Thursday, February 26, 2015

Glimpsed Through the Fog

The other night I was watching a program about Gothic cathedrals. The lecturer's enthusiasm reminded me of the way I felt one long-ago summer when I was in England and explored everything Gothic I could find--chapels, churches, colleges, train stations, government buildings, cathedrals--you name it. If it was Gothic, I walked around, climbed around, photographed, and inspected it. I'd written a paper about Gothic architecture in a Victorian literature class for my M.A. and been swept off my feet by John Ruskin's descriptions. His soaring prose seemed to capture the essence of an architectural style carved in stone but aspiring to mystical dimensions.

Well, why wouldn't you be captivated by an architecture that finds delicacy, bravado, solemnity, ecstasy, darkness, light, ethereal beauty, and pride of workmanship in the earthiest of materials: stone, wood, and glass? A Gothic cathedral suggests, by its scale, that there's more to existence than meets the eye--and therefore, that there may be more to us than meets the eye. If out of those elemental materials a builder can create towering spires, soaring galleries, and light-filled apses that seem to float, maybe it's an indication that the things of this world are more than they appear to be.

Of course, mysticism is very Platonic, but the solidity of materials and the proliferation of so many individual saints, prophets, kings, and everyday people, created in loving and expressive detail in statuary and stained glass on every available surface, shows an Aristotelian regard for earthly life, too. It would have been impossible for a builder to put up a 140-foot ceiling or build a wall made of glass without a careful working out of scientific principles and advanced problem solving.

I think my Platonic streak was wider when I was younger, because it was really the mysteriousness of the Gothic buildings, the way they presented themselves as way-stations to something beyond, that appealed to me. I know I'm more Aristotelian now because, after listening to the lecturer emphasize over and over the other night that the ceilings of the cathedrals were built of solid stone, I wondered why it had never occurred to me to keep a sharp lookout for loose pieces. I probably still have the mystic streak, but it's accompanied now by a greater awareness of material fragility and principles of physics.

When the lecturer was speaking of Amiens Cathedral, I had a sudden flashback to an incident I hadn't thought about in years. That same English summer, I went to France, in the middle of my summer course, for a weekend in Paris. It was a rough bus ride after a choppy ferry crossing and a sleepless night, and at the time this seemed the very pinnacle of travel discomfort (which makes me laugh now, I can tell you). I was tired and rather disenchanted.

Sometime in the early hours of the morning, the bus stopped in a town somewhere north and east of Paris. As the bus started to move again, I glimpsed, through the fog and darkness of early morning, a huge Gothic facade looming over the bus, ghostly, half visible, and then gone. It was easily more breathtaking than anything I later saw in Paris, though it vanished almost before I was aware of it. The unexpectedness made it seem marvelous, as if it had appeared out of the air like some enchanted castle from an Arthurian tale.

I wondered what it was that I saw, and I still do. I didn't found out at the time, having no clear conception of where we were and no chance to ask anyone (in my halting French) who might actually have been awake and in the know. Was it Amiens? Rouen? Maybe sometime I'll go there again and find out, though I have to say not knowing hasn't bothered me.

One thing I learned then, but had to be reminded of later, was that something numinous can open up right in front of you even when you're tired, irritated, hot, and overwhelmed by the experience of being on your way to Paris for the first time. It's probably not even on the itinerary, that thing you remember all your life and would have missed if you'd only figured out how to sleep sitting up. Even with a greater respect now for gravity, loose mortar, and the ravages of time, I prize the memory of that ethereal scene granted to a grumpy but wide-eyed traveler.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Time Machine

I spent the afternoon and early evening of Valentine's Day organizing and clearing out some files, an ongoing project of mine this winter. It doesn't sound like a very romantic Valentine's activity, but it actually grew into a richer experience than I was expecting. The storage box I was organizing turned out to be something of a time capsule for late 2008 through early 2010, a period in which I finished graduate coursework at Pacifica and transitioned back into non-student life at home.

My goal on Saturday was to locate all the articles and handouts from my classes, stuffed with little ceremony into random folders, and arrange them as methodically as I had papers from the first two years at school. Things had been so busy during the last year of coursework and the dissertation phase that I'd never taken the time to create folders for my third-year classes; putting everything into one box was as far as I'd gotten. I knew there were other things in the box--receipts, letters, business correspondence, etc.--but I figured it was all boring stuff except for the class material. Concentrating on the third-year papers would make a good start, I decided.

