Thursday, March 26, 2015

Beat the Mythologist

I've been wondering whether to follow up last week's post on Elaine Constantine's film 9 Kisses, because I guessed that readers who attempted to interpret the film for themselves might be wondering how their results compared with mine. In the last post, I tried to be suggestive only, giving readers the chance to draw their own conclusions. Then an accidental (or maybe synchronistic) event suggested to me that I wasn't finished with the subject and that I wouldn't be beating a dead horse with a follow-up.

Maybe Jung could come up with a better piece of synchronicity, but I'm not sure I could. In my non-blogging life, I've been dithering about whether to purchase a metal knob that would screw in to make one of my dishes suitable for oven use. After having the picture of this metal object in my mind for several days, the similarity between it and an image in 9 Kisses suddenly struck me. One of the eye-catching oddities in the first scene, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Reese Witherspoon, is Ms. Witherspoon's short, screw-shaped metallic skirt, a somewhat loaded symbol, it seemed to me. Having a similarly shaped object surface in my life this week after I wrote the last post has reinforced the idea that the material calls for more amplification.

The caution I've supplied before about reading symbols too literally or mechanically applies here, as always. If you attempted to interpret scenes and found yourself thinking, X always equals this, or Y always equals that, you probably ran into dead ends or things that didn't really work. One of the difficulties of interpreting symbols is the fact that they almost always have many possible meanings. In one context, a color implies one thing; in another, it means the opposite. An identical pair of gloves may mean entirely different things in different situations. Characteristics such as gender and physical appearance may suggest various things--again, meaning is very dependent on the particular dynamics of the exchange.

In Ms. Witherspoon's scene, for example, both characters wear costumes, though only one of them is actually disguised. The scene depicts a tryst in which neither wishes to be discovered, though Mr. Cumberbatch appears to be especially concerned. While the meeting is obviously consensual, Mr. Cumberbatch has taken pains to hide his identity (the mask and gloves), and he keeps his partner waiting, which suggests that he has more power. In addition, he appears to have left a cocktail party or a similar type of gathering, while his partner is kept waiting outside. This, along with Ms. Witherspoon's suggestive attire, implies to me not romance but instead prostitution or something equally illicit; perhaps both parties are men.

In the scene with Laura Dern and Steve Carell, there is extreme hesitation about initiating the encounter, which suggests some taboo the characters are slow to overcome. While both are conventionally dressed, their clothes are nonetheless costumes; Ms. Dern's backless dress suggests that she is outwardly the less inhibited of the two, and that Mr. Carell, the very picture of buttoned-up ordinary middle age, is wearing a more successful disguise. Again, the extreme mortification on being discovered is suggestive; perhaps one of the characters is married. The genders need not be literal, either--this is not an arbitrary suggestion but rather one based on the context.

To me, Jenny Slate's and Rosario Dawson's scene seems not to depict a sexual relationship at all. Their interaction suggests two women of the same status (notice how they're sitting) who spend a lot of "face time" together--friends, perhaps. Clues in the scene imply, however, a predatory relationship, a serious betrayal of some kind. Ms. Dawson has "screwed" Ms. Slate, figuratively speaking. (I know, I know: "Geez, Wordplay, can't you keep it classy?" I would, if only I could.) I read Chadwick Boseman's scene with Kristen Stewart in a similar way. Being knocked off his feet implies an unwelcome shock for Mr. Boseman, one that initially distresses him but is ultimately, perhaps, amusing. Reading clues in the attire, I interpreted this scene as an attack of one man by another; Ms. Stewart's clothing (and her edgy aggression) seemed rather pointedly masculine here. (I'm not suggesting women can't be aggressive; I'm only looking at the specifics of this scene.)

