anybody in rush hour traffic was seeing it, too. It looked like something that, in ancient times, would have been taken by astrologers or prophets as a "sign," as in, "Yo, a plague of locusts is at hand," or at least, "It's time to harvest the persimmons."

I'm cynical about "signs," which seem to me to be overdone these days, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," but the event was beautiful and striking and certainly fit into my brother's category of natural phenomena--so I have another to add to the list of the many I've seen. I know there are names for almost any atmospheric occurrence you can think of, but I don't know what the name for a column of light is. I was mainly just happy that I had my sunglasses on so I didn't have to squint at it and also that it happened when I was facing in the right direction. It did occur to me that there's no telling how many wondrous and amazing things happen around us all the time when we happen to be looking the other way.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Berlin Adventure

It's hard to believe it's been 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. That means it's been 25 years since my friends and I undertook our three-week whirlwind European vacation (nine countries in 20 days). What was happening in Berlin actually affected us because we had a friend living there; going to visit her was part of our itinerary.

There were probably several times for each of us on that trip when we felt ourselves especially far from home. I had been to England before and was familiar with London; one of my friends found it unfriendly and didn't care for it at all. One of us had already been to West Germany and considered it a "been there, done that" item; I found Amsterdam to be rather scary (but fascinating). I think all of us would agree, though, that crossing the border from the West to the East in Germany (a border still being maintained even as the Wall was coming down) was both unforgettable and Kafka-esque.

It was like slipping into a time warp and landing in the barbed wire and searchlight days of World War II. Both were in evidence from the train windows as we showed our passports to an extremely grim-faced guard. A brief, unexplained stop once the train started moving again caused someone to quip, in a whistling past the graveyard moment, that perhaps some unfortunate soul had been thrown from the back. It seemed remotely possible. It was November, and East Germany was cold and dark, with a twilight, industrial sort of darkness even during the day. By contrast, Berlin, once we arrived there, reminded me of New York: though gritty and gray, it was edgy, electric, and sophisticated--a world-class city.

Our friend was expecting her first child, and we spent the first couple of days close to her comfortable home, catching up on news and going with her to a doctor's appointment. On the third day, we took the train to Kochstrasse, which I believe was the last subway stop before East Berlin, and walked to Checkpoint Charlie. We were immediately enveloped in the mood of excitement that seemed to have gripped everyone in the vicinity (if not the entire world). The Wall hadn't been torn down yet, but it wasn't for lack of trying. People who weren't taking photographs were renting hammers and chisels for a few marks to do their part.

I have pictures of the three of us at the Wall, hammering, chiseling, and looking cold. I was taking a picture of one of my friends chipping away, and something was said about the angle or posing. I said, "Just keep doing what you're doing." At that, a young man who was passing, apparently British from his accent, paused, laughed, and said, "You have a long way to go!" True enough for one person, but of course in the end the Wall--as solid as it was then--came down. I have some pieces of it still, packed away with other mementos.

My most vivid memories of that visit to Checkpoint Charlie, other than the graffiti and the pervasive excitement in the air, are of my friend attacking the Wall valiantly with a Swiss Army Knife and the exhibits in the Wall Museum that dealt with people's escape attempts. One woman had hidden her four-year-old in a shoulder bag and escaped via subway to Kochstrasse Station; someone else had a false bottom in a car and hid underneath it. The consequences were grim for those who were caught, but it didn't stop people from trying.

In the end, you wonder what it's all about. Politics, wars, international agreements . . . and the end result was a city divided in two. I was reading an article by a diplomatic expert earlier that said not all the results of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War were favorable. He may have been right about some of the things he said, but to me a lot of the events that have happened since 1989 can be interpreted as missed opportunities to create a more stable world.

Some people don't believe such stability is possible, I know. But if you were to ask some of the people who were divided from one another by the Wall that broke their city in two (or the loved ones of those who died trying to cross it) what they thought about its demise, I bet you'd get a different opinion from that of the diplomatic expert. People living with the results of decisions made by the great powers ruling the world often have a different outlook than any number of diplomats do. And their outlook may be truer.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Reason for the Season

The weather's been veering, as it does in October. You get the feeling, with the way the wind changes, that Mary Poppins could drop in any minute. Yesterday, snow was in the forecast for the evening. I didn't see any, but apparently a little fell overnight, though not enough to show for much. I was trying to imagine what an autumn day would look like with flaming orange, red, and yellow leaves glowering under a layer of snow, but we didn't get to find out.