Making stacks for each class and category of material took a long time, considering the haphazard order in which I'd placed things. I had a couple of general piles for non-school items, a heap of Pacifica items not pertaining to classes, and stacks devoted to Egyptian Mythology, Religious Studies Approaches to Myth, Hebrew Traditions, and Islamic/Christian Traditions (I put these together because there were fewer handouts). There was a stack of dissertation formulation materials, somewhat organized already. The only class for which I already had a folder was Dante: I had consulted that material for my dissertation and made a folder for it when I cleared my desk off.

As a year of academic life began to arrange itself under my eyes, emotions began to arise. Almost everything I handled had a memory or feeling attached to it. As I organized the articles for my Religious Studies class, I saw myself tucked into a quiet corner at Panera Bread, happily reading Durkheim, Malinowski, and Otto Rank. I remembered sitting in a sunny garden at school, jet-lagged, analyzing an article for Reductionist, Romantic, or Postmodern thinking. I remembered painstakingly searching for images to illustrate a presentation. I thought of a conversation with another student during a class break about the Hebrew and Egyptian traditions. I recalled speaking to the class about Wendy Doniger in a small room on a dark December afternoon fading into dusk. I found directions to someone's house for a party.

There were also welcoming notes from the school for the beginning of each academic year, quarterly syllabi, instructions for those attending graduation in spring 2009 (including two parking passes), a printed email from one of my dissertation committee members, scattered pages from a handout on an Egyptian goddess that, without a staple, had somehow become separated into three or four parts (I only found the first two pages when I had put almost everything away), and, on the back of a printed class schedule, relic of a more hopeful time, an excerpt from Alice Walker's celebrated open letter to newly elected President Barack Obama. 

I also found tax forms, the receipt from a hotel where I spent my first post-Pacifica vacation, brochures for various places visited in Southern California, a calendar of events for a Pasadena bookstore (five years out of date), an empty rental car folder, directions someone had drawn to show me how to find a particular labyrinth in Ventura, Internet material on New Harmony, Indiana, a flyer on a labyrinth church in Saint Louis, notes from Jung lectures in Cincinnati, and a picture I'd been looking for for a long time, lodged mysteriously and out of time sequence in a hodge-podge of papers, news clippings, and maps.

To sum up this experience, it was like looking into a mirror that showed me how I was six years ago: busy, absorbed, hopeful, engaged, and alive, despite many lumps and bumps on the road. I didn't have much time for things like filing, obviously, but I was active, seeking, stretching, very much alive in mind and spirit. All those trips to California and other places, the people I met, and the things I was doing kept me full of ideas and purpose. 

Reliving those days was somewhat of a bittersweet experience, but it was also instructive in reminding me of who I am, where I'm going, and how full of possibilities life always is. I've sometimes looked back on my school days from a distance with very different eyes, reassessing my opinions about certain experiences and events. Quite fair enough. But organizing my papers reminded me of how much I gained from it all and what a source of richness it was, with the added bonus that I now know where everything is. I threw away fewer items than I thought I would, even keeping a few things I really don't need any more. In the end, it seemed like a time to remember. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Inner Resources

It's been a moderately quiet week around here, with nothing very unexpected going on, except that I ended up writing a poem. This came about because I forgot to take a book with me to Starbucks last weekend. I was annoyed when I got there and found I had nothing to read, but on the other hand . . . it's good to test your inner resources sometimes.

First I decided to clean out my purse. I found a collection of miscellaneous receipts (mostly from Starbucks), expired and unexpired coupons, and a movie ticket stub, along with a couple of bank slips. There were also some notes I'd forgotten I had from an online course on Joseph Campbell. I'd jotted them down on a series of blue Post-Its that ended up in one of the pockets of my purse. Why they were in my purse and not in a drawer is a question I can't answer, but it did solve the problem of having nothing to read.

