Sunday, January 31, 2010

Aphrodite Rising; Birthday Wishes

I'm in California, tucked into my room at the inn in time to celebrate my birthday with a gas-burning fireplace and a fancy bathroom. (I've never had a bathroom with a daybed in it, and I can't tell you how charming it is. If I rise out of the jetted spa like Aphrodite and feel the need for beauty sleep, that bed is right there. Same thing if I get the vapours while brushing my teeth.) I feel more like a guest in an English country house than a customer; it's like I'm staying with the Bennets at Longbourne. When I got here a few hours ago, the innkeeper greeted me by name and wished me a happy birthday. I got a tour of the house and was shown to my room, where the lamps were already lit and classical music was playing softly. There were cookies on a plate and a card on the little rose table addressed to me.

That's why I picked this place for a few days of vacation, because I thought it would be homey. For the first time in my life, I have completely unpacked my suitcase for a hotel stay.

I flew out to attend a conference at my school, where I saw friends and reconnected with my community of mythologists. It had been six months since I was there, but when I drove through the foothills to campus Thursday evening, it was like I had only been gone a week. I visited both of our campuses, where almost every corner was packed with memories of friends, teachers, animated conversations, long walks, and work accomplished. It felt like part of me had been there all along, waiting, and got up to meet me when I came back.

A theme that came up in numerous talks with friends over the last few days was the archetype of home, which may (or may not) seem strange since most of us were far from our actual homes. I had lunch today with three women, and it turned out all of us were yearning at some level to find our place in the sun, though there were good reasons for not making changes right now. I have wondered for a long time if California might be that place for me. Visiting is not the same as living here, I'm only too aware. I've spent a lot of time out here looking around, wondering how I would feel about this beautiful place if I lived here all the time.

As it happened, I stopped this afternoon to visit a town I came close to living in seven years ago. I had dropped in to visit on the way to the conference and was so intrigued by what I found that I stopped again on the way back. What I remembered as a very quiet place, almost dead on the weekend, was buzzing with people and energy. I found a Main Street on a human scale, numerous shops and restaurants (all open on a Sunday), people relaxing in sidewalk cafes, music pouring out of competing venues, even a place to buy chocolates. The friendly baristas at the local Starbucks wished me an enthusiastic "Happy Birthday" when I went in for my free drink; I sat and read for a while, with a window on the passing scene.

I went into a store I remembered visiting seven years ago, a shop full of angel gifts. The same shopkeeper was still there, a lively lady who just happened to be telling other customers about a local church labyrinth. I told her about my dissertation, and she grew even more excited, telling me about her experiences with the labyrinth and those of people she knew. She gave me her card and asked me to email her and tell her what happened to me when I walked it.

I followed her very good directions and got to the church not long before sunset. The gate was unlocked like she said, so I went in and gathered my thoughts. It was a very soft, somehow feminine labyrinth, in shades of rose and pink stone. I walked slowly, enjoying the meditative rhythm and the quiet. When I got to the center, I paused for a few minutes, thinking about all my unanswered questions. Then I turned and faced each of the four directions, noting what I saw there (I will tell you: a fountain and a tree, a hospital, a set of double doors, and a light next to a tree). When I left, the sky was streaked with the pinks and violets of a beautiful sunset.

Will the turning of my life take me to that spot again? I don't know, but I'm interested.

Naturally, it's no accident that I'm writing about wanderers turning this way and that. Theseus, Odysseus, Dante, Lancelot, Ishmael, William -- they're all looking for something and may or may not end up where they began. For some of them, the end result might be, as T.S. Eliot says, "to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." Others will land in some different country, or perhaps never find True North. I hope the latter isn't true for me; I made a birthday wish (which I wrote down and ritualized) that I would find my right place and be wise enough to know it when I see it.

Birthday wishes have extra mana, right? Especially if sealed with chocolate.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sympathy for Lancelot

" 'Lancelot, this forest is vast and labyrinthine in its depths; a knight can ride a whole day long and never find a house or refuge.' " -- The Quest of the Holy Grail, Matarasso translation.

This week I've been reading the Grail legend. There are many versions of the story, but this version treats the Quest as a spiritual journey of Christian knights, most of whom fail miserably in their attempts to find the Grail. Perceval, Bors, and Galahad are the most virtuous knights and the only ones to succeed; two of them achieve a mystical state that makes ordinary life impossible thereafter. They never return to Camelot.

I first read this story when I was nine. I remember the set of maroon bound classics, which had everything from Alice in Wonderland to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. I ate the books raw; it was extreme pleasure, a whole vista of imaginary realms accessible only through the mind's eye. Especially, I remember the King Arthur stories. I sprawled on the living room floor on a rainy Sunday (much like today, actually), lost in a landscape unlike anything I'd come across before.