This conjured up an incongruous but picturesque image, like the time I was in Berkeley in the fall and walked down a neighborhood street where deciduous trees shedding leaves alternated with ever-blooming varieties and bright fruits and flowers that seemed to belong to spring and summer. The effect reminded me a little bit of a painting I've seen in which a motley group of buildings, including an Egyptian pyramid, a Greek temple, and a Gothic cathedral, are all lumped together in a fantasy spot by the sea: it's more or less impossible, unless you're in Disneyland, but it's fun to look at. (The painting is Thomas Cole's The Architect's Dream.) That street, where three seasons seemed to coexist at once, was a little like that. All that was missing was a snowdrift.

But I'm digressing. I was really thinking about an article I once read in The Old Farmer's Almanac about something called cross-quarter days, of which yesterday, October 31, is one. The others occur on February 2, May 1, and August 1. These originated in British and Celtic customs, and the article explained how other traditions, enduring even in America, are attached to these dates, which divide the intervals between the quarter days (the two solstices and equinoxes) in half.

October 31 is All Hallow's Eve (Celtic Samhain), February 2 is Candlemas (Celtic Imbolc), May 1 is May Day (Celtic Beltane), and August 1 is Lammas (Celtic Lughnasadh). Most people are aware of the connection between Halloween and the Celtic traditions relating to the dead; American customs like pumpkin-carving and trick-or-treating have their counterparts in Samhain. What I didn't know was that other customs, like Election Day--which seems totally unrelated to Halloween--are actually a part of this post-harvest celebration. What better time to hold elections than when all the work in the fields is over?

Our version of Candlemas is Groundhog Day, when we're looking forward to the spring equinox still some six weeks away (and trying to hurry it along). Less well-known (at least to me) was the Celtic Imbolc, which refers to sheep and lambs, whose season is the latter part of winter. Even I, a town girl, was able to make a connection to this ancient tradition when I remembered a college roommate, an agriculture major, who was always getting up in the middle of those frozen February nights to check on ewes about to give birth. It sure didn't sound like something I wanted to do in the wee hours of a cold, dark month, but I suspect your perspective is different if you're a farmer.

Beltane, of course, is May Day, a spring and fertility celebration. We don't do much with May Poles and mummers, but in Kentucky, we hold the Derby on the first Saturday in May, a bourbon- and equine-infused version of a spring fling, complete with elaborate hats. Lammas or Lughnasadh, probably not that well known in America, signals the start of the harvest and early crops. The thing to do on that day might be to bake a loaf of bread or a fruit pie. Lughnasadh commemorates the Celtic god Lugh, whose emblem was a spear that supposedly always hit its mark. (I've forgotten why he's celebrated in August, but I do remember once knocking on my ceiling with a broom handle to alert a noisy neighbor and later laughing when I realized it was August 1, the day of Lugh. A broom handle isn't much like a spear unless you're annoyed, I guess.)

This cross-quarter weekend, we're celebrating Halloween, All Saints, and All Souls Days, changing from Daylight Time to Standard Time, and getting ready for Election Day on Tuesday. In calendrical terms there's quite a bit going on, which might explain the restless energy in the air (it could also be the zing of unseen money changing hands as candidates continue to vy for votes).

If it's any consolation, the next time you're annoyed by a robocall or political advertisement, or if you forget to change your clock and end up at work an hour early on Monday, or if you get indigestion from too much Halloween candy, just think about being part of a tradition that stretches back to ancient times and started on the other side of the sea. Young or old, tricker or treater, candidate or voter, we each have our part to play. Exciting, isn't it?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Song for the Corner of Broadway and Vine

I was in the grocery store the other day when Billy Joel's song "New York State of Mind" came on, with that familiar fall of tinkling piano keys, over the in-store radio. There I was, innocently shopping for vegetables and milk, when I heard the line, "I know what I'm needin', and I don't want to waste more time." A wave of emotion, sad and imperative, washed over me, which I don't usually associate with that song. I like a lot of Mr. Joel's material, but that song has always been just one of many, never a particular favorite.

