Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Siren Call of the Octopus

It's Sunday evening, the apartment smells like heaven, and I've been listening to Bonnie Raitt.

At first, I couldn't figure out the chocolate smell. I do have four big bars of premium Lindt chocolate in the kitchen cabinet, but that's nothing unusual; I try to stay stocked in case of emergencies. I think maybe the kitchen got steamy while I was boiling pasta for dinner, and that released the aroma. I didn't realize it until I came back inside after a trip to the recycling bin and was suddenly enveloped by the scent, rich and dark. I would have opened a window, but I'm sure the chocolate air is good for my complexion.

Maybe this little treat is my reward for a day well spent. I got up and went out for a long walk this morning, right after breakfast, no makeup, no shower, no nothing. I wanted to take my walk early because I was serious about getting a lot done today. I worked on my proposal and started organizing my Works Cited from various lists I had pasted together haphazardly; that took a long time, and I didn't stop until 4:30, when I needed to go to the grocery store. I try to work on dissertation tasks every day, but I'm sometimes a little low on energy after a day at my other job, so in the evenings I'm easily distracted by other things.

Take the Internet, for instance. I was in a libraries teleconference with writer Neil Gaiman a few months ago. Mr. Gaiman talked about the siren call of the Internet, and of how it can lure you away from whatever it is you're supposed to be doing, so that you suddenly look up and realize you've spent a few hundred dollars on eBay for items you don't need, without getting a thing done on your own project.

For me, it isn't eBay -- it's YouTube, and those headlines on the MSN home page, links with enticing titles like "20 Spa Indulgences for Under $50," "Fifteen Desserts in a Bowl," "Sixteen Signs He's Into You," "10 Dating Truths You Can't Ignore," and "How to Wear Leopard Prints." At various times this week, I found myself:

  • watching Robert Plant singing "Angel Dance" in the back seat of a car cruising a Chicago neighborhood; 
  • perusing a slide show of the season's must-have little black dresses; 
  • learning how to create more style options with hot rollers (I don't have hot rollers); 
  • looking at pictures of the world's most dangerous bugs; 
  • watching a video of an octopus making off with a guy's camera (Hey, this one was educational. I learned a lot about octopuses from it.) 

None of these were related to my dissertation, but they all seemed compelling at the time.

It's nice to have access to the Internet while working to look up missing citations and do fact checking, but it can be a mixed blessing. I am pretty self-disciplined, but even I have trouble resisting temptation in the form of "The Best Jeans for Your Figure" and "Fourteen Tree Houses You Can Live In." I'm more easily tempted when I'm stuck in my own writing, so there may be fewer tree houses and fashion tips now that things are rolling.

I may sneak just one more look at that octopus video. Here it is, just in case you're trying to get some work of your own done.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Solved by Walking

Today is August 22. I actually moved into my freshman dorm on Sunday, August 22, many years ago. (I remember this the same way I remember that full-time tuition was $242 that first semester.) I realized the significance of the date this afternoon when I was in the grocery store, pushing my cart past a lot of new college students who have just arrived in town. I wonder how many of them will do what I did and deliberately buy a different brand of laundry detergent than their mother used, just to prove how independent they are. Radicals!

There's been a lot of water under the bridge since that day, but at least I'm consistent -- I still use the same brand of detergent.

Fast forward a few decades to one year ago today. It was Saturday, August 22, and I was visiting St. Louis. Having just finished my last year of coursework in my doctoral program (four degrees later, different school), I was getting ready to walk a few labyrinths as an adjunct to all the book research I was facing. I thought of this as a fun way to enter the dissertation and balance the intellectual work on the labyrinth with an in-the-body experience. It seemed like a good idea to make the research experiential. I just didn't know how literal this would become, and that the whole trip would turn into a gigantic labyrinth.

I went into the first labyrinth on my agenda the next morning, a Sunday, when the grass was covered with a heavy dew, so that I literally got my feet wet. It was a turf labyrinth at a church just down the street from my hotel, and I was nursing an unexpected heartache from the night before along with sincere confusion about what I was doing there. So I did as the church's pamphlet suggested and asked myself that question as I was walking in. It was not pleasant; introspection is sometimes painful. However, it was probably at this point that walking labyrinths became something besides a game for me. I walked out a little later feeling like I might actually have touched something real.

Today I'm looking back on the winding road between that long-ago August 22, the first of my college career; August 22 of last year, my initiation into my dissertation; and today, August 22, 2010, when I did some writing for my dissertation, along with some more walking. There may be a glimmer of order in the chaos, if I'm not imagining it. I don't know where the road will go in a few years (or even a few hours). But I found this motto on a fountain near another labyrinth I walked that memorable weekend, one year ago. If I ever get a tattoo, maybe this should be on it. Solvitur ambulando: "It is solved by walking."