The Arthurian world was somehow adult in a way other stories were not. For one thing, the main characters were all adults. For another, it was a mysterious, indeterminate place, full of chapels, monks, references to the Pentecost, and other Christian symbolism, but it had an otherwordly, somewhat eerie atmosphere. A mysterious cup, draped in white samite, floats over people's heads in the dining hall at Camelot, striking everyone dumb and filling the hall with an incredible sweetness. A hand and forearm, clothed in (what else?) samite, passes through a chapel, bearing a candlestick and perplexing Sir Gawain and Sir Hector. Belligerent knights appear out of nowhere, visions abound, hermitages hidden deep in the forest harbor strange ceremonies. Everything happens; nothing is explained.

I know these stories are likely a mix of myths and legends from several sources, an explanation that accounts for the layers of meaning but doesn't diminish the magic. I also understand the archetypal nature of the symbols -- the Grail itself, the lances, the swords, the castle, the maidens -- and of the Quest, a type of story that appears in many guises. The Grail Quest is a type of labyrinth. (Or is it a maze? Very important question.)

Finding an edition of this story that is like the one I remember (that first book being long gone) has been a quest in itself; "the right version" has taken on aspects of the Grail in both allure and elusiveness. The translation I'm reading comes very close; the elegant diction has the right solemnity and tone. I always pictured the events taking place in a misty, watery sort of atmosphere, either because the book created that impression or the day I started reading it was (in my memory) dark and rainy.

The characters, though, raise more questions than they used to. Aha! Rather than seeing just a group of knights, I am noticing how tortured Lancelot is, how hearty and plain-spoken Gawain is, and how agreeable Hector is. Galahad and Perceval are virtuous and irritating, though Perceval does have the decency to be nearly seduced by a woman who is not at all what she appears to be. He makes a hairsbreadth escape in an episode that also features a winged serpent and a lion.

I feel bad for Lancelot; I think his passionate love for Guinevere is what makes him human. His suffering is more compelling than Galahad's cool composure, at least so far. Galahad, the perfect knight, is the product of another illicit union, that of Lancelot and Elaine. He waltzes into Camelot and usurps his father's position as foremost knight, and that is supposed to be right and just. All I can think of is how hard that must be for Lancelot, and how annoying complete virtue is when you really think about it.

What it amounts to is that I can't enter the story the way I used to. I was once enchanted by the difficulty with which the Grail was achieved. I still am, but now I'm wondering if I would really want to be one of the knights who found it but never came back. Poof, enlightenment, and poof, you're gone. Ouch. I think the Grail is something different for me than it is for those knights, and I'm working that out bit by bit. That's why it's in my dissertation. That and the fact that I'd still like to know what samite is.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Getting the Box

I have television again for the first time since last February. A friend who knows how much I love the Olympics offered to pick up a converter box at Radio Shack and set it up for me so I'd be ready for the Vancouver Games. Wonderful! I've been dithering for months, not able to decide if I should get cable or go with the box. I had heard that some people got bad reception with a converter box, but I didn't like the idea of paying for cable.

I'm probably unusual in the fact that never in my adult life have I had cable TV, except for a brief period years ago when my apartment building was being renovated after a fire. My room at Extended Stay America had cable, and I watched TV all summer. I was surprised at how fast I got hooked on certain things. I could watch The Weather Channel by the hour, and Animal Planet had the power to nearly hypnotize me, especially if the program featured puppies or kittens. I decided it wasn't something I needed long-term.

I grew up watching television, which didn't prevent me from also reading a lot. I've never liked being without a TV; it's always nice to be able to switch it on, even if you don't do it often. The longest summer of my life was my first summer away from home, after my junior year of college, in my first apartment -- with no TV. This last year, I hardly missed it, since I didn't have the spare time to watch it anyway. But after Steve got the box set up yesterday and the picture suddenly came on, crystal-clear and sharp, I was pleasantly surprised. It's nice to have this eye on the world open once again.

So what am I doing with my first night of TV in almost a year, my dissertation clock ticking in the background? OK, I admit it. I'm not watching the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour, I'm watching movie stars accepting Golden Globes, with the sound turned down (I did turn it up to listen to Meryl Streep accept an award for Julie and Julia and to hear Martin Scorsese speak). I don't think I've ever watched this show before, but it's actually livelier than the Oscars. On a rainy winter night, after a sad week in the world, it's fun to see some sparkle and color.

If movies are the modern version of fairy tales, this awards ceremony is a little like seeing a raft of characters from Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen show up all together at Cinderella's ball: it may be a little awkward, but it's magical (and the ball gowns are half the fun). As a testament to the primacy of films in the public imagination, I can say that despite three years of having my nose in the books for graduate school, I recognize nearly all of the faces, old and new.