Outwardly, Jason Schwartzman and Patricia Arquette seem to be strangers meeting by chance, although the behavior of each is remarkably odd. Why does Mr. Schwartzman, who is obviously preoccupied, take the time to brush off and kiss the cap of a complete stranger? Why does Ms. Arquette (who also seems preoccupied) appear at first taken aback--even frightened--and why does she return his gesture by first biting him and then laughing? The characters are moving in opposite directions (initially, they seem not even to see one another); it is the handing back of the cap (part of Ms. Arquette's "disguise") that unites them. The backward glances, in Mr. Schwartzman's case, look like a puzzled attempt to figure out what's happened to him even as the ambush recedes in time. Perhaps these people are "strangers" only in the sense of their very unequal understanding of what's taken place between them. Though I don't read this scene romantically (at all), Mr. Schwartzman's gentleness and Ms. Arquette's peculiar aggressiveness, along with the fact that she somehow seems to tower over him, suggest that their genders could be reversed.

In my last post, I pointed out that the characters in the bar scene are very unlike one another, two adversaries involved in a great contest. I based this on their postures, their actions, and the way they're dressed; it's easy to see how different they are. I suggested that perhaps one of them wasn't even a man, and while that may have taken you by surprise, it was just my reading of the extreme difference in the way they're portrayed: they're such opposites in every other way that, in this context, I guessed that different races might symbolize opposite genders. And if you watch their contest closely, you'll see the moment when Mr. Spall reveals both dismay and surprise at his opponent's strength. He only overcomes Mr. Oyelowo by a nasty and unexpected trick that changes the dynamic completely.

I see the "sparring" between partners in the next scene as a metaphor for a romantic relationship between two people who have long been at odds. After Ms. Woodley lands a direct hit on Mr. O'Connell and then tries to made amends, he at first appears shocked--boy, he didn't see that coming. He then responds by ridiculing her, and the two go back to fighting. One senses, though, that a corner has been turned in the relationship, and that Ms. Woodley now sees her partner differently (despite his efforts to "protect his face"). To me, Ms. Woodley's boyish figure, along with the fact that the partners relate to one another by boxing, suggests that both partners are male; Ms. Woodley, however, is the more vulnerable of the two.

The scene in the dance club, to my mind, suggests a political rather than a romantic situation. If I were to ask you which of the two is a Democrat and which a Republican, I think you could hazard a guess, based on their dance styles alone. (I know it's a stereotype, but who looks more uptight?) The final scene, with the runaway groom, seems to me suggestive of a marriage in which there has been some great trouble and an attempt at reconciliation. I read this scene pretty straightforwardly as the story of a marriage in which something momentous (and tragic) has occurred. In this case, the mixed-race marriage might refer to some division--a difference of opinion or a betrayal--that has separated the couple. It may be the contrast between this scene and the one before it--in which the dancing partners seem united mainly by cynicism--but this one, so starkly personal, is one that I initially found to be most disturbing.

I take it that this exercise illustrates why film interpretation (and symbolic interpretation of all kinds) is so challenging. I'm not suggesting that there's always only one way to see things, but I do believe that some interpretations are better than others. That's why it's so hard to use a standard dictionary of symbols to interpret dreams, fairy tales, myths, or anything else. For one thing, a good dictionary only reveals how multifaceted any one symbol can be. Everything depends on context; you look at all the pieces and keep moving them around until something clicks. Word association, hunches, knowledge of human nature--all is fair in love and war (or so they say). I'll limit myself to saying only that all of these are fair in Jungian interpretation.

If you'd like to know more about this kind of approach, take a look at any of Marie-Louise von Franz's works on fairy tales. She uses some Jungian language that might hamper anyone unfamiliar with Jung's theories, but reading just a little of her work will give you the gist of it. She was a very subtle, penetrating, and perceptive interpreter of the meanings latent in traditional stories; I can't think of anyone who does it better. More recent works in the depth psychological tradition suitable for a general audience include Allan B. Chinen's Once Upon a Midlife and Joan Gould's Spinning Straw Into Gold.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Met in a Dream or Elsewhere: 9 Kisses

Over the holidays, I came across Elaine Constantine's 9 Kisses on the website of The New York Times. It's a series of short films in which pairs of actors create intimate scenes of passion, all of which involve a kiss. When I first saw it, I found it stylish, smart, and instantly memorable, though out of sync with a holiday mood because of the thread of darkness running through it. 9 Kisses resurfaced around Valentine's Day, and, again, as I watched, disturbing ripples underneath the surface of each film seemed to run counter to any manifest notions of romance.