But you know how it is with these things: sometimes a book or a song takes on a different meaning as you live with it over time, just as it almost certainly has for Mr. Joel, who, I believe, wrote it long ago on returning home to New York after living on the West Coast for several years. It's a slice of life story that, in its gentle, elegiac tone, has risen above particulars--especially post 9/11--to become a love song to a great city. It has taken its place as a standard in the great American songbook, where I'm sure it will remain.

A lot of people don't know this, but I've had fantasies since childhood about being a singer, out there on a stage, just singing my heart out in front of a thousand people. I used to have recurring dreams about returning to my high school and singing in front of an assembly, dreams that stopped after I found my voice as a writer. I find, though, that the urge for singing has remained for some reason. Maybe I was too quiet as a child and am still trying to make up for it.

You know what I wish? I wish I could transport Mr. Joel, his piano, and the sax player of his choice down to the corner of, say, Broadway and Vine in downtown Lexington. There's a plaza in front of the Triangle Park fountain, and the street corner there would do nicely for a stage. You know the old adage: Location! Location! Location! Well, everybody passes by there--and people from the nearby office towers would have a birds-eye view. I know it would do nicely for an evening concert (Lexington is always looking for new ways to get people downtown), but there's just not enough going on, in my opinion, in the morning hours, between 8:45 and 9-ish, when people have had time to get their coffee and are just getting started on their day.

Picture me in a long, black dress, with elegant earrings and an up-do. Mr. Joel plays the jazzy introduction as people start to stop and look, wondering what's going on. I'm leaning just as cool as you please on that baby grand, in diamonds and glittering heels, and when he gets to the verse and pauses, I pick up the microphone and enunciate, in my sexiest voice, "Some folks like to get a-waaaay, take a hol-i-daaaay from the neigh-bor-hooood . . . "

Could a Kentucky girl pull off a love song to the Big Apple? Well, come on down; you might be surprised.

I haven't shared this plan with Mr. Joel, but you never know, he might fall in with the spirit of it sometime. We would be very close to Rupp Arena, where I have seen him perform energetic shows twice in years past . . . and that has kind of nice, round sense of completion about it, doesn't it? Also, he's very fond of New York, I think.

By the way, leave your money at home. This is a concert for the people, and no admission is required. We may have to pass a hat to pay the sax player, though.

Here's something to get you in the mood.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Light at Five O'Clock

Even in rain, autumn in Lexington has been offering up scenes worthy of framing. Earlier in the week, there was the drive home down a street of vintage houses, newly washed in afternoon showers. As I turned onto this particular street, near downtown, the always-graceful homes were especially lovely in a setting of soft, rain-washed light, autumn colors, and slowly drifting leaves. It made me want to be a painter.

Later that day, evening came on with a tumultuous sunset of storm-wracked skies and billowing clouds, steel-gray on one side and turbulent orange where they reflected the light. Even on an evening of uniformly gray drizzle a few nights ago, the neighborhood appeared cozy in the damp, with house-lamps shining out in the mist, a cat sitting calmly in a driveway, and the cheery hue of chrysanthemums on porches echoing the colors of the trees.

But in weather, as in most things, variety is the spice of life, and of course, we only stand for so much of that English dampness around here, whether it's good for the complexion or not. The sun shines bright on my Old Kentucky Home (or at least it's supposed to), and we've got the state song to prove it.

The sun came back today. As I was driving to the coffeehouse this afternoon, I was struck (not as bad as Saul on the road to Damascus--for which I thank my Elle sunglasses--but rather more pleasantly, let us say, enlightened) by the quality of the sunshine. After a few days of rain and drizzle, I had stepped out into a day that was dazzlingly bright, with a phenomenally blue sky--almost a surprise after all the grayness.

I had put my sunglasses on and pulled out into the street, enjoying not only the sunshine but the subdued Sunday afternoon traffic. I hadn't gone very far when the quality of the light, layered on buildings and trees like liquid gold, brought on one of those zen, eternity-in-a-moment feelings, when the world coalesces around you and (despite strange neighbors, the policies of the Federal Reserve Bank, seasonal allergies, and the decline of modern cinema) the universe seems to be perfectly-imperfectly in order.

I looked at my watch, and it was five o'clock. Hey, it's five o'clock somewhere! Not somewhere else, but here. It's five o'clock here.