I suppose that once you've written a book of your own, you're just naturally more opinionated about things; at any rate, I found on reading the notes that I was a little annoyed by the professor's ideas. The topic was Campbell's concept of the hero's journey, and I had a different idea of what it means than did the lecturer, who thought Campbell's monomyth was too impersonal. Part of the problem, too, was that I had just finished that course on medieval philosophy a couple of weeks ago and was bursting with ideas on the universal and the particular.

The result of it all was that after reading the notes, I started scribbling a poem on a blank Post-It as a response (though not a very serious one) to the discussion of the universal versus the particular. It ended up being two haiku strung together:

Plato's Cat

Universal cat
Do you ever crave tuna?
Does Plato feed you?

If you chanced to meet
A nice, particular cat
Would it make you glad?

(I know haiku are supposed to be about nature, but I use them for a lot of things. It's my all-occasion poetic form, with apologies to its true masters. I was once asked to bring a limerick to a wedding shower and ended up writing a haiku instead because it felt more comfortable. If you really want to stretch the form, try writing about a cracker dish.)

Feeling better, I left Starbucks to go home. I had to stop on the way for milk and apples, and when I got out of the car, I noticed two things: a single star in the still bright sky paired with the top of a very tall evergreen and an odd effect of the setting sun that produced dramatic rays across an expanse of sky, something akin to zodiacal light. Either or both would have been worthy of a proper haiku, but I haven't written it yet. Maybe I will next time I'm in Starbucks without a book.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

What the Groundhog Saw

It's surprising how many different names Groundhog Day has. I wrote about the cross-quarter days--of which February 2 is one--last November, and I knew Groundhog Day was called Imbolc (in the Celtic tradition) and Candlemas in England, and that it has associations with Saint Brigid and with lambs. I'd forgotten that in the Catholic liturgical year it's known as Presentation Day or Purification Day, which has to do with the presentation of Jesus in the temple and rites of purification for his mother according to ancient law. I'm trying to remember if this is also when we used to have the Blessing of the Throats, when the priest went around and blessed everyone with two crossed candles to ward off colds. I'm not sure if this is still done, though it was kind of a charming idea.

There's a lot of old European lore associated with February 2, some of which has made it to America. We think of it as the midpoint of winter, when thoughts turn toward spring, but apparently in some places of old it was considered the start of spring. That's hard to imagine here, since January and February are deep-dyed winter months, with typically nothing springlike going on. I recall a year when a mild spell at February's end lasted long enough that it seemed spring had come early, which was cause for much remark. That I remember it so well shows how unusual it was. Let's hope it remains unusual (despite its loveliness), because however much one dislikes winter, February is supposed to be cold, at least around here.

My birthday and the Super Bowl both fall close to Groundhog Day, though I had never really given it much thought before. I don't know if there is any significance to being born on or near a cross-quarter day, but having learned that in some blessed places February 2 signaled the start of spring, I now have a new way of thinking about my birthday. Just the bare hint of an association with spring so close to my date of birth is radical enough that I'm going to adopt it regardless of what the weather is actually doing. If I'd known this a long time ago, it would have helped me through many freezing, sleeting, blizzarding birthday celebrations, but that's no matter--I know now.

Regarding the Super Bowl, I'm not sure whether it's a coincidence or not that it falls near the February cross-quarter. Football seems to have no connection with candles, ewes, lambs, Saint Brigid, groundhogs, motherhood or any other cross-quarter traditions you could name, but you never know, there might be a hidden link, just as there's a connection between the November cross-quarter, harvest, and Election Day. Candlemas in the late Middle Ages was apparently heavy on candlelit processions and the intoning of chant, all very pious and reverent; football (and the spectator sport of consuming heavy food and drink) seems rather more Roman in style (though February in ancient Rome actually marked a time of purification). However that may be, it does seem somehow American to mark the deepest part of winter with a head-bashing contest.

As for me, I happened to be looking through some old calendars on the evening of February 1 (Groundhog Eve, if you will) when I came across the special edition newspaper I had totally forgotten I'd saved from President Obama's first inauguration. While I don't know if the January date of our presidential inaugurations (since FDR) signifies anything other than a date conveniently close (but not too close) to New Year's, it does fall fairly near the February cross-quarter. (Let me remark parenthetically that I looked at that newspaper in some consternation--speaking of head-bashing and headaches--before throwing it away with some old calendars I found in the same cubby.) 