Ms. Constantine's project continues a tradition at the Times of spotlighting each year's great performers, although they usually appear solo and not paired as they are in 9 Kisses. To me it seems that each scene in Constantine's film uses a kiss as a starting point only, a symbol for all manner of passions and exchanges: seduction, bribery, violence, betrayal, and dominance, as well as, more rarely, tenderness (mostly unreciprocated). Of all the genres that seem to fit here, romance is not the one that springs to mind. There's satire, black humor, horror, noir, and maybe even crime-drama but nothing that seems to foretell happy endings for most of the characters.

If movies are the public dreams of our culture, as Jung tells us, there's always latent content to be accounted for. I've studied the films to try and understand why each affected me the way it did, looking at the characters, settings, costumes, props, camera angles, and lighting, noticing what attracted my eye in each case. I looked at neckwear and wristwatches. I paid attention to the music in the background. I watched a film about the making of the project in which the director and actors can be seen working through their ideas, which was fascinating. I believe that you can, as Ms. Constantine says, read the scenes as nothing more than quirky riffs on romance but also that the content is purposely fluid and indeterminate. I'm reminded of Chris Van Allsburg's The Z Was Zapped, an adventurous and provocative ABC book that leaves it up to the reader to interpret the illustrations.

If you're wondering what I mean by latent content, begin with the oddities within each scene that seem to work against the surface story. Two people meet in a fashionable garden for a tryst, which might seem no more than a secret affair except for the odd costuming, the gloved hands on the neck, and the excessively shocked expressions when a light is shone on them. Two middle-aged people on a date seem merely shy until an explosive kiss rips away all veneer of self-control and they become the butt of laughter. Two women celebrating New Year's Eve seem to be lovers except for the way one woman's smiles veer almost imperceptibly from excited to predatory as the other woman sinks slowly out of sight. An intense young woman (and wasn't that actress last seen as a vampire?) closely watches a male singer from the audience before rushing the stage, knocking him down, and then disappearing backstage, obviously pleased.

A preoccupied young man encounters a woman with shopping bags, politely returns her beret, and receives an unusual form of thanks. A game of arm wrestling between a serious, upright contender and his drunken opponent turns into an almost mythic contest of wills before the seedy man resorts to a trick. A trainer is punched by the young athlete he's coaching; overcome by remorse, she kisses him, whereupon he ridicules her. A woman dancing in a nightclub is approached by a man who seems worried by her independent style; she at first appears to rebuff him before they develop an odd sort of rhythm together. An extremely agitated man, apparently (but not certainly) the groom, flees into a garden pursued by a bride who tries, with difficulty, to soothe him with a kiss.

The palette is rather muted in these films, which makes you notice pops of color--a red-and-black dress opposed to a stark white one; yellow ticker tape; a red coat and red lips against skin of extreme pallor; green tape near a microphone stand; a demure pink dress (which turns out, however, to be nearly backless); a stiff, metal-gray skirt worn by a tryster; a white wristband. There are odd pairings, too, in which the couples don't match in size (the man is small and the woman is enormous), or the woman is almost as masculine in clothes and appearance as the man. This might suggest gender reversals, if looked at symbolically.

I found 9 Kisses to be unsettling rather than playful, and many of the scenes resonated, as if I'd seen the characters before. This may very well have been the intent of the director, who wants the viewer to look for the emotional heart of each scene, in which a kiss is merely a stand-in for a variety of transactions, from personal to political. There are many puzzles to be worked out: What are those two men really fighting about? (And are they really both men?) What's behind that pale look of surprise? Does the backseat of that car represent something else? Who are those sparring partners? What's the man at the wedding running away from? I think the film reads more like a parade of the Seven Deadly Sins than a series of romantic idylls, more like Dante's Inferno than Love, Actually, and perhaps that, if you care to go there, is the point.