You may scoff, but there's a name for these things. Psychologist Abraham Maslow called these kinds of feelings "peak experiences," these occasions when feelings of bliss and harmony seem to fold you into the world and make you one with it. This one was fairly mild, as peak experiences go, but it was nonetheless welcome on an ordinary Sunday afternoon, the kind of thing you never say no to. I take bliss as I find it, and I also take it as a sign: I must be doing something right.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Game of the Surreal, or: The Not-Quite-Haunted Apartment

The human mind just naturally wants to make sense of things and see passing events in a coherent manner. Writers, given a disparate group of facts and the leisure to make of them what they will, come up with stories. I often find myself musing on events and trying out different plot lines. Who knows, I may make a novelist yet.

Take this past week, for instance. Beginning last Saturday night, the noise from the apartment above me began to take on added life (this is a continuing saga, as those who follow my blog are aware). From repeated horrendous crashes (what passes for normal around here) to mysterious tapping sounds to remarkably persistent creaking floorboards to muffled, inexplicable noises directly overhead while one is trying to sleep (as if someone is doing a full-body buffing job on the floor) to other things I won't mention, it's akin to living under the sound effects department of a Hollywood B movie studio.

Then there are my adventures with the probate court system, where I went to correct a mistake in my middle initial (which is not "J"), simply because I don't like typos and the confusion that can arise from muddles. This mistake was in the file of my mother's estate case; while the case isn't active, the errant "J" (from a misreading of a signature) has always troubled me, and even more so lately, as I've seen from my own experience just how many Mary Hackworths are out there beating the bushes of the world. It's not as distinctive a name as I used to think it was.

In adding a note to the probate record, I discovered another anomaly: the case number originally assigned by the court is not the one that ended up on my mother's case file. The original number, for reasons no one was able to explain to me, ended up on the file of another person (who may or may not even be dead, since one document listed the date of death as June 31, 2007).

Then, too, there are the current events one reads about, spinning away in the background of all our lives . . . politics, money, corruption, etc. If you pay attention to the news long enough, you begin to see patterns, and in that case, you may be tempted to either run out and become an investigative reporter yourself (though who has time for a journalism degree) or let your imagination run wild in the creation of a fictional narrative that ties motley pieces of facts into a rational story line.

How about this one: a person dies without a will. Unknown to the descendants, he was worth a fortune. However, someone else knows about the money and sees an opportunity to make off with it when a simple typo creates an opportunity for confusion about identities. A series of lugs are hired to move into the apartment building of the unfortunate heir, causing enough noise and unpleasantness that (it is hoped) the tenant will move, creating the possibility of a cold trail and misdirected mail. (If that doesn't work, the lugs are instructed to create an "accidental" fire or some other disaster that cannot easily be traced, thereby eliminating the party.)

The plot thickens when it becomes apparent that the fortune -- not just any garden-variety fortune, but a rather large one -- has actually been targeted by not just a greedy opportunist, but one with shadowy connections to the financial world, highly placed politicians, the deep state, and terror organizations. The money is wanted to grease the wheels of war, misery, and disaster in order to create even larger fortunes for those who stand to gain from all of the above.

This jolly group of plotters, making use of everything from unscrupulous acquaintances, hired guns, secret operatives, mind games, foul plots, harassment, spying, and all sorts of mayhem, tries to silence or eliminate the descendant, his friends, and any possible allies. Various people stumble onto parts of the plot and attempt to join forces to stop a heist that could be the prelude to World War III. Some act out of love, others for altruism, and others for love of country--and some for all three.

Thrillers and espionage have never really been my thing, so I'm not sure how this would hold up to scrutiny by John Le Carré or Robert Ludlum, but I'm fairly proud of it as a novice's contribution to the genre. I've been equally influenced by actual events, things I've read and heard, things I've experienced, and the same daily news to which all of us are privy. If I ever write this novel, I will, of course, include the statement that all similarities to actual persons and events are purely coincidental and not meant to be construed otherwise.

When the royalties start coming in, maybe I can move out of this noise-infested apartment and into something more to my liking. I'd start with peace and quiet, but a fireplace, a front porch, and a rain-bath showerhead would be nice. Oh, and I want a garden, too.