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Summer of Wings

It's been really hot here lately; yesterday it was 95 (according to the bank clock over by the grocery store, it might have been closer to 100). It wasn't quite as hot today -- more like 90 -- and we had a little rain. I wouldn't exactly say that I like my summers quite this hot, but I'll take this over the middle of January any day. At least the sun is shining, and summer is teeming with life.

We had a wet spring, and it's been warm, which is good for all kinds of insects. There had been reports that firefly populations were decreasing in recent years, but there have been loads of them this summer. Going for an evening walk has been magical with all those little lights winking off and on, as if entire constellations had fallen from the sky and landed in the front lawns of the neighborhood. One night, a firefly landed on my pearl ring and hung on for quite a long time. I imagine he was attracted to the glow of the pearl and thought he'd met the Marilyn Monroe of fireflies.

I don't remember noticing a lot of dragonflies in years past, but I've seen many of them this year. One morning on my way to work I was stopped at a light when a group of them appeared out of nowhere, hovering in unison, with a slight rhythmic pulse, in between two lanes of traffic. They were like a mirage, as strange a sight as I have ever seen on Limestone on a summer morning, like fairies had suddenly descended on the street. I would almost have thought I was imagining them except that I glanced in my rear-view mirror and saw the face of the driver behind me. She had seen them, too.

Last week, I was sitting with some friends behind their family's summer house overlooking Craig's Creek and the Ohio River, watching the sun go down. Someone commented on the cicadas, which were really making a racket. I'm so used to it that it was just background noise to me until someone mentioned it. Both of my friends are from the South but live in Northern California. One of them has a degree in entomology, and he talked about how few insects there are in San Francisco compared to here.

Sitting there listening to those cicadas shrieking in the humid air as my friend talked gave me a new appreciation for them; I think I'd miss them if they weren't around, despite their noise, because they just sound like a summer night. It's actually the males making all the hullabaloo; they are singing to the female cicadas, trying to get a date.

While I was out walking this morning, I noticed many butterflies of varying sizes and colors. There are always a lot of butterflies in the summer, and maybe I'm imagining it since I'm so tuned into insects this year, but it seems as if there are more than usual, and more colorful ones. I feel like I'm in a technicolor nature film. Last week, by the Ohio, a large, almost iridescent blue one flew over us, flashing its wings in the sun. It looked like a small bird. I saw one this morning that had big yellow wings edged with elegant black spots, and it was also quite a beauty.

As for myths, dragonflies have had a fearsome reputation in some places, but in Norse mythology they are associated with Freya, the goddess of love and fertility. Butterflies represented psyche for the Greeks; the Blackfeet of North America believed that butterflies were bringers of dreams. For the Mayans, fireflies carried starlight, and cicadas, in ancient Greece, represented ecstasy.

There is a scene near the end of the post-apocalyptic film The Road in which the man and his son see a few flying insects, and it is a sign of hope. It had seemed until then that all life had been stamped out except for a few desperate (and not very attractive) humans. Maybe that's why it feels like a good omen to see all of these creatures around this summer. Despite everything, life persists and even, in some cases, thrives.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Remembering the Brontes

I finished reading a novel about the life of Charlotte Bronte, Juliet Gael's Romancing Miss Bronte, this weekend. Although Jane Eyre is a favorite of mine, I didn't know a lot about Charlotte Bronte except that she and her siblings were all writers, that they lived in Yorkshire, and that their father was a minister. I pictured a strict household with few creature comforts set in a bleak, stormy landscape, where the only luxury was that of imagination. According to Miss Gael, that seems to have been close to the truth, although she paints a sensitive, nuanced portrait of the place and the people that lets you understand how such remarkable writing could have been produced under such difficult circumstances.

The author does a wonderful job of making Charlotte come alive, and I considered her as a real person for the first time while reading this novel. Gael based her book on extensive research, so that the main outline of the story is firmly grounded in real events. I never knew anything about Charlotte's love life, but she did eventually marry and seems to have found her soulmate after several stillborn romances. It seemed at first that she was doomed never to find what she needed in a single man, but love finally found her when it almost seemed too late.

The Bronte sisters became a literary sensation with the publication of their first novels, but their pseudonyms caused some confusion. Since some people initially believed Currer, Acton, and Ellis Bell to be a single person, not only did Charlotte get notoriety for the (some said) scandalous nature of Jane Eyre, but she also took some heat for Wuthering Heights (her sister Emily's book). Since Wuthering Heights was even wilder and less conventional than Jane Eyre, Charlotte became quite a celebrity without anyone knowing who she really was.