The link to 9 Kisses is here. If you'd like to learn more about the making of the film, see this short feature with a behind-the-scenes look at the director and actors at work and decide for yourself if a kiss is still a kiss.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Perfidy and Email in the Iron Age

"This is Kaliyuga, buddy, the Iron Age. Anybody over sixteen without an ulcer's a goddamn spy." --J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey

Reading the news about the Hillary Clinton email situation creates mixed feelings for me:  I'm grateful for the evidence that, even in the unfriendly environment now existing for the press, investigative reporters are still trying to do their jobs. It's very encouraging to know that some things are still working the way they're supposed to.

At the same time, I'm disappointed to see how the Democratic leadership and many usually quite opinionated officials either defend Ms. Clinton or refuse outright to comment. A bad sign, isn't it, when people shut completely down on a topic? To such defenses as "Her critics will say anything to try to destroy her" or "This is being blown out of proportion," I say, "The emails in question are public property. They belong to the American people." A public official like former secretary Clinton doesn't have the luxury of deciding what to do with communications created in the course of her duties because they aren't "hers." They're ours. Hence the lawsuit from the Associated Press, which has been attempting for some time--without success--to obtain some of these emails through the Freedom of Information Act.

I've been watching Ms. Clinton and many of our other top leaders particularly closely for the last four years--four years I can never get back. I watch the same news as everyone else, read the same stories, see the same news videos. I've become increasingly concerned about the uncritical acceptance of Ms. Clinton by many otherwise intelligent people who seem so wedded to the idea of her as our next president that they're blind not only to red flags but to giant red banners that seem to virtually scream, "Look Out!" Reading her body language and hearing her testimony during the 2013 Benghazi hearings was alarming; reading her body language and hearing her responses during yesterday's press event was downright scary.

Perhaps we really are in the Iron Age the ancient sages spoke of, where the thieves are kings, the kings are thieves, and people believe what's false instead of what's true, because I have to tell you, I blame the public in part for what's happened. I admit to being a former supporter of Ms. Clinton, for whom, rather naively, I voted in the 2008 primary election. I think I had misgivings about her then but endorsed her for some of the same reasons other people did: despite her shortcomings, she seemed to have the experience and ability for the job.

I'm not questioning her experience and ability even now, but rather her character and actions, which I've had a chance to view more closely during her time in the State Department and after. I don't doubt that some of her detractors are, let's face it, no better than she is in the transparency department, but that doesn't change the fact that she is (to all appearances) the likely Democratic nominee for the presidency in 2016. I ask myself on an almost daily basis, "How can this be?"

It goes beyond Benghazi, of course. Actually, I suspect it would be hard to overstate her perfidy. Support of the Clinton Foundation from foreign governments and banks under investigation for criminal practices; influence peddling; refusal to condemn the spying practices of the NSA . . . and this is only what's widely known. Now we come to the lack of transparency in maintaining State Department records and lame attempts to explain it away, which I must say, I've been expecting. People: do you believe these explanations? If so, I have some swamp land in Florida that I really think you might be interested in. No, seriously.

I think that many people, based on name recognition, "brand" familiarity, Ms. Clinton's smooth rhetoric, the endorsement of most leading Democratic officials, and her "record" are willing to accept her as better than the alternatives. I am not. I know everyone complains about corrupt politics and that a lot of us don't really trust politicians--but we keep voting for them anyway, and once they're in, we don't shine a light on their activities.

I sometimes think, based on the level of complacency, passivity, and unwillingness to look beyond the surface that I see all around me, that Americans don't deserve the system we have. In the end, though, it doesn't matter whether Americans deserve America or not. The important thing is that the country's founders, and countless others since then, managed to create a miracle. We have system based on freedom and protection of individual rights that's an example to the world and a beacon of hope for others (or used to be). Imperfect as it is and always has been, we can't afford to let it fail.

Our elected officials are elected for one reason only: to serve the public. They're not elected to enrich themselves, give favors to their supporters, and do end-runs around the country's laws. I see many of them using the mythology of American exceptionalism and American pride as a means of convincing people that all is mostly well in the land when it most definitely isn't: I see it every day. A true patriot is not a cheerleader. A true patriot questions things and demands answers.