The only ones I don't recognize are from television, and even some of them look familiar.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Popcorn and Apocalypse

I started reading Borges' Labyrinths this week, in the midst of a spell of bitter cold weather and gray days. Borges is no Jimmy Buffett. He's not the guy to cajole you out of the January blues, but his book has been staring at me accusingly for some time from the top of a stack of dissertation reading. The silent reproach only got worse after January 1, so on Monday, I dutifully picked the book up and began reading on my lunch hour. The stories are clever and intriguing but usually quite dark. Yikes, just the thing for a vitamin D deficiency.

Last night I did a smart thing and watched Kenneth Branaugh's version of As You Like It, which had the Forest of Arden set in Japan, for some reason. It didn't matter, since the cast was charming and all the lovers ended up with the right people at the finale. A great antidote to the winter blahs.

This morning, I decided to get my reading and chores done early so I could go out to a movie and maybe take a walk. It worked out fine, except that the movie I chose to see was The Road. I had a feeling it was going to be rough going, and it was. It's well-made and well-acted but very, very harrowing. I realized toward the end that I was sitting a little twisted in my seat, as if unable to face it head-on. Popcorn and a cherry coke seemed totally beside the point; it was an underworld journey from beginning to end, and I escaped into daylight feeling extremely somber.

Some people have compared this story to a Homeric odyssey, but I think it's closer in tone to Dante's Inferno, crossed perhaps with Childe Roland. The end reminded me of the last scene in Inferno, where Dante has gone as low as he can go, only to find himself -- without changing direction -- climbing out and up, and seeing the stars.

The same thing happened to me when I walked out of the theater into bright sunlight. I decided that a walk was more important than ever since I needed the illumination in more ways than one. I was muffled up in warm attire, and 19 degrees didn't seem so bad under patches of blue sky (and without cannibals chasing me). I thought about the film's post-apocalyptic vision and was just happy to see the familiar neighborhood quiet under the snow, to smell woodsmoke, and to see my own path down a westward running street glowing with reflected light as I walked straight toward the sun.

I appreciate the working of myth in art and life and the mirroring that takes place, but enough is enough with the minotaurs and dark descents for one week. I came home, fixed pot roast with vegetables, danced to the Blasters in my living room, and ate some dark chocolate with ginger. When I turned the radio on, the song playing was "California Dreamin.' " Right now, I'm listening to Italian pop music on the Putumayo World Music Hour and thinking about how this morning was the last eight o'clock sunrise for this winter. Tomorrow, sunrise comes at 7:59, and since the sunsets have already started coming later, it won't be long before the days are noticeably longer.

It's always darkest before the light, but next week, I'm going to see a comedy.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Are We Ready?

I told someone the other day that my clock was starting on January 1, and he asked if I meant my biological clock. No, no -- different clock, I said. My dissertation clock, to be exact, which is now ticking and will continue to do so for the next two years. I've never written a dissertation, have spent most of my life not expecting to write one, and don't know what to expect from the process.

I think the trouble started about four years ago when I was completing a survey from the Special Libraries Association about career aspirations and came across the question, "Do you have any plans to get a doctorate?" I thought that was one of the easier questions to answer, and I clicked the button that said "No" without a second thought. In my fanciful moments, I wonder if that answer, given so emphatically, might have attracted the attention of one of the Fates, lounging idly somewhere in the vicinity of my computer. What's certain is that within months of that day, a chain of events had led to my enrollment in a graduate program on the other side of the country, in a field totally unrelated to my day job. (Or is it?)

After three years of coursework, I'm heading now into terra incognita. My vision is to write something fresh, creative, and connected to real life. That's my hope.

I discovered something. When it came time to write my first paper for Greek and Roman Mythology, I found I had to overcome some resistance to the whole idea of Outlining an Argument, Surveying the Literature, and Employing MLA Citation Format. Those are the tools of the scholarly trade, of course, and I'm familiar with them. In the past I taught composition and earned a master's degree in English. I'm good at editing and the mechanics of writing. But from some hidden place, right at the start, this little scamp reared his head and insisted, "I want to play!" I realized that the part of writing I really enjoy is making leaps and fitting the words together to make a picture. Hard work is involved, but it starts with play.

I know enough about writing (and psychology) to know that that child is precious and that nothing of significance will happen unless he's happy. I even think I know what he looks like. He's the little blond curly-haired boy who gazed so wistfully over his father's shoulder in one of my dreams. I took care of him this fall by playing with labyrinths, walking as many of them as I could for an in-the-body and out-of-the-head experience. I even got my shoes muddy walking a corn maze.

Pretty soon the writing, rewriting, and negotiating will begin. Today, I primed the pump by going to a movie with a friend and eating the fudge he had secreted in his pocket. A little chocolate can never hurt.