When, in the novel, Charlotte and her sister Anne show up in London, Charlotte's publisher can hardly believe from her plain appearance and demure demeanor that she is the creator of the passionate Jane and her moody employer, Mr. Rochester. We as readers have been given a look at her inner life and past, so we know that the emotional content of her novel is taken directly from experience. Emily, likewise, is a genuine product of her environment and calls things as she sees them. Heathcliff and Cathy spring directly from the soil and rocks of the moors, and their raw, tempestuous qualities reflect the harsh elements, the wind, the weather, and the dirt, that Emily knew intimately and loved.

What is very striking in Romancing Miss Bronte is the way in which the setting, the impoverished village of Haworth (so unpromising and seemingly inhospitable in the opening scenes) proves to be such a rich resource for the sensitive imaginations of the sisters and their brother, Branwell. Like true Romantics, Charlotte and Emily elevate feeling and the power of nature, but the result is not castles in the air but unvarnished portraits of the human condition. It isn't hard to see the moor as a metaphor for the unconscious, where all of the shadow elements -- adulterous love, primitive passion, and violence, those things deemed improper to acknowledge in polite society -- roam about unfettered.

The poet John Keats, another favorite of mine and also a Romantic, was already dead when the Brontes were small children, and, like them, was a consumptive. I am wondering how he would have stood up against the personalities of these sisters had they ever met. I somehow imagine Charlotte and Emily, at least, as Maenads who could have easily torn poor Keats apart.

I am still waiting for a film production of Jane Eyre that does it complete justice. I have seen three or four productions, and they either get Jane right and Rochester wrong, or vice versa. I have seen a production of Wuthering Heights on PBS that scared the crap out of me and was probably closer to what Emily had in mind than any version ever made. I'd watch it with the lights on, if I were you. Come to think of it, I'd watch Jane Eyre the same way. These women cut things pretty close to the bone.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Ariadne Goes to the Movies

I saw Inception this afternoon and, like just about everyone else, left the theater wondering about what really happened at the end. The movie is purposely ambiguous, but I think Cobb was actually in "the real world" after he woke up on the plane. I read somewhere that you get confirmation of this if you stay through the end of the credits, which we didn't do, but I'm satisfied with that interpretation of things. It's emotionally satisfying and makes the movie feel complete. (From one perspective, no story is ever complete, so that may be why some people see the ending differently. Maybe it's a test of how postmodern you are.)

If you don't know what I'm talking about, you haven't seen the movie yet, and you may want to forget about all this if you're planning to go. I hate to know anything about a movie before I go to see it and managed to miss all the controversy about the ending of Inception beforehand; I didn't know about any of it until I Googled the movie once I got home.

I had been told by friends that there were labyrinths in this movie, and indeed there are. There are many haunting images of narrow alleys and hallways, interlocking passages, and tricky escapes, in which city streets, buildings, and houses become complicated and labyrinthine; there is often a locked room or hidden place as the goal. And of course, the ultimate labyrinth is the mind itself. In the movie, dream architecture makes use of elaborate mazes, and the young architect recruited by Cobb is even named Ariadne. I agree with the movie's premise; psyche is a labyrinth, the prototype on which other labyrinths are all based. That's why labyrinths are so fascinating.

Before going to the movie, I was reading something I wrote a few years ago about James Hillman's views on psyche and the imagination. In Re-Visioning Psychology, he sometimes gives the impression that he believes the world of the imagination is more important than the "real world." Imagination is real and certainly shapes and informs our reality, but in the movie, tension arises from the inability to distinguish the layers of dream from the waking world.

From a practical standpoint, I can tell the difference between the dream I had last night in which an ex-boyfriend sent me a videotape of him and his new girlfriend at the beach, after which I went around putting tickets into the gas tanks of police cruisers, and the fact that in the real world, I had Cheerios for breakfast this morning. What's really intriguing is thinking about why I dreamed what I did.

Who are the people in the dream? Was that really my ex-boyfriend, or a helpful figure from my unconscious telling me something I need to know? Were those really tickets I was putting into the gas tanks, or a subtle reminder to watch where I invest my time and energy and to keep on eye on where it ends up? Why were there so many police cars in my dream -- does my psyche feel overrun by authority figures? Why was I the one "giving tickets"? Was I turning the tables on those animus figures and getting them to work for me?

I don't have any answers about last night's dream, just some thoughts. Sometimes I can look back on a dream months later and see it more clearly than I can when I'm still close to it, but dream interpretation is a difficult art. Another thing Inception got right about dreams is their deep and mysterious nature and the seeming impossibility of ever getting completely to the bottom of one.