The next day, as it happens, I found an article in which someone was discussing possible ways to celebrate Candlemas/Groundhog Day/Imbolc in modern times, and cleaning house was one suggested activity. Glad to know I was on to something, I took down my little Christmas tree (which I'd been saving for Candlemas), dusted, mopped, shook out the rugs, and took out the trash containing all the old calendars and newspaper. I often play music while cleaning, but this Groundhog Day I actually found myself singing along. Well, spring fever will do that to you.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Aristotle's Left the Building

This week, I've been watching a DVD course on philosophy and religion in the Middle Ages. It probably couldn't compete with the evening news on a drama quotient, but I found it entertaining. The course explored how various thinkers from Saint Augustine to William of Ockham incorporated or repudiated, as the case might be, ideas of Plato and Aristotle in their own writings on religion.

At this point you may be thinking, "That's what you do for entertainment?" It may not be to your taste, but think of it this way: there were no commercials, no preening actors, and no mentions of Super-Pacs, dark money, or dubious efforts to make America more secure during the entire twelve hours of viewing. You had to concentrate to keep up with the arguments involved, but it beat propaganda disguised as news or a dumb conversation you might overhear at Starbucks by a country mile.

Of course, the Middle Ages had its share of politics and foolishness, and the conversation on faith and reason took place against a backdrop of wars, power struggles, and other calamities. The views of various Church leaders played a part in some of those events, but this course focused on intellectual, not political, history. I personally am not a fan of institutions, the Church included, and generally distrust them, but the discussion of faith and reason on a purely intellectual level was very engrossing.

Some of the arguments left me scratching my head, though. Anselm, for example, apparently thought that saying there was something "than which something greater cannot be thought" was enough to prove the existence of God. I kept trying to figure out how that works and was never quite convinced. The argument seems to be missing something.

William of Ockham helped put the kibosh on the latter medieval tradition based on Aristotle, and I agree with the lecturer that in some ways that was too bad. Many medieval religious thinkers seemed to care very much about their arguments being rational and coherent and their religious ideas squaring with reason. We could use more of that respect for clear and systematic thinking today, in all realms of life.

Most entertaining to me was the discussion of the development of universities from the cathedral schools in the thirteenth century. Newly available translations of Aristotle in Latin seemed to set practically everyone on their ear, with Arts faculty members (who were basically teaching prep courses to younger students) going crazy for Aristotle, while the more senior Theology faculty tried to reign them in. The University of Paris was the epicenter of the conflict, which resembled the first coming of Elvis, or a food fight of beatniks versus squares.

Aristotle was the champion of definitions, categories, and arguments and of a theory of knowledge based on what our senses tell us about the world. The early Church fathers were heavily influenced by Plato, whose theory of the transcendent Forms dovetailed nicely with a mystical, spiritual realm inhabited by God and the angels. Aristotle taught that universal forms exist as concepts in our minds but that there is no "Form" of a horse, tree, turnip, or planet hanging out in the ether, existing as a blueprint. There are only particular horses, trees, turnips, or planets. He didn't say there was no Supreme Being, but he called his the Prime Mover.

Aristotle was down-to-earth on many things, and that appeals to me. I could picture those Arts masters looking around and rejoicing in the revealed beauty of a world of individual apples, turnips, stars, and horses, and their elders shaking their fists and yelling about Mysteries of the Faith. It all came to a head with the Condemnation of 1277, the Church's attempt to ban people from teaching aspects of Aristotle that it considered problematic. Good luck with that.

Although William of Ockham did, apparently on purely philosophical grounds, later pull the rug out from under the thinking of a lot of Aristotelians, he was no shrinking violet either. He declared the Pope heretical (on an unrelated matter) and got himself excommunicated. (The Pope apparently threatened to annihilate an entire town in Flanders if it didn't give Ockham up to church authorities.)