If you were to ask my advice as a mythologist, I'd say: pay attention. Adolf Hitler used mythology very successfully, as we all know. Of course, if someone arrived in Washington wearing a swastika today, we'd recognize a tyrant easily . . . but no one's going to do that here. Just because someone wears a business suit, graduates Ivy League, and carries a BlackBerry, though, doesn't mean they're any less dangerous. Manners and clothes do not make the man--or the woman. Seeing them as they are and holding them accountable is our responsibility, because it's our country. While we still have a country.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A Writer in Winter

The silence I hear outside right now is due to a muffling effect; there are several inches of snow already, it's been falling fast since early evening, and there could be a foot of it by tomorrow. This is shaping up to be a repeat of the big snowstorm of two weeks ago, which had nearly finished melting off as of today. We've had almost all our winter near the end of the season; spring is just over two weeks away.

Naturally, a writer should be at home in any kind of weather. No matter the climate, the heck with the season, anything is potential material--in theory, anyway. Bad weather provides a golden opportunity to think, read, write, look through your drawers, make hot tea, and twiddle your thumbs. Failing inspiration, you can always bake bread, make soup, practice yoga, give yourself a spa treatment, or dance to zydeco in your living room. But even the most stoic of writers needs fresh air at some point, and that's not easy with a foot of snow on the ground and temperatures in single digits.

Over the last few days, I've been able to go for walks, though it hasn't been loads of fun since the post-storm landscape has involved a lot of sludge and standing water, not to mention persistent icy patches. Nothing, however, that you couldn't get around, if you really wanted to and weren't averse to mud. And it was nothing compared to the day I hiked through the park when the snow was still deep--and hiking really is the word. That turned out to be more exercise than I'd bargained for.

It was a couple of Sundays ago, and the temperature was mild enough that an hour's walk didn't involve the risk of hypothermia. I was feeling the need to stretch my legs, having been unable to do so since the previous weekend, so I pulled on my boots and crunch, crunch crunched my way up the street. At that point, we'd had several days of melting, but the snow was still half a foot or more deep in places. It wasn't so much that it was icy but that it was like walking through sand--just difficult to get anywhere. Needless to say, there was hardly anyone out. The path was hidden under snow, though a few people before me had somehow managed to find it and blaze a very sketchy trail.

I slipped and slid around as best I could, trying to stay on the path when I could see it. The air was refreshing, and the wintry scene pretty enough, if a little gray--though I'd much rather it had been summer. It took me half again as long to do the walk as it normally does. I ran into even more difficulty two-thirds of the way around when I came to a stretch where the snow was undisturbed by anything except a single bicycle track. Determined to finish, I struggled on. What I really needed were snowshoes, but lacking that, I relied on native stubbornness. I had three things in mind: 1. what a good workout it was 2. that I was possibly making it easier for someone who might come along later and 3. how fast I was going to get into my down slippers when I got home.

The long and short is that I did make it through the untrod territory and eventually around the whole circuit. I didn't realize how hard I'd been working until I got back onto an actual (mostly clear) sidewalk that allowed for a normal gait; ordinary walking suddenly felt like floating, the easiest thing in the world. I stepped into some muddy water at the end of my street and managed to get my feet wet, but since I was almost home, it didn't matter. I pulled my boots off right inside the door, put on my slippers, and thought about dinner. I was also thinking that I'd never have gone on that walk if I'd known how uncongenial it was going to be, but now that it was over, I felt pretty virtuous.

From what I hear, this week's winter blast will be followed by relatively mild temperatures next week, so maybe we'll have a faster melt-off this time and I won't have to make another deep-snow trek. We'll see how it goes. Yoga and living room dance sessions are great as far as they go, but writers need to walk, too. I don't know if this is universally true, but I suspect it might be. I won't say I do some of my best thinking while walking, because I've done my best thinking in all sorts of situations, but putting one foot in front of the other does seems to jar things loose sometimes, in more ways than one.

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.