But that's straying into politics. For me, the beauty of this course was in the consideration of ideas for their own sake and in the image of generations of thinkers trying to hold their beliefs up to a standard of rational thought, undeterred by the fact that the great philosophers they struggled to emulate had never even heard of Christianity. The course was entitled Reason and Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages, and it was taught by Professor Thomas Williams. It is one of the Great Courses on Philosophy & Intellectual History of The Teaching Company.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Dramatis Personae

Last year I wrote about the State of the Union address and tried to analyze it in terms of John J. MacAloon's anthropological categories of spectacle, festival, ritual, and game. Having concluded that it was largely spectacle and game, without much substance, I wasn't sure I even wanted to watch again this year--I mean, why bother? If it's just yadda, yadda, yadda, what's the point? I'm in the middle of a Great Courses DVD on "Philosophy in the Middle Ages" this week, so wouldn't it be more profitable just to spend the evening with Saint Bonaventure?

After an inward debate, I concluded that possibly it was more responsible, as a mythologist, to watch the address and make a few cultural observations. So I decided to watch with the volume turned down. You might think I'm being facetious, but I'm not. I knew the speech would consist of a lot of well-considered, carefully sifted words, and I wasn't going to believe more than one or two of them, all told. More interesting to me was to watch the people in the room, see their reactions, and observe how the President conducted himself.

You may dismiss this as missing the point of an address, especially if you believe that the important information is always in the words. But don't forget, non-verbal messages are often just as important as the verbal ones, and maybe more so, especially if they conflict with the person's statements. In this case, I figured I could dispense with words. I've found it very useful to carefully observe people, whether they're speaking or not. Are you with me so far?

I didn't see the President looking directly at the camera much--he addressed his remarks largely to the people in the chamber. I didn't think he looked especially relaxed, though, as he neared the exit after the speech. Of course, the Vice President and the Speaker of the House were really in the hot seat since they were on view most of the time the President was speaking, and I have to say they both looked remarkably uncomfortable last night. As the camera picked out various people present, I was struck by how self-conscious some of them seemed. I noticed a range of reactions, from intent listening, to smiles, to amusement, to tension, to frowns, to sadness. I saw people who seemed to have tears in their eyes.

I admit that my own attention was not undivided. I decided the speech needed some musical accompaniment, so I played Grateful Dead's "Touch of Grey" and the theme from Star Wars, among others. I did a little interpretive dancing. I talked back to the screen and made faces (if you can't do it in your own living room, when can you?). I ended up watching a video of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech while the President was finishing and the GOP Senator was giving her response. I was really wondering what Dr. King would make of it all.

This is as much to say that I'm not pleased with the President, many of those in his administration, some members of the Supreme Court, and a number of our Congresspeople. I know there were hard-working, dedicated public servants in the room, and my annoyance is not directed at them. But, seriously, how do you expect me to take sitting down the remarks and stated goals of a President under whose leadership the United States has fallen to number 46 (as of 2014) in the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders? (That's right, folks, we were ahead of Haiti and Taiwan--just barely--but behind South Africa and El Salvador.) It's fine for the President to smirk while Chinese president Xi Jinping apparently refuses to answer a reporter's question (on 11/12/14), but he really should be more concerned about the dismal showing of his own country on issues of press freedom and constitutional rights. (Aren't you shocked at that ranking? If you aren't, you should be!)

With all this in mind, I've decided that the way to view the State of the Union is not as a straightforward outline of things to come but as theatre, pure and simple. If we're talking Shakespeare, I'd say it was most like Macbeth. It's not an exact fit, perhaps, but the rapacious, overriding ambition and hubris of that play's characters fit my idea of what I saw last night more closely than anything else I can think of. My only fear is that there might not be enough bad guy roles to go around for Joe Biden, John Boehner, John McCain, etc.

Let's see, the President as Macbeth, and that would make the First Lady, well, Lady Macbeth, and for the three witches, we have Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, and Nancy Pelosi, and well . . . you get the idea. Just use your imagination.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Winter Dreams

I don't keep a dream journal, though a lot of people interested in Jung believe that you should. I find it tedious to describe dreams on paper, since I often remember them in a lot of detail. I sometimes jot them down when they seem especially interesting, but I don't pretend to have a system for understanding them. That's a tricky thing even for Jungians. For starters, you have to ask: Was the dream personal? Or was it archetypal? Should you refer to your own associations with things, people, and events in the dream, or do they relate to larger, universal themes? Is it the images that are more important, or the emotions? Are all dreams the same, or do some involve wish fulfillment, others compensation, and still others some kind of problem-solving?

Sometimes I notice bits and pieces of recent events in dreams and recognize the presence of issues that have preoccupied me in waking life. Sometimes I look back on a dream I wrote down a couple of years again and think, "Oh, I know why I dreamed that now." It really does seem that a part of the mind recognizes certain truths long before they become conscious. Most of the time, this seems to relate to events in my own life, not universal concerns (though, of course, the universal and the personal flow into and out of each other for all of us).

For whatever reason, I seem to be in a particularly active dreaming period right now. Over the last month or so, I've had a few dreams that were especially vivid or memorable for one reason or another, and I noted them without making much of an attempt to interpret them. I'll try to do that now, though some of my attempts may be slightly satirical. In my experience, a dream either clicks for me pretty quickly or has to be left alone until it does--which could take a while. But in the interest of science, here goes.

(From last month.) I dreamed about the Twin Towers. I dreamed I was sitting in a parked car with someone I used to work with, and the towers were behind us and by far the biggest thing on the skyline. They were farther apart from each other than they were in real life, though. I told the other person we needed to move the car away from there; it was dangerous. The city didn't look like New York--we drove to an area that looked sort of like Printers Alley in downtown Nashville.

Interpretation: Two or three days after I had this dream, I saw in the news that it was the 14th anniversary of Al Gore's concession speech following the presidential vote recount in Florida. I was not aware of this pending anniversary before I had the dream, but I'm struck by the sense of being in Tennessee, Mr. Gore's home state, and the presence of "Printer's Alley," since Mr. Gore has a journalism background. Was my dreaming mind wondering if we'd be where we are now if Mr. Gore had won the election?

(A week before Christmas.) I dreamed I was at a library conference at a retreat center in Florida. The grounds were beautiful. The building was on top of a hill, and some hazardous stone steps led down to a lower level. When I looked south from the bottom of the steps, I could see a road winding through the trees and, in the distance, a snow-capped mountain. Not quite what you expect in Florida, but interesting.

Interpretation: In this dream, I was speaking on the phone to the same person I was talking to in the car in the previous dream. It seems to me that there are things I would like to say to this person but haven't. In this dream, I was actually in Florida, but it didn't look like Florida. The terrain was beautiful, and I could see a long way, but there were all those hazardous steps and snow in the distance. Could this dream be related to the previous one? (It came a week later.) Was I thinking about politics or merely hoping for a vacation?

(From the week after Christmas.) I dreamed last night I was still going to work downtown, except you had to enter the building through the garage, and it was on the other side of the building. Some people I knew at Pacifica also worked there, and one of them was studying to be an accountant.

Interpretation: This is another dream involving a former place of employment, with a surprising connection between two different areas of my life. I was entering the building "from the ground up," maybe a sign of a deeper level of understanding on my part. While the dream itself was matter-of-fact, I think it reveals a judgment about the person studying to be an accountant.

(Last week.) Dreamed last night that a deer gave birth in front of me after I came out of a store in San Francisco. The store was a real one I've actually been in (a CVS or something similar) in North Beach. I've never seen a deer on a sidewalk, though.

Interpretation: The deer was actually on the curb, and I was looking at it from the sidewalk. There was a lot of flowing water with blood in it, and I couldn't see what was happening at first. The birth itself was very lifelike. I associate deer in mythology with magical events, like the deer that a person pursues deep into the forest that leads to an adventure. This was a deer giving birth, which seems in some way propitious, though I can't say exactly why.

(Last night.) I dreamed I was in my college cafeteria. They were serving pork cutlets. When I asked for potatoes, the chatty server gave me two noodles instead, so I had to ask again. When I inquired about salad, she said there was a salad bar, but I never saw it. The soft drink machine was noisy and messy, and there didn't seem to be dessert. When I left by a back door, someone came along and started locking doors from the outside.

Interpretation: The server seemed friendly but was actually rather passive aggressive. I left the cafeteria with my tray but didn't eat any of the food. I seemed to be rejecting what had been given to me, and seeing the doors locked added some finality to the process. This dream seems to involve recognizing dissatisfaction and saying no to the source of it. I interpret this dream, too, as positive.